Jerry Levias leaves nothing to chance. The right sock always goes on before the left and unless his uniform tits precisely he takes it off and starts all over again. "It takes Jerry at least an hour to get dressed, whether it's a football uniform or street clothes," says Oiler teammate Mike Richardson. During the exhibition season Levias received 18 fruit pies from the House of Pies, a Houston bakery, for the 18 points he scored against Dallas. Levias gave the pies to the Harris County Boys' School. "Call it an offering to the gods," he said.
The gods must like fruit pie and people who put on their right socks first, for they keep smiling on Jerry Levias—if not on the Houston Oilers. The team is going nowhere this year, but Levias, the smallest regular in professional football, is, per usual, hustling right along, zigging when you think he's going to zag. So far this season, his second, Levias is the third-leading receiver in the AFC and ranks fifth in punt returns. Still he is dissatisfied. At 24, Jerry Levias wants all good things to happen at once.
"I'm a hungry black man, not a bitter one," he said recently while snaking his Stingray through Houston traffic to keep a heavy schedule of business appointments. "I can't worry about what some white man did to my great-grandfather, that some whites made slaves of my people. Right now it's In to be black and qualified. The idea is to be 'qualified,' and that's what I intend to be."
The urge to get on with the business of getting ahead has Levias making as many moves off the football field as he does running his patterns. ("Levias couldn't pass a drunk test," says one pro scout. "He's unable to run a straight line.") He has a full-time job with Conoco Oil and has gone into partnership in a Houston men's shop with Johnny Burton, who styles himself The Tailor to the Stars.
November 30, 1970
Levias has all the trappings of a successful young bachelor. Besides the midnight blue Stingray, there is a chichi apartment and an answering device for his telephone. It is this gadget rather than Levias that callers invariably hear. "Hello," says his recorded voice backed up by soft music. "This is Jerry. I'm sorry that I wasn't in, but please leave a message and I will get back to you at the first possible convenience." This is usually several weeks later.
It's a hard life. Jerry Levias' father, Charles Levias, the man he calls the Confucius of Soul, advised his son: "Work hard when you're young and play hard when you're old." Levias compromises and plays a little bit and that's about all there is time for.
"Make the most of opportunities," Levias chants as he drives around Houston. And "Got to get things going while you can." And "Make people like you." And "Be nice to everybody." The homilies flow in an uninterrupted stream.
"Good public relations are important," Levias says. And so he seldom turns down a public-appearance request. During the season his function with Conoco is largely that of making goodwill appearances and he prides himself on his record. "I don't fail them," says Levias. "Some Monday mornings it's torture to get out of bed and keep my appointments, but I do it. It's important to prove that Jerry Levias is dependable, that Jerry Levias cares about Conoco."
Levias' sense of public relations carries over to areas that have nothing to do with Oilers, oil or men's fashions. He has time for everybody, even the kids who wait at the Oilers' dressing-room door. The day before Houston played Pittsburgh, Levias was approached by a 14-year-old boy. "How you going to do this week?" he asked. "I'm going to have a big day," said Levias, smiling. "O.K.," replied the boy. "That's what I like to hear, but don't go dropping any passes. You dropped a touchdown pass against Oakland, remember, and you're the guy who holds on to everything thrown your way. That's what you're always saying, right? Don't forget, Jerry Levias, because I'll be here to remind you." "Hey, man, let up," Levias said, still smiling—but barely. "Don't you ever forget? I drop two passes in two seasons and I'm a criminal or something?" Later, in the Stingray, Levias was unsmiling. "You know that kid is right," he said finally. "A pro should never drop a pass. He ought to own every ball he gets his hands on."
Levias almost didn't get a chance to own any. "Every few years there was a new reason to keep me from the next stage," he says. "I've been too small, too sick and too black. Then the objections came full cycle and I was told not to dream about the pros—I was too small.
"To me dreams are like the patterns you use to make a dress. You dream and then you try to bring it to life—make it a reality. That's the way my life has been—like one of those kids' novels. Small boy makes good. He does the impossible on and off the playing field. Sometimes it seems unreal even to me, as if I were in a movie watching a make-believe film about the life of a stranger."
