Black Man in the Huddle

The 1960 Miller Buccaneers, and their bus driver.

By telling the story of integration as experienced in that most vital of community institutions, the local high school, Professor Jacobus has made a great contribution to the historiography of civil rights.  While much of the history of civil rights has understandably focused major political, religious, and even sports figures, Black Man in the Huddle takes the reader into the lived experience of many small towns and unknown heroes in Texas.  This is a truly uplifting story and a powerful reminder that genuine understanding between racial and ethnic groups will only occur when we experience each other in the essential tasks of everyday life.  Black Man in the Huddle is a marvelous oral history of a generation in Texas that experienced the consequences of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.  Like all outstanding works of history, it answers many questions and raises a host of new ones that future historians will probe.  Jacobus has gifted us with this study of courageous and principled coaches, school officials, parents, and players willing to confront the institutions and emotions that have separated us along racial lines.

The particular importance of Texas is the role it played in transmitting integration to other states in the South.  While the integration of football in Texas mostly began as a phenomenon in high schools, Jacobus’ study culminates with the integration of college football in the Southwest Conference in 1965, largely as a result of the visionary leadership of the legendary Head Coach Hayden Fry.  One of the major challenges for non-native Texans (such as myself) reading this remarkable book are elements of history and geography that may not be sufficiently known for fuller appreciation of the book’s findings.  I had to frequently consult Wikipedia and Google Maps to better understand some of the stories in this book.

Some Yankee Observations on the History and Geography of the Lone Star State

Texas stands at the western edge of the South both as a matter of geographic fact as well as regional designation.  The geographer Wilbur Zelinsky’s study of American regional identity revealed that Texans tend to view themselves as both part of the South and part of the Southwest.  Zelinsky’s study showed that the closer Texans were to the eastern border with Louisiana, the more likely they were to identify with the South.  It is thus not surprising that this eastern portion of Texas was the most reluctant to integrate.  On the other hand, those parts of Texas most associated with the cowboy West and with the most direct ties to Mexico were the first to integrate.

Texas also stands apart from the rest of the South in that it came into the Union late, after having been part of a racially complex region in Mexico.  As an area with lots of land and a small population, Mexican Tejas encouraged immigration from the US and elsewhere soon after the independence of Mexico from Spain in 1821.  Free Blacks from the US and elsewhere moved into Mexican Texas and were given full citizen rights.  At the same time, however, when Stephen Austin’s colonies encouraged settlers from the US South, they provided additional incentives for bringing along slaves.  When Mexico formally abolished slavery in 1829, however, the tensions between Mexico and the settlers from the slaveholding South grew.  The iconic 1836 Battle of the Alamo was in large part a conflict over the illegal importation of slaves into Mexican Texas.  Subsequent battles in Texas resulted in that state being annexed into the US as a slave state in 1845.

For the purposes of understanding Jacobus’ findings, then, it is important to note the following aspects of the Texan racial and ethnic landscape.  First, there are longstanding African American and Latinx communities in Texas with a rich history of racial and ethnic intercourse.  Scholars estimate that about one-third of all Texas cowboys were Latinx and as many as one-fifth were African American.  The later integration of Latinx and African-American cowboys into the rodeo circuit predated and almost certainly set a precedent for the later integration of football and other sports.  It is not surprising, then, that some of the major breakthroughs in Texas school integration occurred in those communities with mixed White, Brown, and Black populations.

Second, there are large communities of African Americans that were brought in as part of the development of plantation cotton and other industries that utilized slave labor.  The number of slaves in Texas actually intensified during the Civil War, as slaveholders from other Southern states sent their slaves west because they correctly deemed that it would take longer for the Union forces to liberate them, especially in some of the most remote areas.  While recounting this history goes well beyond the scope of Jacobus’ investigation, it is important to establish the great diversity of the Texan ethnic, racial, and cultural landscape because it distinguishes it from other states of the South.  As Jacobus indicates on page 10, the advanced integration that occurred in Texas in relation to other states in the South is somewhat superficial.  While Texas in 1964 represented fully half of the desegregated school districts and more than half of all Blacks who had integrated public schools in the South, where the desegregation occurred largely related to the region of Texas involved.  Integration, in other words, was not a statewide phenomenon.

Texas and the Brown decision

Since high schools are inherently community institutions, it was more difficult to implement desegregation in those communities with large, segregated neighborhoods than it was in small towns with smaller numbers of African Americans.  Local governments with schools where small numbers of Blacks were enrolled would pay to send Black students to high schools outside of the community.  When the Brown decision made such practices illegal after the plaintiffs compellingly illustrated that these separate facilities were not equal, these small towns with one or two high schools had to accept all locals rather than send them away.

After the Brown decision, Black athletes who lived in small towns with only one Black high school might choose to attend one of the local white high schools because it was likely to have better athletic or academic facilities.  Such student athletes often faced hostile reactions from locals who were uncomfortable with this change in established patterns of racial interaction.  This type of integration was less likely to occur in such places as Dallas and Houston because the segregated Black high schools there tended to have recognized traditions and well-supported facilities in which those communities took great pride.  Black athletes leaving such institutions for the sake of integration sometimes entailed a sense of betrayal in larger cities that did not apply in smaller ones, where the qualitative difference between Black and White high schools were starker and the pride of tradition and community were not as strong.  A similar sense of pride helps explain the reluctance of Black athletes to go to integrated colleges when the Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) had well-established programs of athletic and academic excellence.

