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TGS AMERICAN RETROSPECTIVE...BLAZING A HISTORIC TRAIL AT SMU
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


The football history of the American is obviously an abbreviated one, as the league has been in existence for only a year. Effectively an extension of the football-playing portion of the old Big East, now augmented by various Conference USA refugees, the conference itself has little background, although many of the programs in its midst have a rich football tradition that dates back several decades.

Indeed, some of the more important tales in college football lore have been told by American members in the past. And among many markers in college football history, AAC member SMU can lay claim to several.

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Of course, the Mustangs have a long tradition that goes back to the days of the Southwest Conference. Not all of SMU’s football past is a shining example of sport, however; the Mustangs were once considered one of the most notorious cheats in college football. Indeed, the program is still the only one to get handed the dreaded “death penalty” by the NCAA, when SMU had to suspend its football operations for two years in the late ‘80s. Once one of the nation’s glamour programs, the Mustangs have been mostly flying at far lower altitudes since the program resurrected in 1989.

Within SMU’s storied past, however, is a tale that transcends the gridiron, as the Mustangs once blazed a trail for the old Southwest Conference to break the color line. Hard as it is for us to believe, but by the time TGS was entering its tenth season of publishing in 1966, no black player had ever played a down for an SWC team.

It took someone special to break the color barrier, especially in an era when players were not eligible for varsity competition as a freshman. The SWC color line would first be broken on the recruiting trail, and it was none other than SMU at the forefront.

And if the name Jerry LeVias doesn’t mean something to you, it should. Let us digress.

The color line in major college football was broken bit by bit and piece by piece. Mostly, it was done regionally, although the origins of participation of black players remains a bit sketchy. At its outset, college football got its start in 1869 when Princeton and Rutgers faced off in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Soon adopting the sport were Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Michigan and many others. And while the identity of the first black player at erstwhile European-American schools is uncertain, the honor seems to go to teammates William Jackson and William Lewis of Amherst 20 years later. Some of the other early black stars would include George Jewett of Michigan, George Flippin of Nebraska, Matthew Bullock of Dartmouth, Bobby Marshall of Minnesota, Fritz Pollard of Brown (the first black man to play in the Rose Bowl and acknowledged, along with Minnesota’s Bobby Marshall, as the firsts in pro football), the great Paul Robeson of Rutgers (shown at right; Robeson, of course, later went on to fame as a singer, orator and civil rights activist), Duke Slater of Iowa, Joe Lillard of Oregon, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh of Syracuse, Brice Taylor of Southern California, Jerome “Brud” Holland of Cornell, Marion Motley of Nevada and Levi Jackson of Yale.

UCLA was also a significant trailblazer on the Pacific Coast, as its great 1939 team would feature three African-American stars (future actor Woody Strode, the great Kenny Washington, and the one and only Jackie Robinson, all shown together at left). In fact, those 1939 Bruins can lay claim as the initial "team" of black America.

As with society in general, there were countless sad tales of discrimination and abuse. Having integrated the Iowa State team in 1923, Jack Trice (whose name now adorns the Cyclones’ stadium) was victimized in just his second varsity game against Minnesota. Trice would suffer a broken collarbone when several Gophers gang-tackled him at the end of a play. Trice left the field on a stretcher and soon died of internal bleeding and a ruptured lung. But acts of brutality against black players were still common decades later. Drake’s Johnny Bright, who led the nation in offense in 1949 and 1950 and was doing the same in 1951 and might have been the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy until a vicious blow to the face (in the days before face masks) by Wilbanks Smith of Oklahoma A&M fractured Bright’s jaw (right) and caused him to miss two games and thus the honors he deserved. A series of photographs of Bright being assaulted on the field won the Pulitzer Prize and heightened awareness of the whole issue of athletic integration.

