This Pan of Milk, Part II

Have you ever really felt alone? Has there ever been a minute, an hour, even so much as a day when you felt like you were alone and on your own? If so, how would you feel then if those minutes were hours, and those hours days, and those days almost everyday for the four years you attended college? Some say, it's kind of like being in the desert with no one in site. Yet others say . . .

The twenty practice sessions of spring training are often grueling hours of physical effort, pain and various accumulated bruises and headaches. Of course, not every player experiences football in this manner. Some are the ones who 'deal out' such miseries to their teammates by being harder blockers and tacklers. Those are the ones the coaches will later list as starters for the campaign of the next fall. Naturally, the coaches hope to find at least 40 or so such players among the 120 some-odd candidates who suit out for the practices. Understand, of course, John Hill Westbrook was not looked upon during that spring of 1966 as a 'probable starter'. Not even as a 'probable travel squader'. He had yet to fully impress the Varsity coaches, so his practices were lonely affairs of high step drills through squares of elastic cords as well as auto tires set diagonally one against the other and head bashing plunges carrying the ball through lines of other players trying to rip the ball out of his burly arms and sprints and push-ups and sit-ups and repeatedly being smashed to the ground by Raul Ortiz and other linebackers who were desperately trying to get the approval of Coach Jack Thomas, etc, etc, etc. And more sprints. Lots more sprints. It was real college football in the real Texas heat.

I think it was following the 17th practice, a morning session that my "personal experience with John Hill Westbrook" happened. I was delayed from leaving Baylor Stadium for Martin Hall - the athletic dorm in those days - and lunch, though I don't recall why. As a 23 year-old and married ex-USAF vet I was grateful that Coach Bridgers had added the daily lunch to my pay package, so I didn't want to miss it. I haven't missed many meals in my life, but this day I did, and "dang" glad of it, too. Why? Because as I rushed through the abandoned locker room I could hear a shower was still running. I remember thinking, "Guess the managers missed that one. Bet even they are ahead of me in the chow line." But, that wasn't the situation. Not at all. Sadly, not at all.

I half-trotted to the shower bay and went into it searching for the spray head which was still running, but the sight which greeted my startled eyes caused me to stop my feet so suddenly that they nearly slipped too much. Semi-miraculously, I caught myself on the wall sufficiently to remain upright, but my mind realized immediately why I was seeing what I was seeing. The sight caused my heart to drop.

John Hill Westbrook was still taking his shower. I instinctively knew he wasn't there all alone and covering his dark brown skin with billows of soap lather because he was slow. It was not because he was too lazy to shower as quickly as the other players. By the way, we coaches are constantly yelling, 'Slow in the locker room means never to the championship. Hurry up, guys!'....stuff like that. No, John wasn't being slower than the others...he was deliberately separating himself from the others. He was living what Dr Martin Luther King was in these very moments of the Civil Rights Movement waging war against. He had delayed entering the shower until the others were drying and rushing to the parking lot to zip down Dutton Avenue as fast as they dared. He obviously was segregating himself from his white teammates because he figured that's what they wanted him to do. He had yet to feel that Baylor University had accepted him as a black student or even as a football player. He was living all alone among a hundred and fifty or so football players, coaches, trainers and managers; so here he was in the shower so late that he was probably going to miss his lunch. Food, his energy spending body needed desperately.

I said, "John! Let's get to Martin Hall! C'mon, Fella!"

He evidently had seen me or perhaps heard my big feet enter the shower already and didn't seem startled by my sudden appearance. He looked at me for a fairly long moment...with no embarrassment at being 'dressed' only by soap suds...and finally said with a sadness in his voice I shall never forget so long as I may live - "Oh, I'll be 'long in a minute. I jus' wanna wash a little mo'. Wish I could wash REAL GOOD, 'cause I is sooo tiaed a-bein' the onliest fly in this pan of milk."

I couldn't say a thing. My heart was wracked with guilt, for I knew what he was saying. Having gone to Junior High in Mobile, Alabama and third grade in Selma, Alabama and my Senior year in Warner Robins, Georgia and ten months of aircraft radio training at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi I knew precisely what he was saying. But having gone to high school in England for my Freshman, Sophomore and Junior years I'd also been positively influenced to reject my racist step-father's slurs against those of John's 'people'. Being an 'Air Force brat' meant I'd lived in many places, including Alaska for nearly three years, so I'd been exposed to many folks of many philosophies.

As I snapped my jaw back to its closed position, he looked at me with a questioning lowering of his dark eyelids. I knew he was measuring my reaction to his words...and now I felt far more naked then he. This was the second time in my life a black American had done such a thing, but the first is an entirely different story which took place on the campus of the University of Texas in 1960. Yet, that episode had prepared me for this one, just slightly.

I calmly responded, "John, we need to talk. Do you mind missing lunch in Martin Hall. I'll get us some burgers later, okay?" So that's what happened.

We sat on the steps outside the locker room. Those steps are adjacent to the huge parking lot...only some secretaries were working by then, I suppose, or the few cars still there at that time on that day belonged to maintenance men perhaps...and every time I see them these days I think of John, of course.

I can't reveal all of what he told me. It hurt too much, then and now. His heart was so, so heavy at his disappointment in Baylor of the mid-Sixties. He'd thought the Christian philosophy espoused by our beloved university would have made it 'an oasis of white understanding', but it was not so. He said, "There are a few nice folks, but most just don't seem to see me. They jus' walk on by without looking in my face. Some duck their faces 'til they can get away from me. It don't feel good. And the football players try to rip me apart mo' than they does the other runners. I'm kinda sure 'bout that. A couple of the coaches seem to hate me. Really they do."

I remained silent, letting him vent, though anger couldn't be heard in his tone at all. It was past anger. It was pure hurt I was hearing.

We ended up praying together. I started it, but he ended it, ever so magnificently he ended it. This young preacher truly loved The Lord, and he would soon leave Baylor to begin his ministry, a ministry which would lead him to become a member of Reverend Billy Graham's Crusade staff! He eventually became a minister of his own congregation in Houston, but in the early 1980s came the shocking news that his powerful and fast and so coordinated body was failing him completely. John Hill Westbrook was dying of cancer.

Then he was gone - but not in my memory.

You are wearing a BU letter jacket when I think of you, John Hill. Wish you were smiling, though.


Bears Illustrated Top Stories