Hammer in hand, James Brown took one last swipe at the crumbling
wall and brought it down. For three autumns he had been chipping
away, trying to dispel the vile adage that Texas would never
fully embrace a black quarterback. It was a legacy given birth
in 1969, when the Longhorns fielded the last all-white national
championship team, and it survived the integration of college
football in the South during the '70s. The maxim was kept alive
by fans full of hate and by recruiters from rival schools who
would whisper it to black high school stars. With one play, one
forward motion of his arm, Brown finished the job.
This was last Dec. 7, at the TransWorld Dome in St. Louis, with
2:40 to play in the inaugural Big 12 Conference championship
game. Facing fourth-and-inches on their own 28 and clinging to a
30-27 lead over two-time defending national champion Nebraska,
the Longhorns, 20-point underdogs, were on the cusp of their
biggest win in nearly 30 years. Texas coach John Mackovic, a
taciturn man who had spent four years in Austin under the blade
of a guillotine, eschewed a punt and told Brown, his junior
quarterback, to run Steelers Roll Left. Mackovic took all the
chips in front of him--the game, the season, his fragile
reputation--and shoved them into the middle of the table, all of
it riding on one snap.
On Steelers Roll Left, Brown reverse-pivots, fakes a handoff to
fullback Priest Holmes into the middle and then sprints outside
to his left, on a pass-run option. Texas had practiced this play
repeatedly leading up to the game, and Mackovic had belabored
Brown about the importance of tearing flat out to the corner,
lest the relentless Nebraska pursuit run him down from behind.
"Come to run!" the coach shouted as Brown jogged back to the
huddle, a final reminder not necessarily to keep the ball and
run with it, but to haul his tail to the outside in a big hurry
before choosing. Brown, however, interpreted it this way: "He
wanted me to run it."
Common sense dictated that Texas had little chance of beating
Nebraska, which had a nine-game winning streak and an outside
shot at a national championship three-peat. Yet during a press
conference in the week leading up to the game, Brown, frustrated
at what he considered to be too many dull questions and too
little respect, addressed the point spread thusly: "I think
we'll win by three touchdowns."
August 24, 1997
Hello. This was not the Godfather of Soul speaking. This was a
21-year-old from Beaumont, Texas, who confines his singing to
the driver's seat of his ride and usually keeps his pregame
confidence to himself. "I heard what you said," Mackovic told
him at practice that afternoon. "You better be ready to back it
Five days later, against the din of a pro-Nebraska crowd in full
throat, Brown took the snap, wheeled a quick 360, faked the
handoff to Holmes and then raced toward the first-down marker on
the left sideline. As the pursuit closed, he raised the ball to
throw. "When he cocked his arm," Mackovic says, "everybody
turned down the field to see what James was looking at that none
of us had seen yet."
Pass? Under certain circumstances, "option" isn't to be taken
literally. If Brown's pass found artificial turf, Texas might as
well try to join the NFL as recruit another black athlete to
play quarterback, such would be the backlash. It didn't hit the
turf. Brown kept his eyes up the field and saw tight end Derek
Lewis standing alone. Brown's soft toss found Lewis 15 yards
clear of the Nebraska defense at the Texas 42. Holding the ball
as if it were plutonium, Lewis rolled to the Nebraska 11,
finishing a 61-yard play. On the next down Holmes shot through
the middle for the finishing touchdown in the 37-27 win.
Texas players were apoplectic in celebration, Brown typically
less so. "It wasn't a shock to me," he said after the game. "I
knew we'd run that play, and I knew it would work." As to the
larger implications, Brown was further distanced. "I'm not a
fan," he says now. "I'm just a player." The measuring is best
left to older men.
Donnie Little was once just a player too, and a good one. A
quicksilver quarterback from Dickinson, Texas, a small town
halfway between Houston and Galveston, Little signed a letter of
intent with Texas in the winter of 1977, wearing the uniform of
the day: a silk disco shirt that looked as if it had been
painted by a Picasso gone mad and a six-inch-tall Afro. He was
Texas's first black quarterback, and the only one to start a
game before Brown came to Austin 15 years later. (Donovan Forbes
was a reserve in 1986 and '89.) "I got hate letters," says
Little. "'We don't want a black quarterback at this fine, white
university,' and things like that. I was booed, and I believed
that it was because of the color of my skin." He started 20
games over three seasons on teams that went a respectable 25-11,
although alumni were judging the record by far harsher
standards. Before his senior season Little asked to be switched
to split end to better enhance his chances of getting drafted by
the NFL. He caught a team-high 18 passes in '81 but wasn't
drafted. He played four seasons in the CFL before an injury to
his left knee ended his career. Still, many in the state only
remember that Donnie Little was a quarterback and that he was
black and that he failed.
