In the spring of 1995, answering the ring of the telephone in his athletic department office at Duke, Doug Knotts heard the voice that had once been nearly as familiar to him as the name that it invoked. It had a soft Southern accent that took Knotts back three decades—back to the days when he was defensive coordinator at Tennessee, which was just beginning to be known as Wide Receiver U.
"This is Richmond Flowers," said the voice, "and I have a son who's interested in playing football at Duke."
Knotts, by then the administrative assistant to Duke football coach Fred Goldsmith, fairly blurted his reply. "If he's anything like you," Knotts said, "we are interested in him too."
In the late 1960s Richmond McDavid Flowers Jr. was among the most celebrated college athletes in the nation, an All-America at Tennessee in football as a wingback and in track as one of the world's top hurdlers. While running for the Vols. Flowers missed tying a world record by a tenth of a second in three events: the indoor 60-yard dash, the indoor 60 high hurdles and the 120 high hurdles.
By May '68, a month before the U.S. track and field trials for the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Flowers reigned as the premier 120-yard (110-meter) high hurdler in the world. But his dream of winning an Olympic medal was shattered on an afternoon in early June, and in the end he was left with one small but politically incorrect consolation. "I was the fastest white boy alive," he says now. "I was Richmond Flowers."
The name may sound as if it were lifted from a novel set in the antebellum South, but for those who lived through the racial tension and violence of the 1960s, the lasting images the name conjures up are more disquieting than any work of fiction and have nothing to do with sports. While Flowers was sailing over high school hurdles and slanting through college secondaries, the patriarch of the family, Richmond Flowers Sr., was Alabama's attorney general and its voice of moderation in the civil rights struggle. By defying the state's segregationist governor, George Wallace, by condemning the Ku Klux Klan and by urging compliance with federal laws, Flowers Sr. became one of the most reviled white men in Alabama.
Seeking to escape the pressures of that turbulent environment, Flowers Jr. spurned the entreaties of legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant that he stay home and play for the Crimson Tide. Instead, as though wreaking his own form of revenge on Alabamians who were harassing his father, he slipped off to play for Tennessee. In a 1968 game against the Tide he scored the Volunteers' only touchdown in their 10-9 victory.
No wonder, then, that Knotts sat up in his chair when that phone call came nearly 30 years later. By early 1995 Flowers's 16-year-old son, Richmond Flowers III, a junior at Vestavia High outside Birmingham, had already won the Alabama high school 55-meter hurdles title in a state-record 7.4 seconds and had run the 40-yard dash in 4.4. Though he preferred to play wide receiver, he was on his way to being recognized as an all-state defensive back and a Blue Chip magazine All-America. So in April of his junior year, Flowers III made an oral commitment to attend Duke, the earliest declaration in the program's history.
A few months later he showed up at the Durham, N.C., school with his father at his side to attend a football summer camp. 'That's where Knotts first saw the boy and experienced an eerie sense of déjà vu: "I took one look at him and thought, That's Richmond Flowers all over again. They had the same characteristics. They walked alike, they talked alike and they looked alike. It was like I had gone back 30 years and Richmond Flowers was playing again."
Last season, as a freshman, Flowers III saw limited action at Hanker but led the team in kickoff returns, with 27 for 512 yards. He is expected to start at flanker and return kicks again next fall. "A lot of speed, and he's tough and strong," Goldsmith says.