Reverse Hierarchical Diffusion

Perhaps the most surprising finding in this study is that the integration of Texas football did not begin in the major urban centers of Dallas, Houston, or Austin, but in the small remote towns of West Texas and the border towns of the Rio Grande.  The discipline of Geography has a term that describes the pattern when something spreads from areas with lesser populations and cultural influence to places with larger populations and cultural influence.  That term is reverse hierarchical diffusion.  Most patterns of culture tend to emerge from large, more influential places, in a process known as hierarchical diffusion.  Fashion, for example, tends to flow from places like Milan, Paris, New York, and Tokyo.  Various other developments in the realm of thought, science, technology, and the arts also tend to be associated with large urban centers.  Reverse hierarchical diffusion occurs when a cultural innovation diffuses from smaller, less influential places.  The classic example is Walmart, which began in the small community of Bentonville, Arkansas and spread to similar smaller communities in rural America before it became pervasive on the cultural landscape of the US.  The integration of Texas football tended to show this pattern, consistently flowing from smaller, less influential centers to larger ones. 

The pattern of reverse hierarchical diffusion holds true for both the integration of high school and college football in Texas.  High school football teams from smaller towns in the western and Mexican border regions of Texas tended to integrate before high school teams from larger cities.  Smaller colleges and universities integrated their football teams a little before the major universities such as the University of Texas, Rice, Baylor, Texas A&M, and SMU.  Part of the reason why this pattern of integration emerged has to do with some very practical issues that emerged once the Warren Court mandated school integration in the Brown v. Topeka Board decision.  The dilemmas that the federal court mandate posed, however, should not diminish the role of parents, players, school administrators, and coaches in creating integrated communities of trust, respect, and joy around the uniquely definitive institution of the local football program.

San Saba

The story of integrated football in San Saba illustrates both the role of small towns as well as the strength of community in the contentious process.  As background, it should be noted that while the Brown decision applied only to the circumstances of the classroom, it did not undermine the Jim Crow segregation of other aspects of legal separation.  In short, the high school football field was not included in the Brown decision and as a result there were instances when White teams refused to play integrated teams.  Black families in small towns with only one high school who wanted their children to play football would have to send them to towns with segregated schools so as not to complicate the tenuous legal framework of integrated schools and segregated public facilities.

The stories of San Saba, Robstown, Aycock and other high schools covered in chapter 4 are among the most inspiring of Jacobus’ stories.  The high school football stadium in these small towns became one of the principal venues for integration and experience of community in the fullest sense of the word.  It was the high school football team that began to break down the barriers as local restaurants increasingly became proud venues for hosting team meals (though it should be noted that Black-owned restaurants were more inclined initially to do so than white-owned).  Service organizations like the Lions Club played key roles in supporting the schools’ efforts to embrace the new racial alignment.  In many ways, the high school football stadium became the source for the broad integration and consolidation of other community institutions.  Most important in these stories of the first integrated teams in Texas is the principled role of coaches and players who refused to allow any community to treat any team member as anything other than a fully-equal part of the team.

While Jacobus conveys many inspirational stories that testify to the courage of individuals and the effectiveness of institutions, there were also instances when the threat of White physical and legal intimidation operated.  He explains the difficulties in traveling to one of the thousands of so-called “sun down” towns where it was illegal for Blacks to be out after dark.  Integrated teams travelling to these towns had to make use of Victor H. Green’s, The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was recently the subject of a Hollywood film.  There were some instances where referees allowed Whites to assert excessive roughness against a Black athlete, though for the most part officials upheld the integrity of the game.  More common were instances where the crowds supporting a White only team would hurl verbal and physical abuse at the Black athletes. 

Finally, there were the instances of structural racism that bore particularly on the good but not great Black athlete.  Good White athletes could commonly qualify for scholarships and playing opportunities at the college level.  The same could not be said for the good Black athlete.  In addition, those Black football players who chose to go to integrated high schools were no longer connected directly to the networks of coaches and recruiters affiliated with the HBCUs.  In some cases, this was merely the consequence of limited infrastructure for recruiting outside of the Black high schools.  In other cases, there was likely resentment that a good athlete would choose an integrated high school over a Black high school.

Bible Belt Diversity and the Role of Religion in Integration

One of the many rich strains of investigation that Jacobus mentions but largely leaves open for future historians to pursue is the role of religious faith in the process of integration.  The varieties of Christianity in Texas correlate with the dual identity of Texas as both part of the South and part of the Southwest.  References to the Bible Belt in the US largely pertain to the dominant strains of evangelical Protestantism that predominate in the South and Midwest.  In the South and much of Texas, the religious association is generally Southern Baptist and Southern Methodist, the “Southern” in the appellation pertaining to divisions that arose within these denominations over the question of slavery.  It is thus not surprising that these two large denominations did not contribute greatly to the early phases of racial integration.  Less prominent strains of Christianity in Texas, however, did.

It would appear that Catholic high schools played a role in the integration of high school football.  As a minority strain of Christianity in Texas that had long been the focus of threats from nativists and White-supremacists, Catholic high schools fielded some of the earliest integrated teams.  The racial configuration of the Catholic high schools in Texas is a subject that is largely outside the focus of Jacobus’ study, but nevertheless appears because of the fact that they fielded some of the first integrated teams and the first to force segregated teams to play against integrated teams.  Integrated Roman Catholic teams included ones in El Paso, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, and Corpus Christi.  These Catholic schools reinforce a theme that emerges frequently:  integration of Blacks onto a team was often preceded by interracial White and Latinx teams.  Since parochial schools fell outside of the mandate of the Brown decision, they often became venues for White families to avoid having to send their children to racially integrated public schools.  Was it the case that the African Americans who found their way into the Catholic schools were generally athletically gifted?  If so, Texas would not be a unique venue in which gifted Black athletes would leave their local public school to play on prestigious teams assembled at parochial schools.