Little is 37 now, the Afro's gone, and he has a natty
salt-and-pepper beard. He works as a special assistant to the
athletic director at Texas, traveling the state as a fund-raiser
for the Longhorn Foundation, the main source of funding for
intercollegiate athletics. From the day that Brown arrived in
Austin and Little visited his dorm room, the two have been
friends. What Brown may not have understood last December,
Little did. "After that game, I said to him, 'James, you have no
idea what you did,'" says Little. "I told him, 'To make the
statement you made, I don't care if it was misquoted or off the
record or whatever, it was printed. You could go out and back it
up, or you could fall flat on your face. You just don't know how
high the stakes were.'"
There is a long pause. Little has always disliked talking about
the pain of his place in history, but seeing Brown's success
softens the past. "You can't erase what happened here," he says.
"It's sad to think about it. Julius Whittier was the first black
player here, in 1970, but the [early black] players people
remember here are [running backs] Roosevelt Leaks and Earl
Campbell [the 1977 Heisman Trophy winner]. You know those guys
dealt with a lot of racism. But with a quarterback, it's just a
different issue for society. James's success has made Texas
viable for a lot of black kids that never would have considered
Texas before. It's brought the community together."
J.W. Brown, 46, a thick-chested, honey-voiced shift worker at
the DuPont/Dow chemical refinery in Beaumont, didn't expect his
son and namesake to understand the implications. "He was born in
'75," says J.W. "He never got a real taste of segregation, just
small bites. James doesn't understand what he's accomplished.
There's no way he can understand. But I do. And most of the
people in the black community do, too."
James Brown's white Isuzu Rodeo thunders along Interstate 10,
clearing the endless suburban sprawl of Houston on the last leg
of a four-hour Mother's Day weekend drive home to Beaumont. It
is a trip he has made dozens of times in four years at Texas,
and he blunts the monotony of the ride with a background of R&B
from his CD player. He has had five months to digest the impact
of his gamble in St. Louis, and still it confuses him. "I guess
I'm proud," he says. "I guess I am ... or maybe I'm not proud. I
have to think about it. If other black kids come to UT because
of me, then I'm proud. Otherwise, I'm not." He seems uncertain,
Brown wheels the Rodeo into the driveway next to a gray,
one-story house on Gilbert Street in Beaumont, and instantly the
property jumps to life. In the kitchen the home's owner, James's
64-year-old grandmother Florice Brown, is simmering pans of
spareribs, rice and beans, and macaroni and cheese, while in the
living room J.W. and a half dozen of James's siblings and
cousins watch a basketball game on television. Here James Brown
Jr. is merely Duna, the pet name his mother, Julia Augustine,
gave him when he was a child. "I made it up," she says, "because
if I didn't, everybody would have called him Junior, and I just
J.W. and Julia divorced in 1982, after nine years of marriage.
James stayed at different times with each of his parents through
adolescence, but he lived mostly with his paternal grandmother.
The family, however, did not splinter irrevocably; one of the
visitors to Florice Brown's house on this weekend is Julia
Augustine, and in James it is easy to see pieces of his parents.
From his father he took a quiet confidence; from his 47-year-old
mother, a toughness that she calls upon each day when she
reports to her two jobs, as a licensed vocational nurse,
dispensing methadone through protective glass at a public
clinic, and as a provider of in-home care to a young girl with
When he was four, James began following his father to the
roughhouse sandlot football games J.W. played in Beaumont parks.
Three years later J.W. was coaching his son's youth football
teams and using his own money to outfit them in uniforms that
were the equal of any in the city. James became a two-year star
at West Brook High, where scouts gathered to watch him.
Among those in the grandstand was Texas assistant coach Steve
Bernstein, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran whose tenacity in
the recruiting wars earned him the name Bulldog. While an
assistant under Bill McCartney at Colorado from 1985 to '87,
Bernstein had recruited Darian Hagan, a lethal option
quarterback from Southern California. In Brown he saw Hagan's
reincarnation. "He was explosive, and you could see that he had
special qualities," Bernstein says. "Every coach in his high
school district loved him, which is rare."
Texas would not get Brown easily, because Alabama loved him too,
and so did Syracuse. Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings came to
Beaumont and sat in Florice Brown's living room. "James, you
remind me of David Palmer," Stallings said, invoking the name of
the former high school quarterback whom Stallings had turned
into an all-purpose back. Wrong pitch. Scratch Alabama.
Brown visited Syracuse in January, attracted to the school's
success with two-dimensional quarterbacks (Don McPherson and
Marvin Graves) and its flamboyant freeze-option offense. What he
didn't care for was New York's winter. Scratch Syracuse.
Still, Texas had to prove itself. The school's reputation as an
unfriendly place for black athletes dates to the era of coach
Darrell Royal's all-white powerhouses of the '60s. It endures
because opposing recruiters perpetuate the accusation, because
some portion of the Longhorn faithful remains bigoted and
because the black players in Austin are brutally honest with
recruits. Brown knew nothing of all this until he visited Texas,
one week after his trip to Syracuse. "They told me UT is a
pretty white place," says Brown. "Said don't be coming here
looking for something you're not going to find. It's not like
home. I call home Bro-mont."