Hard as it is to believe, no black players were named first-team All-Americans between 1918 and 1937, even with the superb collection of players listed above. The NFL also had no black players from 1934 to 1946, when the aforementioned Kenny Washington, then past his prime, would break the color barrier for the recently-moved (from Cleveland) L.A. Rams. The Washington Redskins took until 1962 to integrate, and did so only when the District of Columbia, hence the federal government, was not keen to allow the Skins to play in newly-constructed D.C. (later RFK) Stadium unless the team integrated. Owner George Preston Marshall would soon relent, trading with the Cleveland Browns for superb RB-WR Bobby Mitchell.

The college game, however, had more pockets of resistance than the NFL, and there remained a “gentleman’s agreement” that pertained to the interaction of Southern and non-Southern teams. After college football integration had become a reality elsewhere, the South lagged far behind. Most teams from Texas to Maryland just played among themselves. Often, when a Southern team went to play an opponent from the North or West, the coaches of those schools acceded to the request of the Southern coaches by sitting their black player or players. And in those rare cases when they came South, their black athletes were often left behind because they surely were not going to play and they wanted to avoid the indignity of dealing with Jim Crow arrangements.

But the players, coaches and administrators of these non-Southern colleges increasingly resisted such a setup, which, naturally, favored their Southern opponents. The aforementioned Johnny Bright played for Drake, an Iowa school that chose to visit Stillwater, Oklahoma for a football game in 1951 when Bright’s jaw was smashed. The South, by resisting integration, became more and more isolated. LSU, for example, did not play a non-Southern opponent, whether at home or on the road, in the regualr season from 1942 until 1970, when it would schedule the University of the Pacific and Notre Dame.

Things began to slowly change in the late 1940s. On October 11, 1947, Harvard played Virginia in Charlottesville. The Crimson’s lineman, Chester Pierce (shown on the bench during the game at UVa, left), became the first black athlete to compete in any of the former Confederate states on the home turf of a European-American college. By Pierce’s recollection, the Cavaliers (three-fifths of whom were World War II veterans and aware that blacks helped in the struggle for democracy abroad) were as civil as any football players, but many of the fans at Scott Stadium were not. UVa, for the record, won by a score of 47-0. Just two months later, Wally Triplett and Dennis Hoggard accompanied their Penn State teammates to play SMU in the Cotton Bowl. But the thought of having black players on the football teams of the Southwest Conference was just as abhorrent to most coaches, alumni and administrators of the SWC, which then consisted of Texas, Arkansas, Texas A&M, SMU, Rice, Baylor and TCU.

The SWC lasted from 1915 until its dissolution in 1995, a total of 81 seasons, and in many of those years it was one of the premier conferences in the country. In the pre-integration era, it could boast of five national champions--SMU in 1935, TCU in 1938, Texas A&M in 1939, Texas in 1963 and Arkansas in 1964, and three Heisman Trophy winners---Davey O’Brien of TCU in 1938, Doak Walker of SMU in 1948, and John David Crow of Texas A&M in 1957. There were dozens of All-Americans and future pro stars, and the SWC got the lion’s share of media attention in this region, and why not? It had the premier schools, the money, the alumni and the big stadiums.

The SWC, however, also remained off limits to Texas' black citizens. A few attended games and sat in segregated sections and had their own restrooms and water fountains inside Texas Memorial Stadium, TCU's Amon Carter Stadium, Rice Stadium, Baylor Stadium, Arkansas' Razorback Stadium, A&M's Kyle Field, Texas Tech's Jones Stadium and of course the Cotton Bowl. Most blacks, however, paid little attention to the SWC, since their sons were forbidden from participating by custom and/or edict, although a handful of black undergraduate students had been allowed on some campuses by the late 1940s.

Not that Texas' black prep athletes weren't a potential gold mine for college recruiters. Consistently, schools from outside the region would poach top-level black high school talent, while others might attend the historical black colleges such as in-state Prairie View and Texas Southern (literally down the street from UH) or out-of-state schools in the region such as Grambling, Jackson State or Florida A&M.

