In the spring of 1995, answering the ring of the telephone in
his athletic department office at Duke, Doug Knotts heard the
voice that had once been nearly as familiar to him as the name
that it invoked. It had a soft Southern accent that took Knotts
back three decades--back to the days when he was defensive
coordinator at Tennessee, which was just beginning to be known
as Wide Receiver U.
"This is Richmond Flowers," said the voice, "and I have a son
who's interested in playing football at Duke."
Knotts, by then the administrative assistant to Duke football
coach Fred Goldsmith, fairly blurted his reply. "If he's
anything like you," Knotts said, "we are interested in him too."
In the late 1960s Richmond McDavid Flowers Jr. was among the
most celebrated college athletes in the nation, an All-America
at Tennessee in football as a wingback and in track as one of
the world's top hurdlers. While running for the Vols, Flowers
missed tying a world record by a tenth of a second in three
events: the indoor 60-yard dash, the indoor 60 high hurdles and
the 120 high hurdles.
July 6, 1997
By May '68, a month before the U.S. track and field trials for
the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Flowers reigned as the premier
120-yard (110-meter) high hurdler in the world. But his dream of
winning an Olympic medal was shattered on an afternoon in early
June, and in the end he was left with one small but politically
incorrect consolation. "I was the fastest white boy alive," he
says now. "I was Richmond Flowers."
The name may sound as if it were lifted from a novel set in the
antebellum South, but for those who lived through the racial
tension and violence of the 1960s, the lasting images the name
conjures up are more disquieting than any work of fiction and
have nothing to do with sports. While Flowers was sailing over
high school hurdles and slanting through college secondaries,
the patriarch of the family, Richmond Flowers Sr., was Alabama's
attorney general and its voice of moderation in the civil rights
struggle. By defying the state's segregationist governor, George
Wallace, by condemning the Ku Klux Klan and by urging compliance
with federal laws, Flowers Sr. became one of the most reviled
white men in Alabama.
Seeking to escape the pressures of that turbulent environment,
Flowers Jr. spurned the entreaties of legendary Alabama coach
Bear Bryant that he stay home and play for the Crimson Tide.
Instead, as though wreaking his own form of revenge on
Alabamians who were harassing his father, he slipped off to play
for Tennessee. In a 1968 game against the Tide he scored the
Volunteers' only touchdown in their 10-9 victory.
No wonder, then, that Knotts sat up in his chair when that phone
call came nearly 30 years later. By early 1995 Flowers's
16-year-old son, Richmond Flowers III, a junior at Vestavia High
outside Birmingham, had already won the Alabama high school
55-meter hurdles title in a state-record 7.4 seconds and had run
the 40-yard dash in 4.4. Though he preferred to play wide
receiver, he was on his way to being recognized as an all-state
defensive back and a Blue Chip magazine All-America. So in April
of his junior year, Flowers III made an oral commitment to
attend Duke, the earliest declaration in the program's history.
A few months later he showed up at the Durham, N.C., school with
his father at his side to attend a football summer camp. That's
where Knotts first saw the boy and experienced an eerie sense of
deja vu: "I took one look at him and thought, That's Richmond
Flowers all over again. They had the same characteristics. They
walked alike, they talked alike and they looked alike. It was
like I had gone back 30 years and Richmond Flowers was playing
Last season, as a freshman, Flowers III saw limited action at
flanker but led the team in kickoff returns, with 27 for 512
yards. He is expected to start at flanker and return kicks again
next fall. "A lot of speed, and he's tough and strong,"
"I thought I could come here and be an impact player and
accomplish all my other goals as well," says Flowers III, who
turned down scholarship offers to Auburn, LSU and Vanderbilt,
among others, and says he chose Duke for its academics and its
guarantee that he could be a wide receiver. "I want to play in
the NFL, and if I'm good enough to play there, they can find me
as easily at Duke as anywhere else."
After concentrating on football as a freshman, Flowers III
intends to run the hurdles, indoors and outdoors, next year. He
is itching to see how fast he can go. "I feel a joy when I
compete," he says. "There's no feeling like winning a race in
track. None. I'd like to achieve everything my father did, and I
want to compete in the Olympics too."
