PHOTO: Willie Ray Smith Jr. was featured in a 1999 Dallas “Morning News” series highlighting 100 years of Texas high school football.
By TOM SHANAHAN
A pivotal figure in Michigan State football history, despite never playing for the Spartans, died at age 77 on Jan. 29 in Beaumont, Texas. He was 77.
“He was the only football player I ever idolized,” once stated Bubba Smith, the “little” brother that was a Michigan State College Football Hall of Famer and an NFL All-Pro defensive end.
Willie Ray Smith Jr.’s football story was a circuitous one due to heartbreaking knee injuries, but that accounts for why he had nothing and everything to do with Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams winning back-to-back unbeaten Big Ten titles and national championships in the 1965 and 1966 seasons.
“Nothing” because Willie Ray Jr., played at Iowa and transferred to Kansas.
He had been a high school star running back for his father, Willie Ray Smith Sr., a legendary Texas coach during segregation at Beaumont’s Charlton-Pollard, a Houston-area Black powerhouse. But at the end of Willie Ray Jr.’s senior season, he suffered a knee injury on a late hit. Then another knee injury at Iowa in the era before NCAA rules permitted freshman eligibility. By his first varsity season in 1962, he was struggling with the loneliness of life on a white campus. His playing time was limited to 37 carries in nine games for 136 yards without a rushing touchdown. He left Iowa City.
“Everything” because when Willie Ray Sr.’s second son was about to choose his college destination, the father/coach intervened. He sought a better environment for Charles “Bubba” Smith than what his oldest son had experienced.
In Daugherty’s 1974 book, Duffy, he says Willie Ray Sr. called him and asked him “to take a chance on my boy Bubba and make a man out of him.” Not only that, he recommended Duffy take this kid at rival Baytown High that had given Charlton-Pollard fits, Gene Washington.
Bubba had planned to attend Iowa to play alongside his Big Bro, but on his recruiting trip to Iowa Willie Ray Jr. told him he was on his way out.
Bubba enrolled at Michigan State in the 1963 recruiting class. The 6-foot-7, 285-pound defensive end was one of four future College Football Hall of Famers along with Washington, a receiver; George Webster, a linebacker/rover from Anderson, S.C., and Clinton Jones, a halfback from Cleveland, Ohio.
This tale of recruiting’s vagaries – not to mention injuries sidetracking a career — explains why Willie Ray Jr.’s unfinished football life was, in a cruel twist of fate, instrumental to Michigan State football history.
When Michigan State met Notre Dame in the 1966 Game of the Century, the Spartans had three starters from the Houston area. Bubba and Washington were MSU seniors and Jess Phillips, a Charlton-Pollard alumnus, was a junior All-Big Ten that went on to play 10 NFL seasons.
Willie Ray Jr. had the shortest football career, but the longest life of the siblings. Bubba died at age 66 on Aug. 3, 2011. Youngest brother Tody Smith, who played at Michigan State before he transferred to USC after a falling out with Daugherty, died at 50 on July 18, 1999. Patriarch Willie Ray Sr. was 81 when he passed away in 1992, following in death the family matriarch, Georgia, who also was a long-time teacher.
THE ROYAL SMITH FAMILY FOOTBALL
But the Smith Football Family’s contributions to Michigan State’s leading role in college football integration remains. It was written in “indelible ink” – the words Daugherty told his 1966 team in the locker room following the Game of the Century’s controversial 10-10 tie against Notre Dame.
Michigan State had a long history of Midwest-based integrated rosters, but the infusion of talent from the segregated South established Daugherty’s ground-breaking 1960s Underground Railroad teams. Willie Ray Sr. wasn’t the first southern Black coach to send Daugherty players, but he was the chief engineer, sending nine players between 1963 and 1967.
The first was Clifton Roaf of segregated Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1959; his high school principal and coach contacted Daugherty about an opportunity for their class valedictorian. Daugherty’s first Underground Railroad All-American player, in 1963, was halfback Sherman Lewis, who escaped segregated Louisville, Kentucky, for East Lansing, arriving in 1960.
