WINNING SON OF A DEDICATED LOSER

Richmond Flowers Jr. is a double threat—in track and football—but for a long time the asthmatic youth from Alabama seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps
June 05, 1966

What follows, as an account of the still short life of Richmond Flowers Jr., may not be altogether faithful to the guidelines of dramaturgy, but that is the privilege of wild, wild truth. To open (some eight years ago), the name of the hero is Richmond Flowers Junior, because a father would naturally want to perpetuate a name like that. He has these spectacular flat feet that make him look as if he is walking on his ankles, and all the kids make fun of him because he has to wear big brown leather brogans laced up to his lunch money. He would worry plenty about those shoes if he did not have to give equal worrying time to his asthma and his left ear, which was permanently disabled by the mumps. He is anemic. His blood count is 55. His mother wrings her hands a lot because he does not eat. She wants him to play the piano or, if he persists in contact sports, to play golf. She thinks golf is the ideal contact sport.

His father (now project forward to 1966) is an outspoken and very controversial guy who is dedicated to the quixotic notion that George C. Wallace and the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan are not necessarily all that good for the state of Alabama. He is the attorney general and he is trying to beat Governor Wallace out of a job. But gradually he is discovering he has been trying to make fingerprints on an oil slick. He has to have his daughter, Mary, who is 11, stop answering the phone, because people keep calling to tell her she is going to see her daddy face up in a coffin one of these days. At a high school football game in Montgomery he reaches out to shake hands with a constituent and while the man holds his hand another slugs him in the face and the two run off into the crowd. The father does not have a chance, and Mrs. Wallace, running for Mr. Wallace, beats him out.

Meanwhile (flashback to junior high), the son with the natural lack of talent is working very hard to be an athlete in spite of his tired blood. He is actually a goldbrick who hates to train, but he throws his whole emaciated body into anything that represents a challenge.

"Heaven help him," says his father. "He is like I am. A born underdog." The boy tries all sports with equal unsuccess. He is what his daddy calls "laughing material." He gets into a basketball game in an overtime period and fouls out before the overtime is over. He takes a turn at catching baseball and rips off his mask to chase a loose ball. The mask falls down over the ball, and while he is looking for it—"Where's the ball? Where's the ball?" he yells at the umpire, who remains impartially stone-lipped—three runs score. Richmond senior is a red-hot fan. He once bought $10 worth of peanuts just to break up an argument between the vendor and a patron, because the argument was interrupting his line of vision. He buys season tickets to the Auburn and Alabama football games, and he takes his son to the big game between the two, but he cannot teach Richmond Junior to be a good spectator. All Richmond wants to do is get Bart Starr's chin strap. "I am," the boy says later on, looking back over this muddling-through period, "one of the alltime nuts for chin straps."

His father is an extremely patient, likable, inspiring man, the type kids go for. He looks like Frank Broyles, the Arkansas football coach. He demonstrates a lot of loyalty just by going to watch his son play. He gives him plenty of heart-to-chin-strap advice. When the boy comes home complaining about not playing much for the Little League team, his father sits him down and says, "Richmond, old boy, you must try to develop the humor of this thing. Tell the coach, 'O.K., sir, I am going to hold that bench down then. It's always going to be right there when you need it, right underneath me. Go ahead, you guys, go out there and have yourselves a good sweat. It's hot as a sack of oats out there. Me, I'll just sit here and keep cool.' " His father is very concerned that Richmond will carry his Little League complex into later life. "From the beginning," says his father, "I tried to teach Richmond to be a loser."

When Richmond is 13 he shoots an 82 at golf, but it represents no challenge to him, because he has this other idealistic bent, which all great athletes naturally have: he wants to make a pile of money playing football (his is an up-to-date idealism). He actually hates the game, having fought with it for so long, but he can read. When he comes home from a scrimmage he announces he has scored his first touchdown and says to his daddy, "Daddy, is it true, all that money professional football players make?"

