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High Stakes Gambler
Tim Layden
August 25, 1997
More than the Big 12 title was on the line when Texas quarterback James Brown rolled the dice against Nebraska
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August 25, 1997

High Stakes Gambler

More than the Big 12 title was on the line when Texas quarterback James Brown rolled the dice against Nebraska

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Hammer in hand, James Brown took one last swipe at the crumbling wall and brought it down. For three autumns he had been chipping away, trying to dispel the vile adage that Texas would never fully embrace a black quarterback. It was a legacy given birth in 1969, when the Longhorns fielded the last all-white national championship team, and it survived the integration of college football in the South during the '70s. The maxim was kept alive by fans full of hate and by recruiters from rival schools who would whisper it to black high school stars. With one play, one forward motion of his arm, Brown finished the job.

This was last Dec. 7, at the TransWorld Dome in St. Louis, with 2:40 to play in the inaugural Big 12 Conference championship game. Facing fourth-and-inches on their own 28 and clinging to a 30-27 lead over two-time defending national champion Nebraska, the Longhorns, 20-point underdogs, were on the cusp of their biggest win in nearly 30 years. Texas coach John Mackovic, a taciturn man who had spent four years in Austin under the blade of a guillotine, eschewed a punt and told Brown, his junior quarterback, to run Steelers Roll Left. Mackovic took all the chips in front of him—the game, the season, his fragile reputation—and shoved them into the middle of the table, all of it riding on one snap.

On Steelers Roll Left, Brown reverse-pivots, fakes a handoff to fullback Priest Holmes into the middle and then sprints outside to his left, on a pass-run option. Texas had practiced this play repeatedly leading up to the game, and Mackovic had belabored Brown about the importance of tearing fiat out to the corner, lest the relentless Nebraska pursuit run him down from behind. "Come to run!" the coach shouted as Brown jogged back to the huddle, a final reminder not necessarily to keep the ball and run with it, but to haul his tail to the outside in a big hurry before choosing. Brown, however, interpreted it this way: "He wanted me to run it."

Common sense dictated that Texas had little chance of beating Nebraska, which had a nine-game winning streak and an outside shot at a national championship three-peat. Yet during a press conference in the week leading up to the game, Brown, frustrated at what he considered to be too many dull questions and too little respect, addressed the point spread thusly: "I think we'll win by three touchdowns."

Hello. This was not the Godfather of Soul speaking. This was a 21-year-old from Beaumont, Texas, who confines his singing to the driver's seat of his ride and usually keeps his pregame confidence to himself. "I heard what you said," Mackovic told him at practice that afternoon. "You better be ready to back it up."

Five days later, against the din of a pro-Nebraska crowd in full throat, Brown took the snap, wheeled a quick 360, faked the hand-off to Holmes and then raced toward the first-down marker on the left sideline. As the pursuit closed, he raised the ball to throw. "When he cocked his arm," Mackovic says, "everybody turned down the field to see what James was looking at that none of us had seen yet."

Pass? Under certain circumstances, "option" isn't to be taken literally. If Brown's pass found artificial turf, Texas might as well try to join the NFL as recant another black athlete to play quarterback, such would be the backlash. It didn't hit the turf. Brown kept his eyes up the field and saw tight end Derek Lewis standing alone. Brown's soft toss found Lewis 15 yards clear of the Nebraska defense at the Texas 42. Holding the ball as if it were plutonium, Lewis rolled to the Nebraska 11, finishing a 61-yard play. On the next down Holmes shot through the middle for the finishing touchdown in the 37-27 win.

Texas players were apoplectic in celebration, Brown typically less so. "It wasn't a shock to me," he said after the game. "I knew we'd run that play, and I knew it would work." As to the larger implications, Brown was further distanced. "I'm not a fan," he says now. "I'm just a player." The measuring is best left to older men.

Donnie Little was once just a player too, and a good one. A quicksilver quarterback from Dickinson, Texas, a small town halfway between Houston and Galveston, Little signed a letter of intent with Texas in the winter of 1977, wearing the uniform of the day: a silk disco shirt that looked as if it had been painted by a Picasso gone mad and a six-inch-tall Afro. He was Texas's first black quarterback, and the only one to start a game before Brown came to Austin 15 years later. (Donovan Forbes was a reserve in 1986 and '89.) "I got hate letters." says Little. " 'We don't want a Mack quarterback at this fine, white university,' and things like that. I was booed, and I believed that it was because of the color of my skin." He started 20 games over three seasons on teams that went a respectable 25-11, although alumni were judging the record by far harsher standards. Before his senior season Little asked to be switched to split end to better enhance his chances of getting drafted by the NFL. He caught a team-high 18 passes in '81 but wasn't drafted. He played four seasons in the CFL before an injury to his left knee ended his career. Still, many in the state only remember that Donnie Little was a quarterback and that he was black and that he failed.

Little is 37 now, the Afro's gone, and he has a natty salt-and-pepper beard. He works as a special assistant to the athletic director at Texas, traveling the state as a fund-raiser for the Longhorn Foundation, the main source of funding for intercollegiate athletics. From the day that Brown arrived in Austin and Little visited his dorm room, the two have been friends. What Brown may not have understood last December, Little did. "After that game, I said to him, 'James, you have no idea what you did,' " says Little, "I told him, 'To make the statement you made, I don't care if it was misquoted or off the record or whatever, it was printed. You could go out and back it up, or you could fall flat on your face. You just don't know how high the stakes were.' "

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