Southern Black coaches knew Michigan State’s history for Black athletes from watching the 1954 and 1956 Rose Bowls on TV. Leroy Bolden, Ellis Duckett and Clarence Peaks were African-American All-American stars from Michigan factory towns scoring touchdowns. From North Carolina to Texas, southern Black high school coaches trusted Daugherty, sending him, in all, 44 players from 1959 to his final season, 1972.
Rufus Cormier, a retired Houston lawyer, took a recruiting trip to Michigan State in 1966 arranged by Smith, although he played at Charlton-Pollard’s crosstown Black high school rival, Hebron. Cormier said he saw the difference in the social life for a Black athlete on a predominantly white campus on his trip to East Lansing.
“I really enjoyed meeting Bubba and other Michigan State players,” Cormier said. “They liked it at Michigan State. When I went to Colorado, one of their three Black players told me, ‘Don’t come here. There is no social life.’ “
Cormier, though, ultimately decided to stay closer to home in a warmer climate. He went to Southern Methodist, following Jerry LeVias, his high school teammate who was a year ahead of him; LeVias was the first Black scholarship player in the Southwest Conference as a sophomore in 1966. LeVias also was interested in Michigan State until SMU’s scholarship offer from Hayden Fry presented a chance to stay closer to home.
Willie Ray Smith Sr. was aware of Michigan State’s campus environment when he placed the history changing call to Daugherty for Bubba. The long-and-winding story of Bubba’s road to Michigan State illustrates how Southern Black coaches laid the tracks to the Underground Railroad.
However, Daugherty was unfairly portrayed in a 2019 ESPN series on the 150th anniversary of college football. In the “Recruiting” episode, a national sports analyst stated, “For Duffy Daugherty, it wasn’t just him trying to be Mr. Progressive and Abraham Lincoln. He was trying to win football games.”
No one is Abraham Lincoln, and all coaches want to win games, of course, but to state to Daugherty wasn’t a progressive man reveals an uninformed background on the genesis of the Underground Railroad. Only 10 of the 44 southern Black recruits earned All-Big Ten or All-American honors, yet 30 (68 percent) graduated. That’s an indication Daugherty took chances on players unlike other schools limiting their scholarship offers to only a half-dozen or so over a four-year period.
“I never would have made it to Michigan State without Bubba and his father,” Washington said. “Duffy didn’t know anything about me. I was running hurdle times in high school that were among the fastest in the nation, but because I was at a segregated school, my times didn’t make the national lists. I wasn’t a big-time recruit.
“When I got to Michigan State, I discovered right away how nice it was on the campus. I never wanted to go home back to segregation because of the way people treated you and your family. My (assigned) roommates at Wonders Hall were two White swimmers, and we’ve been lifelong friends.”
Washington added he never felt Daugherty recruited him simply to play football.
“I loved track and field, and Duffy said as long as I was making a contribution to the team, I didn’t have to come out for spring football. Duffy kept tabs on all of us, Black and White. I was in Duffy’s office about once a week. He was on top of our academics; (athletic director) Biggie Munn, too.”
When Clinton Jones met with the media for his Michigan State Hall of Fame induction, a Black reporter, understood that Daugherty was a colorblind coach, but he asked if Jones encountered racism from the students. Considering it was the mid-1960s, it was a fair question.
“I didn’t encounter any,” Jones replied. “None.”
Then Jones paused.
“I take that back — there was some racism. Miss MSU wouldn’t dance with me. I was a sophomore and the first Black Mr. MSU. The tradition was Mr. Mr. MSU and Miss MSU would lead off the ball, but she wouldn’t dance with me.”
Integration always includes ugly chapters, but as the Underground Railroad steamed ahead the remainder of the decade, schools followed the Daugherty model. They recruited more than a half-dozen so Black athletes, but it became evident by the early 1980s too many schools exploited Black athletes for their talent. The national graduation rates for Black football players dipped to 30 percent. The NCAA countered with rules emphasizing graduation progress.
