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John Underwood
June 06, 1966
Richmond Flowers Jr. is a double threat—in track and football—but for a long time the asthmatic youth from Alabama seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps
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June 06, 1966

Winning Son Of A Dedicated Loser

Richmond Flowers Jr. is a double threat—in track and football—but for a long time the asthmatic youth from Alabama seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps

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What follows, as an account of the still short life of Richmond Flowers Jr., may not be altogether faithful to the guidelines of dramaturgy, but that is the privilege of wild, wild truth. To open (some eight years ago), the name of the hero is Richmond Flowers Junior, because a father would naturally want to perpetuate a name like that. He has these spectacular flat feet that make him look as if he is walking on his ankles, and all the kids make fun of him because he has to wear big brown leather brogans laced up to his lunch money. He would worry plenty about those shoes if he did not have to give equal worrying time to his asthma and his left ear, which was permanently disabled by the mumps. He is anemic. His blood count is 55. His mother wrings her hands a lot because he does not eat. She wants him to play the piano or, if he persists in contact sports, to play golf. She thinks golf is the ideal contact sport.

His father (now project forward to 1966) is an outspoken and very controversial guy who is dedicated to the quixotic notion that George C. Wallace and the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan are not necessarily all that good for the state of Alabama. He is the attorney general and he is trying to beat Governor Wallace out of a job. But gradually he is discovering he has been trying to make fingerprints on an oil slick. He has to have his daughter, Mary, who is 11, stop answering the phone, because people keep calling to tell her she is going to see her daddy face up in a coffin one of these days. At a high school football game in Montgomery he reaches out to shake hands with a constituent and while the man holds his hand another slugs him in the face and the two run off into the crowd. The father does not have a chance, and Mrs. Wallace, running for Mr. Wallace, beats him out.

Meanwhile (flashback to junior high), the son with the natural lack of talent is working very hard to be an athlete in spite of his tired blood. He is actually a goldbrick who hates to train, but he throws his whole emaciated body into anything that represents a challenge.

"Heaven help him," says his father. "He is like I am. A born underdog." The boy tries all sports with equal unsuccess. He is what his daddy calls "laughing material." He gets into a basketball game in an overtime period and fouls out before the overtime is over. He takes a turn at catching baseball and rips off his mask to chase a loose ball. The mask falls down over the ball, and while he is looking for it—"Where's the ball? Where's the ball?" he yells at the umpire, who remains impartially stone-lipped—three runs score. Richmond senior is a red-hot fan. He once bought $10 worth of peanuts just to break up an argument between the vendor and a patron, because the argument was interrupting his line of vision. He buys season tickets to the Auburn and Alabama football games, and he takes his son to the big game between the two, but he cannot teach Richmond Junior to be a good spectator. All Richmond wants to do is get Bart Starr's chin strap. "I am," the boy says later on, looking back over this muddling-through period, "one of the alltime nuts for chin straps."

His father is an extremely patient, likable, inspiring man, the type kids go for. He looks like Frank Broyles, the Arkansas football coach. He demonstrates a lot of loyalty just by going to watch his son play. He gives him plenty of heart-to-chin-strap advice. When the boy comes home complaining about not playing much for the Little League team, his father sits him down and says, "Richmond, old boy, you must try to develop the humor of this thing. Tell the coach, 'O.K., sir, I am going to hold that bench down then. It's always going to be right there when you need it, right underneath me. Go ahead, you guys, go out there and have yourselves a good sweat. It's hot as a sack of oats out there. Me, I'll just sit here and keep cool.' " His father is very concerned that Richmond will carry his Little League complex into later life. "From the beginning," says his father, "I tried to teach Richmond to be a loser."

When Richmond is 13 he shoots an 82 at golf, but it represents no challenge to him, because he has this other idealistic bent, which all great athletes naturally have: he wants to make a pile of money playing football (his is an up-to-date idealism). He actually hates the game, having fought with it for so long, but he can read. When he comes home from a scrimmage he announces he has scored his first touchdown and says to his daddy, "Daddy, is it true, all that money professional football players make?"

Then one day he is in the 10th grade at Sidney Lanier High in Montgomery, where his father has gone to take over as attorney general and rock the governmental boat. Running from field to field, Richmond has developed an appreciable speed. He gets put into a varsity baseball game as a pinch runner and is immediately picked off first base. "Daddy," he says afterward, his face very drawn, "baseball is not my game. I am going out for track. I've got to get a letter. It is very important socially at Lanier High to get a letter. What event should I try out for?"

"Well," says his daddy, tempering fatherly enthusiasm with politic practicality, "the 440 would be the best for you. It requires a little bit of speed and a lot of guts."

It is a painstaking process, but Richmond wins a track letter. When he runs he is all over the track; he does not seem capable of running in a straight line. His coach tells him maybe a little work on the hurdles might help. He tries to run over a hurdle and falls on his face. It is not a new experience, but it is a new challenge. He has been playing organized football, in one minor capacity or another, from the time he was in the third grade ( Alabama football is big league from the cradle to the bowls), but running hurdles is a refreshment in a new container. All summer he works on the hurdles.

"Daddy," he says, "I'm picking up speed."

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