A popcorn game, some coaches call it: the creams against the alabasters, or the porcelains against the pinks, or whatever you have when Caucasians play the game of football among themselves. Call it what you like, but be assured that it is becoming as out of date as the segregated drinking fountain. The Warren McVeas of the world—when they are healthy—have seen to that. The soul brothers have arrived in college football, not just here, there, but almost everywhere, and this year in particular it seems that a team which does not have the brilliant Negro runner is about as exciting to watch as a clumsy baton twirler.
As of this week, three of the most surprising teams in the U.S.—Houston, Purdue and Southern California—are all featuring attacks built around the blazing talents of superb Negro backs. Purdue has Leroy Keyes, the man who beat Notre Dame, and USC has O. J. Simpson, who has slashed the Trojans right up to No. 1. But neither has quite rivaled the excitement generated by the wildest runner of them all and the one who may be the most valuable to his team, Wondrous Warren McVea of Houston.
While Keyes and Simpson were keeping their teams up there among the undefeated last Saturday, McVea was starting out to do so for the Cougars. Then, just eight minutes along in the game against' North Carolina State, he was injured. With 41 yards in only five carries, McVea had had Houston looking as potent as ever, but when he suddenly went out with a shoulder bruise the blaze in Houston's offense went out just as swiftly. The result was a 16-6 upset by the Wolfpack, a defeat that came as the same sort of jolt to college enthusiasts as Houston's devastating victory over Michigan State did earlier—the thing that thrust McVea and the Cougars into national prominence in the first place.
McVea's injury was diagnosed as not being serious after Monday's X rays and, fortunately for the Cougars, they now have a week off in which to recover their dignity and get their blaze lit again. Without McVea, against North Carolina State, the Cougars did what Purdue or USC might do without Keyes or Simpson. They panicked, fumbling an atrocious seven times and throwing two interceptions, blowing a 6-0 half-time lead and crashing into the ranks of the embarrassed before a record Astrodome football crowd of 52,483.
Houston's efforts to mount an attack without McVea served to point out how important the splendid Negro runner is in this season of frantic emphasis on offense. "McVea is really something," said the Wolfpack's All-America tackle, Dennis Byrd. "I was sorry to see him hurt, but it really helped us." His injury also gave an even truer ring to McVea's own words long before the game.
"You got to play the big O nowdays," Warren had said, meaning offense. "That D will win for you sometimes, but you got to have the O."
The good Negro runner is hardly new to the college game, of course. You can go back to Ozzie Simmons at Iowa, or Kenny Washington at UCLA. You can come up to Buddy Young at Illinois, or Jim Brown at Syracuse, or Clinton Jones at Michigan State, and a lot of others. But you will not find so many good ones in so many far-flung places as there are this season, or so many teams eager to recruit others.
As Texas' Darrell Royal says, "It's been proved in a lot of sports that the Negro athlete simply has more speed. Now he is getting good coaching in our part of the world because of integrated schools. The result is a lot of spectacular backs."
Royal is a good example of a southern coach caught in the middle. There is pressure on Texas to recruit a McVea or a Simpson: Texas could use some O. And there is pressure not to. Meanwhile, the Negro players have gone elsewhere—the likes of Mel Farr, Charley Taylor, Junior Coffey, Wilmer Cooks, Johnny Roland, Clemon Daniels and Homer Jones, to name a few. They all came out of Texas high school football.
None, however, has come along with the speed and broken-field ability of McVea. Mac the Knife, as he has been labeled, is a ballcarrier who can outrun you or outdodge you. He starts quick, and then gets quicker. He stops and makes you collapse. He seems to slide sideways as fast as he darts forward.
McVea, a high-spirited individualist, is unique in many ways. He is the first much-recruited southern Negro to play on a major-college team in the Southwest, he is the star of the nation's only indoor football team and he is certainly the only All-America candidate in recent memory who has had a near fight with a teammate—a white teammate, at that—in plain view of a Domeful of spectators.
Although the mere sight of a football game in the Astrodome is bizarre enough, a more shocking scene occurred only two weeks ago when McVea and his principal co-star, Kenny Hebert, the excellent Houston split end, got into a scuffle in their own huddle during Houston's 50-6 victory over Wake Forest.
It happened in the second quarter at a time when the Cougars led by three touchdowns and were moving for another. When McVea failed to carry out a fake, Hebert, a fiery type from Pampa, Texas, came raging back to the huddle. He shoved himself up into McVea's face, and before the Astrodome's startled 41,000 began lecturing Warren.
It looked for all the world like professional jealousy, as if the Cougars' leading pointmaker, Hebert, and their leading runner, McVea, were arguing over tomorrow's headlines. And one imagined the following conversation taking place down there on the bright green Astroturf:
Hebert: Knock off the loafing, Back of the Week.
McVea: Excuse me, Leading Scorer, I didn't know you were the coach.
Hebert seemed to push McVea, and McVea quickly bumped Hebert backward with his forearms, a mild sort of pass block. Out came this terrible, embarrassed gasp from the crowd.
