Jerry LeVias wasn’t nervous. Even though he could hear the crescendo of the crowd, more than 28,000 people, cheering from their seats inside the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. Even though it was Southern Methodist University’s season opener at home against the University of Illinois, one of the nation’s premiere college football programs. Even though, on September 17, 1966, he was about to make history. With what felt and sounded like the world on his shoulders from within the bowl’s tunnel, 20-year-old LeVias remained composed.
The SMU Mustang Band struck the first downbeat from their place in the stands, sending the football team in a sprint onto the field — and in the time it took for the brass section’s mighty sound to echo across the stadium’s bleachers, a page in sports history was forever turned. LeVias — a country boy from segregated, oil-town Beaumont, Texas — was just strides away from becoming the first African American scholarship athlete to compete in the Southwest Conference.
That was 50 years ago. Earlier this year, in July, as LeVias leaned back into the couch in his Houston, Texas home, he wondered aloud the same question that oft-plagued him during his time at SMU: “Why me?”
A runt of an eighth grader, LeVias’ football career began as a practice-only water boy for the local coaching legend Clifton Ozen at Hebert High, then one of Beaumont’s two traditionally black high schools. As undersized as he was determined, LeVias treated the after school duty of making sure Ozen’s water jug never went too long without fresh ice as just another step towards eventually riding that varsity school bus on game days. And if he had anything to do with it, eventually would come sooner than later.
To play football at Hebert, however, each player was required to weigh at least 121 pounds. When the time came for LeVias to weigh in, to his own dismay, he wasn’t a feather heavier than 115 pounds. Fuming, he stomped outside and sat down on a curb, tears brimming in his eyes. On the ground next to him, he noticed a crumpled, brown paper sack. He had an idea.
“So I got a bunch of rocks in that brown paper sack, put ’em in my pants, put rocks in my pockets. I went back in and said, ‘Your scale was wrong. Y’all didn’t give me a chance, that was too quick,’” LeVias told ThinkProgress. “I got on the scale and weighed 117.”
An assistant coach raised an eyebrow at him. LeVias stepped off the scale and stomped his foot once again. The rocks fell down his pants leg, each one scattering a different direction across the gym’s concrete floor. The coach looked at him and said, “If anyone wants to play football that bad, we ought to give them a chance.”
Halfway through Hebert’s regular season that year, LeVias got his shot at the varsity squad, where he almost immediately asserted himself as a multi-threat on both ends of the field. The first time he ever touched a ball during a game as a letterman, LeVias went 65 yards for a touchdown.
His accolades on the grade school gridiron would only continue to pile up: All District and All State in both athletics and academics. By the twilight of his senior season at Hebert, LeVias had received over a hundred scholarship offers from across the country, from UCLA to Washington State, up the east coast, across the north, and down the west coast. Yet because of his size — LeVias’s height and weight were, on occasion, embellished on rosters: five-foot-ten and 170 pounds on paper translated to five-foot-seven, 150 pounds in person — no opportunities were extended from any of the historically black universities, or, for the time being, any universities throughout the racially divided south states, like Texas.
And the recruiters — from UCLA, where LeVias’ cousin Mel Farr was playing football, to Washington State, where cousin Clarence Williams was doing the same — were becoming increasingly relentless, practically camping outside of the family’s home on the weekends. When LeVias’s mother, Leura, would open the front door on Sunday mornings, a recruiter was already warming up the doormat. “Is Jerry in?” they asked. His mother replied, “He is, but he’s on his way to church, and that’s where you should be too.”
Still, LeVias lacked a formal commitment.
At dusk one evening, in April 1965, three cars pulled up to the LeVias family property. Coach Ozen stepped out of one car. Two thirty-something white men followed from the other two: Chuck Curtis, an assistant coach at SMU, who stood a solid six-foot-five and wore a Texas-sized cowboy hat, and Hayden Fry, the head coach at SMU, with his Kennedy-like jawline and the straight, clean part he wore on the side of his short-cropped hair.
“All the neighbors came out on the porches, in the yards,” LeVias said, laughing at the sight of the two white men randomly showing up in a black neighborhood in 1965. “[Our neighbors] thought they were the police.”
Barely paying any mind to the prized recruit, Fry said his hellos to LeVias’ grandmother, who lived next door, and his mother first.
“What you cookin’?” Fry asked LeVias’ mother, standing beside her in the kitchen.
Steak and pinto beans, she replied.
“I love pinto beans,” Fry told her. “But they give me gas.”