Another religious denomination outside of the Texas mainstream that appears to have played a significant role in the integration of Texas football is the Church of Christ and its affiliate academy, Abilene Christian College.  The two 19th century founding figures of the Church of Christ, Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, were opponents of slavery who sought to avert the division in their denomination over the question of abolition that had divided Methodists and Baptists.  While the Church of Christ generally practiced institutional segregation, with separate colleges in Texas for Blacks (Southwestern Christian College in Terrell) and Whites (Abilene Christian College), it appears to have played a formative role in producing leaders who contributed to the integration of Texas football.  While ACU was not among the first colleges in Texas to integrate, the prophetic voice of Carl Spain raised the issue of racial exclusion throughout the 1950s there.  Pete Ragus, Head Coach of the first integrated state championship team, was a graduate of ACU.

Ben Kelly: The Pioneer of Integrated Texas Football

In 1953, Ben Kelly of San Angelo Junior College became the first football player to play on an integrated team anywhere in the South.  It is unclear, however, how much this breakthrough actually contributed to the subsequent integration of high school and college football in Texas.  Kelly had been an outstanding high school football player whose induction into the army severed his initial acceptance of a scholarship to the University of Illinois.  Upon completion of his military service, he decided that the northern cold was not for him and pushed the administrators and coach at San Angelo JC to let him play football there despite the legal restrictions.  The 1950 Supreme Court decision in Sweatt v. Painter had already undermined racial exclusion in public universities, forcing the integration of the University of Texas in 1950 and Del Mar College in Corpus Christi in 1952.  These instances of integration opened the possibility of including sports programs as venues for integration.  In other words, some colleges had integrated classrooms and it was only a matter of time that this would extend to the football field. 

San Angelo College also provides a good example of how the experience of World War II and the integration of the armed forces by the Truman administration had contributed to breaking down racial barriers in those many places in Texas tied to the US armed forces.  For years, San Angelo had had integrated night classes sponsored by the Department of Defense related to cryptology and intelligence.  These classes, however, were not technically part of the Junior College. 

Other venues with large military bases also became centers of school integration because once the Brown decision occurred, there was no longer a legal foundation for states to maintain school segregation in integrated communities such as military bases.  Most significant among these venues was San Antonio, which had those components that most facilitated integration:  it was a military town already practicing institutional integration with a large Latinx population and religious diversity.  As a result, San Antonio was the first major city to embrace integration of high school football in Texas.  Other military towns included those in the Coastal Bend:  Beeville, Kingsville, and Corpus Christi.  In the Rio Grande Valley are Harlingen and Del Rio.  Killeen in Central Texas houses Fort Hood, the largest military base in the US and the single largest employer in the state of Texas.  Near the Panhandle city of Amarillo are bases in Tulia and Dimmitt.

While Kelly’s work as an integration pioneer did not appear to have had a direct effect on other instances of integration, it is important to appreciate what Kelly accomplished.  It could not have been easy to go to the head football coach and be told that school policy would not permit him to be part of the team.  When Kelly persisted, the coach suggested that he take his quest to play football directly to the college president.  President Rex Johnston’s apparent role in this process provides a good case study in what might be called intentional inadvertence.  He instructed his staff to proceed with admitting Kelly as a student and letting him play on the team despite various local and league restrictions against it.  By doing so, President Johnston placed the burden on others to deny Kelly and the team this opportunity.  This well-calculated gamble worked.  It was now up to the community to embrace this new racial framework.  This part of the gamble worked as well.

Kelly faced difficulties in being the first African American to play on an integrated football team in the state of Texas, but few of those difficulties came from his teammates.  Indeed, his experience on the team provides much evidence in support of how important it was for the Whites on the team to face some of their own assumptions.  The first-hand experience of an African-American teammate undermined stereotypes.  Other teams, however, did not accept playing against a Black Man.  Moreover, the experience of travel included the types of discrimination and dangers shown in the film Green Book.  The team invariably rallied around Ben Kelly when other teams would abuse him by spitting on him, punching him in the face (this was before facemasks), and calling him names.  Kelly’s response to this physical and verbal violence testifies greatly to the power of a young man who understood himself and the character it takes to overcome hatred.  In a story recounted by Kelly’s coach Phil George, he quotes Ben: “My mother always told me to never` let someone else’s problem become my problem.  They have a problem, not me.”  There are many such testaments to courage and personal integrity woven throughout this book.  They derive especially but not exclusively from the African American players, parents, coaches, and administrators Jacobus interviewed.

Cass Jackson

Jacobus devotes a chapter to what might be considered Texans in exile.  These are the stories of Black Texas families who left their homes in order to provide their children opportunities in a state where both de jure and de facto discrimination prevailed.  There are many interesting anecdotes in this chapter, but arguably the most important historical figure is Cass Jackson.  Jackson’s family left Terrell Texas for San Jose California when he was two years old.  (One gets the sense that San Jose –or at least the South and East San Francisco Bay region– was something of a chain-migration destination for African Americans from Texas.  This, too, might be a subject for further investigation.)  After playing fullback and serving as an assistant coach at San Jose State, Jackson became the first African American to coach at a predominantly white college, Oberlin in Ohio.  Frank Robinson, a native of Beaumont, Texas, the first Black to manage a Major League Baseball team and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, regarded Jackson as a pioneer for Black coaches much in the same was as Jackie Robinson is considered to be the forerunner for African American players in all major league sports.

The Integration of College Football

While Ben Kelley was something of a lone pioneer when he suited up for San Angelo College, three years later both Cisco Junior College and North Texas State College (NTSC, now the University of North Texas) brought Blacks into their programs in larger numbers.  These two colleges are thus the sources for the integration of college football in Texas and, ultimately, the South.  Cisco characterizes the small, racially varied towns that pioneered high school football integration.  Its population of about 5,000 was over 80% White, 10% Latinx, and around 5% Black.  Denton is the city where NTSC was located.  Denton, however, does not fit the geographical patterns of reverse hierarchical diffusion, as it was a relatively large city and close enough to Dallas to be regarded as part of its metroplex.  Denton was also not located in the more racially tolerant region of West Texas.  Denton, though, had established patterns of interracial accommodation that facilitated the rapid acceptance of Black students once the civil rights movement razed the legal barriers to integration.