The list of black stars with Texas roots who went elsewhere to play major college football spanned an era before World War II and into the 1960s. Among many blacks with Texas roots who had migrated were Oze “The Ebony Eel” Simmons of Iowa, Charley Taylor of Arizona State, Junior Coffey of Washington, Johnny Roland of Missouri, Mel Farr of UCLA (right) and brother Miller of Wichita State, and Bubba Smith and Gene Washington of Michigan State. Oze Simmons’ career, unfortunately, fell during that time when the NFL disallowed black players, but Taylor became a star with the Washington Redskins, Coffey with the Atlanta Falcons, Roland with the St. Louis Cardinals, Mel Farr with the Detroit Lions, Miller Farr with the Houston Oilers, Smith with the Baltimore Colts and Washington with the Minnesota Vikings. All were outstanding football players whose academic abilities ranged from fair to brilliant, some earning advanced degrees, and some eventually becoming wildly successful businessmen (as would Mel Farr with his car dealerships in the Detroit area).

But the SWC coaches, bound by their gentlemen's agreements, still dared not to rock the status quo despite this wealth of athletic talent at their doorstep that was going untapped.

Other schools in the Lone Star State, however, stepped to the fore. Texas Western, in El Paso, began to actively recruit black athletes in the late '50s (by now we all know the story of the Miners' "Glory Road" 1966 NCAA basketball champions coached by Don Haskins). In the late 1950s, a back named Abner Haynes (left) walked on at North Texas State in Denton. Coach Odus Mitchell received permission from the school's administration to take Haynes who, although he quickly became the offensive and defensive star of the football team, was still not allowed to live on campus. He had other painful encounters with Jim Crow while playing for the Eagles, the worst being when Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Chattanooga canceled their games with NTS.

The tide was slowly changing, with Haynes moving on to prominence in the early days of the AFL as a star with the Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. Soon, sorts such as Leford Fant of Texas Western, Sid Blanks of Texas A&I (a future Houston Oiler who became the captain of the team in his senior year), Kenneth Decker of McMurry and "Pistol" Pete Pedro of West Texas State emerged as black, non-SWC college stars in the Lone Star State. Meanwhile, Prentice Gautt became the first black varsity player at nearby Oklahoma in the late '50s. The winds of change were beginning to blow.

Culturally, however, the civil rights movement was moving at a snail's pace in the Lone Star State. As Texas' non-SWC colleges were integrating, so were some Texas high schools, albeit slowly. Following the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision which outlawed public school segregation, many school systems across the South were in no hurry to act upon it. The first Texas cities to do so were San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Austin, El Paso, Kerrville, Harlingen and San Angelo, all with negligible black populations.

Still, the SWC didn't blink. At least until 1963, when the University of Texas Board of Regents overturned a rule that had prohibited blacks from playing on its various intercollegiate teams, which resulted in integration of the Longhorn track program. Basketball and football would seem to be following close behind, yet changes certainly didn't occur overnight.

While the members of the wealthy, tradition-laden SWC were delaying the inevitable, others were moving forward. It was left to the “lesser” schools of the state to start recruiting black athletes. In all likelihood, the process began in the junior colleges and in other sports where little attention was paid.

So what was the Southwest Conference waiting for? Their denials notwithstanding, the coaches appear to have been bound by the third and final gentleman’s agreement. On the cusp of integration, the SWC’s coaches were Darrell Royal of Texas, Frank Broyles of Arkansas, Jess Neely of Rice, Abe Martin of TCU, J.T. King of Texas Tech, John Bridgers of Baylor, Hank Foldberg of Texas A&M and Hayden Fry of SMU. The conference was obviously dragging its heels. A couple of things forced the issue. As mentioned above, in 1963, the University of Texas Board of Regents overturned a rule that had prohibited blacks from playing on its various intercollegiate teams, which resulted in James Means, Oliver Patterson and Cecil Carter joining the Longhorn track program. Basketball was just around the corner and so, it seemed, was King Football.