P“He’s a good man,” LeVias’ grandmother said of Fry the next day. When the matriarch spoke, the family listened. LeVias had never played a football game without his grandmother praying over him beforehand. She was the reason LeVias wore the number 23 — in honor, and insistence, of her invocation of choice, Psalm 23, the Serenity Prayer. LeVias read it every morning.
About a month later, LeVias arrived in Dallas for his campus visit. Once there, he met the president of SMU, Willis Tate.
“Are you a good football player?” Tate asked LeVias.
Yes sir, he replied.
Tate followed up with another question: “Do you think you can stay here for four years?”
“I’ll be here for four years and graduate,” LeVias said to him. “Will you?”
LeVias gave his verbal commitment to SMU shortly after, still somewhat naïve to the gravity of what he was about to take on. He didn’t even know that he was about to break the color barrier in the Southwest Conference until he picked up a newspaper the next day.
By the time LeVias signed up for freshman classes in early September 1965, with freshman football practice underway (freshman weren’t allowed to compete at the varsity level in that era), he realized that he had committed the next four years of his life to a university with no more than a handful of black people in attendance, in a city that wasn’t completely integrated. He might as well get used to the heavy target hanging on his back.
On the morning of the first day of fall semester classes, as was his habit, LeVias prayed.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”
AFry, a native Texan, was well aware of this, too. When Tate offered him the head coaching position in 1962, Fry said he had one condition if he were to take the job: to be able to recruit a black player. Tate complied. But if Fry’s goal was to become a reality, the young man had to be exceptional all around, from athletics to academics to character.
It was a gamble for both men. But it was a bet they were willing to take.
For LeVias, though, the difficulties of his freshman year surpassed even his own imagination. His teammates refused to dorm with him. In class, other students declined to sit next to him, sometimes ignoring the entire row. When he would venture over to the black side of town, he was treated like an “Uncle Tom.” Trainers refused to tape his ankles at freshman practice. Teammates hit him late and made racist jokes to his face. They kneed him in the back and tried to gouge his eyes at the bottom of dog-piles. They spit on him.
It was just the beginning, too.
On more than one occasion, LeVias considered transferring. He called his sister, Charlena, one evening to confide in her. She reminded him of their father’s favorite maxim: “If you make your bed, you have to sleep in it.” LeVias relented.
It was the late night one-on-one talks he had with Coach Fry that helped LeVias ensure his own sanity. He would sneak into Fry’s office so that no one would think he was getting special treatment. At one point, LeVias’ grades were suffering, which Fry noted in their talk.
“I understand you’re a good poker player,” Fry told LeVias after hearing how he would stay up all night gambling.
All the white boys with all that money, LeVias remembered thinking. Instead, he replied, “I’m OK, Coach.”
“I tell you what — if you keep playing poker and your grades don’t improve, you can meet me at the stadium at 5:30 in the morning, or I’ll call your momma,” Fry said.
Rattled, LeVias replied, “Is 5:15 OK?”
As much as he was treated like a social pariah on campus, LeVias’ presence on the football field was something the community couldn’t ignore. During freshman practice, up and down the boulevard beside the field, the streets would be lined with people coming to see him play.
“They wanted to see… not me, but the black guy. That colored boy,” LeVias said.
The following March, upon invitation by the Student Senate, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in front of a standing room only audience in McFarlin Auditorium on SMU’s campus. After Dr. King’s speech, Tate, so as not to bring any extra attention, escorted LeVias through a side door backstage to meet the reverend.
“Are you a good student, a good football player, a good Christian guy?” LeVias recalled Dr. King asking.
“Yes sir, I believe,” LeVias replied.
“I want to tell you one thing,” Dr. King said to him. “Always keep your emotions in control.”
LeVias kept his word with Dr. King. He never let the taunts and slurs get to him, using his own willful ignorance as a shield against the ignorance of bigotry and hate. Every morning, the Serenity Prayer remained his answer.
“God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can…”
IThe racism displayed by opposing fans only worsened throughout SMU’s conference schedule. Against the University of Texas Longhorns in Austin, fans held up ropes tied into a noose. In College Station against Texas A&M University, the cadets released dozens of black cats onto the field. In Lubbock, after SMU romped Texas Tech University, TTU head coach J.T. King was asked about what he would do differently the next time his team faced off against LeVias. “I’d put a sign on the locker room door that said ‘For Whites Only.’,” he said.
His treatment at home wasn’t much better. Even as LeVias began to carry the team, local sportswriters managed to largely write him out of their coverage. That is until he literally put his life on the line, on the field, between goal lines.