Houston Coach Bill Yeoman was appalled. He waited a couple of plays, then took McVea out. McVea went to the sideline and promptly jerked away from Yeoman when the coach tried to put his arm around him, an act which drew another gasp from the crowd.
When McVea did not re-enter the game the rest of the evening, it looked as if Yeoman were disciplining him, but nothing could have been further from the truth. It was McVea himself—out of a combination of anger and dismay—who refused to play anymore. Nor did Yeoman insist, for he is lenient with his Wondrous One, proceeding on the probably sound theory that nothing helps his team quite so much as a happy McVea.
"I was really hot," McVea said two days later as he wandered around Rice Stadium in a nattily tailored gold suit and Paisley tie, watching a pro game between the Oilers and Broncos of the AFL. "I was shocked at Kenny. I guess I was a little embarrassed. The whole thing was over right there in the huddle, and we both apologized to each other. I could have gone back in, but it was 28-0 and they didn't need me."
One of the beautiful things about McVea is his realism. He admits that he finds it hard to put out when it is unnecessary. "I got this sore groin," he says. "Why should I abuse it against a team we're gonna beat pretty bad? If they had needed me, I'd have been in there." Besides, he doesn't like to run on the Astroturf, not at all. He thinks it is shortening his career. He says that it is hard as a dance floor, and you can't get good enough footing to cut properly. To help McVea and the rest of his Houston speedsters, Yeoman last week had padding put under the Astroturf to give the surface more resilience, a modification that was first tried last Saturday night for the North Carolina State game. It seemed to help some, especially when McVea got off a 34-yard scamper the third time he carried, but he was not destined to give it a thorough test.
McVea has been a controversial player throughout his career, mostly because he was one of the first big Negro stars to come out of Texas' integrated high schools. He scored a remarkable 591 points in three seasons at San Antonio's Brackenridge High and he closed out his eligibility there in a 1963 state playoff game that is a classic.
It was a bi-district encounter between Brackenridge and San Antonio Lee, and McVea played a T-formation quarterback in that game, which Lee won by the score of 55-48. Still, Wondrous Warren scored six times for a total of 36 points in his losing cause. A film was made of the game, and it has become frazzled from being shown at luncheons and banquets. "The McVea film," as it is known, is still in demand.
That game was hardly over before McVea was being pursued by scouts from more than 75 colleges around the nation. He made trips to USC, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma, and copies of his transcript were asked for by every college from the Rio Grande to Leningrad. A few Southwest Conference schools were interested in making McVea their first recruited Negro, something SMU's Jerry Levias has since become. (Levias led SMU to a conference title in 1966.)
All along, however, it was the University of Houston that had the inside track with Warren, whose second choice was USC. His family of eight brothers and sisters wanted him to stay close to home so they could watch him play, and Bill Yeoman lectured him on the pioneer spirit of Texans. "We can be a first," Bill had said. "You'll be the first Negro football star to stay home, and I'll be your coach. We'll go down the road together."
The idea appealed to Warren. An ardent sports follower, he knew about all the talented Negroes from Texas who had left the state in the past because they either were not wanted or did not want to brave the indignities that were sure to result from breaking the color barrier.
"The racial aspects didn't really bother me too much," McVea says. "I thought everyone was making too big a deal out of it. My high school was integrated. And I frankly never thought about it. I really didn't feel that much like a pioneer by staying in Texas and going to Houston. The big thing was being close to home."
There were some marvelous rumors about McVea during his first couple of seasons with the Cougars. Most of them centered around what Yeoman must have promised McVea to lure him away from the other recruiters. McVea was supposed to have received an automobile, a wardrobe to equal a South American dictator's, free trips home to San Antonio any time he wished to go, a telephone credit card, a suite of rooms at the Tidelands Hotel his freshman year ("to get adjusted"), a four-year salary of $40,000....
Most of the rumors were started by rednecks, of which Texas still has many despite its plea that it is a southwestern state, as opposed to a southern one. And they all made Yeoman, in his words, "darn sick to my stomach." The talkers got a measure of pleasure when the NCAA put Houston on probation for three years in 1966 because of recruiting violations, but this involved players other than McVea. (The probation will keep Houston from playing in a bowl game this season.)
In his freshman season McVea did have an adjustment to make, and at first it seemed too big for him. He would overhear remarks as he strolled to class. And a couple of players on the team refused to speak to him.
At one point during his freshmen season McVea went to Yeoman and said he couldn't take it. He said he guessed he had made a mistake and probably would be better off at an all-Negro school, such as Texas Southern. Yeoman almost swallowed his tie.
"I told him that few people in life had an opportunity like his," says Yeoman. "I told him I'd sink with him if that was what was going to happen, but I didn't think so. And he agreed to stay. If he's had any second thoughts since then, he hasn't expressed them to me."
So McVea didn't sink, and he certainly didn't vanish. Instead, Houston developed into a flamboyant team, one that is such an attraction that 7,000 standing room tickets were sold to the Astrodome last Saturday night.