Then one day he is in the 10th grade at Sidney Lanier High in Montgomery, where his father has gone to take over as attorney general and rock the governmental boat. Running from field to field, Richmond has developed an appreciable speed. He gets put into a varsity baseball game as a pinch runner and is immediately picked off first base. "Daddy," he says afterward, his face very drawn, "baseball is not my game. I am going out for track. I've got to get a letter. It is very important socially at Lanier High to get a letter. What event should I try out for?"

"Well," says his daddy, tempering fatherly enthusiasm with politic practicality, "the 440 would be the best for you. It requires a little bit of speed and a lot of guts."

It is a painstaking process, but Richmond wins a track letter. When he runs he is all over the track; he does not seem capable of running in a straight line. His coach tells him maybe a little work on the hurdles might help. He tries to run over a hurdle and falls on his face. It is not a new experience, but it is a new challenge. He has been playing organized football, in one minor capacity or another, from the time he was in the third grade (Alabama football is big league from the cradle to the bowls), but running hurdles is a refreshment in a new container. All summer he works on the hurdles.

"Daddy," he says, "I'm picking up speed."

"Yes, son. But don't worry about it."

"No, Daddy, I mean it. I'm going to win."

"That's fine, son, but just worry about participating. That's life, you know, participating."

"Daddy, I'm going to win! I'm picking up speed!"

"Yes, son."

(Curtain.)

The next scene brings a great revelation. After a remarkable summer of hard work, Richmond Flowers Jr. is suddenly the talk of Lanier High. He is tall, dark and practically handsome. He has muscles. He has arches. He has moved up, up, up—from third end on the B team to star halfback on the Lanier varsity. (The coach wanted him to remain an end, but he told his daddy he was the biggest, fastest halfback on the team and he did not care to play end, so his daddy told him to go out for halfback.) He makes the coach look like a genius. The coach is not appreciative. There is a grinding personality conflict. It gets to be a team joke, Richmond Flowers running punishment laps after dark. He sets a Lanier High record for punishment laps, and he becomes the best halfback in the state. College scouts begin to drool over him.

In track he breaks the state record in the 120-yard high hurdles, then he breaks the 180-yard low-hurdle record, and then the broad-jump record, and he ties the record for the 100-yard dash. At Mobile he sets a national high school high-hurdle record of 13.5 seconds. In May of his senior year he goes to the California Relays at Modesto. It is only his sixth time to run over the higher (by three inches) men's hurdles. In his anxiety he knocks over the first two hurdles, but he wins anyway. One of his victims is a big, powerful 25-year-old man named Blaine Lindgren, who happens to have won the silver medal at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Richmond does not know who Lindgren is, not being much of a sports fan or even a subscriber to Track & Field News. Lindgren tells him, "You are still wet behind the ears, kid, but you are damn good competition."

Meanwhile his father is making a name for himself in Alabama politics. He is getting so good George Wallace probably wants to have him impeached. Richmond Junior, maturing rapidly, finds he is in complete agreement with his father's views. He clearly worships his father. His mother wishes he would just go on to law school and forget about politics, but tagging around after his father makes him see a side of Alabama that a lot of Alabamans do not see. "You can't imagine the way the Negro people look up to my daddy," he says. "He takes those slum walks—you know—and you would think he was Jesus or something. At hotels the bellboys won't let him give them a tip or anything."

He makes speeches on his daddy's behalf, and when his daddy gets him a copy of the famous Alabama voter registration tests he takes it to school and a liberal-minded teacher allows him to give it to the class. The whole class, including Richmond, fails the test.

"Sometimes I wonder," he says. "I take stock in the belief I have in my daddy, and I wonder if I would feel the same way if I were George Wallace's son."

Now comes the part where Richmond Flowers Jr. is expected to brush off the hundred or so college scholarship offers he has had and go off to play football for the University of Alabama, because it is a logistical truth that Alabama Coach Bear Bryant gets 11 of every 10 good football players in the state, and Richmond Flowers could be a fine one. This is precisely what Richmond Flowers does not do (Dramatic twist). He thinks Bear Bryant is a great coach, all right, but he does not appreciate Alabama's track program.

