PHOTO: Tennessee’s Lester McClain.
By TOM SHANAHAN
Jerry LeVias played his signature role as the Southwest Conference’s first Black scholarship football player throughout the 1966 season, but two years later he performed with equal valor on a stage in the belly of the beast.
The Deep South. The Southeastern Conference.
A failure of college football sports media to tell the story of college football integration — then and now — has been overlooking the true pioneers of the 1960s. They are the ones that had already changed the face the sport by the dawn of the 1970s.
LeVias remains among those 1960s pioneers pushed into the shadows by myths illuminating the 1970 USC-Alabama game at Legion Field in Birmingham.
Two years earlier, on Sept. 21, 1968, Southern Methodist opened the season traveling from Dallas to face all-white Auburn on “The Plains” of southeast Alabama, a racially blood-stained state. The landscape reflected the ethnography. If you’re surprised to learn this fact, don’t be. It was ignored then and now.
On SMU’s two-hour bus ride from the Birmingham airport to Auburn, George Wallace billboards touting the former segregationist governor as a Presidential Independent candidate dotted the landscape. It also was just five months after Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
LeVias, though, knew how to perform while outrunning racial threats.
The senior All-American receiver/return man led the Mustangs to a 38-27 win, catching five passes for 100 yards, scoring a touchdown on a 38-yard reception and finding the end zone a second time on a two-point conversion reception. Another easy TD was missed, according to a notation on the play-by-play sheet.
Early in the third quarter, SMU quarterback Chuck Hixon overthrew LeVias. The sheet reads: “3-7-A32: Hixon-LeVias -incomplete- overthrew LeVias, had plenty of room.”
The “had plenty of room” commentary is rare for a play-by-play account, which adds to the imagination. The fleet-footed LeVias must have been very wide, wide open.
The game wasn’t as close as the final score — SMU led 30-14 in the fourth quarter — and the comfortable lead was in contrast to the environment. LeVias and his two Black teammates, starting defensive lineman Rufus Cormier and backup halfback Walter Haynes, played through jeers as they ran from the stadium tunnel to the field.
“They were booing us,” recalled Cormier, who went onto a 40-year career as a prominent Houston lawyer.
SOUTHERN METHODIST PIONEER RUFUS CORMIER
Fans everywhere typically greet the visiting team with boos, of course, but these taunts were guttural.
“Some of our team perceived it as booing because of the Black players,” Cormier said. “One teammate sent a note to Jerry and me on the 50th anniversary of the game.”
By 1968, some of SMU’s white players had gained empathy for the plight of Black pioneers. When LeVias arrived on campus, his teammates shunned him and students avoided him.
“My first year at SMU, they only needed me on Saturdays,” LeVias said.
But just as LeVias gradually opened eyes with each one of his 22 career touchdowns en route to College Football Hall of Fame enshrinement, he opened minds, too. SMU registered more than a 1-0 start on that September afternoon. The Mustangs helped set thee stage for Auburn head coach Shug Jordan. Unbeknownst to Auburn’s fans, Jordan was already in the process of recruiting Auburn’s first Black football player, James Owen.
The running back was a senior in 1968 at Fairfield High near Birmingham, one of the early Alabama public high schools to integrate. Owen played on Auburn’s freshman team in 1969 (NCAA rules prohibited freshmen eligibility until 1972) and made his varsity debut as a sophomore in 1970.
“People don’t realize the importance of sports in integration,” LeVias said.
Auburn thus joined the list of the first five SEC members to integrate their football programs: Kentucky, 1967; Tennessee, 1968; Auburn, 1970; Florida, 1970; and Mississippi State 1970.
Alabama, the state’s flagship school, joined the 20th century in 1971 along with Vanderbilt, even though both basketball programs at Alabama and Vanderbilt had recruited Black athletes before their respective football programs. The last three Deep South football holdouts in 1972 were Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss.
“INTEGRATING SEC END ZONES”
LeVias’ Auburn performance was worthy of borrowing from the drollness of Shirley Povich — the Washington Post columnist long critical of the Washington Redskins as the NFL’s last all-white team until 1962. In 1960, the Cleveland Browns won in Washington 31-10.
“Jim Brown, born intelligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times,” Povich wrote.
In this case, Jerry LeVias, born ineligible to play in the South, integrated Auburn’s end zone two times.
If today’s sports memorabilia zeitgeist existed then, the football LeVias caught for a TD at Hare Stadium (now Jordan-Hare) would have been quickly collected and wrapped for delivery to the College Football Hall of Fame. It was a milestone for a Black athlete in an SEC football stadium.
