It is fortunate that the University of Houston freshman football team plays tackle, not touch. On a recent night Houston's celebrated halfback, Warren McVea, roamed 55 yards to score against the Air Force Academy freshmen, and films of the game clearly show that nine players laid a hand on him. McVea reversed his field so often that one poor fellow was able to miss him at the line of scrimmage and still catch up in time to receive a stiff-arm in the mouth as McVea swept into the end zone. Later in the game McVea ran 61 yards to another touchdown, leading Houston to a 20-14 victory.
As his performance in the Air Force game indicates, Warren McVea is not the sort of halfback who comes along just any Wednesday afternoon. During his career at San Antonio's Brackenridge High School he was the most exciting, the most talked-about and the most ardently sought-after Texas player in 20 years. In three years against the state's best high school competition, McVea scored just under 600 points. As a senior he averaged better than a first down per carry and rushed for 1,332 yards.
When Brackenridge met crosstown rival Robert E. Lee in the state playoffs in 1963, McVea's coach moved him to quarterback—a position he had never played—to confuse the defense. Boy, did he confuse the defense! In a game that has become a legend in the state, McVea scored six touchdowns, but Brackenridge contrived to lose, 55-48. Lee's Linus Baer, now at the University of Texas, scored five touchdowns for his side, and as the teams jogged upfield for one of their frequent kickoffs Baer drew alongside McVea and whispered: "Gol-dang. Warren, this is getting to be a basketball game." High school coaches in Texas never tire of watching the Brackenridge-Lee film. It is considered the Gone with the Wind of schoolboy football movies.
This year, as a student at Houston, McVea is under tremendous pressure. Not only is he expected to lead his school to national football eminence, which he may, but he bears the burden of being the first Negro to receive a football scholarship to a major previously all-white college in Texas. His success at Houston could determine the speed with which Southwest Conference teams integrate.
Bill Yeoman, Houston's young and energetic coach, is well aware of the pressures on McVea and wishes the race issue could be avoided. "I don't want him," says Yeoman, "to think about carrying the banner for 300,000 people in this area."
To recruit McVea, Yeoman enlisted the aid of doctors, lawyers and businessmen from Houston's Negro community. "My chances of selling the boy," he says candidly, "were zilch—one in a thousand. I only visited him two or three times. All I did then was sit down with Mama, and Warren would pass through the living room."
The living room of the McVea home has been known to grow somewhat congested. Warren has five older brothers, most of them married, and three sisters. It was Warren's strong family ties that helped him choose Houston, less than an hour by plane from San Antonio. "When I left to enroll," he says, smiling, "Mama couldn't talk for crying so much."
The competition for McVea led to some novel forms of persuasion. Rumors that L.B.J. interceded on Houston's behalf are untrue, but Warren did receive a letter from Harry Truman pointing out the advantages of attending Missouri. One school invited him to lunch, and when he sat down he discovered a fountain, pen on either side of his salad, but no silverware.
To Yeoman's credit, he never pretended that the recruitment of McVea was motivated by any higher purpose than to land a richly promising halfback. "When I met with some of our Negro leaders," Yeoman recalls, "I told them that I'm prejudiced. I'm prejudiced against bad football players. If I didn't think Warren McVea had more ability than any kid in the state, I wouldn't want him."
McVea's football career at Houston got off to a slow start. He injured his knee on the third day of practice, and when it caused him to miss the freshman opener some of his teammates hinted broadly that he was also suffering a failure of nerve. Several days after the team doctor pronounced his knee fit, Warren was still limping in sweat clothes on the sidelines. Yeoman, however, understood what troubled him. "He has pride coming out his ears. He knows how much people expect of him, and he doesn't want to get out there unless he can do his best."