Cisco brought five Blacks onto its team in 1956.  Among those five was Louis Kelley, who would go on to become a legendary coach in Lubbock after having been voted the Most Valuable Player on New Mexico State University’s 8-3 1959 Sun Bowl Championship team.  In the same year that Cisco brought five Black players onto their team, Abner Haynes and Leon King joined North Texas State College.  While Haynes would go on to have a stellar career in professional football, King represents a more characteristic story of how the experiences of these individuals contributed in less prominent but everlasting ways.  King later completed his doctorate and served for many years as educator, coach, and high school principal in the Dallas region.

The role of North Texas State College in integrating football in the South is hard to overstate.  Once coach Odus Mitchell brought Haynes and King onto the team, it was only a matter of time before the Mean Green emerged in the AP Top Twenty football teams in the nation.  While segregated schools in the South initially refused to play against NTSC, the success of the program eventually hastened the unavoidable integration of other programs in Texas and the rest of the South.  Soon after Haynes graduated, Joe Greene, four-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was recruited onto the Mean Green.  Hall of Fame coach and legend Hayden Frye took over the NTSC program in 1973, after integrating the Southwest Conference by bringing Jerry Levias to SMU in 1966.  Forces in the NCAA and SMU undermined his efforts to elevate NTSC more permanently into the elite football programs in the nation.  Frye would take his drive, character, and talents to Iowa in 1979 after a 23 year coaching career in Texas.

Pete Ragus

For many teenage boys, high school football is one of the most formative experiences of their lives.  The discipline, dedication, and unity that occurs on a well-coached team is one that has few parallels in life outside of military service in wartime.  Great coaches are not only great leaders, they inspire leadership in others.  The lessons those coaches instill on the practice field can lay a foundation for success in career, family, and community service.  The real legacy of a high school coach is not about the number of championships or wins but about the character of the individuals created in the process of preparing for competition as a team.  Jacobus’ study illustrates numerous great coaches who played a formative role in shaping the character of individuals and communities. 

One of the milestones covered in Jacobus’ study is the 1960 Texas state championship of the Miller High School Buccaneers as the first integrated team to win this highest award.  In addition to the excellent chapter in Jacobus’ book on the 1960 Miller championship, Putt Riddle has published a more detailed story of the season in his The 1960 Miller Buccaneers:  Pioneering A New Era in Texas Football.  The coach of that team was thirty-three year old Pete Ragus, a graduate of Abilene Christian College who also happens to be my uncle.  (More on that later.)  The story of the Miller championship encompasses many of the dimensions discussed as reasons why Texas led the South in the process of integration.   Corpus Christi was a military town that had incorporated the executive order of Truman integrating the military.  Corpus Christi had racial and religious diversity, as the team consisted of seventeen Latinx players, six Blacks, and eighteen Whites. 

Corpus Christi, however, was not a small town and its high schools represented a unique racial complexity that reflected class variation as well as racial diversity.  Despite maintaining a certain level of racial segregation, minorities perceived Corpus Christi as a community friendly to all races.  There were a handful of high schools in Corpus Christi with high caliber football programs.  Whites resided in the southern part of the city and attended Carol and Ray High Schools.  Solomon Coles was the Black high school and had a powerhouse football program that won the state championship for Black high schools in the Prairie View Interscholastic League (PVIL) the same year that Miller won the Texas state championship in the University Interscholastic League (UIL).  Miller, however, was in the oil refining Blue Collar section of Corpus Christi, defined as much by class as by race.  All four schools had excellent football programs, but segregation had kept the rivalry to the trio of Ray, Carol, and Miller.  The rivalries were fierce and well-attended.  The first game between Miller and Ray in 1960 drew more than 20,000 fans.

Miller had had a legacy of success with integrated White and Latinx players under Head Coach Tom Pruett, who had compiled a record of 35-7-1 on a very tough schedule.  It was Pruett who had first brought Blacks onto the team in 1957.    When Pruett left Miller to become an assistant coach at Baylor the following year, it opened the door for Pete Ragus to take the Head Coach position, but only after it had been offered to other more established coaches at the two White high schools in Corpus Christi.

While Coach Ragus’s motto was that football success was 85% desire and 15% talent, there was plenty of talent that may have raised that talent factor just a smidge.  Two of the players on his 1960 championship team went on to play in the NFL.  Arguably the most gifted football player was Johnny Roland, who would become the first Black Captain of the University of Missouri Tigers, play for eight years in the NFL, and coach at both the professional and college levels until 2005.  Willie Adams was a two-way player at offensive tackle and linebacker who would later play college at New Mexico State University and in the NFL.  There were, however, many other gifted athletes on the team.  Still, any champion will have to mesh talent with motivation and discipline. 

Jacobus’ recounting of the Miller championship illustrates the importance of leadership both on and off the field.  At its core, leadership is the ability to make those around you better.  It can come in the form of word and deed.  The reason why it is common for football teams at every level to designate leaders on a weekly basis is that the challenges and opportunities to express leadership are an ongoing matter.  The role of a Head Coach is thus to inspire leadership among everyone on the team. 

