Commentary

Joe Washington's presidential courting

Originally Published: January 31, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

The persuasive power of President Lyndon B. Johnson is the stuff of Washington legend. Selling ice to Eskimos is nothing. As Senate majority leader and again as president, LBJ sold civil rights legislation to a Senate controlled by Southern segregationists.

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AP PhotoFormer President Lyndon B. Johnson, right, wasn't a fan of spectator sports, but he understood the importance of Texas football and coach Darrell Royal, center.

But 40 years ago, in the winter of Johnson's life, when he had returned to his beloved Texas, he couldn't sell the Longhorns to one of the top recruits in the state. The running back went to Texas' archrival and fulfilled the potential that had prompted Longhorns coach Darrell K. Royal to enlist LBJ in the first place.

Recorded in the files of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin is the story of how the recruit, Joe Washington of Port Arthur, and his family refused an invitation from Johnson to go to the famed LBJ Ranch and meet the former president. Washington, a 5-foot-9 scatback, went to Oklahoma, where he became an All-American and, as a junior, finished third in the 1974 Heisman Trophy vote. After 10 years in the NFL, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.

And after four decades, every time he thinks about saying no to LBJ, he winces.

"I didn't tell anybody about the invitation," Washington said Monday. He is the executive director of the O Association, the organization of former Sooners letter winners. "I thought they would say, 'You should go.' 'You're stupid.' That was stupid. There are things you do regret. That's one of them."

That Johnson would attempt to dip his toe in recruiting may come as a surprise. Not because of NCAA regulations -- in 1972, boosters could play a role in recruiting. But anyone who knew Johnson knew he had little interest in spectator sports.

Plenty of presidents have been sports fans, from Benjamin Harrison, who in 1892 became the first to attend a Major League Baseball game, to Barack Obama, who annually fills out a March Madness bracket for an ESPN audience. The president who replaced Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, attended the Texas-Arkansas game in 1969 and declared the winning Longhorns No. 1.

But Johnson couldn't have cared less.

"My God, another football game. I always trembled when he went to one of those things," George Reedy, a longtime member of Johnson's staff, said in an oral history recorded in 1982 by the LBJ Library.

"He didn't pay any attention to the game at all. He cared about as much about football as I would a ladies' dressing parade," Reedy said. "[He went] because other people went. He could meet people there, he could talk to them. He knew that every red-blooded American had to go to baseball and football games."

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian and a former aide to Johnson, wrote that when LBJ went to see the Senators or Redskins play "he would wait impatiently for the action to end so that he could talk politics."

Goodwin, a huge Red Sox fan, described her former boss as "constitutionally incapable of enjoying a spectator sport."

Added Reedy, "I was always worried that the television cameras would be on him, you know, during a home run with the bases loaded or a 50-yard pass, and there would be the camera showing him talking to somebody."

But Johnson did care about the University of Texas. That's why he had his presidential library built on the Forty Acres. It sits across the street from Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. LBJ cared about Royal's football team because it represented Texas. And he cared about Royal. They had become good friends late in the president's life. Darrell and Edith Royal used to vacation with the president and his wife, Lady Bird, and other friends in Acapulco, Mexico. Royal also regularly visited the LBJ Ranch.

In the winter of 1972, Royal discussed with Johnson the problems that Texas had recruiting African-American players. Royal had been slow to integrate -- the 1969 team is known as being the last all-white national champion -- and other schools had taken advantage of the opening that lapse created. Houston and Oklahoma, the other schools in which Washington showed interest, had been integrated for some time.

The "racist image," Royal said in an oral history he gave to the LBJ Library in 1987, "carried on down through the years and still exists in some blacks' minds today, and I was having a hard time convincing black student-athletes that we wanted them on campus. And he [Johnson] said, 'Well, let me call Mack Hannah, and let's just meet out here at the Ranch.'"

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AP PhotoJoe Washington went on to a hall of fame career at Oklahoma and a career in the NFL.

Mack Hannah, a Port Arthur businessman, was one of the most influential African-Americans in the southeastern part of the state.

"I remember very well sitting out on the porch and going over the recruitment of Joe Washington with Johnson and Hannah," Royal said.

Johnson had a staff member call the Washington home in Port Arthur to invite Washington and his parents, Joe Sr. and Phyllis, to come to the LBJ Ranch and have lunch with him.

"They even turned that down," Royal said in the oral history, "which was unbelievable."

Washington didn't say no out of spite or out of politics. He didn't say no because of the "racist image" that concerned Royal. Far from it.

"Every kid grows up wanting to go to Texas," Washington said. "I was no different. When Coach Royal's [TV] show came on, I think it was Tuesday nights, they would play 'The Eyes of Texas' and my brother and I would stand up with our hands over our hearts."

Washington can rattle off the Longhorns stars of the national championship teams of 1969-70 -- Chris Gilbert, Jim Bertelsen, James Street -- as though they had been his own teammates. But Washington declined the chance to meet the former president because he already had made up his mind that he would sign with Oklahoma.

"I didn't think that would be kosher, as much as I would have loved to have done that," Washington said. "To go ahead and take the trip knowing I was going to the University of Oklahoma."

Washington played at Port Arthur Lincoln High for his father. When integration took hold, schools like Houston and Oklahoma swooped into Texas and hired African-American high school coaches to pry open the doors. Sooners assistant Wendell Mosley, an old friend of Washington's father, had watched Joe grow up. So had Elmer Redd, an assistant coach for Bill Yeoman at Houston.

Washington wanted to go to Oklahoma to be in the same backfield as Greg Pruitt, the back from Houston who became an All-American in the Sooners' wishbone. He wanted to measure himself against Pruitt. He decided to sign with Oklahoma. But he hadn't told Mosley or head coach Chuck Fairbanks when he came home one day and got a phone message that President Johnson's office had called.

"I said, 'Holy crap! That is cool. It's too late,'" Washington recalled. He had made up his mind, and that was that. "I thought about it a little bit. My mom wouldn't approve of that. My mom would not have any part of that. She said, 'Joe, we don't do that.'"

Washington still wonders, though.

"It's something I always talked about and thought about," Washington said. "It's one thing I regret, that I didn't go anyway. I think I probably made the right decision. I do regret not going."

Washington went to Oklahoma. In his first intrasquad scrimmage, the first time he touched the ball, playing against the Sooners' first-team defense, Washington ran a simple counter play. He went 80 yards for a touchdown.

"Nobody laid a hand on him," Barry Switzer, then an Oklahoma assistant, wrote in his autobiography, "Bootlegger's Boy." "I mean, nobody touched him. I looked at Chuck, who stood 10 yards away. We didn't say a word. We just stared at each other. We both knew what we had just seen."

Washington's refusal to meet with LBJ didn't dissuade Royal.

"Actually, one weekend we made a big push and had as many of the top black prospects as we could get at one time," Royal told the Library, "and President Johnson took a helicopter from the ranch and landed on top of the library here, and we had a little party, a little cookies and tea and milk and a little set-to in the suite here. He had a little nice, buffet-catered-type deal for those kids, and he talked to them about coming to the University of Texas. The little meeting took place, of course, right here on the campus, and I thought, 'Well, gosh, having an ex-president of the United States show this kind of interest, this will make a heck of an impression!'

"You know," Royal said, "we didn't get a one of those prospects."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com