But it was going to take a special player to break the football color line in the SWC.

The trigger to break the SWC color line was ironically pulled by a high-level recruit who didn’t even sign with an SWC school, but did stay in state. That would be decorated San Antonio prep Warren McVea, courted hard by the likes of Nebraska and USC but ending up signing with the nearby University of Houston instead. (McVea’s tale was outlined on these pages a year ago.). One year after McVea signed with Houston, SMU head coach Hayden Fry, with the approval of school president Willis Tate, began to lay the groundwork to become the Branch Rickey of the SWC, talking with players, assistant coaches, faculty and alumni about getting a young man who could not only help the Mustangs win football games but take the pressure of being the first black player in the storied Southwest Conference.

Fry soon focused upon Jerry LeVias, a decorated prep from the now-shuttered Hebert High School in Beaumont. Although just 5'9 and 170 pounds, LeVias (right) was a halfback/receiver who ran, passed and caught, putting up huge numbers in high school for his team, which twice advanced to the title game of the Prairie View Interscholastic League, the black version of the University Interscholastic League, and which would be merged into the UIL in less than a decade. The lightning-fast LeVias could run 100 yards in 9.6 seconds, but football was his specialty.

Nearly 100 schools wanted LeVias; his cousin from Beaumont, Mel Farr, was then a star at UCLA, and urged Jerry to join him in Los Angeles, but LeVias was swayed by Fry, despite the Mustangs' 1-9 record in 1964. (Imagine those mid 1960s Bruin powerhouses with LeVias added to the mix!) Despite his parents' misgivings, LeVias was going to Dallas as the first black recruit in the SWC.

Nine years after Abner Haynes enrolled at North Texas, and with the civil rights movement ongoing, LeVias still faced considerable problems getting into and through SMU. "Cultural sensitivity" was an unknown concept, much less put to use. In his first scrimmage with the freshman team, several varsity players came over to watch, and LeVias put on a show, making a series of spectacular catches and scoring repeatedly. But then a frustrated defender, who happened to be a teammate, blindsided him and caused three broken ribs.

LeVias would live a lonely life at SMU. He had no roommates in four years, even after Fry subsequently recruited two other black football players, who roomed together. Most white players who befriended LeVias succumbed to peer pressure to avoid him. Other black students on campus called him an "Uncle Tom." LeVias depended on the emotional support of his family and his head coach, Hayden Fry. And that was the easy time.

LeVias would later say that these years were "living hell" for him.

But at least one other university official wanted LeVias to succeed. In mid-March of 1966, SMU president Willis Tate had someone bring the freshman LeVias to McFarlin Auditorium without telling him why. They chitchatted for a moment.

"The next thing I know, I'm shown into a room, and there was Dr. King," LeVias said in an interview not long ago with ESPN’s Ivan Maisel.

That was Dr. King as in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would be speaking at SMU in Dallas. He had been invited once before, only to have the invitation withdrawn, but this time he would get the stage, and school prexy Willis Tate wanted to make sure his star frosh football player, enduring a difficult existence with few other black students on campus, had a chance to be inspired by Dr. King.

LeVias doesn't think the meeting lasted more than 10 minutes. But 10 minutes of being awestruck stays with a man nearly a half a century later. They met in secret, LeVias told his family, but in the wrong hands, news of the meeting would serve neither him nor Dr. King well.

"I had enough on my plate at that point," LeVias would later say in the Maisel interview. "I think I would have caught more hell if they thought Dr. King was coming across the country, making the university sign black players. Dr. King's whole thing was never about sports. It was about just equality .... If they would have thought Dr. King was part of me being recruited at SMU, I think he'd caught much more hell than he caught, and I would have, definitely."

Most of what Dr. King said to LeVias was lost to memory. But LeVias did recall that Dr. King asked if he was a good student, and if he was a religious believer. Dr. King wanted to know about LeVias the young man. Given the road that lay before LeVias, a road that Dr. King had traveled since the Montgomery bus boycott thrust him to the fore of the civil rights movement a decade earlier, he also had some advice for the young football star, which would remain with LeVias to this day.

