By TOM SHANAHAN
Martin Luther King Jr. initially hesitated to accept an invitation to speak at Southern Methodist University in 1966, a time and place where resistance to integration persisted.
The Civil Rights icon explained to an SMU student senate leader that the Dallas school had rescinded an invitation a couple years earlier. Bert Moore, who won election as student senate vice-president despite opposition campaign posters labeling him an “integrationist,” appealed to SMU president Willis Tate.
Tate assured King the invitation would be honored. MLK spoke on March 17, 1966 at McFarlin Memorial Auditorium before a capacity audience of 2,700. He delivered a familiar address, stating “we have come a long, long way in our struggle to make justice a reality for all men, but we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved.”
The orator’s words remain as true today as then, perhaps making King’s most immediate impact his advice to a football trailblazer, Jerry LeVias. Tate arranged King’s private meeting with LeVias, the first Black scholarship football player in the Southwest Conference.
“He told me he heard I was, ‘a fine, young Christian man,’ ” recalled LeVias, now 73, the reverence still palpable. “We talked before he went on stage. He told me, ‘This is the thing I want you to remember … always keep your emotions under control.’ ”
King wasn’t known as a football fan, but without his words maybe LeVias doesn’t’ survive the racial abuse he endured. He leaned on MLK’s advice and football coach Hayden Fry’s support to complete his trailblazing path that led to avenues for future Black athletes.
“When I had players spit on me, I wanted to fight back, but I learned to live with no emotions. Nothing could get to me.”
LeVias was smaller than his listed height and weight as a 5-foot-9, 175-pound receiver and return man, but he played with a big heart.
“Coach Fry always told me, ‘If you don’t want them to get your goat, don’t tell ’em where it’s hid.’ ”
He endured, leading SMU to the 1966 SWC title, the Mustangs’ first conference championship and Cotton Bowl berth since 1948. He was a second-team All-America in 1967 and first-team pick along with Academic All-American honors in 1968 en route to enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame and a six-year NFL career.
SMU winning with LeVias opened eyes, expanding minds that otherwise might have remained closed to the emerging zeitgeist of the times.
Southwest rival Baylor awarded John Westbrook a scholarship in 1967 after he had made the team in 1966 as a walk-on. Texas Tech signed Danny Hardaway in 1967. TCU signed Linzy Cole from the junior college ranks in 1968.
Texas coach Darrell Royal and Arkansas coach Frank Broyles, who led the SWC’s dominant programs in the 1960s, joined the 20th century. Julius Whitaker (Texas) and Jon Richardson (Arkansas) played their first varsity games in 1970.
The pioneering steps were needed in a climate clinging to the past. Texas A&M coach Gene Stallings had said as late as 1965 he didn’t think black and white athletes could co-exist in a locker room. A&M didn’t sign a black football player until 1971, Jerry Honore.
Fry, though, recruited three more black athletes the year after LeVias’ arrived. Rufus Cormier, Walter Haynes and Lee McElroy made their SMU varsity debuts in 1968. All of the above encountered not necessarily an easy road but one that was smoother.
“Jerry took the brunt of it,” said Cormier, who went onto a 40-year law career including as a partner at the Houston firm of Brooks-Baker. “He was an extraordinary athlete, an exceptional student and an incredibly strong and courageous person.
“His performance on the field, despite the many challenges he faced, was largely responsible for SMU’s football resurgence in 1966. He made it much easier for those of us who followed.”
Only two years after MLK’s speech at SMU he was assassinated in Memphis. Others from that day at McFarlin have passed away.
Willis Tate, for whom SMU’s lecture series is now named, died in 1989; Hayden Fry lived until age 90 in 2019, with LeVias remaining in touch with his old coach until the end; and Bert Moore was a retired Dean of the School of Behavior and Brain Science at UT Dallas when he died in 2015.
But the change LeVias set in motion continues to be seen year after year on the field. Black athletes now represent nearly 50 percent of the nation’s Division I college football players.
Over the years, LeVias has described his experience as a “living hell.” He said the Serenity Prayer to begin each day. He also felt strength from fulfilling his Grandmother Ella’s request that he wear No. 23 for Psalm 23.
“She wanted God to watch over me,” LeVias said. “She told me to be her David against Goliath.”
But he couldn’t avoid loneliness and racist behavior. As the only Black male living on campus, LeVias was without a roommate. Students ostracized him walking across campus and in the classroom.
On the practice field there were cheap shots from teammates; they unintentionally provided previews of tactics from future opponents his first varsity season as a sophomore (NCAA rules prohibited freshmen eligibility until 1972).
On the road he was taunted. At Texas in Austin, some Longhorn fans displayed nooses.
A noose in the South remains a painful symbol a half-century later, newly named Mississippi State coach Mike Leach recently learned. He thought posting on social media a photo of a wife knitting a noose for her husband during stay-at-home orders for the COVID-19 pandemic was humorous – until the backlash, that is.
Fry grew concerned enough to assemble an informal security team intended to blend in with the team traveling party. He also gave LeVias an unlisted phone number and had his secretary screen his mail.