It is typical of McVea's character that he has become an attraction off the team as well as on. While he prefers that no tackier touch him, he also prefers that none of his clothes—suits, slacks, sport jackets—touch one another in his dormitory closet. He attends classes in tailor-made, beltless, cuffless slacks and alligator loafers. He has two tailors in Houston, one for suits and one for slacks.
He is also meticulous about football gear. His socks have to be high, and tape d so that they can never—ever—slip down. His belt has to be pulled to just such a length so that the end flops out in front by a precise three inches. And no one must handle his shoes, whether they be the ones with the regular cleats for grass or the soccer cleats for Astroturf. "I just don't want anybody to touch my shoes," says Warren. "Been that way since high school. I carry my shoes in the buses or on the planes right by my side."
Warren hardly wants his own hair to touch him, and during the season he has kept his head totally shaved. Although it would be more to his taste to have it done by Norris of Houston in the swanky Warwick Hotel, Warren settles for having teammate J. B. Keys come to his dorm room and give him a clip every Thursday. But McVea doesn't pay him. "I can't," he says innocently. "That would make him a pro."
There was some question at first whether McVea was for real. Sure, he had been a high school great, but the YMCAs are full of those. Sure, he had been fast and tricky against high school defenders, but this was the big time now. All doubt was removed one afternoon during a freshman scrimmage against the varsity that Yeoman will never forget. The freshman unit had been looking lethargic, primarily because McVea was hobbling around. Admittedly, he has never been a brilliant workout player. "I have sore legs," he says with a smile. "But they have a habit of getting well on Saturdays." As the freshmen huddled, the coaches said that if they could make a touchdown drive they could quit for the day.
"Hold it," said Warren. "You mean if we score again, we can go in?"
The coaches nodded.
"Just gimme the ball," said McVea.
Whereupon Wondrous Warren got his hands on the football and lit out in his typical fashion on a 30-yard run for a touchdown. His style is basically smooth. His legs churn like spokes, and his arms stay close to his sides. His cut is more like a sharp lean. He fakes his head and shoulders with great subtlety.
Despite his tremendous potential as an all-the-way runner, it took McVea a while to make a believer out of his varsity opponents. His first varsity game was a shambles. It was against Tulsa, on national television. Houston lost 14-0 in the Astrodome, and Warren fumbled four times. He was thereupon shifted from running back to flanker (where he wants to play as a pro) for the remainder of the season and for his first five games last year as a junior. Yeoman did not feel he had the blockers to give McVea enough daylight, and Warren, who is only 5'10" and 180 pounds, agrees that he is not so hot without running room. Last year, though, Houston's fine guards, Rich Stotter and Bill Pickens, and Tackle Bill Cloud developed as path-clearers, and at midseason McVea became a runner again. He ended up averaging 8.8 yards per carry, and Houston finished with an 8-2 record.
This year, with his blockers even more proficient and Houston a confident team loaded with threats other than himself, Mac the Knife is off to his best start, despite the injuries to his pride, groin, shoulder and what have you. He has 324 yards on a mere 38 deliveries, or an average of 8.5 yards every time he flows inside or outside tackle. He believes that if his pains heal he still has opportunity enough in six remaining games to reach his goal of 1,000 yards. His long gainers have included runs of 20 and 19 against Florida State, of 50, 48 and 33 in the Houston upset of Michigan State, of 70 against Wake Forest and of 34 against North Carolina State. One of the remarkable things about his record is that in four games he has barely played enough to earn a letter. For a variety of reasons—anger, injury or the game being a rout—he has played little in the second half except against Michigan State.
It was McVea's free-lance running that ruined the Spartans and catapulted Houston into the Top 10 for the first time in the team's history. The game also won a handful of Back of the Week awards for Warren, but he did not think he had played especially well.
"Man, if I'd known I was going to be Back of the Week I 'd have tried," he says.
From here on, McVea will have to try like never before if Houston is going to regain the company of the nation's elite. Next week the Cougars travel to Starkville, Miss, to meet Mississippi State, and the week after to Oxford to play Ole Miss. And then they come home to receive powerful Georgia. That makes three teams from Dixie in three weeks, and two of them on the road. McVea has played Deep South teams before—Ole Miss in Memphis last year, for one—but never deep into the South.
"Starkville and Oxford," he sighed last week. "That's something I'm thinking about, all right. They threw a lot of stuff at me and hollered things in Memphis, but this could be worse. I just want to get in there and get out. I know we're a better team than they are, but it might be hard to prove in that atmosphere. We beat Ole Miss in the Dome when I was a sophomore [McVea scored on pass runs of 80 and 84 yards], and I understand they said they wouldn't play us here again as long as we had Negro boys.
"But I'll tell you something," McVea added, and a seriousness came to his usually animated face. "The finest thing that has ever happened to me was getting letters of apology from some Ole Miss coeds after our game in Memphis last year.
"Listen, I was like most Negro boys when I got out of high school. I didn't worry about any racial stuff. But people kept asking me about it, and so I started to think about it. Now I got to go down there and play those Mississippi teams."
That's the way it is these days. Warren and O. J. and Leroy are taking the big O everywhere.