Before integration began in the 1950s and ’60s, black high school football was almost totally ignored outside of the black community, despite producing some of the state’s best players, coaches and teams.
From Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas by Michael Hurd, © 2017, published with permission from the University of Texas Press.
That an organization called the Prairie View Interscholastic League acted as the governing body for competitions among black high schools in Texas seemed a well-kept secret to the general public. It nonetheless showcased some of the best prep-school football talent in the country. From the Kelley brothers at Abilene Woodson on the South Plains of West Texas to the petroleum-rich Gulf Coast and Golden Triangle with its wealth of insanely gifted players—Bubba Smith, Jerry LeVias, Joe Washington Jr., Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd, Ray Dohn Dillon—to the Hill Country and Dick “Night Train” Lane’s clothesline tackles at Austin L. C. Anderson to Jeppesen Stadium’s weeknight Houston inner-city electricity juiced by players such as Otis Taylor, Eldridge Dickey, Otis Pointer, Allen Merchant, Ural “Sloppy Joe” Johnson, and Leo Taylor.
The PVIL football honor roll reads like a who’s who of national prep, college, and professional gridiron greats. Six of its alumni are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including “Mean” Joe Greene (Temple Dunbar) and Ken Houston (Lufkin Dunbar). The great Ollie Matson played a year at Houston Yates before moving to San Francisco and becoming a star, leading the 1951 University of San Francisco Dons to an undefeated season as the nation’s top rusher and finishing ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Homer Jones played at Douglass High School in Pittsburg, Texas, and his world-class 9.3 100-yard dash speed brought revolutionary changes to NFL defensive coverages when he joined the New York Giants as a wide receiver in 1964. He also became known as the player who started the end-zone touchdown celebration of spiking the ball. Alphonse Dotson, a lineman from Yates, was the first small-college player named to a major all-American team—the one chosen by the Newspaper Enterprise Association—as a Grambling senior in 1964. Houston Washington’s Eldridge Dickey was the first black quarterback drafted in the NFL’s first round, taken by the Raiders ahead of Alabama’s Kenny “the Snake” Stabler.
There has never been a shortage of newspaper and magazine articles, books, and movies about high school football in Texas. Most famously, Buzz Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights spawned a film of the same name about football at Odessa Permian High School, and a television series set in fictional Dillon, Texas. The media focused overwhelmingly on white players and coaches while unashamedly ignoring the PVIL for fifty years. It wasn’t for lack of material. There was plenty to write about, whether or not the white public and the mainstream media were interested (generally, they were not). “If you found anything about us in the papers, it was just the championship game or the major scores,” Luther Booker, the late Yates head coach, said. “Mostly we were totally ignored, and I think that was terrible.”
Black high school football flourished in a time when it seemed no one outside the black media and its audiences cared about or was in any way willing to acknowledge the abundance of talent bursting from the underfunded schools that competed under the PVIL banner, or as most whites called it, in polite company, the “Negro League” or the “Colored League.”
The PVIL created pride and ambition, and its games revived spirits battered by the day-to-day burdens of racism. African American fans enjoyed football just as much as whites, but for black players, the game was a vehicle to propel them from poor hardworking disenfranchised communities into better lives that could include a college education. Many of the players became the first in their families to set foot on a college campus as a student or to secure a high school diploma. Their degrees came from historically black colleges—Prairie View, Texas Southern, Wiley, Texas College, Bishop, and Jarvis Christian. For the most part, they were East Texas institutions serving local African American communities populated by direct descendants of slavery. The shortage of college options for black Texans made for a true sense of family among PVIL coaches and educators, most of whom had been classmates, teammates, and competitors at black colleges. Their families knew one another, they married their college sweethearts (in many cases, whom they met through a teammate’s sweetheart or relative), and they had knocked heads and broken bread long before they stood across the sidelines from one another and matched football wits.
And they got college degrees.
The National Football League, from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s—roughly from Fritz Pollard (one of the first black players in the NFL and the league’s first black head coach) in 1928 to Kenny Washington, who signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946—had no black players, so there was no pro football dream for blacks to chase after college. Instead, black players enjoyed whatever glory they earned on the gridiron in college and then walked away with degrees from black colleges and went home or elsewhere in the state to teach and coach at PVIL schools. In return, they would send their best players to their alma maters.
Prairie View had a run of eighty consecutive losses from 1989 to 1998, the worst losing streak in college football history. But during the 1950s and 1960s, Billy Nicks used homegrown talent to establish a Panthers’ reign that was the most feared program west of Eddie Robinson and Grambling, whom Nicks beat in eight of their fourteen meetings, outscoring the Tigers 370–99. Nicks won five black college national championships at Prairie View with guys such as Kenny Houston (Lufkin Dunbar), Jim Kearney (Wharton), Alvin Reed (Kilgore), Charlie “Choo- Choo” Brackins (Dallas Lincoln), Clem Daniels (McKinney), and Bo Farrington (Yates).
