Why have a special Black History Month? From this history buff’s perspective, the answer is simple. Because traditional history teaching has tended to downplay black Americans’ achievements and stories, black children have too often grown up thinking there weren’t any. When Nichelle Nichols appeared in the original Star Trek series (1966-69) at her communications station on the bridge of a proud starship, one person later summed up the impact (quote inexact) on his youthful perspective: ‘It was the first time anyone had made me think there would be black people in the future.’
Maybe someday we’ll do a better job of telling all the stories. For now, I’m glad we have a month that emphasizes those less often told. And I like college football, and Jerry LeVias is not well remembered today, so it occurred to me to tell his story.
Born (1946) and raised in Beaumont, Texas, LeVias (leh-VYE-us) starred as a football quarterback in then all-black Hebert High School. As he came of age in the mid/mod-1960s, the nation was in a ferment of change. It may be helpful to understand that full backdrop, which also coincides with my early childhood.
Vietnam had not yet heated up, but the civil rights and women’s rights struggles were well under way. It was not a time, like ours today when civil rights marchers might just get tear-gassed if things got a little rough. It was a time when peaceful marchers could expect to face water cannon, attack dogs, look-the-other-way Klan assaults, baton charges, and lynchings. In most of the places where civil rights demonstrations occurred, hospitals were segregated, so those who were injured might have limited and lesser options. Recourse to the law was rarely even minimal, considering that the law had turned a blind eye toward the violence–if it was not itself the perp. These marchers were warriors, young and old, male and female, and they were getting the hell beaten out of them for what they believed in.
American sports had followed different integration paths, but the college football world might have had the unwieldiest. For decades its governing bodies were weak, regional conference leadership held all the cards, and things were different in East Lansing, Pullman, and Tuscaloosa. In football, most of the northern and western schools practiced a form of segregation called “stacking.” This meant putting all the black players at a couple of positions (wide receiver, defensive back), to avoid a general takeover on the basis of raw talent. My own alma mater, the University of Washington, stood accused of this–and justly, I believe, to our lasting embarrassment. The amount of talent on the table can be estimated if one imagines a modern major college team without black players and with maybe only a couple of Polynesian players.
Think they’d be nationally ranked? Maybe in the ESPN Bottom 10, which in my view is one of the few really good things that emanates from the Eternal SEC Promotional Network.
Many southern universities remained segregated–these were the Wallace days–and many that were not segregated did not recruit African Americans to play football, nor take the field against them. Quite a few northern and western schools enabled this discrimination by benching their own black players (usually just one or two) out of ‘respect’ for the southern schools when matched up against them. By the 1960s, at least, some northern schools began to face student unrest at this enablement of racism.
The Union had won the Civil War, but lost the civil peace.
In 1965, Jerry LeVias was a senior star at Hebert, and had appeared on the national stage when he traveled to Ohio to play with an integrated all-star team of Texas footballers. This was a first, and it helped crack open doors in one of the nation’s biggest football markets–not least when LeVias caught two touchdown passes from roommate and fast friend Bill Bradley, a white.
Over two decades before the NCAA “death penalty” would inflict lasting damage on its program, Southern Methodist University’s football success was a point of pride in Dallas. With a natural crosstown rival in Texas Christian University, Dallas/Fort Worth was a football center in a football-crazy state. The Southwest Conference (now defunct) was in essence the Texas Conference. SMU Mustang football spared no effort or expense to recruit and compensate the best athletes it could find. As of 1965, the majority of black college football players played at historically black colleges/universities such as Grambling, Howard, Alcorn A&M, and many others. More than ever were moving on to play professionally in the AFL, which was just beginning to appear competitive with the old guard NFL, and where black athletes were more welcome and prevalent.
By the spring of 1965, the racial door was letting in a ray of daylight. SMU coach Hayden Fry was ready. Jerry LeVias accepted Fry’s offer of an athletic scholarship, becoming the first African American scholarship player in the Southwest Conference. (He was not the first black football player to appear in an SWC game, it seems. John Westbrook, who debuted as a walk-on for Baylor in 1966, saw the field one week before LeVias’s first appearance. In those days, freshmen simply did not play, so LeVias would not appear in a 1965 game. Westbrook almost surely deserves his own article.)
American life has never been easy for black pioneers, and LeVias took a great deal of abuse on and off the field. Imagine being eighteen or nineteen, and putting up with that while trying to get good grades and improve in sport. Some blacks on campus called him an Uncle Tom. You can guess what many whites called him, though he had Coach Fry’s unbending support. Did the abuse from some of his teammates (those are supposed to have one’s back, as a rule) hurt him more than the blatant personal fouls, spitting in his face, and stunts like when the Texas A&M cadet corps released a black cat onto the field? I’d think so.
How many times have you seen an athlete claim to use an insult as motivation? Believe it. In one infamous 1968 incident, a TCU player spat in LeVias’s face. He threw down his helmet and said he quit. Coach Fry came over to talk with him, convincing him to keep playing. When the conversation was done, and TCU’s punt team took the field, LeVias took his customary station to return it. He carried the punt return for an 89-yard touchdown with eleven tackles broken or dodged, giving SMU the margin of victory over its arch-rival.
As he went through hell, LeVias excelled. In his case, long before AA meant African American, it meant All-American. An electrifying runner, LeVias rewrote the Mustang record books while leading SMU to a conference championship in 1966 and a Bluebonnet Bowl victory in 1968. As Coach Fry told him–meaning it in the best possible way with reference to the public reaction–the more touchdowns he scored, the whiter he got. LeVias went on to a six-year pro career in the AFL and NFL, earning all-AFL honors in 1969.
A gentle-hearted, religious man who always resisted anger, Jerry LeVias would pay for those early days of endured cruelty with years of internalized pain. The price of leading the way for southern sports integration was high. He has succeeded well in life, and nowadays gets some of the recognition he deserves, but I don’t think that many younger fans have heard of Jerry LeVias. All of us who love college football might justly take a moment to give a brave man some respect.