But by the 1966 regular-season finale at TCU at Amon Carter Stadium in nearby Fort Worth, the media learned about a death threat the Fort Worth police and FBI had deemed credible. The police and FBI were positioned around the stadium scanning for a sniper.
A newspaper headline about the 1966 SMU-TCU game read — in the vernacular of the times — “SMU Negro LeVias is Object of Abuse.”
Despite the pressure, LeVias scored on a 68-yard touchdown reception in the 21-0 victory that clinched the SWC title.
For the next two seasons, Fry continued the practice of an informal security team, but he also requested the media not report the safety precautions.
“He asked Blackie Sherrod,” said LeVias, referring to the preeminent sports journalist of the era in Dallas-Fort Worth, “and others not to write about it. He was afraid if it was always in the news some nut would do something.”
Years later LeVias received a photo of the police/FBI escorting him
from TCU’s stadium following the 1966 game. He said he is unaware
of any other such photo. Note the security men in the photo’s four
corners and bald-headed man to LeVias’ left.
By LeVias’ senior year, SMU’s 1968 season opened on Sept. 21 at Auburn with a lineup that surprised the Southeastern Conference team and its fans in the Deep South.
Such non-conference games typically were scheduled years in advance. In other words, Auburn’s fans weren’t expecting the previously all-white Mustangs to show up with three black players, LeVias, Cormier and Haynes, for the game in Auburn, Ala.
SMU flew into Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city known in the 1960s as “Bombingham” for the attacks on black homes and churches. In 1963, “four little girls” were killed by a bomb on a Sunday morning at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
George Wallace, the state’s governor from 1963 to 1967, campaigned on preserving segregation. In the 1968 Presidential election, he ran as an Independent.
Before SMU departed for Auburn a friend gave LeVias a “Vote for George Wallace” straw hat as a joke. He wore it on the flight in defiant, youthful humor.
“I wanted to make fun of them,” LeVias said, chuckling. “They were threatening my life.”
There was no laughing when the flight landed, and the players felt the climate of hate on the two-hour bus trip to the city of Auburn.
“There were big posters of George Wallace everywhere,” said Cormier, who added by 1968 some of SMU’s white players were more empathetic about the treatment of their black teammates.
LeVias was tempered by the environment, too, especially once the Mustangs checked into their Auburn hotel.
“I threw my bags down and was lying on the bed,” he said. “Then I heard this ticking sound. I jumped out of my bed and ran into the hallway yelling, ‘Something is in there ticking!’ It turned out somebody staying in the room before me had set an alarm clock.”
By game day LeVias, Cormer and Haynes were booed as they took the field, but the Mustangs were ready to play. They defeated all-white Auburn 37-28.
Despite Levias’ Wallace straw hat levity, when SMU played three weeks later at TCU, he admits the pressure to be the “Jackie Robinson of the Southwest Conference” finally broke him.
LeVias’ habit throughout his career outrunning racism had been to get off the ground quickly from a tackle to avoid late hits (football’s dark ages were a long way from today’s safety rules). But on one tackle, he was pinned at the bottom of a pile. A TCU player spit into his face.
Enraged, LeVias retreated to the bench, threw his helmet, sulked and said he was done playing. Fry came to the bench, consoled him and offered his Southern Fried humor about “hiding his goat” and not letting down the team.
Late in the game with the score 14-14, TCU was forced to punt. LeVias took the field, telling Fry he was taking the punt to the end zone. His electric 89-yard touchdown sealed a 21-14 victory.
“That was the only time I hated,” LeVias said. “That was one of my best touchdowns, but I can’t take pleasure in it because I hated.”
If not for Fry, LeVias would have missed his destiny that has established him as a Texas football icon.
He grew up a high school star at Hebert High in segregated Beaumont, a refinery town near Houston; played at SMU in Dallas; spent two of his six NFL seasons with the NFL’s old franchise, the Houston Oilers; established his work history in Houston while still in his NFL playing days; now serves as an ambassador for Houston’s second NFL franchise, the Texans; and has a seat on the Board of Directors for the Texas Bowl, played in Houston.
UCLA had been LeVias’ first choice as a college destination, wanting to follow his cousin Mel Farr, a UCLA All-American halfback. Farr, a 1967 first-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions that played seven NFL seasons, was two years older than LeVias, but they had been teammates at Hebert.
“He was like a big brother to me,” LeVias said. “I followed him everywhere.”
At the same time, Willie Ray Smith, a legendary black high school coach at Beaumont’s segregated Charlton-Pollard High, tried to recruit Levias on behalf of Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams.
From 1963 to 1967, Smith sent nine Houston-area players to Michigan State, including his sons Bubba, a College Football Hall of Famer, and Tody, although Tody later transferred to USC after an injury.
But Fry requested a home recruiting visit through LeVias’ high school coach, Clifton Ozen.
“My high school coach told me, ‘Jerry, I know you’re kind of committed (to UCLA), but I want you to talk to these people,” recalled LeVias.