Jacobus’ chapter and Riddle’s book on the Miller team persistently references the special role of Coach Ragus in preparing the team for its various challenges.  While there do not appear to have been any inherent racial tensions on the team, as there was with the Virginia team featured in Remember the Titans, there was certainly the possibility that conflicts might arise on the team that would provide a source of racial tension.  Coach Ragus identified members of the team that were specially suited to identify and address such problems either to the team as a whole or within each of the three racial groups.  Coach Ragus’ phrase for this practice was “staying ahead of the hounds.”  The ability to anticipate problems as a way of averting crisis is a recurring theme in the story of the Miller championship.

On the back cover of Riddle’s brief book is an anecdote that illustrates both the times and the nature of solidarity that existed on this interracial team.  In the 1960s it was common for football coaches to promote “toughness” by denying water breaks even on the hottest days of practice.  Coach Ragus was no exception.  Riddle interviewed managers and players who testified that the managers would commonly soak towels on such days and provide them to the players, who would then take turns passing the towel around and sucking whatever water was available in that form.  The point is that a good coach can inspire an almost unlimited willingness for sacrifice.  Shared sacrifice is the essence of a football team.  It should also be remembered that Coach Ragus’ specific background was in track as a middle distance runner.  He perhaps understood conditioning in a way that few high school football coaches at that time did.  In reading Putt Riddle’s history of the Miller championship, it is thus noteworthy how many of Miller’s games were won in the second half.

While there were no internal racial tensions on the Miller team, the team did face a number of challenges because of its integrated character at a time when Jim Crow segregation was not only practiced in Texas, it was the law in many places.  (Jim Crow laws remained a feature of the South until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 abolished them.)  The week four trip to Waco required that the team stay in a small town some distance from that city because Waco offered no hotels where the team could stay as a group.  The following week the team had to travel nearly five hundred miles for a game in Midland, where they had to stay in a small town more than one hundred miles from the stadium because there were no hotels in Midland that allowed for the mixed race team to stay.  The Midland game also was one where the crowd expressed openly racist hostility to both the Blacks and Latinx players on the team.  At the end of the Midland game, Coach Ragus felt the need to forego the ceremonial team gathering for the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the game and quickly loaded the team on the bus.  Instead he quickly gathered the team at the end of the game and said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”  Some players claimed that this was the only time any of them had ever heard him use foul language.    Meals at restaurants that would accommodate the entire team had to be planned in advance.  Members of the team were largely unaware of the difficulties in planning these trips.  This, too, was part of staying ahead of the hounds.

Football championships are rarely won without a little bit of good fortune along the way, and the Miller championship was no exception.  While Miller was an exceptionally talented team with an almost unstoppable trap blocking scheme and a swarming defense, the fact that they were able to play three out of the four playoff games on their home field was beneficial in two ways.  First, they did not lose time to travel and all of the planning entailed in travelling with a racially diverse team.  Second, there is nothing like playing football in front of thousands of supporting fans.  Two consecutive coin toss wins for the quarter and semifinal games averted a three hour trip to San Antonio and, more importantly, a six hour drive to Port Arthur on the Louisiana border.  Not having to play in Port Arthur also averted facing the fierce racial hostility of the crowd there.  It should be noted that Coach Ragus, in deference to Coach Clarence “Buckshot” Underwood, had offered to play the game at a mutually agreed upon neutral site.  Coach Underwood chose the coin toss instead.  The game against Port Arthur took place on a cold and drenched field in Corpus Christi.  It was a defensive battle that involved no completed passes by either team.  Miller won 6-0.

The 13-6 upset win over Wichita Falls for the championship was also a low scoring nail biter.  Wichita Falls was at least ten point favorites in the matchup and many experts viewed Wichita Falls as the best high school football team in the nation that year.  Wichita Falls would appear for four consecutive years in the Texas State Finals and would win it twice from 1958-1961.  Even though this championship was played on a neutral field at Baylor University in Waco, this was the neutral field that Coach Ragus wanted.  Wichita Falls’ legendary Coach Joe Golding wanted the game played in either Dallas or Austin.  Young Coach Ragus, going against the counsel of both his District’s Superintendent and Athletic Director, insisted that the game be played either in Waco or at one of the home fields of the two teams.  Coach Ragus was certain that the only risk Golding was not willing to take was playing in Corpus Christi, which may say something about the home field advantage that Miller enjoyed there.  At the end of the three hour meeting, Coach Ragus prevailed.  He must have been supremely confident in his ability to win a third consecutive coin toss!

The Miller victory strengthened the sense of identity, pride, and unity in Corpus Christi.  The team was in many ways the embodiment of the city’s diversity.  Putt Riddle cites Miller players who had received respectful congratulations from the rival high schools in the city.  Perhaps it is easy to overstate the role that this one championship had in shaping a city of 168,000.  It is not, however, easy to overstate the value of high school football in the state of Texas.  This was an historic accomplishment, rightfully featured by both Jacobus in a broader context and Putt Riddle.  Almost to a man, the players on that team identified the role of Coach Ragus as key to the championship.  It is not surprising that a couple of years after the championship, the city of Lubbock would hire Coach Ragus as Athletic Director for its Independent School District to oversee the implementation of sports integration in that city with comparable racial diversity as Corpus Christi.

Before turning more specifically to the story of Pete Ragus, one more dimension of the Miller championship should be noted.  There were those who challenged the championship on the assertion that some of the Latinx players appear to have exceeded the age limit for playing on a high school football team.  There is no evidence that this was the case.  It should be noted, however, that some of the Latinx players were near the age limit due to no fault of their own.  Racially and culturally discriminatory practices in some Texas school districts did not allow Latinx students to enter kindergarten until they were six.

The persistent testimony of players regarding Coach Ragus is that he embodied everything one would want in a coach.  Equally concerned with mind, body, and spirit, he could be demanding yet kind.  He sought excellence but promoted humility.  He was intensely competitive but was not obsessed with winning.  He was aware that many on his team were poor and lived with the difficulties posed by poverty.  He made food available in his office for those on his team who were so needy that they might not be certain of a meal every day.