Instead, the game carried on as if nothing historic had happened. That’s largely because the custom of the times avoided writing about race in the sports section. No one tracked racial milestones until into the 1970s.
“All I remember from that game was they beat the crap out of us,” said Auburn running back Mickey Zofko, who went on the play four NFL seasons with the Detroit Lions and New York Giants. “It didn’t matter he was Black. He was a great football player that beat us.”
LeVias is believed to be the first Black player to score a TD in an SEC stadium, but it’s difficult to confirm.
The SEC’s first Black player in a varsity game was Kentucky’s Nate Northington as a sophomore in 1967, but he was a part-time defensive lineman that never scored in his lone varsity season. Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg joined Kentucky’s varsity in 1968, but they were scoreless, too.
Lester McClain was Tennessee’s first African-America scholarship football player as a sophomore in 1968. He became the SEC’s first Black athlete to “integrate” an SEC stadium end zone, but his six touchdowns that season all were after LeVias scored at Auburn.
Two other African-Americans that played at SEC venues in non-conference games prior to LeVias were Houston halfback/flanker Warren McVea and Army West Point receiver Gary Steele. Both were their school’s first Black player and both sophomores in their first year of varsity eligibility, but neither pioneer scored against their SEC opponent.
Houston lost 17-8 on Oct. 23, 1965 at Neyland; McVea caught one pass for 12 yards.
Army fell 38-7 on Oct. 29, 1966 at a Memphis Memorial Stadium, a neutral site now named the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Steele caught four balls for 45 yards.
NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULING QUIRKS
Houston and SMU representing integrated schools at SEC stadiums resulted from scheduling quirks. Non-conference games are typically slated years in advance; Houston and SMU were all-white when their SEC dates were booked.
Regrettably, McVea’s ground-breaking day at Neyland was too early in the Civil Rights march to be celebrated, not to mention widely recognized. Instead it was an ugly day for McVea, but not because Houston lost. Tennessee’s fans were waiting for him, spewing an onslaught of the N-word and other racial slurs at him.
In 1965, Lester McClain was a high school junior in Nashville, so the lack of newspaper sports section accounts left him unaware of McVea’s abuse until he was freshman on campus in 1967.
“The older players told me about it,” he said. “They said he caught hell from the fans.”
McVea, who played in the NFL until 1973, eventually was interviewed for retrospective stories on his pioneering role. He acknowledged the fan abuse, but he also cited Tennessee’s players were sportsmen, helping him up after tackles.
That’s refreshing, but a more encouraging sign of progress toward the “New South” was McClain’s reception on 1968’s opening day as a sophomore at Neyland Stadium. He began the year as a backup, so he didn’t run on the field to join a huddle until late in the first quarter.
“People stood up and applauded,” McClain said. “It surprised me. I didn’t know what to think. It felt great, but I was just happy to get in the game. I didn’t expect that from the fans.”
But, of course, race remained never far away – then or now. In neighboring Kentucky that same 1968 fall season, George Wallace visited the Lexington campus on Sept. 15, 1968 to to campaign.
The day Wallace spoke on the Lexington campus, some Kentucky white male students encountered Black female students at Blanding Towers, a campus dormitory. In the tension of the times, the white students shouted the N-word and racial slurs.
When Hackett and Hogg learned about it, they and a third Black male student went to Blanding to confront the white students.
“They got knocked out; that’s all I can tell you,” Hackett said. “There were more of them than us, but we beat their asses.”
The three African-Americans were subsequently called into the office of the school’s Dean of Men, Jack Hall.
“It happened at a dorm, so we had to go see the Dean,” Hackett said. “He understood what happened, but he said we had to be counseled. When we left, he said, ‘Next time you get in a fight, try not to beat them up so bad.’ That’s a true story.”
Six days later Hackett and Hogg made their varsity debuts as sophomores when Kentucky beat Missouri 12-6 on Sept. 21, 1968 at the Wildcats’ former stadium, Stoll Field. Hackett made the SEC’s All-Sophomore team; he was named a team captain as a junior in 1969, a first for an African-American in any sport in the SEC; and he was the Wildcats’ Co-MVP in 1970.
Imagine if another Dean — one not so understanding of the abuse African-Americans endured — had been in Jack Hall’s Dean’s chair in 1968 and imposed a suspension or expulsion. Kentucky’s likely loses its grasp on a special place in history. How much longer until Kentucky resumes a commitment to recruiting Black football players? After all, Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp, the Bear Bryant of college basketball in the South, waited until 1969 to recruit his first Black athlete.
