The Kids Got It Right is a story about the friendship formed between two high school football stars – a black Jerry LeVias and a white Bill Bradley – and how that friendship jump-started the move toward athletic desegregation in Texas.
The backdrop for the book, as suggested by its subtitle “How the Texas All-Stars Kicked Down Racial Walls,” was an all-star football game called the Big 33 Football Classic between 33 Texas and 33 Pennsylvania high schoolers in 1965. Pennsylvania won the first match in 1964 by a score of 12-6 because most of Texas’s best players were playing on that same day in a more important intra-state North South game. To avoid a similar debacle in 1965, the Texas governor John Connally intervened to move the intra-state game to a week earlier. For additional insurance against a humiliating repeat, the Texas coach Bobby Layne decided to include three black players, including speedster receiver/return-man Jerry LeVias.
The story reads a lot like Jackie Robinson in baseball, with Bobby Layne playing the role of Branch Rickey. Bill Bradley is key because he helps incorporate LeVias into the team by being the only player willing to room with him. (The other two blacks roomed together.)
The result – LeVias plays a strong supporting role to Bradley’s starring role in leading the Texans to a 26-10 victory. Texas stomped Pennsylvania again in 1966 (34-2) and 1967 (45-14), after which Pennsylvania declared “no mas,” and started playing either Ohio or Maryland kids. The current PA record is 1-3 against Texas, 12-13 against Ohio, and 7-2 against Maryland. So much for a PA juggernaut!
Bill Bradley went on to play QB for the Texas Longhorns before being supplanted by James Street when Texas developed the Wishbone offense. Instead of sulking in ignominy, Bradley moved to defense and became an All-American defensive back at Texas and an All-Pro safety for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Jerry LeVias went on to become the second black to play in the Southwest Conference and earned All-American honors at SMU and All-Pro honors for the Houston Oilers.
Bobby Layne was one of the greatest QBs in history (his number has been retired by UT and the Detroit Lions), but he had a problem with drinking too much and was unable to get a job coaching outside of this volunteer gig. One of his best partying friends was Dallas neighbor Mickey Mantle, who stole Layne’s line, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken a lot better care of myself.” Layne died at 59; Mantle at 63.
The aspect of this story that struck me most was not the personal relationship between Bradley and LeVias but rather the so-called gentlemen’s agreement amongst SWC coaches, including my hero Darrel Royal, to not recruit blacks. I guess it’s like Michael Jordan saying that he was trying to be a winner, not lead a social movement. In fact, the Longhorns remained all-white until 1970, when black Julius Whittier joined the team. Years later, Whittier told the NY Times, “I was a jock, plain and simple. I didn’t care about civil rights or making a mark. I just wanted to play big-time football.” Although some might argue that the Longhorns eventually had to integrate to keep up with other teams, it is worth noting that they won the football national championship in 1969, with the famous anointment by President Nixon after their game with Arkansas.
Incidentally, the Wikipedia write-ups on Jerry LeVias, Bobby Layne, Bill Bradley, and the Big 33 Football Classic failed to say anything about the specialness of the 1965 game.