"I understand you're a fantastic young man," Dr. King said. "A lot of things are going to be happening to you, but the one thing most important is that you always keep your emotions in control."

And LeVias was in the process of being tested. A spiritual young man, LeVias wore No. 23, at his grandmother's insistence, for Psalm 23. But he became more dependent on the Serenity Prayer attached to the inside front door of his dorm room. He read it every morning before going out. Once, sitting outside Fry's office, he overheard a prominent alumnus warning the coach he would "no longer back the university if you continue to play that so-and-so."

It was a trying time for LeVias; someone lesser would surely have broken. But he still had football...and he was a special player. "Things had not gotten real tough for me, public-wise, because freshmen could not play football," LeVias said this week. "All hell broke out when I started scoring touchdowns and played varsity football, playing in the Southwest Conference."

Yes, all hell would break loose in 1966. LeVias would be ready for his varsity debut in 1966, and in his first game caught TD passes of 5 and 60 yards from QB Mac White as the Ponies whipped a startled Illinois at the Cotton Bowl, 26-7. LeVias then made two highlight-reel punt returns the next week in a 21-3 victory over Navy, and comparisons to the immortal Doak Walker were already beginning. LeVias almost single-handedly won the game against Rice by throwing a 47-yard touchdown pass and catching the winning TD with nine seconds left, and his 83-yard punt return beat the Texas A&M Aggies. SMU won the Southwest Conference crown for the first time in 18 years and played Georgia in the Cotton Bowl.

It was the conditions under which LeVias played, however, that must be mentioned. As the Jackie Robinson of the SWC, LeVias suffered much of the same kind of treatment that Robinson had endured when breaking the MLB color line in 1947. In Texas circa mid '60s, it's very believable that some of LeVias' teammates and coaches weren't happy to have him around. Opponents routinely taunted and sought to hurt LeVias, various referees were biased against him, some fans screamed racial abuse, and there were countless mean-spirited letters and phone calls. In one game 1966 against TCU, in Fort Worth, there was a death threat serious enough to warrant the presence of city, state and federal law enforcement officers on the lookout for snipers.

LeVias endured all of this and more in his career at SMU. When the Ponies played Baylor in 1967, linebacker David Anderson threw a menacing forearm at LeVias, resulting in profuse bleeding and an injury of his eye socket that later required surgery. Nonetheless, LeVias went back into the game and caught five more passes. After one of them, practically the entire Baylor defense drove him out of bounds and over the Bears' telephone bench, causing a dislocated finger. Still, no penalty was called. And in his senior year of 1968, when the Mustangs were back in Fort Worth to play TCU and when LeVias had caught nine passes in a game that was tied midway through the fourth quarter, a TCU player knocked him to the ground, uttered a racial epithet and spat in his face. LeVias took himself out of the game, threw his helmet down and announced loudly, "I quit!" Fry even saw fit came over to console an angry, miserable, and sobbing LeVias on the bench.

Late in the 4th quarter, by the time TCU was about to punt the ball, LeVias agreed to return to the field but he also told Fry, "Coach, I'm going to run it back for a touchdown!" Most fans know about Babe Ruth's legendary called-shot home run in the 1932 World Series, the legitimacy of which has long been questioned, but the LeVias guarantee was no fictitious gimmick. LeVias indeed guaranteed Fry the TD. Jerry subsequently caught the punt at his 11-yard line, charged upfield, spun off would-be tackler, angled toward the right sideline, then cut back to complete an 89-yard TD that won the game, 21-14, after the Mustangs had trailed 14-3 early in the 4th quarter.

