After those days of the Sixties I later became a 'recruiting helper' for some of Coach Teaff's two wonderful decades at BU, at least back when that sort of thing was legal. The all-time leading scorer in BU football history (Robert Bledsoe of Sugarland Dulles High) was brought to the attention of the staff when my midnight phone call to Coach Teaff informed him of that young man's leg and poise. A starting QB (Mike Brannan was the offensive MVP of the '79 Peach Bowl win over Clemson), several linemen and Cedric Mack, a DB who would spend more than 14 seasons in the secondary of the NFL's Cardinals, knew my recruiting pitch rather well. The first-ever BU All-American linebacker....um....well....this is supposed to be a story about a different BU player than any of those. A brave and fast and powerful RB who was far less successful on the field for "Ole Baylor" than those previously mentioned players, but one of major historical significance. I'd best begin writing about the item which is in the title.
He was from the tiny town of Elgin, Texas. It is among some of the 'lost pines' a few miles east of Austin and a significant percent of its population are very Christian. His dad was a wonderful and powerful Baptist preacher, so even before becoming the first Negro football player at Baylor, John Hill Westbrook was an ordained Baptist preacher. His family and friends were very proud that he was of such persuasion, though some must have wondered why he elected to come to "lily-white" Baylor to earn his degree. Not only did he seek a degree, but John also was determined to earn a Baylor letter jacket as a football player!
At 6'2" and 217 lbs he was far more powerful than any running back on BU's Freshman roster in 1965 and by John's Sophomore season he was eligible for the Varsity, despite the efforts of the Freshman team's head coach to test the black walk-on's determination far more than any other RB had to endure. John was remarkable in his restraint of temper and simply continued to run hard and beautifully. By the time the '66 campaign was underway Charlie 'choo choo' Wilson of Port Arthur may have been as strong as John Hill Westbrook, Billy Hayes also, but they weren't quite as fast as John Hill's 9.7 seconds in the 100 yard sprint. Little Richard Defee was quicker and probably faster, but had almost no power. Pinky Palmer of Olney was shifty and an absolutely fascinating runner to watch as he'd pick his way through a hole, then turn on good speed with his 200 lb and totally-muscular body, but he couldn't match Westbrook's total ability. Coach Bridgers and backfield coach Pete McCulley (later to become the head coach of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers) knew that they'd be using the walk-on from Elgin if they intended to win the Southwest Conference title in 1966. It was a goal which was obviously a realistic one, despite the awesomeness which was predicted of the teams from Fayetteville, Arkansas and Austin, Texas. The "Broyles and Royal Shows" were in their "heyday" back then, but Bridger's Bears had true faith all during two-a-days.
By 1966 the Baylor Bears had developed a solid 6-2-3 defense led by a pair of tackling demons from Waco High; 225-lb LB Randy Behringer and 245-lb DT Dwight Hood. NG Greg Pipes of Fort Worth's Paschal High School was becoming a sensation at stopping all runners who dared test him in the middle of the line and the secondary was alert and pretty agile, too. Big Steve Lane's 6'4" and 215 lb body was unusually fearsome for a safety position player in those days, while oh-so-smart Ridley Gibson made playing the corner a work of art as he covered receivers and dealt hard hitting blows of destruction to the option game! The defensive ends were at least adequate, while the offense was paced by a sweet receiver from Arkansas named Paul 'Bambi' Bechtol. QB Terry Southall of Brownwood - a major supply school of several great Baylor Bears in those years – often threw to Pasadena's George Cheshire for big plays. This team had a true opportunity to meet their goal, if the running game could force opposing defenses to be wary of it enough to allow the NFL-style offense Coach Bridgers had installed to work smoothly. During two-a-days John Hill Westbrook proved to Coach Bridgers that he would have to be a major player in the scheme for such to occur, so during the first game of the season he became the first Negro to play in any Southwest Conference team's games. And what a season opener it was, too!
The Syracuse Orangemen came to Waco that oppressively hot early September Saturday ranked in America's top ten. Coach Ben Schwarzwalder had the college game's best two runners....All-American- as-a-Junior Floyd Little and the 6'5" and 260 lb monster who reminded folks of the fantastic Bronco Nagurski, Larry Czonka. Today, both of these fabulous players are permanently honored with busts and all the trappings of football greatness in the college hall of fame as well as the NFL's hall of fame. John Hill Westbrook is not. Yet, the Elgin youngster's achievement that day probably required more courage and determination than both of those great runners expended on the hot and often puked-on-that-day turf of Baylor Stadium that day. I've never seen players labor under such heat during a game since that afternoon. Today's games are always at night at that time of year in Texas.
It was the first-ever nationally televised game from Waco, Texas. Today it would be called the 'kick off classic'...something like that....and it was a grand day for Baylor Bear football. A very grand day! The 102 degree heat was truly, truly rough on those kids from upstate New York. Heck, it was tough on all the players! Even the kids from Texas were having great difficulty concentrating as sheets of sweat poured out of their helmets and made shoulder pads and body pads heavier. The low-to-the-ground and wide 5'11" Greg Pipes met and tackled Czonka at least twelve times during the first half and had to be half-carried up the tunnel as he mumbled incoherently. The white-clad trainers plunged him into the ice-water-filled whirlpool and stuffed oranges down his gasping throat, then dressed him out in a totally fresh uniform. His performance in the second half was absolutely amazing to me. He was awesome for that oh-so-difficult-to-play thirty minutes of football as his 230 lb body helped whither the giant fullback into being an exhausted, ineffective and rather average back.
