Bear Bryant has phoned. So has Shug Jordan. Florida's Doug Dickey made a personal appearance. Letters have come pouring in from Ohio State, Notre Dame, Nebraska—from just about every school that plays big-time college football—all of them eager to recruit an 18-year-old senior from Baker High School in Florida. In itself, this is not unusual, but there is an unusual thing about the young man from Florida. He doesn't play football.
His name is Houston McTear, the same Houston McTear who has been clocked sprinting the length of a football field in nine seconds fiat and who last March won the 60-yard dash at the U.S.A.-U.S.S.R. meet in six seconds. Until this fall McTear did play football in Baker, a hamlet among pine forests and soybean farms in the Florida panhandle 135 miles west of Tallahassee. But with an eye to the Olympics in Montreal next July and the knowledge that one good shot from an opposing tackier might end his track career, McTear has put away his shoulder pads—for the time being—much to the regret of Sonny Hendrix, Baker's football coach. His team is losing more than it is winning, and Hendrix could use McTear's speed in his backfield. "I think he's making a mistake," says Hendrix. "His family is so poor he could help them best by staying in football."
Last season McTear, who is 5'8" and 160 pounds, started at running back for Baker. Working out of a Wishbone, he gained 1,380 yards in 96 carries. That is a 14.4-yard average. He scored 16 touchdowns, four of them on passes. Hendrix likes to say that every time the Gators shook McTear loose, he was gone for a touchdown. "His running aside," says Allen Trammell, an assistant coach at Florida, "McTear showed me exceptional hands and a lot of durability. He's sure welcome at Florida, and I think if he came here he'd do well enough to attract the pros." Trammell coaches defensive backs. "If ever I had to prepare my guys for a nine-flat sprinter, I wouldn't sleep for five nights," he says. "He'd get double coverage even if he never caught a pass."
The question is not whether McTear can play major-college football, but whether he will play. Will Willoughby doubts it. Willoughby is McTear's track coach and primary influence. It was his persuasion that made McTear drop football, an unpopular decision at Baker.
Willoughby thinks McTear might someday run an 8.8-second 100-yard dash. "I told him he can fulfill the American Dream—do something no one else ever has. Sure, he could play wide receiver, but there are plenty of promising wide receivers and only one other human being ever to run a nine-second hundred."
In the five years Willoughby has coached McTear, they have become inseparable. Willoughby accompanies McTear to all away track meets and McTear often plays cards or eats with Willoughby and his wife Caroline. They help him with speech problems and manners and sometimes with a few dollars for a movie or a meal.
Willoughby says flatly that McTear is going to set world records in the 100-yard and 100-meter dashes. McTear has run only nine competitive 100-meter races, not counting trial heats. One of them, in the AAU national junior championship trials in Knoxville last June, he ran in 10 seconds, .1 off the world record. Willoughby also believes that if McTear does win a gold medal in Montreal this July, he should sign with the International Track Association rather than go to college. "They figured Steve Prefontaine would make $100,000 with the ITA," Willoughby says. "In that event, Houston should be worth at least $50,000."
Already, McTear has been offered money to endorse a track shoe, which, of course, he has turned down. But should he become an Olympic champion in Montreal, Willoughby will advise McTear to accept any substantial offer. "If Coach says it's a good deal, I'll take it," says Houston.
"Not everybody is cut out for college," Willoughby says. "Houston would have to work hard to keep up in any kind of school. If he fails to qualify for the Olympics, I'll advise him to take a track scholarship rather than football. For one thing, it'd be easier on him. He could run three years and still play football as a senior. I'm sure any coach would welcome him."
Allen Trammell says McTear told him recently that he wants to play major-college football. He has no reservations about McTear in the classroom. "He is a rural kid," Trammell says, "but not a dumb one. With a good tutoring program, I'm sure McTear could handle classwork." He thinks McTear would be foolish to pass up football for track. "Moneywise," Trammell says, "there's no comparison." Bob Hayes risked almost certain success in the 100-meter dash at the Tokyo Olympics by running pass routes for Florida A&M the previous two autumns. Tokyo promised glory, but football was a chance for a livelihood. "Conserving talent is the same as wasting it," Hayes said last week while getting dressed for practice with the San Francisco 49ers. "A man's got to use all his gifts. Houston's prime is a long way off. Who knows how long the ITA will last? The Olympics are fine, but the world of football has a lot more money. Houston ought to get some of it if he can."
McTear grows restless wondering about tomorrow. He likes to "ride around with the dudes," dream about Montreal and keep thoughts of security and money far back in his mind.
"I can go through money like anybody," McTear says. "I can run a train through some money when I have it. When I don't, it really doesn't matter. Money ain't nothing but a word."
As is future. But Houston McTear will have to choose his very soon.