Commentary

One team blurred racial lines

How two players, one black, one white, broke the color barrier in Texas football.

Updated: August 30, 2013, 4:55 PM ET
By Jim Dent | Special to ESPN.com

Bill Bradley and Jerry LeViasCourtesy of St. Martins PressFormer Texas football teammates Bill Bradley, left, and Jerry LeVias are still friends today.

[Editor's note: This excerpt from "The Kids Got It Right" details the relationship between quarterback Bill Bradley and superstar receiver Jerry LeVias. It's a historic look at how Texas football played a role in America's racial integration.]

The Texas players were seated in the wooden bleachers of the Hershey practice field when Bobby Layne strolled across the emerald grass with his head held high and his eyes focused on the task. The players could not wait to hear what he had to say. The talk on the plane ride from Dallas to Hershey had been all about Layne.

"I hear he's crazier than a henhouse rat," Bill Bradley told Norm Bulaich. "My daddy said he drank all night and played his best games with horrendous hangovers."

"Hell, I heard he drank at halftime," Bulaich said.

"But, by God, he won," Bradley said. "I remember when I was a little kid watching him play on our little TV back in Palestine. Daddy had to keep adjusting the rabbit ears. The picture was snowy, but I could see him firing those wobbly ducks to Doak Walker. He won two championships and would've got another one if not for breaking his leg."

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That summer of 1965, Layne still walked with a slight limp. He was a little overweight and carried a paunch beneath his golf shirt. Otherwise his boyish face and thick blond hair belonged to a man in his mid-twenties. Layne pulled a Marlboro from the pack with his lips and struck a match. His eyes searched the rolling hills. He thought about Pittsburgh some two hundred miles to the west and wondered what the Steelers fans remembered the most about him. He had not even taken the team to the postseason, but what else was new?

"Okay, boys, you know why you're here," he began. "Hershey is a long way from home. Hope you don't get homesick. We're going to be here for a while."

Layne laughed at his own little joke, and his eyes brightened. "Look. We're going to have some fun here. We're going to practice a little. I'm going to give you some time to chase the girls around town, and I know they're aplenty. We were here a year ago, and they look almost as good as Texas girls."

A cheer went up in the stands.

"I don't care what you do with your free time," he went on. "I don't care if you drink or smoke. Just put the butts in the ashtray and the beer cans in the trash can. In my book, there's not much you can do wrong around here after dark. But if you lose this game to these Pennsylvania hillbillies, don't ever talk to me again."

Thirty-three players sat in stunned silence. Layne paused, turned away, then wheeled around to face the boys again. They were not moving or breathing.

Layne chuckled and said, "Okay, you knuckleheads. I believe you're going to win. So get up off your butts, because it's time to go to work."

Moments later, as footballs flew through the air. Layne and Walker watched LeVias run one fly pattern after another without breaking a sweat. Strong-armed Rusty Clark of Houston Westbury and Bradley heaved the ball as far as they could. Still, they could not overthrow LeVias, who was forced to slow down to catch most of their passes.

Layne grinned as he watched LeVias sprint down the field, easily outrunning anyone trying to cover him.

"Hell, that kid's got parakeet legs," he said, "but he's still the speediest doggone youngster I've ever seen. No baloney, Doaker. Right now, he'd be the fastest man in the National Football League."

LeVias stood 5-foot-8 and weighed 148 pounds. Around the beefy Texas all-stars, he looked like a team manager. No one could explain how someone that small could start in the same backfield at Beaumont Hebert High School for four straight years with the likes of Mel and Miller Farr.

Known as Jerry "the Jet," LeVias was so fast that no player in the state could cover him one-on-one. He accounted for 43 touchdowns passing, running, receiving, and returning kicks his final two high school seasons, including 6 in one game against Houston Aldine.

[+] EnlargeJerry LeVias
St. Martin's Press Texas wide receiver Jerry LeVias catching a touchdown pass against Pennsylvania in the 1965 Big 33 game.

College recruiters could barely believe LeVias's acceleration. He seemed to have an extra gear, or three. Clifton Ozen, his high school coach, said, "Jerry is so fast that sometimes his blockers can't get out of his way."

A long-standing tradition among high school football coaches was to pad the statistics of their star players to attract college interest. Ozen did just the opposite. Realizing no self-respecting recruiter would believe the sheer enormity of LeVias's numbers, Ozen took an eraser to his statistics and deflated them.

This seemed okay to LeVias because he never figured he would play football in the first place. Because he was so small, LeVias did not consider playing organized tackle football until the eighth grade. In order to be issued a practice uniform, players at Ford Middle School were required to weigh 120 pounds. LeVias could muster only 115 pounds when he first stepped on the scales. Coach Enous Minix recorded his weight and told the youngster to come back next year.

Instead, LeVias walked around the schoolyard and returned ten minutes later.

"Coach, I'd like to be weighed again," he said. "I think these scales are wrong."

The needle went straight to 120 pounds. Minix gladly jotted down the number on his clipboard, then watched as two piles of rocks came tumbling out of the boy's pockets.

"I'm really sorry, Coach," LeVias said. "I hope that you won't tell Coach Ozen."

Minix could not wait to tell Ozen.

