Daugherty and Willie Ray Smith Sr. courted Jerry LeVias to board Underground Railroad

Daugherty and Willie Ray Smith Sr. courted Jerry LeVias to board Underground Railroad

By TOM SHANAHAN

Jerry LeVias is on the phone, a stationary moment unlike his 1960s trailblazing college football career.

In those days, the Southwest Conference’s first Black scholarship football player left segregated Beaumont, Tex., a refinery town near Houston, for Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It was a time and place resistant to integration that kept him on the move outrunning racism.

SMU students ostracized him, fans on the road taunted him with a noose (Texas) and black cats (Texas A&M) and opponents (everywhere) took cheap shots on the field.

“People today do not realize the price and pain that was paid by an individual that broke barriers in segregation,” said LeVias, a six-year NFL veteran inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

His lonely road split from an easier path taken by fellow Houstonians Bubba Smith, Gene Washington and Jess Phillips. They boarded Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams that led the integration of college football with unprecedented numbers of Black athletes.

All three, like LeVias, went on to play in the NFL; Smith and Washington made the College Football Hall of Fame. All three were starters among Michigan State’s 11 Black starters in the 1966 Game of the Century against Notre Dame, which had only one black player on its roster, Alan Page.

The trio had had been steered to Michigan State by Willie Ray Smith Sr., Bubba’s father. WRS was a legendary Black Texas high school coach during segregation at Charlton-Pollard in Beaumont.

“It would have made sense to go to Michigan State,” LeVias said.

But Robert Frost’s Poem “The Road Not Taken” isn’t about choosing the right path. It’s about living with the fork chosen. At Michigan State, LeVias would have been among athletes in a collective effort to create opportunities. At SMU, he made the most of his solitary role.

After an All-American career as a receiver and return man, he was a second-round draft pick of the NFL’s Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans). In the off-season while still in his playing days, he established his work career in Southeast Texas.

With his long-time presence in the public eye, the Houston Texans, the city’s second NFL franchise, hired him as an ambassador. The Texas Bowl, played in Houston, appointed him to its Board of Directors. Jerry LeVias Day was May 4, 2010 in Houston.

Now 73, Jerry LeVias lives at a more comfortable pace as a Texas football icon.

      ***

His story should be better known beyond Texas, but the integration of college football lacks a singular figure or moment to pause and honor annually akin to Major League Baseball recognizing Jackie Robinson.

But if there was a “Trailblazer Day” in college football, it should include LeVias and other figures.

Jerry LeVias Day in Houston.

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His road intersected with pioneers in the other two major southern conferences, Darryl Hill and Nate Northington. He crossed paths with two influential college coaches, Hayden Fry and Duffy Daugherty. And he knew Willie Ray Smith Sr., who played a larger role in the integration of college football than has been understood.

— Darryl Hill was the first Black player in the Atlantic Coast Conference for Maryland in 1963. Hill played at Xavier University on the 1960 freshman team (NCAA rules prohibited freshmen eligibility until 1972) before he earned a Congressional appointment to the Naval Academy that he accepted 1961. He was the first Black player admitted to play for the Midshipmen, but he stayed only one year.

Maryland assistant coach Lee Corso convinced Hill to join the Terrapins as a transfer to make history. Hill was reluctant, but Corso told him it might take a couple more years until a player broke barriers in the ACC. Hill sat out 1962, as NCAA rules required, and played in 1963.

Corso, regrettably, is remembered more as an ESPN personality that wears costume mascot heads rather than for his pioneering role.

— Warren McVea was the first Black player at the University of Houston, although the Cougars were an Independent at the time playing in the shadow of Southwest Conference schools. McVea signed in 1964 out of Breckenridge High in San Antonio and made his varsity debut in 1965, a sophomore season that included a games at Cincinnati and Tennessee. He was a two-time All-American running back and flanker.

Houston coach Bill Yeoman took over the program in 1962 after previously serving as an assistant at Michigan State under Daugherty.

— Nate Northington and Greg Page were the first Black players in the Southeastern Conference. They were recruited by head coach Charlie Bradshaw at the urging of the school’s president, John Oswald, who arrived from the University of California system. Northington and Page played on the 1966 freshman team and planned to make SEC history on the varsity in 1967, but Page tragically suffered a neck injury in a preseason camp practice. He died in a hospital a month later, and it was left to Northington to break the barrier alone.

Although Northington played only one season, he cleared a path for 1967 recruits Houston Hogg and Wilbur Hackett. In 2016, Kentucky unveiled a statue honoring Northington, Page, Hackett and Hogg.

— Lester McClain was Tennessee’s first Black football recruit in the fall of 1967 and made his varsity debut as a sophomore wide receiver in 1968. 