The real-life story of Jerry Levias, small, black football player out of Beaumont, Texas, almost failed to become a reality. His mother was the first to feel he was too little for football, and after a case of polio that left him even less robust, Mrs. Levias was convinced. But she was up against a genetic and environmental imperative, or the closest thing to it in football. Jerry's paternal grandfather was the progenitor of four pros: Jerry; Miller Farr, a defensive back with St. Louis; his brother Mel, a running back at Detroit; and Clancy Williams, a Los Angeles Rams defensive back.
"Miller was the first to go out for football," says Levias, "and as we got to high school we followed along, just as we used to do when he went to the fair." Levias was aided and abetted by his older sister Charlena. "We called her Cholly because what are you going to call the best pulling guard on the sand-lot football team?" he says. "She'd always find an excuse for me to be out of the house, so I was able to make practice." Sister Cholly was the cover but the newspapers aided the plot. They continually misspelled the family name. In print Levias appeared as Lezniaz, and so it meant nothing to Jerry's mother. (In keeping with his new status, Levias has Frenchified his name and prefers that it be spelled LeVias.) But the secret was out when Jerry Levias, 14-year-old, 116-pound starting defensive back for Hebert High School, was brought home unconscious and his mother learned he wasn't the team manager.
At this point Charles Levias stepped in. He said the boy could play as long as he studied. "I had it in mind that Jerry would be the first educated Levias," he says. "I didn't ever want to see him with an ignorant stick [a shovel] in his hand. I wanted my son to use his head to make a living, not his back. You see, it's a different world than I knew. Times are changing for the better."
The Farr boys, especially Miller, helped shape Levias, too. Like his cousin, Miller enjoys being on the move—only Miller moves even farther and faster. It seems he just can't sit at home. At one point, having run out of excuses, he took to walking the dog—for 12 hours at a time. On another occasion he told his wife that he was going to play golf, and left the house with his clubs slung over his shoulder, took a plane to San Diego and didn't return for three days.
Jerry Levias remembers with great nostalgia the rivalry between the two black Beaumont high schools, Hebert and Charlton-Pollard, the latter coached by Willie Ray Smith, father of the Colts' Bubba. "When the two schools met it was usually for the district championship," Levias says. "It was like a carnival. Nothing else was scheduled. People would come into Beaumont from a 50-mile radius—Woodville, Silsbee, Kirbyville, Jasper. The fans would start to arrive at 5. Tickets were scalped, and a month's salary might be bet. If you were going with a girl and she went to the other high school, then you didn't talk for the week of the game. Guys married to Pollard gals—old married folks—would split once they got in the gate, and each would sit where they belonged, on either the Pollard side or the Hebert side."
Levias says he was unaware of prejudice until he went to college. He soon learned. First he discovered the bias against small men. "I called Coach Royal at Texas and told him I had an exceptional Negro—a player qualified both academically and athletically for the Southwest Conference," says Hebert Coach Clifton Ozen. "When he asked how much does he weigh, I replied, oh, about 153 pounds. Royal said he was afraid that Jerry wasn't big enough for the league."
Levias did make the Southwest Conference, and broke its color line, but he played for Southern Methodist. "After SMU won the conference title in Jerry's sophomore year, I called Coach Royal again." says Ozen. "I told him that's the same little ol' boy you wouldn't take. And Royal said, 'Well, he didn't sound very big then when you described him, but he looks plenty big to me now.' "
SMU Coach Hayden Fry had a different point of view. "We screened black athletes for three years before deciding on Jerry," he says. "The first one we would take had to be a winner three ways—in character, academically and athletically. We felt we had found the complete student-athlete in Jerry."
Levias measured up to Fry's expectations. Before he graduated he made both the academic and athletic All-America teams; moreover, he brought SMU its first championship in 18 years. And, in Levias' first conference game, he lived his dream sequence—and then repeated it.
