Jerry LeVias, the most significant football player in SWC history
Through the mid-1960s, I did not know what “segregation” was but I could look around and see there were no black people in our east Dallas neighborhood. And since it was not exactly a sociopolitical hotbed, nobody made a fuss or raised questions.
Sports was in my blood, so I constantly read about, watched and cheered the teams of the Southwest Conference: the Texas Longhorns (this far predated my matriculation at the big school in Austin), the Rice Owls, the TCU Horned Frogs, the Texas A&M Aggies, the Texas Tech Red Raiders, the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Baylor Bears and the SMU Mustangs. Since the latter institution was in Dallas, it was clearly my favorite. Doak Walker, the Ponies’ 1948 Heisman Trophy winner, was regarded as a transcendent football player and human being. I swear, one half-page drawing of him in the Dallas Morning News featured a glow, almost a halo, around his handsome head.
Walker, like every other SWC athlete, was of European descent. I am not sure when I became aware that no black guys were on the football field or basketball court—I saw a lot of hoops at Moody Coliseum—with their white brothers. I did have a dawning realization in 1962, however, during a pro football game. I was at the Cotton Bowl, watching the Dallas Texans versus the Denver Broncos. One of our players caught a punt and executed a series of beautiful, lightning-quick moves. That prompted a thought in my head: “He has got to be black.” Indeed he was—Abner Haynes, an all-AFL running back who returned kicks in his spare time. Perhaps that was the moment when I first wondered why the SWC schools had no such players on their teams.
Four more years would pass before the conference integrated, and it was SMU that bit the proverbial bullet. Mustangs coach Hayden Fry had shown the smarts and fortitude to sign Jerry LeVias, a promising black player out of Beaumont. Established big-name coaches like Darrell Royal of Texas, Frank Broyles of Arkansas and Jess Neely of Rice were shaking in their boots at the thought of opening SWC football up to black athletes. And when they saw LeVias play in 1966, they must have known that the fool’s paradise in which they had been living for so long was over. I think many people—coaches, players, alumni, media and the fans—had a parochial attitude about Southwest Conference football up until the mid-1960s. That is, they had a limited outlook and considered it their “property.” Needless to say, such an attitude had a suffocating effect on competition. If winning football games was the main point, why not seek out the best high school players available, regardless of race? This is why Fry was willing to abjure the long-held understanding—some would call it a gentlemen’s agreement—that no black players were to be recruited by SWC schools, although he did have a higher purpose. Fry grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Odessa and had vowed at a young age to do what he could to alleviate the injustices black Texans endured on a regular basis. As the head football coach at SMU, he was in a position to do that.
Now, about Jerry LeVias. His achievements have been well documented, so I will recount them briefly. SMU’s 1966 conference championship was its first in 18 years, and LeVias had a lot to do with that. He caught 155 passes and scored 25 touchdowns in his three years wearing red and blue, and was all-SWC every season and a consensus all-American in ’68. He was fast, he had superb hands, despite his size he blocked on running plays, and he was fearless going over the middle. As for the conditions under which he played, they were less than ideal. Many fans—although certainly not all of them—would have rather continued on with all-white football in perpetuity, and their views were manifested in various ways. Some of the opposing players spoke unkind words and sought to injure him; the referees saw it and let it go. Quite a few of his own teammates were cold, distant and hostile. Fellow students in classrooms and dormitories on the SMU campus were little better. I do not want to paint those people with a broad brush and say each one was an evil racist, although some may have been. A new world was opening up, and many people—of various colors—were not sure how to act. Had I been one of LeVias’ fellow students or teammates, would I have been warm and welcoming to him? Perhaps I would have lacked the wisdom and maturity to handle it correctly.
At any rate, LeVias prevailed. In my opinion, he was the most significant person in SWC history since he led the way for sports integration throughout the entire south. Make no mistake—schools like LSU, Ole Miss, the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia, the University of Florida and Clemson University were watching. Like Chicken Little, they thought the sky would fall if black players were allowed to suit up but it did not.
LeVias played five years in the NFL, with the Houston Oilers and San Diego Chargers, and has been a businessman in Houston since the mid-1970s. I met him for the first time in 1984 when I was doing research for Breaking the Ice. Those were in-depth interviews, and he said he had never before been given the opportunity to fully address what had happened in the crucial years at SMU. I was honored to be his friend, but I did not leave it at that. Regarding myself as the keeper of the flame, I campaigned relentlessly on his behalf before the Texas Sports Hall of Fame (he was finally inducted in 1995) and College Football Hall of Fame (2004). I attended both ceremonies. I was in the audience at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in Waco when LeVias spoke, and when he mentioned my name three times I darn near wept. Despite considerable expense and trouble, I went to New York to see him become a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. We talked during one of the pre-ceremony parties. I started to tell him what he had meant to me over the past 40 years, but I stopped because he probably knew.
I spoke at a symposium in Galveston in 2003, and my topic was racial integration of Texas college sports. I had convinced LeVias to come down from Houston. The audience got to hear my fabulous speech, and I introduced him as well. The evening evolved into a most interesting three-way give-and-take between me, LeVias and members of the audience. One young person asked him whether, if he had it to do over again, he would have gone to SMU. He answered “no” without hesitation before further explicating the difference between life then and now. Change, positive change, had to come, and Jerry LeVias helped bring it about.