— SMU coach Hayden Fry and Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty both recruited LeVias out of segregated Beaumont, Tex., near Houston. LeVias chose SMU in 1965. Daugherty recruited 44 Black players from segregated South from 1959 to 1972 with a 68-percent graduation rate.

— Willie Ray Smith: He was most prominent among the southern Black coaches that laid the tracks to the Underground Railroad. They trusted Daugherty after they were denied entrance to a clinic in segregated Atlanta to hear him speak, and Daugherty responded by putting on a free clinic for the Black coaches.

***

In Southeast Texas, Willie Ray Smith was known for winning 235 games and two Black state titles in 33 years at three Black high schools during segregation. He sent 20 players into pro football and dozens to college destinations spanning northern integrated schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

At Michigan State, he was known as the father of Bubba Smith, one of college football’s all-time great defensive players. Bubba was the No. 1 overall pick of the 1967 NFL draft, playing in two Super Bowls with the Baltimore Colts. Only a severe knee injury interrupted his path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He should be known for both his Southeast Texas and Michigan State identities. From 1963 to 1967, Smith directed to Daugherty nine players from the talent rich area of Port Arthur-Beaumont-Houston area that came to be known as the Golden Triangle.

“Duffy got a lot of f us from Golden Triangle,” LeVias said. “Everybody knew about Duffy Daugherty and Michigan State. Duffy was at the right time, and he was way ahead of his time.”

A Smith rival coach at Port Arthur Lincoln was Joe Washington Sr., the father of Joe Washington Jr., an Oklahoma All-American running back (1972-75) and 10-year NFL veteran. Washington Sr. was quoted in a newspaper, “Willie Ray Smith is the best judge of talent I have ever seen. He puts the best kids in the best spots with no politics and no negotiations.”

Smith and LeVias knew each other well, although LeVias played quarterback across town at Charlton-Pollard’s chief rival, Hebert.

“When those schools played, nobody got married and nobody died, because there was a game that night,” said LeVias.

They met when LeVias was in middle school; Smith saw him play touch football games at a popular Beaumont gathering spot, Pine Street Park. Smith asked LeVias if he wanted to play at Charlton-Pollard, although LeVias’ neighborhood school was Hebert.

“It was tempting, because Coach Smith used a lot of small, quick backs, and my school was known for big backs,” said LeVias, who was listed generously at SMU as a 5-foot-9, 175-pounder. “Smith was way ahead of his time with reverses and double-reverses. But the buses didn’t run from my neighborhood to Charlton-Pollard, and my parents didn’t want me to change schools.”

WRS has been honored both on and off the field for his legacy.

The Beaumont Independent School District named “Willie Ray Smith Middle School” upon retirement. The Willie Ray Smith Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year Awards for the area’s top high school players have been presented at a banquet since 1992. Smith died in 1992 at age 81 shortly after the inaugural awards.

As much as LeVias respected Smith and Daugherty, he said didn’t seriously consider the Spartans for a simple reason: “I don’t like cold weather.”

But he added, “I would have to say the two best recruiters I met were Hayden and Duffy,” he said.

     ***

Smith and other southern Black coaches and athletes became aware of Michigan State’s uniquely integrated rosters as early as the 1950s.

The Spartans under Biggie Munn (1947-53) and Daugherty (1954-72) had long featured mixture of Black players primarily from northern towns. The reputation grew with Michigan State’s two 1950s victories in the Rose Bowl televised when national TV games were rare. The “Granddaddy of Them All” was then the penultimate game of college football season prior to the Bowl Championship Series that preceded the current College Football Playoff.

In the 1954 Rose Bowl, two of the four touchdowns were scored by two Black athletes, LeRoy Bolden and Ellis Duckett, who were both from Northern High in Flint, Mich., known as Buick City. Such moments stood out on TV, especially in the South.

In 1956 Rose Bowl, both TDs were scored by Black athletes in a 17-14 win over UCLA. Clarence Peaks of Flint Central caught a touchdown pass and threw for a TD on an option play to John Lewis of Fremont, Ohio, a cutlery manufacturing city near Cleveland.

By 1962, the Associated Press reported Michigan State’s 17 black players represented “the largest delegation of Negro players in the history of major college football.” In those days, even schools with a long history of integration lined up only a half-dozen or fewer black players.

In 1963, MSU halfback Sherman Lewis out of segregated Louisville, Ky., was the first Underground Railroad All-American pick, finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting. This was only two years after Syracuse’s Ernie Davis was the first black Heisman winner.

In the 1965 and 1966 seasons, the influence increased with vast TV audiences twice in 11 months watching Michigan State’s back-to-back national championship teams compete with 20 black athletes and 11 black starters.

The 1965 champions (United Press International) played in the Jan. 1, 1966 Rose Bowl, a TV ratings bonanza. The 1966 co-champions (National Football Foundation with Notre Dame) met Notre Dame in the Nov. 19, 1966 Game of the Century that drew a record TV audience of 33 million viewers.

