By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
On The Outside Looking In (Part Three)
TEXAS — I will now add that Jerry LeVias was technically not the first black player in SWC history. Let’s return to the summer of 1964, nearly a year before LeVias signed a scholarship offer with SMU.
John Westbrook, then entering his senior year at Washington High School in Elgin, stepped into the offices of the coaching staff at Baylor University and told them of his plans to enroll there and perhaps play football.
Westbrook, the son of a Baptist minister, had been ordained at age 15, and Baylor was a Baptist school, so why not? Well, for one thing, the BU Board of Trustees had only integrated the university in November 1963, and no word had been said about athletics. Like most white Texans back then, they did not want to think about a black guy wearing the green and gold of the Baylor Bears.
Coach John Bridgers and chancellor Abner McCall may not have been eager, but they decided to let Westbrook walk on as a freshman in 1965. He was one of just seven black students on a campus of 7,000, the large majority of whom were sons and daughters of the South.
Hostility and isolation were the norm, although to be fair to those people, they were feeling their way in an integrated world, too. Westbrook’s arrival on the Baylor football team was utterly unheralded. His time in the 40-yard dash made him one of the fastest players on the team, but he hardly got on the field that season.
Freshman coaches like Milburn “Catfish” Smith and Ramsey Muniz did all they could to discourage Westbrook with verbal taunts and brutal three-on-one drills. He was ignored by most of his teammates and goaded by a few others.
And to make matters worse, some of the black people in Waco regarded him as an Uncle Tom for even making the attempt to integrate Bear football. His lonely fight, however, was made easier by the support and reassurance of Eucolia Erby, a small black man who had known Westbrook’s father.
Erby came to practices, watched and encouraged him and told him repeatedly, “Don’t quit.” His coach, Bridgers, made the decision, at the end of spring training, to award him a scholarship. That alone permitted Westbrook to stay at Baylor.
On September 10, 1966 (one week before SMU’s opener in which Jerry LeVias began his fabulous career), Baylor hosted Syracuse. The Bears were ahead by 22 points midway through the fourth quarter when Bridgers sent Westbrook into the game, making history.
His three years at Baylor were not too productive, as he scored just two touchdowns and gained no more than 250 yards and suffered a serious knee injury and two concussions meted out, he believed, by his own teammates and coaches on the practice field.
Just as LeVias was the subject of unimaginable abuse, so was Westbrook, but it was not as intense because he was not nearly the star LeVias was. Nevertheless, he suffered mightily. Westbrook once drove his ancient Studebaker to Lake Waco and contemplated rolling it into the water, ending his pain. On another occasion, he swallowed a fistful of aspirin.
He graduated from Baylor with an English degree in 1969 and declined offers to try out for the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons. Westbrook earned a master’s degree from Southwest Missouri State, served as pastor at churches in Tyler and Houston and spoke at several Billy Graham crusades.
In 1978, he ran a shoestring campaign for lieutenant governor and got 23 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. Westbrook died on December 17, 1983 of a blood clot in one of his lungs. His funeral drew an overflow crowd and a list of eulogizers that included Governor Mark White and Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire.
One of his teammates on the BU football team, Jackie Allen, recalled him thus: “No one will ever know what all John went through. He took on the role of a pioneer and should have known that they go into uncharted waters and that difficulties will be encountered, and that is just what happened.”
Westbrook described his four years at Baylor as the most miserable time of his life. “I got such a bad taste of college athletics,” he said in a 1972 oral history project with Drs. Thomas Carlton and Rufus B. Spain. “But because of football, I got an education.”
“I learned how to live. I don’t hate football. Football isn’t dirty. It’s some of the people in football who make it dirty. I could talk for two more hours and get bitter. I’ve been able to forget a lot of the bad, and it’s not fun to recall.”
Having covered Warren McVea of Houston, Jerry LeVias of SMU and John Westbrook of Baylor, I will now summarize the first black players at the other SWC schools. First, however, I should add that having just one or two on a team was not truly integration so much as tokenism.
Still, the athletic directors and coaches had to start somewhere, and I don’t mean to downplay the conflicts inherent to the integration process. There were always problems, always conflicts, always issues that had to be worked out over the years. It did not matter whether it was a big state school or a small church school, integrating the football team was never easy.
Texas A&M, which only admitted its first black students in 1963, had a black varsity player four years later. Receiver Sammy Williams, a walk-on from Houston, made the team but evidently did not play in the Aggies’ championship run in 1967.
The next season, Hugh McElroy was another walk-on receiver who was best known for catching a game-winning touchdown pass against LSU in 1970. A&M did not have a varsity black recruit until 1971, and his name was Jerry Honore. Emory Bellard deserves credit for being the first SWC coach to start recruiting black players in large numbers in the mid-1970s.
Next up is TCU. The Horned Frogs had recruited James Cash to play basketball shortly after SMU signed LeVias. Cash was an outstanding hoopster from 1967 to 1969 (followed by an equally successful academic career culminating with a spot on the Harvard faculty), but it only happened after a serious power struggle in the highest reaches of the TCU administration.
The school’s first black football player was Linzy Cole, a junior college recruit who caught 53 passes, scored 12 touchdowns and averaged 20 yards on punt returns and 25 on kickoff returns. Cole later played for the Chicago Bears, Houston Oilers and Buffalo Bills.