ESPN’s misleading characterization of Daugherty has been a consequence of myths and fiction created in the late 1980s around the 1970 USC-Alabama game at Legion Field in Birmingham. The media has strangely focused on that game, although integrated Tennessee routed Alabama 41-14 a year earlier on Oct. 18, 1969 at Legion Field. In 1970, USC only had five Black starters, and one was Tody Smith, a Michigan State transfer.
The Trojans, misleadingly held up as a model of integration by the 1970 USC-Alabama myths, didn’t catch up to the Daugherty’s Spartans until the 1970s. USC and McKay were a decade behind Daugherty and Michigan State, Alabama and Bryant a century.
In 1962, the Associated Press reported Michigan State’s 17 Black athletes formed “the largest delegation of Negro players in the history of major college football.” It was not a slim-margin record. Most schools in the nation, including 1960s national champions USC and Notre Dame, could count their Black athletes on one hand.
USC’s 1962 national championship team numbered five, although its 1967 national title roster required two hands with seven. The roster for Notre Dame’s 1966 national title team had one, Alan Page. (Notre Dame was named national champion by The Associated Press, United Press International and co-champions with Michigan State by the National Football Federation).
The 1965 Spartans, named national champions by UPI and the NFF, had 23 Black players and 10 Black starters. The 1966 Spartans numbered 20 Black players, 11 Black starters, two Black team captains, George Webster and Clinton Jones, and the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title, Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C.
That 20-1 contrast in the two Game of the Century rosters, though, wasn’t the only glaring comparison. Charlton-Pollard High accounted for more Black starters, two, and Black players, five, than Notre Dame had in both categories representing 50 states. Bubba and Phillips were starters, Clinton Harris and William Ware were backups and Tody was on the freshman team.
“Bubba’s father was extremely important to Michigan State,” Raye said. “He was not only an outstanding coach in Texas, he was a leader among the outstanding coaches in the South. He sent Duffy his sons Bubba and Tody, Gene Washington, Jess Phillips and other players. He influenced other Texas coaches. He was a pioneer of significant magnitude.”
Upon Willie Ray Sr.’s retirement, the Beaumont Independent School District named a middle school after him, Willie Ray Smith Magnet Middle School at 4415 Concord Drive. Naming a football stadium for old coaches is typical, but Smith’s star in Beaumont shined brighter than the sports world.
For the past 28 years, the Beaumont Lions Club has awarded the Willie Ray Smith Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year Awards. Area high school players call it the “The Heisman Trophy of Southeast Texas.”
One of Smith’s rival coaches at Port Arthur Lincoln was Joe Washington Sr., the father of 1970s Oklahoma All-American running back Joe Washington Jr. In Texas, the Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange area was known as the “Golden Triangle” of high school football talent.
“Willie Ray Smith is the best judge of talent I have ever seen,” Washington Sr. said one year at the Willie Ray Smith Awards banquet. “He puts the best kids in the best spots with no politics and no negotiations.”
Although Willie Ray Sr. recommended Washington to Daugherty for his talent displayed against Charlton-Pollard in football, basketball, track and baseball, that’s not the way Washington remembers his Baytown football games against Charlton-Pollard. Washington, like Bubba, was a sophomore on their respective varsity teams when Willie Ray Jr. was a senior.
“I was a safety, but I felt like a linebacker with the Willie Ray was coming through the line and I had to try to tackle him,” Washington said. “He was such a great player.”
JERRY LEVIAS: HE COULD HAVE BEEN ANOTHER GALE SAYERS
The best of the all the Beaumont kids may have been Willie Ray Jr. – before his injuries.
That has been and has remained a widely held opinion in Beaumont. It explains why FOX TV station KFDM aired a story on Willie Ray Jr.’s death despite a career that never achieved All-American college honors or reached the NFL like his younger brothers.