He goes to visit the University of Tennessee. The Tennessee track coach and head football recruiter is Chuck Rohe, who is described as an enthusiastic young man who could get you to donate your brain to the Tennessee athletic department. Rohe, canny fellow, takes Richmond out to show him the big mess the Tennessee campus is in. He is full of enthusiasm for the huge ugly mounds of red earth that have been gouged out and shoved around and the streets that are here today and gone tomorrow. The Fifth Air Force could not have done a better job busting up the place.

"A $5 million building program is going on here, right before your eyes, Richmond," says Rohe, breathing in the dust as though it were purest mountain air. "Over there you see where the new field house is going up, and back there the two Olympic-size swimming pools. And right here, right here, Richmond, is where we're putting in our $150,000 Olympic track. Nine lanes, Richmond. All Tartan. You can run on that stuff if it's 80° above or 20° below. And inside the field house, there'll be another track and...."

Rohe, who has already brought Tennessee from nowhere to two consecutive Southeastern Conference track championships, then speaks to Richmond Flowers of the day when Tennessee will be the first southern school since the 1930s to win the national championship.

Meanwhile Alabama's Bryant has gone into action. Richmond Flowers Sr. has told him the boy is leaning toward Knoxville. Bryant hires Billy Hardin from LSU as an assistant track coach. Hardin was an Olympic hurdler. Bryant sends Hardin to California. By a wild coincidence Flowers is out there running in a meet, and Bryant thinks it would be a good idea if Hardin has a few words with him. Richmond is impressed, but he has already made up his mind. He says he wants to stay in the South, all right, but away from Alabama. He likes the people at Tennessee. And the weather. (He says it is too hot in Tuscaloosa for a fellow with a low threshold of exhaustion.) And the mountains. Knoxville, Tennessee, has mountains.

In an aside, Richmond's daddy says there might have been one other contributing factor. Richmond has never been called to account for his father's politics, has had surprisingly little trouble socially or in school, but at a track meet in Montgomery, where he is to be rewarded for his performance, his daddy is introduced—and booed. "It was just a few who booed, really," says Richmond Flowers Sr., "but Richmond was hurt. He said to me, 'That's why I'm not going to stay in this state.' I looked, and there were tears in his eyes. But I think it was more the emotion of the moment than anything else. The only abiding reason he chose Tennessee was the track program."

The Tennessee football coach is Doug Dickey, one of the bright young men in the game. Dickey is willing to help facilitate Richmond's triple-tiered ambition: 1) to make the U.S. Olympic team, 2) to play enough football to earn a big professional contract and 3) to get a law degree along the way. The plan is for Richmond to run track and play football as a freshman and sophomore and then in 1967 to drop football temporarily and devote full time to track so that he may qualify for the 1968 Olympics. If he becomes an Olympian it would mean no football in 1968 either, but he would then be able to come back to Tennessee and complete his two years of eligibility (within NCAA rules that extend such a privilege to Olympic competitors). All this time he would study law.

The news of Richmond's decision hits Alabama like a casualty list. A sports-writer asks Richmond if he would not think it a great experience to play for Bear Bryant. "Well, I think it would be a greater experience to beat him," says Richmond innocently. In Alabama this is adding insult to sedition. An assistant coach there tells him he has chosen for himself the losing side whenever Alabama plays Tennessee. Privately Richmond is crestfallen. "The last thing I want to do is get those people mad at me," he says. "Hell, no, not my friends in Montgomery. Those guys I've got to play against for four years. Listen, that Bryant is a coach."

Nevertheless, Richmond is brilliant as a freshman football player at Tennessee. He averages five yards a carry and makes an all-South freshman team. But when the Tennessee freshmen play the Alabama freshmen he is a marked man. He is stopped cold. Somebody puts up a sign in the Alabama dressing room after the game: "Richmond Flowers—2.2 inches per carry." Richmond gets a card postmarked Tuscaloosa: "Today The Bear showed you what we will show you during your mistaken college career, [signed] People of Alabama."