The 1971 TCU team was full of racial dissension; there were black players like Raymond Rhodes, Larry Dibbles and Danny Colbert, but they were not pleased with dreary social lives nor with the authoritarian ways of the coaching staff. Some quit or transferred, while others stayed in Fort Worth but without enthusiasm.
Danny Hardaway, quite a high school star in Lawton, Oklahoma, had no shortage of scholarship offers, so some people were surprised when he chose Texas Tech. Besides playing on the Red Raiders’ freshman football team in 1967, he scored 14 points per game for the frosh basketball team.
He was 6-foot-3, weighed 206 pounds and ran the 40 in 4.7 seconds, and some fans expected Hardaway to replicate Donny Anderson, the recently departed two-time all-American. It was not to be, however. Hardaway led Texas Tech in rushing in 1969 but lost his job in 1970 and played mostly as a kick returner. He developed academic troubles and soon left school.
No other Southwest Conference institution had such difficulties integrating as Rice since its founder, William Marsh Rice, had specifically limited the student body to “white males from Harris County.” While women and non-Harris County residents were gradually admitted, the racial clause remained in force until 1965 when the Rice administration went to court to have it overturned.
Three years later, the Owls signed three black players: defensive back Mike Tyler, linebacker Rodrigo Barnes and quarterback/running back Stahle Vincent. Tyler and Barnes were assertive and independent, while Vincent was the opposite, a guy who practiced hard, played hard and never complained.
Coach Bo Hagan had the courage to start him at quarterback in 1969, a decade before some other schools would consider such a thing. By 1971, Vincent had been moved to running back, where he gained 945 yards and was named all-conference. He played briefly for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The last two SWC schools were, in terms of football, the most significant — the University of Arkansas and the University of Texas. I will start with the Razorbacks. Darrell Brown was a freshman walk-on running back at Arkansas in 1965, the same year Jerry LeVias was starting out at SMU and John Westbrook at Baylor.
Brown’s story is fairly dramatic. On the practice field and in the few games in which he played, his offensive teammates sometimes refused to block for him and even engaged in racist group chants. Thus he never made it to the varsity. But he might have if head coach and athletic director Frank Broyles had made it clear to everyone that Brown was to be treated fairly.
One assistant coach, in particular, took it upon himself to harass and discourage Brown as much as possible. Brown had the last laugh, though, graduating on time from UA and then its law school before becoming a prominent attorney in Little Rock.
As a result, Arkansas delayed integration for five more years. That was with Jon Richardson, a fast and flashy runner who played from 1970 to 1972. In his first game, on national television against Stanford, Richardson caught a 37-yard TD pass, the first of 11 scores his sophomore year.
A broken leg in 1971 slowed his progress and made him primarily a kick returner the rest of his career. Richardson, like so many others before him, felt pressure from all sides — whites who hated and feared what he represented, and his own people who called him an Uncle Tom. Richardson died of a heart attack in January 2002.
And that brings us to the University of Texas. There is plenty to admire about UT and plenty to criticize. Texas’ flagship institution before A&M rose to that level, the wealthiest, the biggest, the one with the most alumni, the one just a mile from the state capital, could have and should have been the first to integrate its football program, and the others undoubtedly would have followed suit.
Marion Ford, who had been a star at Wheatley High School in Houston, was among UT’s first black undergraduates. In the 1956 season, the Longhorns were horrible, en route to a 1-9 record. So Ford went to coach Ed Price and volunteered to come out for the team. “I was a cocky son of a bitch in those days,” Ford recollected. “I said, ‘Ed, I could help your team. You need me.’ And he said, ‘Listen son, it’s out of my hands. The policy is just too strong.’”
Ford went on to roll up an impressive list of academic honors, graduating magna cum laude in chemical engineering, with two advanced degrees and a Fulbright scholarship. If nothing else, Marion Ford obliterated the SWC coaches’ lame excuse that they could not find academically qualified black players.
Ford’s encounter with Ed Price was in 1956, ten years before Jerry LeVias and John Westbrook integrated the SMU and Baylor football teams. What a difference it would have made if Price had taken a stand and let Ford be the first black Longhorn.
Price got fired after that awful season and was replaced by a more familiar name, Darrell Royal. Royal, of course, would be the dominant figure in Texas football for the next two decades, during which the Horns won 164 games and three national championships.
While Royal is alleged to have made racist statements in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they were never substantiated. Furthermore, many things in his private life indicate a self-made man who went out of his way to befriend and help black people. But he did not integrate when he had the chance. Royal’s 1963 team won the national title, he was voted national coach of the year, he had been given a professorship with tenure by the UT administration (an unheard-of move at the time), and Oklahoma, his alma mater, wanted him to come home.
In other words, Royal was in a very strong position. But he dithered and waited and found reasons and excuses. He sat on his hands and let others, such as Hayden Fry and John Bridgers, do the hard work of integrating SWC football. He claims to have tried to recruit Bubba Smith, Warren McVea and Jerry LeVias, but I am doubtful. During those crucial years when his supposedly racist image was being made, Royal failed to act, and that remains the biggest mistake of his coaching career.
In retrospect, Royal admitted, “If you’re saying we should have done it sooner, I agree with you. All of us should have, not just the University of Texas. When LeVias hit in 1966, that was when people began to change their attitudes, and let me say a lot of us needed some attitude changes…. Some people did question the old ways, and that’s the reason we had the change. Now, today, I can look back and wonder why I didn’t question it.”
NEXT: More trailblazers and the impact of Sam “Bam” Cunningham.