Four College football Hall of Famers stood out: defensive end Bubba Smith, rover/linebacker George Webster, receiver Gene Washington and halfback Clinton Jones. They were the first four black Hall of Famers from the same class and the only such class at any school dating to 1940.

The rosters included quarterback Jimmy Raye of segregated Fayetteville, N.C., playing football’s most prominent position; he was the first black quarterback to win a national title. The Spartans featured five black starters on offense, two from the South, and six on defense, five from the South.

Whether the images were seen on TV screens that were black and white or “in living color” – the advertising slogan of the time — the contrast was noticeable.

“You look at the number of black players Duffy recruited from the South,” LeVias said. “He was the Harriet Tubman of college football.”

                 ***

Garland Boyette was a nine-year NFL veteran that played in the 1950s for Willie Ray Smith but at Wallace High in Orange, another Golden Triangle town.

“We knew there were schools in the north that took black players, but we also knew there were only about six spots for black players on the team,” Boyette said.

Boyette was referring to an unwritten quota college coaches followed, which explains how USC, located in heavily populated and diverse Los Angeles, had only five Black players on its 1962 national championship team and seven on its 1967 national title roster. UCLA, in that same time period, had double-digit Black athletes, although myths and fiction surrounding the 1970 USC-Alabama game have deceptively cast USC as a model of integration progress.

Although Boyette was too early for the Underground Railroad, he was fortunate to have a chance at Northwestern, thanks to Northwestern alumnus John Hardey, for one of those six spots that largely went to northern athletes. Boyette had worked a part-time job at Hardey’s hotel, the Jack Tar Orange House on the water.

That was the way out back then – a special connection.

For Bobby Mitchell of Hot Springs, Ark., a federal judge in Arkansas was an Illinois alumnus that passed on Mitchell’s name to his college roommate, an Illinois assistant coach. Mitchell starred for the Illini from 1955 to 1957 on the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A North Carolina head coach Jim Tatum told Minnesota head coach Murray Warmath about Bobby Bell (1960-62), the Gophers College Football Hall of Famer and Pro Football Hall of Famer with the Kansas City Chiefs. Bell was an unknown while playing six-man football at Black school ins segregated Shelby.

“Coach Tatum told Coach Warmath, this guy can play for you,” Bell said. “If he doesn’t, I’ll pay his scholarship.”

UNC remained segregated until 1968. Ricky Lanier arrived on the freshman team in 1968, two years after Tar Heels basketball coach Dean Smith recruited Charlie Smith as the school’s first Black scholarship athlete.

“My Dad told me if I had a chance to go to a big school, I should take it,” Bell said. “That one moved got me out of North Carolina and a chance to do a lot of things. Everything was segregated down there. You had to ride in the back of the bus. I got a good education. I got to see the world. I made a lot of great friends.”

Bell made his mark on the Gophers’ freshman team in 1959. He told Warmath to take a look at his friend Carl Eller, who was a year behind Bell in school while growing up in Winston-Salem, near Shelby. Eller told Warmath he’d accept the scholarship if Warmouth also took his high school teammate, Jay Sharpe. Eller also has earned stature as a College and Pro Football Hall of Famer, while Sharpe was a productive running back.

The ground Minnesota broke in North Carolina later led to two Greensboro Black athletes making their way to Minnesota, basketball All-American guard Lou Hudson, recruited in 1962, and football All-American Charlie Sanders, recruited in 1964. The Black athletes at Minnesota prompted sportswriters in the mainstream media to dub the Gophers as the Underground Railroad. Harriett Tubman’s heroic Underground Railroad escaped slavery. Minnesota’s Underground Railroad was a metaphor for escaping segregation.

Isolated contacts were necessary at Minnesota, Illinois and other Big Ten schools to find Black athletes, but Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s teams represented a network. His players arrived from throughout the south. Between 1959 and 1972, Daugherty recruited 44 Black athletes from the South, representing 10 of 13 states — all but Alabama, Maryland and Tennessee.

Michigan State was a unique driving force because the network Daugherty built with the trust of the coaches had in him to threat their players fairly far from home. In those days, long before sophisticated recruiting services, a high school coach held the greater influence on an athlete’s college choice.

Boyette was initially eager for his opportunity at Northwestern, although he didn’t stay long. He soon recognized the lack of black students on campus and was uneasy about the lack of a social life ahead of him. He left preseason camp after two weeks to return to an HBCU, Grambling State, closer to home.

Garland Boyette (R) was enshrined in the Southwest Athletic Conference Hall of Fame.

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“A lot of it is an individual thing,” explained Boyette of decisions various players made to escape segregation above the Mason-Dixon Line or remain in the South at an HBCU. “I saw how few black people were on campus, and I thought it would be hard socially.”