Without Hackett’s success, Rupp, who has been long viewed as a racist, likely waits longer, joining Bear Bryant, waiting into the 1970s to recruit his first Black player.
TENNESSEE-ALABAMA, OCT. 14, 1969, LEGION FIELD, BIRMINGHAM
History also has failed to accord a 1969 SEC landmark game its proper recognition, the 52nd edition of Tennessee-Alabama rivalry. The “The Third Saturday in October” series has survived SEC East -West Division schedule exemptions to last 102 years and counting.
On Oct. 14, 1969, the Volunteers routed all-white Alabama 41-14 at Legion Field in Birmingham. By then, Tennessee had two Black starters – McClain as a junior and sophomore linebacker Jackie Wallace — that were rising stars on the team and among four black players on the roster.
Walker scored a touchdown when he picked off a pitch from quarterback Scott Hunter to a running back and returned it 27 yards to “integrate” the end zone at Legion Field. Walker was a dominant player whose career includes five career interceptions for touchdowns that shares an NCAA record, All-American honors in 1970 and 1971 and was named a team captain in 1971. McClain caught two passes for 24 yards against Alabama; he finished his career with 70 receptions for 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Tennessee beating all-white Alabama with Black athletes was an eye-opener for the Crimson Tide’s fans, although USC defeating all-white Alabama in 1970 at Legion Field has received more national credit as a landmark game. One dubious reason has been USC was portrayed as looking like Grambling – a Historically Black School and University in Louisiana.
However, USC had only five black starters – quarterback Jimmy Jones, fullback Sam Cunningham, tailback Clarence Davis, linebacker Charlie Weaver and defensive end Tody Smith. That’s just three more than Tennessee in 1969 or SMU in 1968 at Auburn.
USC, despite its long history of integration, had only seven Black players on its 1967 national championship roster. USC’s increased number of black athletes in the 1970s was following along, not setting a standard, that belonged to Michigan State. In 1962, The Associated Press reported the “Spartans’ 17 Negro athletes represented the most in college football history.”
Nevertheless, the myths surrounding 1970 USC-Alabama took on a life of their own. The folklore was spread further by two misleading documentaries, HBO’s “Breaking the Huddle” (2008) and Showtime’s “Against the Tide” (2013).
McClain laughed when asked about the 1970 USC-Alabama game’s significance.
“I’ve watched those documentaries and other things on ESPN,” McClain said. “Listening to those stories, I’m thinking, ‘I guess we didn’t play in the same conference as Alabama.’ They don’t say anything about our game.”
McClain cited other Black players in the SEC by then. Although Hackett and Hogg made their debuts in 1968, their door to Kentucky had been opened by the SEC’s first two Black players, Nate Northington and Greg Page. They arrived at Kentucky in the fall of 1966 and played on the freshmen team. They were set to make their varsity debuts as sophomores in 1967, but Page was paralyzed from a neck injury in a 1967 preseason practice. He died a month later in a hospital.
“That was such a devastating thing to happen,” McClain said. “He was about to make history and then tragedy happens. There was nobody (at Tennessee) for me to talk to that understood the pain you felt. It was similar to when Martin Luther King was shot. Those were the moments you had as one of the few Black students on campus.”
Breaking the SEC color line alone was left to Northington on Sept. 30, 1967 in a home game against Ole Miss. However, Northington was injured in the first three minutes of the Wildcats’ 26-13 loss. He eventually left the team after he played in only five games, overwhelmed by a combination of grief from Page’s death, his own injuries and the toll of enduring a pioneer’s abuse.
Northington’s short stint was historic and Page’s death added to the anguish, but playing for a team with a 2-8 record doesn’t sell a documentary pitch to producers. Certainly not as well as USC-Alabama can hook a producer with Hollywood in USC’s backyard and Alabama’s attraction as a trump card.
The Kentucky foursome’s history was largely unappreciated for a half-century, but in 2016 the school erected a statue on campus to the trail blazers.
KENTUCKY’S NATE NORTHINGTON, GREG PAGE, WILBUR HACKETT AND HOUSTON HOGG
“When they were planning it, I thought, ‘It’s been 50 years without recognition, so if they do it, great; if not, that’s fine.’ ” Hackett said. “But when they unveiled it I was so excited and proud for all of us. But mostly I was happy for Greg and his family. He was a part of this, too. He gave his life to this. He deserved the recognition.”
