Fifty years since Jerry LeVias introduced himself to the Southwest Conference
Here we are in the fall of 2016, half a century since Jerry LeVias’s sophomore season on the SMU football team. I have already written extensively about him, what he did and its significance, so I hesitate to retrace my steps. Nonetheless, a few points deserve to be made in celebration of this golden anniversary.
For those who don’t know, I will summarize. On the small side at 5′ 9″, 170 pounds but swift and agile, he hailed from Beaumont. He played high school ball in the final years of the segregation era in Texas, when civil rights for black citizens were coming into reality. The racial dynamics in America were changing. The schools of the Southwest Conference (SMU, TCU, Baylor, Rice, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Arkansas) were in varying degrees of compliance with the laws of the land. Academics and athletics were flip sides of the integration coin; a law student here, a graduate student there, a couple of music majors and an aspiring doctor may have been grudgingly accepted. But integrating the football team was another matter entirely. White Texans in the mid-1960s—most of them, I should say—knew it could not be delayed any longer. Coaches like Darrell Royal of UT, Jess Neely of Rice, Abe Martin of TCU and Frank Broyles of Arkansas were quite content with Jim Crow football. In thrall to the hidebound conservatives at their schools and among their alumni, they dared not test the waters. Bringing in a black player(s) was going to happen, but Royal, Neely, Martin, Broyles, et al. would not do it first. The onerous task fell to Hayden Fry.
This was a formidable man, a man of principle, vision and courage, although I would not deny for a moment that he wanted to win football games. A native of Odessa who had played quarterback at Baylor in the early 1950s, Fry was an assistant under Broyles at Arkansas in 1962 when he was called for an interview about the vacant SMU job. He risked his future as a college football coach by telling the SMU president and athletic director (Willis Tate and Matty Bell, respectively) that he would come to Dallas only if he were allowed to integrate the program. While Tate and Bell were not exactly gung-ho about the idea, they agreed. Fry began coaching the Mustangs in 1963 and had an eye out for the ideal candidate. That, of course, was the aforementioned LeVias—fabulous on the football field, good student, well-spoken, church-going and so on. He signed in May 1965. The earth may not have literally shaken, but big changes were afoot.
I interviewed Fry several times for my first book, Breaking the Ice / Racial Integration of Southwest Conference Football (1987) and LeVias many more. The extent to which LeVias knew of the challenges awaiting him remains unclear. I contend that Fry should have done more to prepare his football team, the SMU student body and alums for this new reality. He told me he had to avoid the appearance of coddling LeVias or favoring him in any way.
The pressure on both coach and player was enormous—notwithstanding the fact that Abner Haynes had integrated the North Texas State football team nine years earlier and the Eagles had gone up, up, up. I have often wondered why virtually all of LeVias's teammates on the 1965 freshman team and the varsity starting in ’66 were aloof. OK, a certain number were bound to be their fathers' sons and racist to the core. But I cannot and do not accept that all were. Even an 18-year-old white Texan who was raised in a segregated environment might have chosen to befriend him, regardless of what his peers thought. That is exactly what Vernon Cole did at North Texas when Haynes showed up. He gave his black brother a shake and said, "Welcome. We're glad you're here." The switchblade knife Haynes had brought along, just in case, stayed in his pocket. This proved a great opportunity for the two young men to learn and grow together. There was no Vernon Cole for LeVias at SMU. When asked, he evokes the names of Terry May, an offensive lineman, and Mike Livingston, the Ponies' starting QB in 1967. At least they were sympathetic and not bad guys. For the most part, however, LeVias was left on his own.
Once the 1966 season started and LeVias’ dazzling skills were on full display—two TD catches in a defeat of Illinois, two long punt returns in a defeat of Navy, a scoring catch and a 28-yard reverse in a loss to Purdue, and more heroics in a defeat of Rice—the resistance grew. I speak of hate mail, catcalls, abuse from opposing players and referees who seemed not to notice he was being bludgeoned almost every time the ball was snapped.
LeVias caught just 18 passes in the 1966 season (leading the Ponies to the SWC title) for three reasons. His quarterback, Mac White, was a woeful passer. But also, Fry feared going to him too often. The opposition to SMU’s great experiment was such that he simply could not throw a dozen passes per game to No. 23 in red and blue. Finally, the defenses caught on and started double-teaming him. LeVias, like it or not, and he did not, often served as a decoy that season. Things soon changed. By 1968, he had a quarterback, Chuck Hixson, who could really fling it. LeVias caught 80 passes his senior year and was a first-team All-American.
I met LeVias, now 70, most recently at a Denny’s restaurant on the west side of Houston in September 2016. He has not put on any weight as far as I can tell, but he has made concessions to age; walking and golf are his main forms of exercise these days. He is semi-retired and gets a nice check from his NFL pension, having played six years with the Houston Oilers and San Diego Chargers. In 2012, he joined a lawsuit against the league over long-term damage related to head trauma. Who knows how many hits he took in high school, college and the pros? As LeVias put it, “In those days, we didn’t know anything about concussions. You didn’t have a concussion until they put you on a stretcher and took you off the field.” In our two hours that day at Denny’s, I detected no problems. Short-term memory loss is his main issue, he says.
LeVias has averred that if he could do it all over again he would have joined his cousin Mel Farr at UCLA right off the bat. The heck with SMU and those other "white boys" in the SWC. But once he had cast his lot with Fry and the Ponies, his father would not let him transfer. I have told him numerous times that he did something very important 50 years ago. It wasn't just for African-Americans but for European-Americans and all kinds of Americans. LeVias led the way in the SWC and by extension the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference. You think LSU, Ole Miss, Bama, Georgia, South Carolina and such schools were not watching? They all knew about Jerry LeVias and that a new day had dawned.