White boys wanted to play for Texas A&M’s Bear Bryant or Darrell Royal at Texas, but Wiley’s Pop Long, Texas Southern’s Alex Durley, and Nicks were the coaches black boys admired.
The 1967 professional football draft was a historic event. It brought together for the first time the National Football League and the upstart American Football League for the annual meeting where teams staked their claims to the best senior collegiate players. The two-day affair, March 14–15, in midtown Manhattan in the Gotham Hotel ballroom had none of the overproduced glitz and glamour of the contemporary made-for-television version. There was no throng of analysts, and certainly no green room for the supposed best-of-the-best prospective picks to park themselves and their entourages while nervously waiting for their names to be called—sooner rather than later. In fact, there were no players anywhere near the premises in 1967, and to announce the picks, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle scribbled the name of each team’s selection furiously in chalk on a portable blackboard positioned on an easel.
The leagues’ merger would not be finalized for another three years, but their first common draft was a truce that put an end to the big-money bidding wars to sign the most prized players and brought to a screeching halt the associated recruiting high jinks. Future Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was a young San Diego Chargers assistant when he secured the signature of Arkansas halfback Lance Alworth on a contract in an end zone of New Orleans’ Sugar Bowl Stadium in 1962 immediately after the Razorbacks’ season-ending loss handed Alabama’s Bear Bryant his first national championship. Alworth had been drafted by the San Francisco 49ers a month earlier, and sitting in the stands was an aghast Red Hickey, the Niners’ head coach, whom Davis had just beaten to the punch. And imagine the Dallas Cowboys’ surprise before the 1965 draft when Kansas City Chiefs scout Lloyd “the Judge” Wells, a PVIL alum from Houston Wheatley, managed to grab his protégé wide receiver Otis Taylor out from under the noses of his Cowboy sitters, who had stashed the Prairie View great in a Dallas-area hotel until they could officially draft and sign him. Around 3:30 in the morning, Wells talked his way past the Cowboy gatekeepers and into Taylor’s room, and then helped him escape through the room’s rear window and off to Kansas City to sign with the Chiefs.
The 1967 draft, with its newfound measure of civility between the two leagues, was witnessed by a crowd of none. No fans or clamoring media assessed and celebrated each pick, and certainly there was no Internet immediacy. So low key was the event, most of the players selected weren’t aware it was happening. Michigan State receiver Gene Washington, from Baytown Carver, just happened to be in the school’s athletic department when he got a call that day. Some players didn’t hear about their good fortune for several days after the draft, and while most fans, players, and an otherwise unaware US populace went about their business that day, waiting for news of the daily body count in Vietnam, there was much to get excited about in Texas, whenever the news arrived. Rozelle, in an unprecedented action, chalked the names of three first-round players who began their careers in the PVIL.
Knowledge of that link would have been a huge revelation to Rozelle, everybody else at NFL draft central, and more than a few handfuls of folks in Texas, black and white—though six PVIL alums had played for the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I earlier that year:
The PVIL had built a star-studded lineage by 1967, and its most notable alumnus was Detroit Lions defensive back Dick “Night Train” Lane, the most feared defensive back in NFL history. Vince Lombardi called him “the best cornerback I’ve ever seen.” At six-two, two hundred pounds, Lane was big for a cornerback but could run and brutally punish receivers and ball carriers with a decleating shoulder to the chest or his signature “Night Train Necktie,” a vicious clothesline hit—his forearm applied with great force to an opponent’s head—traumatically impeding the player’s progress. At the time, the NFL game was a rough, no-holds-barred affair, but Lane’s move was deemed so dangerous that the league later banned the tackling method. Lane could hit, but he was also an extraordinary ball hawk who, as a rookie in 1952 with the Los Angeles Rams, intercepted 14 passes in only twelve games, a single-season league record that still stands. Of the top five leaders in that category, three are from PVIL schools:
Another Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back, Lem Barney, played for the Lions after Lane. He recalled, “Train will always be the Godfather of cornerbacks. He was as large as some linemen of his era. He also was agile and very fast. His tackling was awesome. He did the clothesline and other tackles that just devastated the ball carrier.”
Lane’s life began in an East Austin garbage bin, where he had been left as a baby by his prostitute mother. At first, a widow named Emma Lane mistook the baby’s cries for a cat’s howling, but retrieved the child and raised him as her own. Lane reunited with his mother in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, after playing football for W. E. Pigford and graduating from L. C. Anderson High School in 1946. He played football for a year at Scottsbluff Junior College before serving four years in the army. Lane settled in Los Angeles, working in an airplane factory before wandering over to the Rams’ training camp. He became one of the league’s most heralded free-agent signings, impressing offensive coaches as a wide receiver and defensive coaches with his play in the secondary. He played in seven Pro Bowls and finished his career with 68 interceptions, and was named first- or second-team All-NFL every year from 1954 through 1963. Lane was the first PVIL superstar.
by Michael Hurd
University of Texas Press | 260 pp | $16.96 / £12.03