Before the last game of the 1966 regular season, against rival Texas Christian University, Fry asked LeVias if he would make sure to be the last player off the bus when they arrived in Forth Worth, Texas that morning. Police escorts would be waiting on him. Soon after, Fry told LeVias to warm up in the locker room while the rest of the team went out onto the field.
Shit, I’m a star, LeVias thought.
In the moments leading up to the game, Fry approached LeVias to tell him the truth. “Levi, there’s been a threat on your life,” he said. Fry told him there was a possibility that a sniper was waiting in the stands. As SMU dominated TCU that afternoon, the FBI monitored him from the seats closest to SMU’s bench, while more agents stood behind LeVias every time he sat down.
“I was fast — on and off the field. I don’t think I stood still the entire game,” LeVias said.
The win over TCU propelled SMU to a top ten ranking, and clinched the program’s first conference championship in 18 years. Then, on New Year’s Eve 1966, SMU would face the University of Georgia in the Cotton Bowl Classic, a home field advantage. But SMU lost, concluding the first season where a black scholarship athlete ever competed in the Southwest Conference — and the opening act for the kid from Beaumont, Texas.
LeVias earned All-Conference honors that year, even though he only touched the ball 66 times. He would do the same the next year, and at the end of his senior season, LeVias would join the prestigious list of NCAA All-Americans, in both athletics and academics. In the end, he was every bit the exceptional young man Tate and Fry initially sought out. Their gamble hardened into history.
At Levias’ college graduation in May 1969, with his parents in attendance, as he walked across the stage for Tate to hand him his diploma, the president of SMU stopped him and walked up to the microphone.
“When I first met this young man,” Tate said to the crowd. “I asked him if he was going to be able to stay four years and graduate. He said, ‘I will.’ And then he asked me, ‘Will you?’”
LeVias received a standing ovation.
The next morning, with his days at SMU at last in the rearview mirror, he prayed.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.”
HHe can still remember what Alabama head coach Bear Bryant once said to him after a college All-Star game: “Jerry, when they let me, I’m gonna get some of y’all.” He understood how Bryant meant what he said in good faith, but LeVias also can remember a time when racial ignorance was still bliss — when the majority of the world around him wanted to see him fail, if not dead. “The more touchdowns you score, the whiter you become,” Fry once joked with him. In a book he wrote years later, Fry said recruiting LeVias was the biggest accomplishment of his career.
For all its shortcomings that remain, college football, especially in Texas, has made strides in civil rights that would have been unimaginable a half century ago. In 2016, the state of Texas had four black head coaches at Division I FBS schools: Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M, Frank Wilson of Texas-San Antonio, Everett Withers of Texas State, and Charlie Strong of Texas. Following a loss to TCU on November 25, Strong was fired after three consecutive losing seasons, 50 years to the day after LeVias took the field, amidst death threats, against TCU.
There have been a lot of 50 year anniversaries of various civil rights victories lately. Yet LeVias still can’t help but question his place in history. His accomplishments often go unrecognized — there are no statues of him or plaques engraved with his name, and on the Southwest Conference timeline in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the date when LeVias first ran onto the Cotton Bowl’s field is nowhere to be found.
Not that he would want statues or plaques in his honor. The injuries he sustained playing football in high school and college — and later on during a brief but successful professional career with the Houston Oilers and the San Diego Chargers — are enough of a reminder. His fingers are crooked and mangled. One of his kneecaps is nowhere remotely close to where it should be. And that’s just the top of the list.
But the only scars that truly bothered LeVias over the years were the psychological ones, he said. More than 40 years after he stepped onto that field, with the help of Janice, his longtime partner and wife since 2009, LeVias began to open up about his time at SMU. In the end, it was the hate that hurt the most.
“Everyone has an imagined history of him,” Janice said, referring to those teammates who treated LeVias so cruelly then, yet today never shy away from giving him a friendly slap on the back. “It’s like they don’t give him credit for having some kind of memory.”
LeVias nodded, barely acknowledging the fact of it. He’s just as mentally tough as he was a half century ago. Back then, he was a young man unknowingly about to make history, who over the years has dealt with more strife and success than he could have ever imagined. LeVias — a country boy from segregated, oil-town Beaumont — was trusted to advance not only a football, but a little piece of the Civil Rights Movement as well.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years,” LeVias said. “My life is like a Cinderella story.”
Only LeVias wore cleats to the Cotton Bowl, not glass slippers to The Ball.