My limited personal tie to Coach Ragus partly accounts for this extensive engagement with his role in the Miller story.  Coach Ragus is my uncle.  To be precise, he is my half-uncle.  His mother was my grandmother.  Neither of us really knew her.  Even though he is a relative, I cannot claim to know Pete Ragus well.  I only saw him a couple of times when I was a child.  For most of my adult life, I had no clear idea of who he was and what he had accomplished.  He attended my father’s (his half-brother’s) funeral in Fresno in 1989 and was gracious enough to spend a couple of days with me then. 

Our somewhat futile quest at that time was to try to recover the story of his mother, who had lived a rather tragic but not uncommon life for a poor, immigrant woman.  Her name was Jela (pronounced Yela).  Her first husband, my grandfather, died in 1919.  She then married Pete Ragus, Sr. and bore three additional children to add to the two from her first marriage.  Pete Ragus Jr., born in 1927, was the last of her children.  Soon after he was born, Jela apparently suffered some type of mental breakdown and was admitted to an institution, where she remained for the rest of her life.  It is unclear whether Uncle Pete has any recollection of his mother at all.  This foray into Uncle Pete’s personal life may be important because it might help explain what drives ordinary people to do extraordinary things. 

My brother and I had the pleasure and honor of visiting Uncle Pete in December 2019.  We had had virtually no contact with him since 1989.  Our family on the West Coast had lost touch with Pete and his family over the years.  In the age of Google, though, it did not take long to get reacquainted with Uncle Pete once we decided to do so.  The Google search revealed the many honors that express the public’s appreciation for the contributions he has made to generations of Texas youth.  While Jacobus’ book focuses on his success as the coach of the first integrated state championship team, Ragus’ many accolades encompass a far broader scope of achievement.  The fact that two gymnasiums and a top quality aquatic center bear his name indicates something of his living legacy.  In addition to receiving the Texas High School Coach of the Year in 1960, he has been inducted into the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor (1974), the Coastal Bend Coaches Association Hall of Fame (1989), and the Abilene Christian University Sports Hall of Fame (1991).  The National Football Foundation recognized him in 2006, as did Texas Tech University that same year for his Outstanding Contributions to Amateur Football.  In 2009, the National Hispanic Heritage Hall of Honor admitted him as one of only two non-Hispanic honorees for his work with Hispanic youth.  He also has a letter from President Barack Obama dated August 3, 2016 expressing gratitude for Coach Ragus’ contributions toward fulfilling America’s promise.

Our December 2019 visit revealed to us a man of enormous spirit, grace, and joy.  He still loves sports and maintains remarkable energy, playing tennis three times a week at the age of 92!  He is a humble man who will deflect any questions about his role in his many successes onto the various great mentors and players with whom he was privileged to work.  It is hard to get him to talk about himself or the leadership he provided in producing winning teams or his accomplishments as Director of Athletics for the Lubbock Independent School District (LISD).  He will, however, talk incessantly about his faith.  He loves competition, appreciates gifted athletes as well as the discipline that sports represent.  Because of his inherent modesty, it was difficult to derive much biographical information about him in our brief visit. 

I plead with those who know him better to provide a broader biographical overview.  While his Miller championship was a somewhat spectacular and historic achievement, I suspect his accomplishments over decades of administrative work in Lubbock are worthy of consideration as well.  It is highly likely that Ragus’ ultimate legacy is the role he played in overseeing the integration of athletics in the LISD from 1964 until his retirement some thirty years later.  The way he worked to ensure that all students in the district had equitable athletic opportunities regardless of race, ethnicity, or income is obviously a more complex, nuanced, and unspectacular story than the football championship.  It did not take long in the tour of the Pete Ragus Aquatic Center in Lubbock to learn of how he had worked to ensure that the magnificent facility would be accessible to all students in the district, not just those wealthier families in the community traditionally drawn to aquatic sports.  The large numbers of Hispanic surnames on the walls of record holders for swimming and diving may indicate the continuation of Pete Ragus’ contributions to inclusion, equity, and community.

What follows is an extremely modest effort to provide a framework for a more substantive biography of Pete Ragus.  I addressed his mother’s tragic story and, by extension, dimensions of Uncle Pete’s early life in a previous entry on this blog under the title Thank You, Myoviches of Montenegro.  Thanks to the work of Professor Jacobus and Putt Riddle, Pete Ragus’ role in the 1960 Miller Buccaneers story has been well-covered.  I only have sketchy details of his biography for the remainder of his life and I greatly solicit someone to compile a biography of this extraordinarily modest and significant individual.

Uncle Pete was born in the small San Joaquin Valley town of Sanger, California on August 17, 1927.  It should be noted that ten years later the legendary Oakland Raiders coach Tom Flores would be born in Sanger to Mexican immigrant parents who worked the fields of this rural region.  Flores would become the first Latinx quarterback to start in the AFL, the first Latinx Head Coach to win a Super Bowl, and the first Latinx General Manager in the NFL.  Even though Coach Ragus was not directly connected to Coach Flores, the context of his having lived in California communities with large populations of Hispanics might help explain how he was able to effectively engage the challenges of coaching at Corpus Christi Miller.  The Buccaneer’s championship is, after all, as much about Brown men in the huddle as it is about Black ones. 

When he was still a young boy, Uncle Pete moved with his sister, brother, and father to the then small town of Campbell in what is today the Silicon Valley region of California.  The Depression years were hard on everyone, and it is highly likely that the Ragus children grew up in difficult circumstances.  A single father, Pete Sr. worked as a farm laborer in this area with a diverse ethnic population that consisted of increasing numbers of Latinx and Black residents once World War II began.  Included in this wartime migration to the South Bay region of San Francisco was Abner Haynes’ cousin Sylvester Stewart.  Haynes, of course, had integrated college football in Texas.  Sylvester Stewart later formed the band Sly and the Family Stone, which was one of the first racially and gender integrated bands in popular music.