Jerry LeVias and Hayden Fry.
He waited at home with his parents, Charlie and Leura, when two cars arrived with Fry, assistant coach Chuck Curtis, Beaumont schools superintendent Sparky Adams and Ozen.
“It was about 5 o’clock, and they got out of their cars. Coach Curtis was a tall guy wearing a big cowboy hat; he looked like a Texas Ranger. All the neighbors were standing on their porches wondering what the police were doing at our house. Coach Fry went straight to my grandmother’s house next door, but the rest of them came to my house. It looked like a raid.
“We talked in the living room until Coach Fry came over. He comes in, says hello and walks straight to the kitchen to my mom. My Dad didn’t like that — a white man coming into his house and walking past him to the kitchen. He had a temper; a frown was on his forehead.
“Coach Fry asked my mom about the pinto beans she was cooking. He said, ‘You’ve got to tell me how to cook ’em, because they give me gas.’ They talked about cooking pinto beans for 10 minutes, and then he and my mom came into the living room.”
Fry finally got down to business.
“He talked about education, saying, ‘You’re 17, 18 years old right now. You’ll have a college degree when you’re 22. What are you going to do with it the rest of your life? What if you don’t make it on my team? What if you don’t make it in pro ball?’ ”
The education emphasis hit home, but there were other questions.
“SMU was a white school. We didn’t know anything about white schools in the Southwest Conference because we knew we couldn’t go there. My dad asked, ‘Where is that school?’ ”
Fry’s answer alarmed Charlie LeVias.
“Dallas! That’s where they shot President Kennedy!”
But Fry, starting with winning over Grandma Ella next door, was already turning off alarms. On LeV|ias’ campus visit, Fry had him observe classrooms, including one with a seminar in progress, “The Nature of Man.”
Jerry LeVias and his family posed for a photo upon signing his scholarship offer. Left to right: Jerry’s father Charlie LeVias, SMU assistant coach Chuck Cooper, Jerry’s mother Leura LeVias, his uncle Fred Wright Jr., Jerry LeVias, SMU coach Hayden Fry and Jerry’s sister, Charlena LeVias.
But it wasn’t until LeVias was closer to signing his scholarship that he understood the enormity of his impending trailblazer role.
“Hayden Fry never talked about me being the first black player in the Southwest Conference,” he said.
Although LeVias and Westbrook were the first two black players in the SWC in 1966, LeVias drew headlines as a highly recruited high school senior. Westbrook was a Baylor walk-on whose presence wasn’t recognized until his sophomore year on the varsity.
“I still didn’t know much about it until they had this press conference for me to sign,” LeVias said. “I said, ‘Oh, man. I can’t do this.’ But everybody said I had to. My dad said, ‘You gave this man your word. Your word is your bond.’ ”
Grandma Ella wasn’t a famous leader, but she was plenty influential with her celebrated grandson.
“She was a strong woman,” LeVias said. “She was a missionary at the church. When she said something, we listened. She told Coach Fry, ‘If my grandson goes to your college, you have to make a promise. Before every game he has to call me for a prayer.’ ”
That practice already had been routine since high school.
“Before every game four or five of my teammates would be over to my grandmother’s place with me for a prayer. It was never to win. It was to step out in the name of the Lord.”
At SMU, Fry always double-checked that LeVias had made his call. LeVias chuckled as he recalled the Mustangs’ 1966 game at the University of Texas.
“Coach Fry asked me if I had made my call, and I told him the line was busy. He took me outside under the stands looking for a pay phone. When we found one, here came an SMU band kid. Coach Fry asked him if he had any change. The guy said he wanted to buy some popcorn, but Coach Fry said, ‘You don’t need popcorn. I need the money.’ He took his money, and we called my grandmother. I never did miss a prayer.”
LeVias and Fry — as improbable as it sounds these days considering TV cameras monitoring coach and star players — were missing from the sideline until just before kickoff. SMU defeated Texas 13-12 en route to the SWC title.
Now add mental health advocate to LeVias’ many hats worn.
His time overcoming racism came with a price of ghosts. The vicissitudes of life caught up with the practical advice for the moment he had followed. They haunted him in frightening nightmares.
“My wife (Janice) and dog had to sleep in different rooms,” he said. “I had such pent up anger.”
His wife urged him to seek therapy. The nightmares have diminished, but episodes reawaken, usually around return visits to SMU.
“My wife will say, ‘You were really blasting somebody last night.”
The therapy process has spurred LeVias to yet another identity, mental health advocate, particularly for African-Americans.
“In the black community, people think if you need therapy you’re crazy,” LeVias said. “We need to dispel that notion. We need more black therapists. A lot of black people won’t go because they think a white person can’t understand their pain.”
And that is as important as ever, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic the latest alarm.
“I’m reading about the increase in domestic violence. People are living check-to-check and now they’re out of a job.”
He and his wife sponsor two scholarships for minority therapist interns through the Dallas psychology office of Dr. Andy McGharrahan.
LeVias, more than a half-century later, is still paying forward MLK’s advice about enduring.
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