That afternoon, Minix was smiling when he saw Ozen. "Clifton, Jerry LeVias weighs only 115 pounds. But that boy wants to play football so bad that I say we let him on the team."

"Hell, why not?" Ozen spat a stream of chewing tobacco that stained the grass a dark yellow. "That kid's got something we just can't measure. It's called guts. He's going to be a better player than Warren Wells."

Over the next five football seasons, LeVias would gain only twenty-five pounds, but his reputation in the stadiums of southeast Texas would grow with each passing game. Cervelli did not hesitate to include him on the Big 33 roster, even though he had been shunned by the North-South selection committee.

On the day he walked onto the practice field in Hershey, LeVias felt blessed that he had been included on such an elite team.

"When I got to Hershey, all I heard about was 'Bill Bradley, Bill Bradley, Bill Bradley,' " he remembered. "He was the greatest athlete to ever come down the pike in the state of Texas. Everybody was writing about him. Everybody was talking about him. But we also had some other great players. It was a great feeling just to be around those guys."

The coaches were thrilled to see Bradley throwing to LeVias that first day in Hershey, but there was a flip side to their joy. They knew that LeVias's mere presence created an uneasy stir among the players. After all, he was a Negro player who had already achieved star status. Granted, there were two other Negroes on the Texas team, but they came without headlines, hoopla, or great promise. Furthermore, James Harris and George Danford would be rooming together.

The coaches knew it would be difficult to find a roommate for LeVias. It was a simple fact of life in Texas that blacks and whites lived separately. The boys on the Big 33 team had been raised by parents who resisted integration. They were told that the mixing of the races was neither the Christian way nor the right way to live. Some of their parents were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Layne and Walker asked around and found no takers for LeVias. The white boys just weren't used to being around Negroes. None of the white players on the Texas team had ever suited up with or even played against a Negro. Moreover, LeVias had never played with or against white players. Growing up in an all-black neighborhood in Beaumont, he rarely even saw white people. At age eighteen, he counted no white friends.

After watching LeVias and Bradley get along so well that first day, Layne and Walker decided to ask Bradley if he would room with the Negro. He was the best candidate. Bradley might have been deeply rooted in East Texas, but he seemed different from the racist stereotype. The reach of his personality included everyone in the room, and then some. Clearly, he had never met a stranger. Everyone liked him. Even as a kid, he had been considered the leader of every team he suited up for.

[+] EnlargeBill Bradley
St. Martin's Press Texas quarterback Bill Bradley punting during practice at the Big 33 game in 1965.

Even Bradley's music suggested that he was far more cool than the others. He listened to the Temptations, the Four Tops, and the Isley Brothers. At night, when WLS out of Chicago boosted its signal to 50,000 watts, Bradley turned up the car radio as he slowly motored along Mallard Street in downtown Palestine, past the Tastee-Freez and Heck's, another hamburger joint. On Mallard Street, boys in boots and jeans, and girls in skirts and saddle oxfords, gathered for a little beer drinking and a lot of backseat necking.

Bradley's loud singing could be heard through the open windows of his hot Camaro. He knew the words as well as Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations or Joe Stubbs from the Four Tops. Norm Bulaich once said of Bradley, "He invented the term 'free spirit.' "

Most of the kids listened to Elvis. Bradley was stuck on Bo Diddley and his hard-driving rhythm guitar. Who do you love? ... I say, who do you love?

A few weeks after graduation, Bradley and his best friend, Curtis Fitzgerald, had driven fifty miles to Tyler for the Bo Diddley concert. They were the only white faces in the crowd.

So it was not surprising that first day in Hershey that Bradley was singing an Isley Brothers song as he strolled into the Cocoa Inn.

It's your thing, do what you wanna do.

I can't tell you who to sock it to.

As he approached the front desk, Bradley dropped his suitcase. It clattered on the floor. The man behind the counter was an assistant with the Texas traveling contingent. Plopping down a room key on the counter, the short, bald-headed man said, "Bill, I have a question for you."

"Shoot," Bradley said.

"Well, you see, hoss, we've got a small problem here. Have you ever heard of a boy named Jerry LeVias?"

"Doesn't ring a bell," Bradley said, "but that doesn't mean anything. I'm from Palestine, and news doesn't travel fast out in East Texas."

Bradley was not telling the whole truth. He had read the big, bold headlines about LeVias in the Palestine Herald-Press. That very morning, he had been throwing passes to LeVias on the practice field. He was impressed with the youngster's overall athletic skills.

"Are you sure, Bill, you've never heard of Jerry LeVias?" the man asked.

"Nah."

"Well, you see, Jerry LeVias is a little n-----. And I was just wondering if you would mind rooming with him."

Bradley grimaced. "Let me tell you one thing, sir. Around my house in Palestine, we aren't allowed to say that word. Now, I know that Palestine's back in the sticks. We've got more Ku Klux Klan than you can count. But my daddy works around the porters on the railroad. In fact, he's around colored folks a lot. So he won't let you say that word 'n-----' in his house."

The man grinned and said, "So you wouldn't mind rooming with him?"

"If Jerry LeVias is a football player, I'd be happy to do it," Bradley said. Then he scooped up the key, smiled, and walked away. The Big 33 week was going to be even more fun than he'd thought.

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