"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. I le 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," blowers Sr. recalls preaching to Wallace. "It's time for us to cooperate and go along."
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 their hero."
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.