LeVias would have more highlights in his senior year of 1968, catching passes from a new and strong-armed (and going prematurely bald) sophomore QB, Chuck Hixson, who would throw for school records with 37 completions in 69 attempts and 417 yards in an early-season game at national champ-to-be Ohio State, a game in which LeVias would catch an astounding 15 passes for 160 yards. The Buckeyes, however, would pick off Hixson (making only his second career start) five times within the OSU 20-yard-line en route to a 35-14 win, but LeVias had been exposed to fans and media in a new region. He would go on to catch 80 passes worth 1131 yards that season and lead the Mustangs to the first Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl (the old Bluebonnet having adding the “Astro” name when it moved indoors to the Astrodome from Rice Stadium), where SMU would score 22 points in the 4th Q in a wild 28-27 shootout win vs. Oklahoma. LeVias would cap his college career by catching 8 passes worth 112 yards vs. the Sooners and was a consensus first-teamer on a ‘68 All-American squad that would also feature stars such as O.J. Simpson (USC), Mean Joe Greene (North Texas State, as it was referred to in those years), and Ted “Mad Stork” Hendricks (Miami-Fla.). Another black college star from the state of Texas who received mention on some All-American teams that year was RB Mercury Morris, who was piling up prodigious numbers at West Texas State. But LeVias was truly the SWC's first black star player.

LeVias' career numbers at SMU included 155 receptions, 25 TD, three All-SWC honors as well as that consensus All-American honor in 1968. At that point, it could have been argued that LeVias was the greatest player in the history of the Southwest Conference, Doak Walker included. As well as the most significant, leading the way for the likes of black stars such as Earl Campbell, Dickerson, Mike Singletary and others in subsequent years. LeVias also advanced the civil rights cause as did few others in Texas, a hero to folks who had been in the Jim Crow straitjacket for too long. Moreover, LeVias was on the Dean's list at SMU and an academic All-American. LeVias was a second-round draftee of the Houston Oilers and enjoyed a sensational rookie year in 1969 before the Oilers franchise would head downhill fast. Absorbing a weekly beating, Jerry accounted for almost half of the team's yards as the Oilers' lone threat in 1970 before a change in coaching regimes prompted a trade to the Chargers, who were also headed in wrong direction, in 1971. Playing for bad teams and dealing with injuries in his last five years as a pro, LeVias would still occasionally flash brilliance but had enough of the pro game after the '74 season, retiring to pursue his varied business interests in Texas.

LeVias, however, still wears the emotional scars of his playing career. While well aware of his significance in the social progress he helped foster in his own state, LeVias often wonders about the emotional toll. When asked a few years ago if he would do it all over again at SMU, LeVias didn't hesitate and offered an emphatic "no" as his answer. He battled severe depression and contemplated suicide before receiving substantial psychological therapy within the last decade. Today, LeVias has those demons under control, helped by a new wife he first met during his rehab period and married in 2009. But he did acknowledge that he had a chance to make a difference at SMU, and for that he was proud.

By that point, however, it was far too late for his cousin Mel Farr to talk him out of SMU and convince him to attend UCLA and the more-tolerant racial climes of the L.A. area.

For more of the LeVias story, we suggest an excellent book by Jim Dent, author of ten books (including The Junction Boys: The Undefeated, Friday Night Lights, and Courage Beyond The Game), entitled The Kids Got It Right, which chronicles Texas football history and in particular integration at the high school level, with LeVias featured prominently in a chapter devoted to a significant high school "Big 33" All-Star Game featuring Texas vs. Pennsylvania preps, and LeVias’ involvement as one of the first three black players to be included on the Texas squad, as decreed by then-Gov. John Connally. The Kids Got it Right is available at bookstores and also various online sites, including Amazon.

(As an aside to the LeVias tale, it should be noted that Baylor's John Westbrook, a walk-on, briefly participated for the Bears in a game vs. Syracuse the week before LeVias' SMU varsity debut vs. Illinois, and was technically the first black athlete to appear in a Southwest Conference football game. LeVias, however, was the first black football player in the SWC to receive a scholarship, and, obviously, the first black football star in the conference.)


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