It is fortunate that the University of Houston freshman football team plays tackle, not touch. On a recent night Houston's celebrated halfback, Warren McVea, roamed 55 yards to score against the Air Force Academy freshmen, and films of the game clearly show that nine players laid a hand on him. McVea reversed his field so often that one poor fellow was able to miss him at the line of scrimmage and still catch up in time to receive a stiff-arm in the mouth as McVea swept into the end zone. Later in the game McVea ran 61 yards to another touchdown, leading Houston to a 20-14 victory.
As his performance in the Air Force game indicates, Warren McVea is not the sort of halfback who comes along just any Wednesday afternoon. During his career at San Antonio's Brackenridge High School he was the most exciting, the most talked-about and the most ardently sought-after Texas player in 20 years. In three years against the state's best high school competition, McVea scored just under 600 points. As a senior he averaged better than a first down per carry and rushed for 1,332 yards.
When Brackenridge met crosstown rival Robert E. Lee in the state playoffs in 1963, McVea's coach moved him to quarterback—a position he had never played—to confuse the defense. Boy, did he confuse the defense! In a game that has become a legend in the state, McVea scored six touchdowns, but Brackenridge contrived to lose, 55-48. Lee's Linus Baer, now at the University of Texas, scored five touchdowns for his side, and as the teams jogged upfield for one of their frequent kickoffs Baer drew alongside McVea and whispered: "Gol-dang. Warren, this is getting to be a basketball game." High school coaches in Texas never tire of watching the Brackenridge-Lee film. It is considered the Gone with the Wind of schoolboy football movies.
This year, as a student at Houston, McVea is under tremendous pressure. Not only is he expected to lead his school to national football eminence, which he may, but he bears the burden of being the first Negro to receive a football scholarship to a major previously all-white college in Texas. His success at Houston could determine the speed with which Southwest Conference teams integrate.
November 9, 1964
Bill Yeoman, Houston's young and energetic coach, is well aware of the pressures on McVea and wishes the race issue could be avoided. "I don't want him," says Yeoman, "to think about carrying the banner for 300,000 people in this area."
To recruit McVea, Yeoman enlisted the aid of doctors, lawyers and businessmen from Houston's Negro community. "My chances of selling the boy," he says candidly, "were zilch—one in a thousand. I only visited him two or three times. All I did then was sit down with Mama, and Warren would pass through the living room."
The living room of the McVea home has been known to grow somewhat congested. Warren has five older brothers, most of them married, and three sisters. It was Warren's strong family ties that helped him choose Houston, less than an hour by plane from San Antonio. "When I left to enroll," he says, smiling, "Mama couldn't talk for crying so much."
The competition for McVea led to some novel forms of persuasion. Rumors that L.B.J. interceded on Houston's behalf are untrue, but Warren did receive a letter from Harry Truman pointing out the advantages of attending Missouri. One school invited him to lunch, and when he sat down he discovered a fountain, pen on either side of his salad, but no silverware.
To Yeoman's credit, he never pretended that the recruitment of McVea was motivated by any higher purpose than to land a richly promising halfback. "When I met with some of our Negro leaders," Yeoman recalls, "I told them that I'm prejudiced. I'm prejudiced against bad football players. If I didn't think Warren McVea had more ability than any kid in the state, I wouldn't want him."
McVea's football career at Houston got off to a slow start. He injured his knee on the third day of practice, and when it caused him to miss the freshman opener some of his teammates hinted broadly that he was also suffering a failure of nerve. Several days after the team doctor pronounced his knee fit, Warren was still limping in sweat clothes on the sidelines. Yeoman, however, understood what troubled him. "He has pride coming out his ears. He knows how much people expect of him, and he doesn't want to get out there unless he can do his best."
When Houston routinely gave its freshman players a weight-lifting test, McVea, who had never worked with weights in his life, begged off. Then for a week he quietly slipped into the training room to practice weight lifting on the sly. When he finally was tested he scored one of the highest grades on the squad.
At 5 feet 9 inches and 170 pounds, Warren is not built for brute force, for third-and-two plunges. As a child playing neighborhood football, he was too small to be a blocker, nor could he throw or catch the ball. But he was quick as a firefly even then, and the older boys found a place for him. "They put me behind the herd and let me run," McVea recalls. "We'd play a lot in the evening. I'd slip out of the house after supper and join the big boys. Ma didn't want me in the playground after dark, and she'd give me a whupping for it every time. But that never stopped me."
Though small, McVea is wound as tight as the string on a homemade baseball. "He has wonderful instinct," says Yeoman. He also has the balance of a high-wire artist, which he attributes to a pair of the squarest feet—size 8 double E—this side of Donald Duck. His footprints may be short and wide, but he lays them down fast. Warren has been clocked at 9.5 for 100 yards, and Houston Track Coach Johnny Morriss is already mentally reserving hotel accommodations for the 1968 Olympics.
But between now and then there is a lot of football to be played and McVea is playing it well. In his second game—the freshman team plays only four games—he scored one touchdown on a pass play and set up another on a 14-yard run as Houston won again. As a rule, freshman games are of no interest to the public, but large crowds—8,000 at the Air Force game—have turned out to watch McVea, even in practice. Tickets to freshman games are now in far greater demand than those of the varsity, and those fans who cannot get seats perch themselves atop the scoreboard or simply stand. "You never forget that people are watching you," Warren says, "and that some of them are waiting for you to mess up. But they do that with all athletes."
McVea insists that he has felt no discomfort so far at being the only Negro on the team. "It isn't a problem," he says. "I've been treated real nice by everyone." Coach Yeoman, who has done a great deal to make his young hero relax, adds: "There's only one place where Warren McVea has to prove himself, and that's on the football field."