That Flowers Jr. ever ran track or played sports at all, given
his frailties as a boy, was a wonder in itself. He grew up in
Dothan, Ala., in a house and social milieu that he was reminded
of years later by Driving Miss Daisy, but Flowers Jr. himself
seemed more like a precursor to Forrest Gump, albeit with a
brain. Suffering from dyslexia, he struggled in school, and his
feet were so flat that the family doctor, fitting him with
orthopedic shoes, told him and his mother, Mary, that he would
never play sports. He walked on his ankles, like a child first
learning how to ice skate, in those heavy brogans with the hard,
reinforced arch. He was chronically anemic. He had such fits of
asthma that he gasped for air. "In fifth and sixth grade," he
recalls, "I probably missed a quarter of school."
By the time his father won the Democratic nomination for
attorney general, in the spring of 1962 (which was tantamount to
winning the general election), not only had the veil of asthma
magically lifted--"One day the light switch just went off, and
it went away," he says--but he also had traded in his brogans
for football cleats and track shoes. That fall the family moved
from Dothan to the state capital of Montgomery, where Flowers
Jr. entered the 10th grade at Sidney Lanier High. He was a
stranger quite lost among the 2,500 students.
Though his father had been raised believing in separation of the
races--"Segregation was part of my nature," Flowers Sr. says
now, "but I never was a racist"--no sooner had he been sworn
into office, in January 1963, than he began to counsel
cooperation, not confrontation, with the federal government. He
had been elected on the same ticket as Wallace, whose battle cry
was, "Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation
forever!" But the two men drifted apart as the attorney general,
choosing to uphold the U.S. Constitution, became an increasingly
vocal advocate of racially balanced juries, voting rights and
integrated schools. "The fight's over," Flowers Sr. recalls
preaching to Wallace. "It's time for us to cooperate and go
In the spring of '63, as Flowers Jr. was nearing the end of his
sophomore year, Alabama was in a period of social convulsion.
Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers marched on Birmingham,
where police commissioner Bull Connor allowed fire hoses and
then police dogs to be turned on them. Flowers Jr. recalls
nights when his home in Montgomery was pelted with eggs. He
looked out the front window one night and saw a cross burning on
the front lawn. Hate calls came at all hours. His father had
become a lightning rod in a growing storm.
"We wished we didn't have all this hatred to live with, but we
never thought he was wrong," Flowers Jr. says. "I respected what
my father was doing."
Ultimately, he found escape and insulation from the turmoil in
sports. By the end of his junior year he had not only won the
job of starting halfback on the Lanier team, a turn of events
that transformed him from a pariah to a fair-haired hero, but
also had college track coaches bug-eyed after he set records
that spring in three events at the state championships--the
120-yard high hurdles, the 180-yard low hurdles and the long
jump--tied the state record in the 100-yard dash and anchored
the victorious 4 x 100 relay team. At the Gulf Coast Relays in
Mobile, crowning his senior year as a hurdler, he set a national
high school record of 13.5 seconds in the 120 highs. Flowers
finally had an identity other than "the attorney general's boy."
"Only now do I realize what a brutal, closed society it was to
move into at Lanier," says Diane Dowdy, who was the one
schoolmate he had a lasting friendship with at Lanier. "The only
thing able to save Richmond was his sports. He could not be
ignored. He got a lot of scorn from the adults because of his
dad--Richmond was always called a 'nigger lover'--but he was
adored by the kids from the other side of the tracks, by the
nobodies who had moved in and struggled just as he had. He was
As a senior in 1964-65 he was a high school All-America at
running back, but he had dreamed of being an Olympic hurdler
since he was a flat-footed boy in Dothan, and he worked endless
hours honing his technique. At night he would park the family
car on the track at Lanier, illuminating the hurdles in the
beams of the headlights, and work alone in the darkness. At an
open meet in Modesto, Calif., that spring, in only his sixth
trip over 42-inch hurdles (three inches taller than the high
school standard), Flowers Jr. defeated 25-year-old Blaine
Lindgren, a silver medalist in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in a
performance that announced him as a world-class hurdler.
