SI Vault
 
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

There is a long pause. Little has always disliked talking about the pain of his place in history, but seeing Brown's success softens the past. "You can't erase what happened here," he says. "It's sad to think about it. Julius Whittier was the first black player here, in 1970, but the [early black] players people remember here are [running backs] Roosevelt Leaks and Earl Campbell [the 1977 Heisman Trophy winner]. You know those guys dealt with a lot of racism. But with a quarterback, it's just a different issue for society. James's success has made Texas viable for a lot of black kids that never would have considered Texas before. It's brought the community together."

J.W. Brown, 46, a thick-chested, honey-voiced shift worker at the DuPont/Dow chemical refinery in Beaumont, didn't expect his son and namesake to understand the implications. "He was born in 75," says J.W. "He never got a real taste of segregation, just small bites. James doesn't understand what he's accomplished. There's no way he can understand. But I do. And most of the people in the black community do, too."

James Brown's white Isuzu Rodeo thunders along Interstate 10, clearing the endless suburban sprawl of Houston on the last leg of a four-hour Mother's Day weekend drive home to Beaumont. It is a trip he has made dozens of times in four years at Texas, and he blunts the monotony of the ride with a background of R&B from his CD player. He has had five months to digest the impact of his gamble in St. Louis, and still it confuses him. "I guess I'm proud," he says. "I guess I am...or maybe I'm not proud. I have to think about it. If other black kids come to UT because of me, then I'm proud. Otherwise, I'm not." He seems uncertain, young.

Brown wheels the Rodeo into the driveway next to a gray, one-story house on Gilbert Street in Beaumont, and instantly the property jumps to life. In the kitchen the home's owner, James's 64-year-old grandmother Florice Brown, is simmering pans of spareribs, rice and beans, and macaroni and cheese, while in the living room J.W. and a half dozen of James's siblings and cousins watch a basketball game on television. Here James Brown Jr. is merely Duna, the pet name his mother, Julia Augustine, gave him when he was a child. "I made it up," she says, "because if I didn't, everybody would have called him Junior, and I just hated that."

J.W. and Julia divorced in 1982, after nine years of marriage. James stayed at different times with each of his parents through adolescence, but he lived mostly with his paternal grandmother. The family, however, did not splinter irrevocably; one of the visitors to Florice Brown's house on this weekend is Julia Augustine, and in James it is easy to see pieces of his parents. From his father he took a quiet confidence; from his 47-year-old mother, a toughness that she calls upon each day when she reports to her two jobs, as a licensed vocational nurse, dispensing methadone through protective glass at a public clinic, and as a provider of in-home care to a young girl with kidney disease.

When he was four, James began following his father to the roughhouse sandlot football games J.W. played in Beaumont parks. Three years later J.W. was coaching his son's youth football teams and using his own money to outfit them in uniforms that were the equal of any in the city. James became a two-year star at West Brook High, where scouts gathered to watch him.

Among those in the grandstand was Texas assistant coach Steve Bernstein, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran whose tenacity in the recruiting wars earned him the name Bulldog. While an assistant under Bill McCartney at Colorado from 1985 to '87, Bernstein had recruited Darian Hagan, a lethal option quarterback from Southern California. In Brown he saw Hagan's reincarnation. "He was explosive, and you could see that he had special qualities," Bernstein says. "Every coach in his high school district loved him, which is rare."

Texas would not get Brown easily, because Alabama loved him too, and so did Syracuse. Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings came to Beaumont and sat in Florice Brown's living room. "James, you remind me of David Palmer," Stallings said, invoking the name of the former high school quarterback whom Stallings had turned into an all-purpose back. Wrong pitch. Scratch Alabama.

Brown visited Syracuse in January, attracted to the school's success with two-dimensional quarterbacks (Don McPherson and Marvin Graves) and its flamboyant freeze-option offense. What he didn't care for was New York's winter. Scratch Syracuse.

Still, Texas had to prove itself. The school's reputation as an unfriendly place for black athletes dates to the era of coach Darrell Royal's all-white powerhouses of the '60s. It endures because opposing recruiters perpetuate the accusation, because some portion of the Longhorn faithful remains bigoted and because the black players in Austin are brutally honest with recruits. Brown knew nothing of all this until he visited Texas, one week after his trip to Syracuse. "They told me UT is a pretty white place," says Brown. "Said don't be coming here looking for something you're not going to find. It's not like home. I call home Bro-mont."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4