Daugherty’s Civil Rights Era teams gained full steam as a result Willie Ray Sr.’s oldest son, Willie Ray Jr., suffering an unhappy experience at Iowa. Willie Ray Jr., plagued by injuries, saw limited playing time in 1962 as a sophomore, his only season before he left Iowa. When Bubba went on a recruiting trip to Iowa City prior to Willie Ray Jr’s departure, he told Bubba not to pick the Hawkeyes.

Willie Ray Sr. thus contacted Daugherty in 1963 about recruiting Bubba.

With the help of Smith and other black coaches, Daugherty began to haul in recruiting classes with a mixture of northern and southern blacks. His black athletes in a single class matched entire rosters at other schools with a long history of integration.

Minnesota won the 1960 national title with only five black players; USC won the 1967 national title with only seven black players. But by USC’s next national title in 1972, the Trojans had 23 black players.

Daugherty, with Willie Ray Smith’s laying the tracks, had shown the way.

Daugherty recruited 44 southern black players from 1959 to 1972 with a 68-percent graduation rate. Their hometowns spanned eight of 11 states in the South – all but Alabama, Tennessee and Maryland.

The first Underground Railroad passenger was Clifton Roaf of Pine Bluff, Ark. His high school coach and principal contacted Daugherty based on watching the Spartans’ Rose Bowl teams.

Roaf, the father of College and Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Willie Roaf, injured his knee in spring football as a freshman and never played a varsity down, but he said before his death in 2017 he remained indebted to Michigan State for his education and profession as a dentist. He was among the 68-percent graduation rate for Daugherty’s southern black recruits.

Among the six black southern players in Daugherty’s final class in 1972 before retirement was Tyrone Willingham of Jacksonville, N.C. Jimmy Raye, by then a Michigan State assistant coach, recommended Daugherty take Willingham as a walk-on player.

Willingham went on to be a pioneering head coach at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington.

     ***

College life could have been so much easier for LeVias if he had endured the winters at Michigan State over racial storms at SMU.

“I can’t really tell you why I went to SMU,” LeVias said. “The Lord works in mysterious way. But the way things turned out, I did the right thing. If I had gone somewhere else I might not be as strong of a person as I am. I met Dr. King and got his advice.”

Martin Luther King spoke and SMU in 1966 met privately with LeVias before he took the stage.

But LeVias certainly wouldn’t have been as lonely on campus as he was at SMU with Bubba Smith as a friend.

Bubba was so popular on Michigan State’s campus he was accepted as a member of a Jewish fraternity.

Jimmy Raye was asked why Smith joined a Jewish fraternity.

“Because he could,” he said.

As a crowd favorite at games, Smith heard the Spartan Stadium fans chant, “Kill, Bubba kill!”

College Football Hall of Fame linebacker George Webster of Anderson, S.C., said Michigan State’s classes marked the first time he sat with white people in a room without feeling tension.

College Football Hall of Fame receiver Gene Washington preferred to stay on campus every summer rather than return to Texas and segregation.

College Football Hall of Fame halfback Clinton Jones, who was from Cleveland, Ohio, said Michigan State was an “oasis” for black athletes.

Raye was one of only two black starting quarterbacks in the nation in 1966.

Although cold weather deterred LeVias from taking a recruiting trip to Michigan State, his Hebert and SMU teammates Rufus Cormier did. He visited the East Lansing campus along with Tody Smith from Charlton-Pollard.

There, of course, he met Duffy Daugherty in addition to many of the Spartans’ black athletes.

“I was very impressed with Duffy,” Cormier said. “I talked to Michigan State’s players, and they loved it there. Bubba, of course, had a great experience. I was friends with Tody. But I didn’t like the cold weather.”

Cormier’s trip to Colorado didn’t help Michigan State’s effort to recruit him. Upon arriving on the Boulder campus, he got out of the car and slipped in a snowbank onto his back.

Cormer, a prominent Houston lawyer upon retirement after 40 years, added the feedback from Michigan State’s black athletes was in contrast to trips to other schools. One of Colorado’s black players he met discouraged attending the school.

“He told me not to come,” Cormier said. “He was unhappy there.”

People today do not realize the price and pain that was paid by an individual that broke barriers in segregation.

     ***

Years and decades after college football’s pioneers opened doors, myths and outright fiction took on a life of its own surrounding USC’s 1970 win over all-white Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham.

The folklore was based on a false premise that Alabama coach Bear Bryant, the South’s preeminent coach, intended to suffer a loss to shame his bigoted fans into allowing him to recruit black athletes. The oversimplification overlooks college football integration was fait accompli by 1970. USC was one of nine opponents — six from the South — Alabama faced that season.

To believe otherwise is to diminish Jerry LeVias’ pain and price paid, and the help of those he leaned on to blaze a trail.’

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