In track, however, the hurdles are wood instead of Alabama sinew. Richmond is unstoppable. Chuck Rohe has a hard time keeping him from overworking. His form is exquisite, though his legs are short and he tends to lean too much into the first hurdle (he hits the first hurdle consistently with his lead foot). He is so aggressive and eager for action that Rohe is beside himself. "He's the finest competitor I have ever seen."

Correction, Richmond is almost unstoppable. As it happens (haul out the dramatic clichés) his principal opponent, the best hurdler in America—and therefore the world—is a Negro. From Troy, Ala. His name is Willie Davenport. He is a 22-year-old ex-paratrooper now attending Southern University. Naturally, they would take to each other right away and become the best of buddies. They do not become bud dies at all (dramatic double-twist). In Miami at the Orange Bowl Invitational meet Willie beats Richmond by a stride and is looking over his shoulder at the finish, the track-and-field equivalent of thumbing your nose. "Do that again, Willie," says 18-year-old Richmond Flowers, "and I'll run right past you."

Beating Davenport becomes an obsession with Flowers. It has nothing to do with pigmentation of the skin ("Willie probably doesn't know how Daddy and I feel anyway"), it has to do with being the best. They meet three times, and the more experienced Davenport wins all three races, and all Flowers can say afterward is, "When do I get him again?" But Rohe elects to steer him away from Davenport for a while, lets him break a few tapes "to get the feel of it again."

In the meantime Richmond is learning a few things a boy has to know when running against men in big competition. He learns about psyching. In a meet at Detroit he hears Ralph Boston humming—humming—in the starting blocks and, when the starter says "On your marks," Boston chirps for everybody to hear, "O.K., boys, here we go." Flowers is so rattled he finishes third. Afterward winner Boston throws his arm around the boy and says, "Richmond, you are going to be a fine hurdler, don't you worry. And you'll get used to the psyching."

Finally, last winter he is matched with Davenport again, this time in the All-Eastern indoor games in Baltimore. In a preliminary heat Flowers runs the 60-yard high hurdles in 6.9 seconds, the second fastest time in track history. He is standing there talking with Davenport, who has never run a 6.9, when Rohe comes running up waving his arms. (A whole lot of psyching going on.) "A 6.9, Richmond! You did it in 6.9! One judge had it 6.8!" The 6.8, of course, was wholly imaginary. In the finals Flowers does 6.9 again, and Davenport finishes fourth. Richmond is now being called the fastest white man in the world. He dislikes the term, which he thinks is meaningless.

His back is bothering him. He went bowling one night last summer and strained the muscles, then seriously aggravated them doing exercises at home and had to spend a week in the hospital. He must wear a corset now when he warms up for track meets (football and straight races do not seem to bother him). Nevertheless, at Albuquerque this spring in the National AAU meet he runs a very strong second to Davenport in the hurdles.

"Guess the shoe's on the other foot now," says Willie.

"At least until the next race," says Richmond.

In the 60-yard dash Richmond is second to a 17-year-old school kid from New Jersey, Billy Gaines. Davenport runs fourth. Flowers, the southern white boy, and Gaines, the northern Negro, pose with their arms around each other. They really are buddies. Richmond tries to explain the very different relationship he has with Davenport. "A man mouths off at me, I just naturally mouth right back. I got to quit doing that, I suppose."

This spring Doug Dickey decides to make a wingback out of sophomore-to-be Richmond Flowers. Richmond does not mind. He rubs his fingers together. "That's where the money is, catching the football. Mother will like it, too. Less contact." But can Flowers catch? "No, Flowers cannot," Richmond says after missing nine in a row in practice. "Not if they brought it to me on a tray." He finds he is gun-shy coming across the middle in the face of converging defensive backs.