No surprise to J.W. "I knew it was a gamble," he says, "but I
also knew that in the state of Texas, everybody's boss is either
from the University of Texas or Texas A&M. Texas is a place to
make contacts for your future.''
So the Browns listened to Mackovic, who is not, says Bernstein,
"a real razzle-dazzle recruiter." Mackovic told Brown, "You'll
be a quarterback, and if you want to sit on the bench as a
quarterback, that's what you'll do. I will not move you [to
another position]." As to the race issue, Mackovic said only,
"Check me out. I give people a fair shake. If you're the best
player, you'll play."
J.W. bought it. James bought it. There was one other factor.
During his junior year in high school, in the spring of '92,
James had watched Texas's spring game and come away unimpressed
with starting quarterback Shea Morenz, a 6' 2" high school
standout who had played in two games as a true freshman. "I
thought I could beat him out," James says.
As soon as he arrived in Austin, in the fall of '93, Brown
started getting letters just like the ones Donnie Little had
received a decade and a half before. "Mean stuff," says James.
"'Go home, there's no place for you here,' and things like that."
Classmate Tre Thomas saw some of the prose, heard some of the
criticism. "James had to endure an incredible amount of stuff,"
says Thomas. "But throughout all of it, James just stayed James.
Pressure is just another thing to him."
It took a redshirt year and then a shoulder injury to Morenz for
Brown to get his break, in the fifth game of the '94 season.
Working with a bare-bones offense, Brown engineered a 17-10
victory over archrival Oklahoma and then went on to lead the
Longhorns to three more wins in their last seven games. In the
regular-season finale he threw a school-record five touchdowns
in a 63-35 pasting of Baylor that gave Texas a 7-4 record and
earned it a berth in the Sun Bowl, which it won 35-31 over North
Carolina. The following spring Morenz quit football after being
taken in the first round of the major league baseball draft by
the New York Yankees.
Brown led Texas to a 10-1-1 record as a sophomore, but the
season was soured by a disappointing 28-10 loss to Virginia Tech
in the Sugar Bowl. Last year started out promising, with two
wins to open the season, but Brown then fell on his face in
back-to-back losses. He threw a killing interception in a 27-24
loss to Notre Dame and threw three more in the first half of a
37-13 trouncing at Virginia the next week, a game in which he
was benched in the second quarter. The Longhorns had a modest
7-4 record heading into the Big 12 title game against Nebraska,
but the defeat of the Huskers salvaged the season. Texas was
drilled 38-15 by Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.
In three years Brown has grown into a consummate leader with a
high threshold of pain. In the final regular-season game of '95,
he took every snap of a brutal 16-6 victory over Texas A&M in
College Station despite a badly sprained right ankle. "The most
courageous game I've ever seen from a player," says Mackovic.
"He had no mobility, and they blitzed him on every play. They
kept coming and coming and coming, and James kept getting up."
Brown's quick feet have added a dimension to Mackovic's
pro-style passing game. "We call him the Dime Man," says
teammate Quinton Wallace, "because he can put the dimes on you,
as in stop on a dime and cut the other way." Cornerback Bryant
Westbrook, a first-round pick by the Detroit Lions in last
spring's NFL draft, says, "I call him the Godfather when he
starts putting those moves on."
Yet Brown is prone to interceptions (24 in the last two seasons,
against 36 touchdowns), and he has an awkward throwing motion
that stresses his shoulder and left him weak-armed for much of
the '95 season. But Brown is 21-7-1 as a starter, has thrown for
5,962 yards and rushed for 382 more. The most important
statistic is that one completion in St. Louis.
At the end of his Beaumont visit in the spring, Brown strolls
across the rutted West Brook High field. He has big plans. "I'd
like to be in the running for the Heisman," he says. "I don't
think Peyton [Manning, of Tennessee, the obvious front-runner]
is as good a quarterback as I am." But for every cocksure
declaration, there is a slice of self-deprecation. He admits to
struggling to a 2.2 grade point average (rare is the college
athlete who will admit to anything less than 2.5). "I could
study a lot more," he says. "But I'm going to get my degree [in
kinesiology] next summer." He flogs himself morally. "I've
failed in a lot of ways," he says. "The worst is premarital sex,
which is absolutely wrong, and I've done it.''
There's irrefutable evidence of this. He has a daughter, Kayla
Walker, who will be five in November and whose mother, Tomeka
Walker, was Brown's high school girlfriend. Kayla is the source
of his greatest pain. "She's got it tough," says Brown. "I'm up
in Austin, her mother's in Houston, so she lives with Tomeka's
mother here. I want to give her a better life. I'll play in the
NFL or the CFL or the World League, anywhere. I'll make it work."
He'll have to break down another wall to do it. Brown is too
small (6 feet, 200 pounds), too erratic, too scatter-armed. Then
again, he's not much on walls.