Dr. King meeting lasts a lifetime

If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., enjoyed college football, he kept it to himself. It is quite possible that he couldn't bring himself to cheer for the state universities in his native Georgia or his adopted home of Alabama, given their opposition to everything he ever stood for.

There was the one time that the Crimson Tide unknowingly lent the civil rights movement a hand. Late in 1964, a judge in Selma, Ala., issued an injunction forbidding the discussion of racial issues at any gathering of three or more persons.

(Seriously. In America. In my home state. In my lifetime.)

According to Taylor Branch, who wrote a three-volume biography of Dr. King, when Alabama played Texas in the 1965 Orange Bowl, Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark left Selma, the county seat, to attend the game.

In his absence, Dr. King convened a meeting of 700 people at Brown Chapel. To thunderous cheers, he challenged the injunction in a speech in which he said, "Our cry to the state of Alabama is a simple one. Give us the ballot!"

In Branch's seminal work, published over 18 years and spanning more than 2,300 pages, there is virtually no other mention of college football that involves his subject. There is, however, at least one other occasion on which Dr. King and his work intersected with the sport.

On March, 17, 1966, Dr. King spoke at SMU in Dallas. He had been invited once before, only to have the invitation withdrawn. Dallas had yet to rid itself of racism. The few black students at SMU were treated with contempt or isolation by their fellow undergraduates. Among those few students was freshman Jerry LeVias, the first black football player on campus.

Levias would go on to become an All-American wide receiver and kick returner. He would help lead the Mustangs to the Cotton Bowl in 1966 and create a career that would lead to his 2003 election to the College Football Hall of Fame.

That would come later. At the moment, LeVias lived a lonely life in a hostile place. He had no roommate; no white student would bunk with him. His teammates mostly ostracized him, too. LeVias depended on the emotional support of his family and his head coach, Hayden Fry. And that was the easy time.

"Things had not gotten real tough for me, public-wise, because freshmen could not play football," LeVias said this week. "All hell broke out when I started scoring touchdowns and played varsity football, playing in the Southwest Conference."

At least one other university official wanted LeVias to succeed. SMU president Willis Tate had someone bring LeVias to McFarlin Auditorium without telling him why. They chitchatted for a moment.

A lot of things are going to be happening to you, but the one thing most important is that you always keep your emotions in control.

-- Martin Luther King to Jerry LeVias

"The next thing I know, I'm shown into a room, and there was Dr. King," LeVias said.

He doesn't think the meeting lasted more than 10 minutes. But 10 minutes of being awestruck stays with a man nearly a half a century later. They met in secret. LeVias told his family, but in the wrong hands, news of the meeting would serve neither him nor Dr. King well.

"I had enough on my plate at that point," LeVias said with a laugh. "I think I would have caught more hell if they thought Dr. King was coming across the country, making the university sign black players. Dr. King's whole thing was never about sports. It was about just equality .... If they would have thought Dr. King was part of me being recruited at SMU, I think he'd caught much more hell than he caught, and I would have, definitely."

Most of what Dr. King said to LeVias is lost to memory. Dr. King asked if he was a good student, if he was a religious believer. He wanted to know about LeVias the young man. But given the road that lay before LeVias, a road that Dr. King had traveled since the Montgomery bus boycott thrust him to the fore of the civil rights movement a decade earlier, he also had some advice for LeVias. It has remained with LeVias to this day.

"I understand you're a fantastic young man," Dr. King said. "A lot of things are going to be happening to you, but the one thing most important is that you always keep your emotions in control."

The strength to control those emotions did not come without a cost. As LeVias lived without a roommate, as students made it difficult to walk down the sidewalk, as opponents punched him and gouged his eyes and once spit in his face, he did not retaliate.

"You're not upholding your honor or yourself as a respectable person," he said. "Sometimes you just had to take it."

LeVias's anger and rage remained bottled inside him for four decades, until it shoved him into clinical depression. Therapy gave him the vents he needed. Dr. King, of course, never got that chance.

SMU recently posted on its website excerpts of the speech Dr. King delivered to a standing-room audience at McFarlin Auditorium. The man who spoke so little of competition painted a picture of the future in the language of sports.

"Be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer," Dr. King said. "One day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory."

Nearly a half-century later, Levias still lives in his native Texas. He marvels that Texas and Texas A&M, two universities that refused to recruit him, have African-American head coaches.

"They hired these gentlemen, not because they were black," LeVias Said. "Because they were qualified. And that's the important thing. They just happened to be black."

College football is close to the day when the sport will stop counting how many FBS head coaches are black. No one counts black quarterbacks anymore, except maybe to point out that they have won three of the last four Heisman Trophies.

In recent years, writing about the color line in college football invites yawns. To anyone 40 or younger, the color line belongs in history books. The public accepts African-American coaches, and African-American players, and, as we found out earlier this month, gay African-American players.

They are judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their win-loss record. That's not exactly what Dr. King preached, but it feels like equality.