He also discovers he is not an All-America blocker. "What I am is very good on the crack-back block. If I can catch a guy from the blind side, I do all right. Otherwise I'm afraid most of the time. I don't mind sticking my head in there when I've got the football, but trying to move those great big guys around can be a frightening thing." He finds that practice is still drudgery. "See the way I drag around out there? Man, I hate to practice. When I was in junior high we'd be running sprints at dusk and I'd flop down out of sight in the shadows to hide."

For all his protestations, however, Richmond devotes himself to improvement. He spends long hours learning to catch the ball instead of loafing around. He finds the Tennessee coaching staff a very pleasant group to work for. "Nobody yells and screams at me here. Nobody kicks me in the pants. When I was in high school I actually had a coach kick me in the pants. Maybe I was a problem."

In the next scrimmage he is thrown six passes and catches all six. The time after that he catches five. Moved to split end for a midweek scrimmage, he is going along doing nothing exceptional, making an occasional crack-back block look good, when the Tennessee quarterback, Dewey Warren, throws him a sideline pass. He cuts back and around the defending back and with a great burst of speed goes 28 yards to a touchdown. The defensive backs have the angle on him at the 10, but his speed beats their advantage and they are just barely hanging on as he carries them into the end zone.

"There it is," says Doug Dickey, sitting up in the stands watching. "That extra step, Speed in this game can be just that one extra step, and it can make the difference." Dickey is trying to be very cool about sophomore Richmond Flowers. He knows he has a real talent here, but he is careful with his enthusiasm. He uses words like "coachable" and "potential" and "determination." Color Doug Dickey tickled pink.

In his room at the athletic dormitory Richmond Flowers says the trouble with him is football is just a game, and when it's over it's time to party. "What I've got to be is more aggressive," he says, slamming his fist into his palm.

"Why don't you be more aggressive about answering those letters?" says H. Brantley Kemp, his roommate. Kemp is a big old blond-headed, square-jawed Georgia boy who plays end. He says the first time he met Richmond Flowers they were at an airport, and his new roommate came up carrying bags that had RICHMOND FLOWERS written in huge capital letters on the sides. "Oh, no, I thought to myself," says Kemp. "The original All-America hot dog." It turned out that the bags were a gift from a friend whom Richmond did not want to offend by refusing. Kemp now thinks Richmond could turn out to be one swell roommate if he kept his side of the room a little neater. There are trophies and kangaroo skins and boomerangs lying around, treasures that Richmond got from Australia when he competed down there this March ("the big reason I wanted to go was to get that red-white-and-blue uniform. I have always dreamed of running in a red-white-and-blue uniform with USA on it"), and in a corner his portable bedroll with the special wooden slats for his back and all around the collection of atomizers for his allergies. But the letters are Brantley's principal instrument for bugging.

"These crazy girls are all the time writing him. One of them signs her name 'Tiger.' She says she does not bite or scratch but sure goes for old Richmond. Another one is trying to impress him with how far she can throw a softball. Well, do you know something? He's had about four dates since he's been here. Some lover."

"Well, at least I don't have dogs on my mind all the time," says Richmond. "You know what this guy did? He had four dogs in this room at one time. Smuggled them in. Actually living here. I tell you! One of them was a chow. A real mangy old thing. He tried to give it a bath, and it bit him. I finally had to go to that lady at the pound and tell her not to give him any more dogs. I told her he was cutting them up for experiments. She was horrified."

"Yeah, and she won't let me have any more, either," says Brantley.

It is midday, last April 29, in Chicago. At the Covenant Club, a large group of lawyers has gathered for a special event. Richmond Flowers Sr. is being presented with the Decalogue Society Award for distinguished service in the field of national affairs. He is given a standing ovation. He says, "I especially appreciate this. I say especially, because it may help me from being the other Richmond Flowers for a little while longer." He is grinning. He enjoys being the underdog.

PHOTOSPRINTER'S SPEED could make Flowers a sophomore star in Tennessee backfield this fall. PHOTOMUTUAL ADMIRERS, Richmond Flowers Sr. and Jr. check watch after hurdles workout. PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)