"That was unbelievable for a kid coming off high school
hurdles," says Chuck Rohe, who was the Tennessee track coach at
the time. "It usually takes a kid a year to adjust to college
Flowers Jr. had been the object of perhaps the fiercest
recruiting battle of the year, and it pitted Tennessee against
Alabama. Bryant was so desperate to lure the boy to Tuscaloosa
that he hired a former Olympic hurdler, Billy Hardin, to sell
him on Alabama. Alas, at a meet in Mobile, where the attorney
general was booed when he was introduced, Flowers Jr., in tears,
told his father bitterly, "That's why I'm not going to stay in
By then, to be sure, young Flowers had had enough of Wallace and
Selma and the Klan. "I really wanted to get out of Alabama and
get it behind me," he says. "I didn't want all that heavy stuff
laid on me about politics and segregation and civil rights. I
was a kid who wanted to be a kid." What he wanted was a
place--not too far, but far enough from home--to grow and define
himself as a hurdler, to prepare for the '68 Games, and he found
it in Knoxville.
Flowers Jr. had an exceptional career as a football player at
Tennessee, returning kicks and catching 105 passes for 1,215
yards, but in the end those feats paled against what he
accomplished as a hurdler. If he was All-America his junior year
in football, the only season he was so recognized, he was no
less than all-world that spring of '68 in track.
He ran the 120 high hurdles in 13.5 seconds to nip highly
regarded Villanova hurdler Ervin Hall at a meet in Knoxville.
Thirteen days later at the Pelican Relays, a traditionally
all-black meet at which Flowers Jr. was among the first white
participants, he ran the highs in 13.3 seconds, a tenth of a
second off the world mark, and beat the famed Willie Davenport,
a former paratrooper running for Southern University. The next
day, at the Dogwood Relays in Knoxville, Flowers Jr. bucked a
12-mph headwind and won again, in 14 seconds flat, with Hall
second and Davenport third. Flowers Jr. went on to win eight
consecutive hurdles races that spring, including a victory in
the Penn Relays over Hall.
Flowers Jr. sensed he was living out his most cherished dream,
that of going to the Olympics and appearing on the victory
stand. He was on the verge of seizing his chance, when it ended.
"I'll never forget it," he says, "June 2, 1968, at four o'clock
in the afternoon." He was working to sharpen his speed, doing
60-yard sprints in Knoxville, when he felt his right hamstring
blow. "It was like someone had shot me with a gun," he says. "I
actually went up in the air and landed on my other foot,
spraining my left ankle. I looked down at the back of my right
leg and it just drooped, like a big cantaloupe was hanging there."
What still haunts him is the memory of what he almost had and
lost. Davenport won the gold and Hall the silver that summer in
Mexico City, and Flowers Jr. wonders where he might have stood
on that medal stand. "You always meet guys who say, 'I could
have been a great football player, but I blew out my knee in
high school,'" he says. "But they don't know. They never got far
enough. But I knew. I knew I would have been standing there.
Maybe I wouldn't have won, but it would have been a dogfight."
For more than 25 years, he could not bring himself to watch the
Olympics on television. "I never turned it on," he says. "It's
just a black hole out there for me."
That wondrous spring of '68, as badly as it ended, turned out to
be the crowning season of his life as an athlete. The Dallas
Cowboys took Flowers Jr. in the second round of the '69 draft,
but he played mostly on special teams. He finished his NFL
career playing safety for the bad New York Giants teams of the
early '70s. He was out of sports by 1975, and his life took a
series of precipitous climbs and plunges. Working on the
commodities exchange in Chicago, raising capital for futures
trading, the handsome, sweet-talking Flowers Jr. became what
Barron's magazine called the "golden boy" of Refco, then a rich,
extremely aggressive commodities house.