Pete attended Campbell High School, where he played quarterback on a team that included Billy Wilson, a legendary receiver for the San Francisco Forty-niners who was twice-named First Team All Pro and named three times Second Team All Pro.  Wilson ranks fourth in receiving touchdowns for the 49ers behind Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and Gene Washington. 

At some point in his high school years, Pete left the Roman Catholicism of his Croatian father and adopted the beliefs and practices of the Church of Christ.  This connection to the Church of Christ came through one of his close friends in high school.  The two friends left California to study, play football, and run track at Abilene Christian College.  The main motive for attending Abilene, however, was religious.  An eighteen month stint in the US Army interrupted his studies.  Upon his return to Abilene, Ragus was named co-captain and played receiver on the only undefeated team in the school’s history in 1950. 

My appeal here is for someone who knows more about his years in Lubbock to at least create a Wikipedia page to his legacy.  I may be biased because of my extremely limited personal ties to him, but it would seem that the story of Pete Ragus is one worthy of a broader audience.  It is an important story of the greatness that comes in relation to those whose heart, character, and faith result in making good communities better.  I would very much encourage people who worked closely with Pete over the years or who are known beneficiaries of his work or even his many children and grandchildren to begin compiling a public access biography.  

Here are some questions to pursue in constructing a biography of Pete Ragus.  Who were the people and what were the experiences that most influenced Pete Ragus’ life and shaped his character?  How did his year at Stamford with Gordon Wood form his vision for teamwork and coaching?  None other than Paul “Bear” Bryant considered Wood the best coach in Texas at a time when the Alabama legend was still coaching in Texas and before he became an icon of the Crimson Tide who integrated that team in 1971.  How did Tom Pruett, who also had great success as both coach and Athletic Director, shape the leadership vision of Ragus?  What role did Coach Ragus play in integrating Lubbock high school football in 1965?  It should be noted that Lubbock was among the last of the communities in western Texas to integrate their schools.  What role did Coach Ragus play in bringing Lubbock Coach of the Century and pioneer of integration Louis Kelley to Lubbock?  What if any role did Carl Spain, professor of theology at Abilene Christian College who challenged segregation in the Church of Christ, play in shaping Pete’s views of race questions?  How did Pete’s experience as a motherless young boy living in severe poverty in California affect how he viewed others? 

I realize that these types of biographies are complicated and focusing on one man’s story often obscures the contributions of others in the process.  It is also possible that those involved might prefer the privacy that comes from relative anonymity.  I can also appreciate that his accomplishments might not have been as groundbreaking as I would imagine.  What is quite clear, however, is that he positively shaped the lives of his players at Miller.  It seems unlikely that he did not do similar things for the city of Lubbock,

How the Integration of High School Football Influenced College Football in Texas

When legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant brought the first Black player onto the varsity squad of his Alabama Crimson Tide in 1971, it culminated a process of integrating football in the South that had begun in Texas.  This simple fact is worth pondering.  First, those outside the South are probably surprised that Alabama had taken so long to bring Black athletes into its program because it is hard to imagine a renowned Division 1 program competing at the highest levels without Black athletes.  Second, it is a testament to Bryant’s coaching genius that he was able to compete at such a high level without Black athletes prior to 1971.  Third, in the five years prior to 1971, there was a noticeable decline in the in the success of the Alabama program that almost certainly persuaded key administrators that the days of winning consistently without Black athletes were coming to an end.  In a twenty-year period from 1959 to 1981 there were only two years in which Alabama did not finish the season in the AP Top Twenty.  Those years were 1969 and 1970.  Once Black athletes were brought onto the squad in 1971, the winning traditions of the Crimson Tide returned immediately.

The integration of college football that began in Texas established patterns that ultimately benefitted the programs at the major colleges there and undermined the ability of the HBCUs to sustain theirs.  While the fuller initial integration of Texas college football began in the early 1960s at small colleges in a way that showed once again reverse hierarchical diffusion, it did not take long for the larger schools to adapt that practice.  The Houston Cougars integrated their football program in 1964.  Baylor and SMU did so the following year.  Once these large, well-funded programs began to recruit Black athletes, the HBCUs were put at a competitive disadvantage because they could not offer the quality of facility and medical treatment that the now-integrated schools could.  Moreover, the national television exposure emerging in the 1960s also gave the integrated, formerly White schools a recruiting advantage.  Finally, as more Black athletes chose integrated schools over segregated Black schools, the racially-aligned college recruitment networks began to erode in a way that restricted the access of HBCUs to elite Black athletes.

Leaving Texas for Major Colleges Outside the State

Prior to the integration of Texas college football, elite Black athletes would have to leave the state in order to compete in football programs at the top-ranked schools in the nation.  Iowa was the first integrated major college football program, with Black athletes on its 1895 team!  In addition to Iowa, a number of the land grant universities in the Midwest were prime destinations for Texas’ best.  Purdue, Nebraska, Michigan State, Kansas, and Colorado were all beneficiaries of this export of talent from the Lone Star State.  Before Bear Bryant left Texas A&M for Alabama in 1959, he would direct exceptional Black athletes to Purdue.  Duffy Daugherty at MSU held clinics for coaches at the Black high schools in Texas in a relationship that was mutually beneficial. 

Players who left Texas had to weigh the benefits of the opportunities of leaving against sacrificing their sense of home.  In general, the players did not seek to be pioneers and calculated their choice of college largely based on what those communities might have to offer them in their post-football careers.  These were the motives for Cliff Branch in choosing Colorado and Johnny Roland in choosing Missouri. 

