"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 hurdles. Sensational."
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 this state."
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."