"To me dreams are like the patterns you use to make a dress. You dream and then you try to bring it to life—make it a reality. That's the way my life has been—like one of those kids' novels. Small boy makes good. He does the impossible on and off the playing field. Sometimes it seems unreal even to me, as if I were in a movie watching a make-believe film about the life of a stranger."
The real-life story of Jerry Levias, small, black football player out of Beaumont, Texas, almost failed to become a reality. His mother was the first to feel he was too little for football, and after a case of polio that left him even less robust, Mrs. Levias was convinced. But she was up against a genetic and environmental imperative, or the closest thing to it in football. Jerry's paternal grandfather was the progenitor of four pros: Jerry; Miller Farr, a defensive back with St. Louis; his brother Mel, a running back at Detroit; and Clancy Williams, a Los Angeles Rams defensive back.
"Miller was the first to go out for football," says Levias, "and as we got to high school we followed along, just as we used to do when he went to the fair." Levias was aided and abetted by his older sister Charlena. "We called her Cholly because what are you going to call the best pulling guard on the sand-lot football team?" he says. "She'd always find an excuse for me to be out of the house, so I was able to make practice." Sister Cholly was the cover but the newspapers aided the plot. They continually misspelled the family name. In print Levias appeared as Lezniaz, and so it meant nothing to Jerry's mother. (In keeping with his new status, Levias has Frenchified his name and prefers that it be spelled LeVias.) But the secret was out when Jerry Levias, 14-year-old, 116-pound starting defensive back for Hebert High School, was brought home unconscious and his mother learned he wasn't the team manager.
At this point Charles Levias stepped in. He said the boy could play as long as he studied. "I had it in mind that Jerry would be the first educated Levias," he says. "I didn't ever want to see him with an ignorant stick [a shovel] in his hand. I wanted my son to use his head to make a living, not his back. You see, it's a different world than I knew. Times are changing for the better."
The Farr boys, especially Miller, helped shape Levias, too. Like his cousin, Miller enjoys being on the move—only Miller moves even farther and faster. It seems he just can't sit at home. At one point, having run out of excuses, he took to walking the dog—for 12 hours at a time. On another occasion he told his wife that he was going to play golf, and left the house with his clubs slung over his shoulder, took a plane to San Diego and didn't return for three days.
Jerry Levias remembers with great nostalgia the rivalry between the two black Beaumont high schools, Hebert and Charlton-Pollard, the latter coached by Willie Ray Smith, father of the Colts' Bubba. "When the two schools met it was usually for the district championship," Levias says. "It was like a carnival. Nothing else was scheduled. People would come into Beaumont from a 50-mile radius—Woodville, Silsbee, Kirbyville, Jasper. The fans would start to arrive at 5. Tickets were scalped, and a month's salary might be bet. If you were going with a girl and she went to the other high school, then you didn't talk for the week of the game. Guys married to Pollard gals—old married folks—would split once they got in the gate, and each would sit where they belonged, on either the Pollard side or the Hebert side."
Levias says he was unaware of prejudice until he went to college. He soon learned. First he discovered the bias against small men. "I called Coach Royal at Texas and told him I had an exceptional Negro—a player qualified both academically and athletically for the Southwest Conference," says Hebert Coach Clifton Ozen. "When he asked how much does he weigh, I replied, oh, about 153 pounds. Royal said he was afraid that Jerry wasn't big enough for the league."
Levias did make the Southwest Conference, and broke its color line, but he played for Southern Methodist. "After SMU won the conference title in Jerry's sophomore year, I called Coach Royal again." says Ozen. "I told him that's the same little ol' boy you wouldn't take. And Royal said, 'Well, he didn't sound very big then when you described him, but he looks plenty big to me now.' "
SMU Coach Hayden Fry had a different point of view. "We screened black athletes for three years before deciding on Jerry," he says. "The first one we would take had to be a winner three ways—in character, academically and athletically. We felt we had found the complete student-athlete in Jerry."
Levias measured up to Fry's expectations. Before he graduated he made both the academic and athletic All-America teams; moreover, he brought SMU its first championship in 18 years. And, in Levias' first conference game, he lived his dream sequence—and then repeated it.