The movement of these student athletes out of Texas, however, did not avert the inherent racism that functioned in other parts of the country.  By the late 1960s, universities had become hotbeds of social unrest.  The Black Power movement emerged in the context of the assassination of a number of leading Black figures, race riots, opposition to the war in Vietnam, and the articulation of all of this by such leaders as Mohammed Ali.  Too often, major college football programs that recruited Blacks did not see them as scholar athletes.  Instead, the assumption was often that the Black athletes were not interested in completing their education.  Moreover, universities would retract scholarships in cases in which on-field injuries resulted in termination of scholarships.  The experience of Earl “Bud” Jones at Oklahoma State illustrated how a university might view a Black athlete only in relation to their athletic prowess and not as part of the broader mission of the university to the community.  Finally, major colleges generally excluded Blacks from that most iconic leadership position on the team, quarterback.  The story of Lewis Ritcherson Jr. at Wisconsin demonstrated not only a characteristic attitude toward the Black quarterback but also the need for universities to diversify coaching staffs and promote Blacks to Head Coaching spots.

Integrating Texas College Football

The Houston Cougars became arguably the first major college football program to integrate in Texas.  A clarification, though, is in order.  One could argue that North Texas State was the true pioneer.  Indeed, Houston was among those schools that in 1957 refused to play NTSU because it had an integrated team. In many ways, the achievements of the Houston Cougars need to be seen in light of the sacrifice that NTSC made in the 1950s.  Jacobus does an outstanding job of honoring the achievements of both programs.

The early integration of the Houston Cougars involved a couple of factors.  It was an independent school and thus not beholden to the league restrictions on race that operated in the southern conferences.  Its coach, Bill Yeoman, was a West Point graduate who had also benefitted from eight years under the tutelage of Duffy Daugherty.  Yeoman provides one of the uniquely beautiful stories of racial understanding conveyed by Jacobus, despite the fact that scandal marred Yeoman’s later career.  Like his mentor Duffy Daugherty, Coach Yeoman established an environment of respect and equality among the members of the team.  He ensured that his Black student athletes achieved their academic goals. 

In 1964, Coach Yeoman recruited Warren McVea to Houston, only two years after the school had admitted its first Black student.  When he was recruited to Houston, many scouts considered McVea to be the best high school running back ever.  Why he became a pioneer at Houston had much to do with his mother.  Coach Yeoman had effectively addressed her concerns regarding the importance of academics, family, and faith in their lives. McVea would become not only the first Black to play at Houston, he would also be the first Black player to take the field against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Kentucky, Tennessee, Miami, and Florida State.  His experience on the team and on the field had few notable incidences of racial tension, though he received many threats from the public.

Jerry Levias had a more difficult time as the first Black player at SMU playing in the Southwest Conference.  Like many of the Black scholar athletes, Levias did not go to SMU with the intention of being a pioneer for civil rights.  Indeed, Levias claims that had Coach Fry even mentioned becoming a pioneer, he would likely have played football elsewhere.  As with Warren McVea and Coach Yeoman, the ability to persuade the player’s mother was the key.  With Levias’ mom, the key was assuring her son’s education.  It also helped with mom that Coach Fry knew quite a bit about cuisine.  Unlike McVea, Levias faced numerous incidences of racial hostility on the field as well as threats and pranks from fans.  He became discouraged and even thought about giving up his career at SMU.  But the counsel of his father and his admiration for Coach Fry kept him motivated to remain on the team.  “The only thing I feared in life was disappointing Hayden Fry.” (p. 214)  Levias went on to be selected to the All-Southwest Conference team three times.  In his senior year, he was selected as both a consensus All-American football player and an Academic All-American.  He set league records in career receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown receptions.  He played for the Houston Oilers, where he was chosen for the Pro Bowl in 1969.  Despite his aversion to playing the role of pioneer, he nevertheless became one.  Within a few years, the rest of the Southwest Conference schools integrated their football programs.

Conclusion

Once high schools with Blacks were admitted to the previously exclusionary University Interscholastic League, it was a matter of time until the two separate tracks of the Texas football state championship ended.  The Black High School PVIL dissolved in 1970, a move that had both positive and negative consequences for the Black communities of Texas.  On the one hand, Black athletes were no longer prohibited from playing at the generally better equipped facilities and superior stadiums where whites played.  Negatively, the process of integrating Texas football broke bonds of community, institutions, and traditions that had developed over generations among African Americans.  The transcendent narrative that Jacobus conveys, however, is a positive one depicting the role that sports can play in creating better communities by bringing together disparate groups. 

As we move to a new inflection point on race relations in the country, it is important to hear these stories that span back three generations.  Sadly, the vision of a society in which racial groups are treated equally has not been realized.  This is not only a problem for Texas and the South.  The 1974 Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley determined that the integration requirements of the Brown decision did not extend beyond the boundaries of local school districts.  This opened the way for suburban school districts to maintain de facto segregation across the nation.  As middle class Whites have extended the suburbs ever farther from urban centers, the Milliken decision has rendered a society that remains segregated by class and race.  Not only are the schools as separate as they were fifty years ago, they remain unequal as well.  This is a national challenge whose consequences are revealed in the present racial tensions in the country.  Since the school districts in the South tend to operate as independent districts that rely minimally on state and county authority, a more systemic instrument for maintaining separation and inequality operates there.  The general problem of segregation, though, is national.

Jacobus provides us a study in vision, courage, character, and faith.  There is much here that can illuminate our path out of the current darkness.

2 thoughts on “Black Man in the Huddle

  1. Sammy! This article is so much more than a book review. The way you filled this story in with historical and personal perspective—well, it was a riveting read, that’s all about 👍

    Liked by 1 person

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