"As a kid, I would dream of scoring the winning touchdown with seconds left in a game," he says. "The scene and the sequence were always the same. The game was on TV and the announcer would be hysterical and the fans would be shouting, cheering my name. Thai's just what happened in my first conference game, against Rice. I timed a high pass, grabbed it one-handed and landed in the end zone with the winning score and only nine seconds left in the game. It was a replay. It was unbelievable." The unbelievable kept recurring and Levias repeated the scene seven more times before he graduated.
Pro football had to be anticlimactic. "Playing in the pros hasn't matched up yet," says Levias. "But starting in the pros when everybody said to forget it, said I was too small to play at all—that's exciting. Last year I was responsible for almost half of the Oilers' total yardage. Meanwhile, I'll keep playing and something will turn up. If I keep at it I'll find the script. I've got to.
"The public may not understand it, but if I played the game for money alone I couldn't stand out. Sometimes I forget my paychecks and they lay in the office for weeks. Football I play for my soul. That's why it moves me. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. From the beginning I've been an ordinary-size man in a giant's game. I've always wanted to be somebody, somebody people would notice and point to. I suppose that's what the dreams are all about."
Unfortunately, Levias goes unnoticed on the street. He just disappears in a crowd of ordinary people, which is unavoidable since he is slightly under average size. He avoids the tape measure, a trick he learned early in his career. "I've existed with all the lies about my size throughout college and I'll just continue to leave it up to people's imagination," he says. However, one scout claims he measured Levias and found him to be 5'8" and 163 pounds.
The secret of Levias' success is simply that he avoids solid contact. When he was a high school player, his grandmother, Ella Levias, lectured him: "Now, I know you won't play football to kill nobody or even to hurt people. You just go out and hit them in a good Christian way." But Levias isn't the kind of man who smites his adversaries; instead, he is a good Christian who turns away from violence, a nonaggressor.
"I'm like a rat in a maze," he says. "I'm always searching for an opening and if I stop or pause then I'm going to get hit with the full impact of the lick and I can't afford too many of those. I never want to let them hit me when I have both feet planted, so I'm always doing something. I try to slip in between defenders and then slide away once I have the ball. Coaches instruct tacklers to watch the ballcarrier's waist. If they watch mine they get hypnotized. I never run more than a step without juking. When I'm out on the field with all of those big guys, it's all a blur. I hardly blink when I'm running a pattern. I can't waste the time."
Defenses around the league are beginning to key on Levias. "Catches are coming harder," he says. "No one wants to let me get deep anymore. The Los Angeles defensive coach told me they built their defenses to stop me. I mean, that moves me. I'm the same little guy they said was too small for the pros and now they have to construct the entire defense to keep the ball away from me. Now, that's something."
But Levias has maneuvers to shake free. Often his best chance is on the overthrown pass. He is an extraordinary jumper who can spring high enough to extend his elbow over the crossbar of the goalposts. Says Levias, "When a defender is looking for the ball and sees it's high over my head, he says to himself, 'Oh, wow, Levias can't get that!' Then I jump, grab it and go, leaving the cornerback behind. I did that against Earsell Mackbee in an exhibition game with Minnesota. Mackbee let me know he didn't like to be embarrassed and that guy is tough. He beat on me until my pads broke."
Pittsburgh's John Rowser found it easiest to cope with Levias by cracking him on the side of the head. It's a challenge, but not the kind Levias takes up. "I just won't take on a man physically," he says. "I've got to survive by cleverness, and that sort of thing won't get me anywhere but an early retirement."
The dangers increase with his success, and even though he sees the game as a stage for his ego, he is frightened. "I chose the role, so I accept it," he says. "I always wanted to be somebody, to be recognized and respected. But that doesn't stop me from being scared on the football field. It's a strange kind of fright. It's all mixed up with many things. It's fear of being badly hurt. I think about that before the game, then forget it while I'm playing and after it's over I shake a little and say a prayer. It's the kind of fear that doesn't tie you up but makes you run faster. It's a sick sensation in your stomach, and it hits me hardest before the game. It's so mixed up, it's hard to explain. I just know at the same time I worry about failure. I'm even more afraid of not doing well. So far I've beaten every challenge that I've faced, and that worries me. There is so much more to be accomplished."