KENTUCKY PIONEERS AND TENNESSEE DOUBLING UP
Tennessee’s Chuck Rohe deserves the credit for the Volunteers as the second SEC school recruiting Black football players.
Rohe arrived in Knoxville in 1963 hired with a dual role as Director of Football Recruiting and head track and field coach. He had a vision to recruit two-sport football and track athletes and to include African-Americans among them.
“Chuck Rohe was so instrumental to integration,” McClain said.
With Rohe’s hand in identifying football and track recruits, he saw he could bolster his track roster with football-track athletes. Football, of course, has far more scholarships available than other sports. Rohe was initially rebuffed by Tennessee athletic director Bob Woodruff about recruiting black athletes. But in 1965 Rohe hit the football/track jackpot with a white athlete, Richmond Flowers, Jr., a highly recruited prospect from Dothan, Ala.
Flowers earned All-American honors in football and track. He was a 1968 Olympic track team contender in the hurdles until a hamstring injury. In 1969, the Dallas Cowboys drafted him; he played four NFL seasons.
Flowers had picked Tennessee once he decided to flee the violent racial climate of Alabama. His father Richmond Flowers Sr. was the state’s Attorney General. Flowers Sr. had opposed George Wallace’s segregationist policies and prosecuted Ku Klux Klansmen for killing Civil Rights workers. Flowers Sr. accused the KKK of burning crosses in his home’s lawn and throwing bricks through windows.
Flowers was success story on multiple levels, but the impetus for Woodruff allowing Rohe to recruit Black athletes came up the SEC road from Kentucky opening its doors.
The turning point at Kentucky was the 1963 arrival of new president John Oswald, who had been the vice-president in the long integrated University of California system, Oswald informed all Kentucky coaches he expected them to recruit Black athletes. Three years later football coach Charlie Bradshaw signed Northington and Page.
“By then, a lot of black athletes were doing well across the country,” Rohe said. “It was a natural evolution of the integration process.”
Rohe, 88, is retired living in Orlando, Fla., where served in his post-coaching days as Executive Director of the Citrus Bowl. He understood the significance of what he wrought in the SEC, but he’s also humble enough to admit a simpler motivation.
“I wanted to win,” he said. “I grew up in Chicago. I went to a typical white suburban high school, but I knew a lot of Black track athletes that I competed against.”
His first four Black athletes in the 1967 recruiting class with scholarships were two football players, McClain and Albert Davis, and two track athletes, James Craig and Audrey Hardy. Davis never enrolled, but the other three arrived as freshmen in the fall of 1967 and debuted for their varsity teams as sophomores in 1968. Rohe’s first football/track recruit was Andy Bennett, arriving in 1968 and joining the varsity in 1969.
Rohe said once Tennessee began traveling as an integrated roster, the only problem the team encountered was once in Georgia.
“A restaurant wouldn’t take all of us, so we went on down the road to another one,” Rohe said.
With the door open for Rohe, Tennessee exploited its expanded recruiting base — racially in football and doubling up in track. Football under head coach Doug Dickey and track under Rohe began to win big. Tennessee historian Bud Ford, a long-time Sports Information Director at the school, says Rohe’s influence deserves better appreciation.
Dickey’s teams beat Alabama three straight years, 1967, 1968 and 1969, with SEC titles in 1967 and 1969. The 1969 conference title, highlighted by thrashing Alabama before the Crimson Tide’s fans, prompted Florida to lure Dickey home to his alma mater in 1970.
But the fork in the road he chose was a wrong turn. Dickey was unable to duplicate his Tennessee success in Gainesville.
“After that 1969 Alabama game, Doug Dickey had the SEC by the neck,” Rohe said. “Tennessee was talking about him like he was Bear Bryant. We had the world by the tail in football and track.”
DUFFY DAUGHERTY’S UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
African-American pioneers endured the racial abuse in the South, but no story on the integration of college football is complete without including Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams in the Big Ten.
Michigan State broke barriers throughout the 1960s with the sport’s first fully integrated rosters. Daugherty’s teams won back-to-back national titles with 20 black players and 11 Black starters (five on offense, six on defense) in 1965 (United Press International) and 1966 (National Football Foundation co-champions with Notre Dame following the Game of the Century’s 10-10 tie).
The Spartans’ reputation among black athletes, especially in the South, was so widespread that Hackett said Michigan State was his first choice.
“Kentucky wasn’t even on my mind,” he said.
Hackett had attended the same Louisville high school as Sherman Lewis, who was Daugherty’s first Underground Railroad All-American player in 1963. Lewis also finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, a not insignificant fact considering Syracuse’s Ernie Davis was the first black Heisman winner just two years earlier.