But it was Ridley Gibson who had set the tone for game when he zipped forward and smashed the already famous Little for a loss on the first sweep of the game. What a hit! The Baylor faithful have never seen a better one or a more exciting defensive play - and it gave the entire squad tremendous confidence that all day they could prevent the Syracuse juggernaut from plowing through the defense.
The Orangemen secondary players, the primary passing game defenders, only had the speed of SWC linebackers and the heat robbed them even of that much as the game proceeded. Southall had a field day with four TD passes. The furious Syracuse coach repeatedly yelled across the field, "Why don't you SOB's play real football? Quit all the passing and let's see who the real men are!" He wasn't a happy Texas tourist. His players weren't either, but by late in the third quarter the heat had robbed them of much concern about the score.
In the second quarter John Hill made his eternal mark on the state of Texas' illustrious college football history. He ran onto the field while jerking on his shiny-in-the-sunlight helmet with its green center stripe and BU on the sides and took his place in the huddle. Keeping quiet and listening to Southall bark out the play...one which meant John would carry the pigskin...the young Baptist preacher must have prayed for God's help in front of those nearly 50,000 fans and those unblinking TV cameras. Especially those thousands of white faces which he knew hated every second he was merely standing on the grass of that football field simply because they hated his God-determined race.
Then the huddle broke and he took his place slightly behind the fullback's butt. Then the sound of Terry's voice made the center snap the ball so very quickly so he burst forward and the ball was shoved into his full-of-butterflies belly and he was running between the golden-clad legs of his blockers and then through the bright orange pants and white jerseys of the opposing players...for several yards....and it was done! A black man had gained yards for a Southwest Conference team. A Negro had finally played football for a Southwest Conference team.
The next Saturday a receiver/runner named Jerry Levias of Beaumont...who was the first 'recruited' Negro to play for an SWC team, would begin his wonderful career at Southern Methodist University. In fact, he and a remarkably agile and strong linebacker named John LaGrone would lead SMU to that SWC championship of '66 despite the efforts of the Longhorns, Razorbacks, Frogs, Aggies, Owls, Red Raiders and Bears. All the 'experts' were shocked. The fans and players alike were shocked by the dozens of amazing plays LeVias made on kick returns, runs and pass catches. He was unstoppable.
The Baylor effort included the wonderful 35-12 victory over Syracuse as well as a scintillating 7-0 win in the hills of Arkansas against the #2 ranked Razorbacks of Coach Frank Broyles. The 'Backs thus lost their 22 game winning streak as the Bears returned to Waco convinced they were headed for BU's first Cotton Bowl assignment to defend the honor of the Southwest Conference. But they were quite wrong.
What happened? Well, there are many stories affiliated with the collapse of the '66 Bears. Sad ones thay are, too. But the saddest, to me, is the one which tells of the Baylor vs TCU game's most terrible moment. A moment on the grass of Amon Carter Stadium on the campus of Texas Christian University...with its impossibly high west-side stands which block out half the sky...when John Hill Westbrook's 7.3 yards-per-carry season was stopped suddenly as the ligaments and cartilages of his left knee were ripped and stretched unmercifully. His year was over as he lay on the ground slowly clapping his large brown hands together and quietly saying only with his lips - keeping his jaws clamped tight - "Go Baylor. Go on Baylor. Y'alls can win this game. Go Bears." No scream of pain out of his bared-and-clenched-teeth grimace, despite the awfulness of it. And he immediately knew how bad it was. He knew Baylor's other players would have to accomplish what he wanted so much to help them do. But TCU won that day. A mere two field goals was enough to beat the listless Bears 6-0 that dreary-for-Baylor-despite-the-clear-blue-sky afternoon. Since Coach Gene Stalling's Texas A&M Aggies had upset the Bears 17-13 in a furious Baylor Stadium battle before regional TV cameras the week previous, the TCU loss knocked the Bears out of the running. No team had ever made it to the SWC title with a pair of defeats hanging around their saddened necks. The offense had needed those running yards. They just weren't there consistently enough. The defenses concentrated on stopping Southall's passing, so sufficient balance was lost. John Hill was missed.
John, at this point, was never operated on, and his knee just wasn't able to heal all by itself. After months of dragging his leg around campus, John finally got his operation, but it wasn't enough to return him to his former abilities. Sports medicine in the sixties simply wasn't at the current levels of "wonderfulness" it is now, although John Hill wouldn't even consider quitting. Not yet. He literally had to drag that leg around the Baylor campus as he continued in his determination to get his degree, but he couldn't run or even work out. John had not quit football. The long delay in doing the required surgery led to this weakening of his body, so one could say, football had quit John.
It was during spring training of 1966 when my personal "with-him-alone" experience happened. All the words, sentences and paragraphs I've written up to now were merely background before getting to the real story. Before his few games of at least "semi-glory" I'd become familiar with the pain in John Hill Westbrook's heart due to a private talk we'd had during spring training in 1966. It was an accidental conversation that I shall never forget and which caused my heart to be changed for the better, forever. I don't know if it did anything for John Hill, or not.
To be continued . . .