Parlaying his cachet as a former Cowboy, flashing his Super Bowl
V ring (Baltimore 16, Dallas 13), Flowers Jr. blossomed into a
dynamic player for Refco: a young millionaire who lived in the
exclusive northern suburb of Kenilworth, drove a Mercedes and
seemed destined for a long life of luxury. Then, during four
months in '83, the price of soybeans began to sag like a blown
hamstring. He had gambled $10 million of his customers' money on
beans, and nearly all of it--along with his marriage to a former
Tennessee cheerleader, Lucia Chew Flowers--was lost in the
collapse. "I lost $3 million in a week," he says. "I lost $2
million of my own money and $1 million that I didn't have."
After a long investigation, the Commodity Futures Trading
Commission, the enforcement arm of the exchange, censured him
for exceeding trading limits and fine him $2,000. By then his
wife had divorced him and moved to Florida with their three
children, and Flowers Jr. ended up broke in Dallas. He got
involved in various businesses--renovating restaurants, building
tennis courts and installing satellite dishes--but nothing
worked for him. Flowers Jr. had broken off his relationship with
Dowdy when he left Tennessee to play for the Cowboys ("I was
into my stardom," he says), and now here it was, nearly 20 years
later, and the man was on his belly with no other place to
crawl. So he crawled to her. At first Dowdy, who had been
divorced for seven years and was childless, refused to see him.
"I get burned every time you're around," she told him. He
persisted, calling her every day, until she agreed to meet him
one weekend. "It was like I had never been out of his life," she
They married on Nov. 14, 1987, and moved to Florida early the
next year. His children--daughter Lindsay, now 22; Richmond III,
age 19; and Bill, 16, joined them in a rented house in Coral
Gables, with Flowers Jr. getting primary custody of them a year
later. Flowers Jr. went right to work, first trading commodities
and then selling a line of nutritional products, and he might
never have brought his family home to Alabama had it not been
for Hurricane Andrew. In August 1992, after Andrew nearly blew
down their house, they fled north to Birmingham. They have been
there ever since, with Flowers Jr. still making a living selling
Much had changed in Alabama from the time Flowers Jr. left for
Knoxville in 1965 until his return. Hounded by his political
enemies, Flowers Sr. and two others were convicted in '68 of
extorting money from savings and loan operators and from
applicants seeking licenses to sell securities. He served 18
months of an eight-year federal sentence before he was granted
parole. The 78-year-old Flowers Sr. has always proclaimed his
innocence, saying that he was framed by those who wanted him out
of the way, but he claims to harbor not a trace of bitterness.
"The act I was convicted under has since been declared
unconstitutional," he says, "and I have a presidential pardon
[from Jimmy Carter]. So I feel happy with my situation."
He and Mary, married for 51 years, live in easy retirement in
Dothan. Long passed are those days of bristling animus, when
Alabamians cursed him and spat in his face, and gone are the
days when he was pursuing the murderers of civil rights workers;
surrounded by bodyguards then, he traveled Alabama fearing for
his life. "I seem to be accepted beautifully," he says now. "I'm
tickled to death with the way I'm accepted at home in Dothan.
It's pretty much the same all over the state. They realized I
was right. A lot of people don't like to say that, but a lot of
people will say it. 'Richmond, you were right.'"
Flowers Jr., looking trim and fit at 50, spends a good deal of
his leisure time coaching and coaxing his sons in football and
track. "For as long as I can remember," says Flowers III, "my
father has taken me out and thrown the ball to me. 'Watch the
ball into your hands,' he would say. 'Now tuck it away.' He came
to my practices and my games. He was my inspiration." Even
Lindsay ran the hurdles in high school. Bill, who will be a
sophomore wide receiver at Pelham High, won the 110-meter
hurdles race for freshmen at the state-championship meet this
spring. "He's faster than I was at the same age," Flowers Jr.
says. "That boy believes he's going to the Olympics."
Flowers Jr., staring out a window overlooking Birmingham,
breathed a wistful sigh at the thought of one of his sons on the
stand that he never stood on. It would be enough to chase away
that aging ghost.