DUFFY DAUGHERTY WITH HIS ALL-AMERICAN PLAYERS: (L-R) CLINTON JONES, BOB APISA, BUBBA SMITH, GENE WASHINGTON AND GEORGE WEBSTER.
“I met Duffy and spent some time with him; he was a great man,” Hackett said. “He made me feel like Michigan State was the right place for me. He was open and genuine. I loved my time there, the people were so nice. Duffy was so genuine about recruiting African-American athletes. I spent time with Bubba and Webster and other guys. Bubba was as big as a house.”
Hackett’s recruiting trip was to East Lansing campus, but he also saw the Spartans when they played Indiana Nov. 12, 1966 in Bloomington. Indiana was his second choice.
The Spartans won 37-19 as Jimmy Raye, the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title, was 7-of-9 passing for 173 yards and three touchdowns. Michigan State improved to 9-0 and clinched its second straight unbeaten Big Ten title — a feat yet to be matched in the conference. The Spartans returned home and began preparations for the 1966 Game of the Century with Notre Dame at Spartan Stadium that ended in a controversial 10-10 tie before a record TV audience of 33 million.
But when it was time to commit, Hackett honored his parents’ wish that he walk through Kentucky’s newly opened door to stay close to home.
“They said it was up to me, but they wanted to me to go Kentucky,” Hackett said. “My parents (Wilbur Sr. and Ollie) were big Kentucky fans from when Bear Bryant was coaching and winning at Kentucky (1946-53) and Adolph Rupp was winning NCAA basketball titles (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958).
“I never asked my dad why they were Kentucky fans until about 10 or 15 years ago. I said, ‘Why, since you couldn’t go to the games?’ He said they didn’t see color. They listened to the games on the radio. Kentucky won and was their team. They were thrilled I went to Kentucky. They went to every one of my games.”
MICHIGAN STATE-NORTH CAROLINA, SEPT. 26, 1964, CHAPEL HILL
Similar to SMU and Tennessee, the Spartans’ had their own moment in the South that has been overshadowed due to 1960s media customs. Michigan State played all-white North Carolina on Sept. 26, 1964 in Chapel Hill.
It’s the first example of a fully integrated northern team scheduling a game in the South during the height of the Civil Rights movement. The newspaper reports in North Carolina and Michigan, though, merely noted Michigan State was the first Big Ten school to play in Chapel Hill — without mentioning race.
North Carolina won 21-15 behind future NFL running back Ken Willard, but Michigan State halfback Clinton Jones, a College Football Hall of Famer, “integrated” North Carolina’s end zone as one of the two MSU touchdowns.
Before the game, Michigan State sophomores George Webster and Jim Summers, who were both from South Carolina high schools, learned they had made the travel squad. Webster, who died in 2007, went on to become a College Football Hall of Famer; Summers was a starting cornerback as a junior and senior.
However, despite the good news, they both told their parents to stay home.
“I didn’t want my parents to be subjected to the kind of humiliation that they might encounter,” Summers said. “We knew the only Blacks in the stadium would be the ones working.”
Chapel Hill, where North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was about to integrate ACC basketball with Charlie Scott in the 1967-68 season, turned out to be another sign of progress in the South.
“The only thing I remember from that game was they had a big halfback that went on to play in the NFL, and he ran all over us,” said Summers, referring to Willard. “I don’t remember their players doing anything dirty or saying anything racial.”
North Carolina was segregated, but it was a good distance from the Deep South.
“It was a different mentality down there,” said Willard, who was from Virginia and returned to his home state upon retiring from the NFL. “Chapel Hill was very progressive … and disliked for that reason. We were considered too liberal.”
Credit for college football’s integration belongs to the pioneers of the 1960s. The heavy lifting was done by individuals, including Gary Steele at West Point, and the Michigan State Underground Railroad’s collective players.
There were other moments for Black athletes in college football, but to be pivotal moment, the games, individuals or a team require an ability to shift the paradigm.
Kentucky’s four pioneers, SMU-Auburn in 1968 and Tennessee-Alabama in 1969 moved the sport forward in the SEC — the last holdout to integration. Michigan State’s Underground Railroad fully integrated rosters were watched on TV in living color coast-to-coast, influencing the nation before the vast audiences of the Rose Bowl and the 1966 Game of the Century.
By the time USC-Alabama met in 1970, the sacrifices of earlier pioneers had made the integration of college football were fait accompli. That was true even in the Deep South corners of the SEC that needed illumination.
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