LeVias, a College Football Hall of Famer and among Beaumont’s couple dozen NFL alums, unequivocally calls Willie Ray Jr. the town’s greatest football player. LeVias was in middle school when Willie Ray Jr., a 6-1, 190-pounder, was running up and down the field.
“I was just a little kid, but I didn’t think anybody was as good as Willie Ray,” LeVias said. “Things happen to you a long the way in life. Some guys don’t realize how blessed they were to be healthy going through high school and college and on to the pros. They don’t have things happen to them like injuries. I said a prayer for him when I heard the news. God can give him rest and peace of mind.”
LeVias’ opinion didn’t change even after seeing Gale Sayers and Willie Ray Jr. pitted against each other in a touch football game.
When Willie Ray Jr. left Iowa for Kansas, he struck up a friendship with Sayers, the Kansas Comet on his way to becoming a College and Pro Football Hall of Famer. In the summer of 1963, Sayers, who was from Omaha, Nebraska, spent time with Willie Ray Jr. in Beaumont. Sayers was coming off a 1,125-yard sophomore season.
On an otherwise typical Beaumont summer day, LeVias, who was entering his junior year at Hebron High, and friends had gathered at Magnolia Park for some touch football. As their game progressed, Willie Ray Jr. and Sayers showed up unannounced. They joined the game.
“Willie Ray was on one team and Gale on the other – oh-h-h, you’re talking about a show they put on!” LeVias said. “I had heard of Gale Sayers, but I hadn’t seen him play. Willie Ray could have been as good as Gale Sayers if he didn’t get hurt. I made that statement to Gale. He said I was entitled to my opinion, but he also respected what I said.”
Willie Ray Jr. had to sit out the 1963 season as a transfer, but sports medicine was primitive in the 1960s compared to today’s surgeries, arthroscopic tools and therapies. His knee didn’t hold up for his final two seasons of eligibility. In 1964, he carried only seven times for 11 yards and one touchdown and two receptions for 20 yards. In 1965, he was moved to wide receiver. He caught three balls for 132 yards and one touchdown.
But, like LeVias, that never changed Bubba’s opinion of his big brother. Willie Ray Jr.’s daughter Jamila Smith-Loud said her “Uncle Bubba” often regaled her with stories about her father.
“Bubba always said my Dad was the best he had ever seen,” said Smith-Loud, a Google researcher in the San Francisco Bay Area. “He said he always tried to be like him.”
As Willie Ray Jr.’s career ended, Bubba and Tody were on their way to earning All-American honors and playing in the NFL. Bubba was the No. 1 overall pick of the 1967 draft. Long-time NFL writers say he was on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame until a severe knee injury in 1972. Tody was a 1971 first-round draft pick.
It would have been merely human for Willie Ray Jr. to have felt a toxic mixture of self-pity and jealousy, but his daughter said she didn’t see it in him while she grew up in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I was born in 1978, so a lot of time had passed by then, and he had gone through that process,” Smith-Loud said. “From my perspective, he enjoyed watching his brothers’ playing in the NFL. He took solace in his high school career, it had been good to him. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
The family had a memorial for Willie Ray Jr. on Feb. 8 in Beaumont. Loud-Smith said she and her brother are seeking donations to establish a Willie Ray Smith Jr. Foundation. They hope to it link to the annual Willie Ray Smith Sr. Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year Awards.
On Super Bowl Sunday’s 24/7 coverage, it wouldn’t have been surprising for a network to include an In Memoriam segment, listing the Pro Football Hall of Famers that died in the past year. Sayers died on Sept. 20, 2020.
If the football gods had been kinder to Willie Ray Smith Jr., he might have been listed alongside his old friend.
We’ll never know how good he could have been, but we do understand the cruel twists of fate he was forced to live with. They delivered to Michigan State his “little” brother — one of college football’s greatest defensive players and goliath figure who contributed mightily to two of the most dominant teams in college football history.
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