"As a kid, I would dream of scoring the winning touchdown with seconds left in a game," he says. "The scene and the sequence were always the same. The game was on TV and the announcer would be hysterical and the fans would be shouting, cheering my name. Thai's just what happened in my first conference game, against Rice. I timed a high pass, grabbed it one-handed and landed in the end zone with the winning score and only nine seconds left in the game. It was a replay. It was unbelievable." The unbelievable kept recurring and Levias repeated the scene seven more times before he graduated.
Pro football had to be anticlimactic. "Playing in the pros hasn't matched up yet," says Levias. "But starting in the pros when everybody said to forget it, said I was too small to play at all—that's exciting. Last year I was responsible for almost half of the Oilers' total yardage. Meanwhile, I'll keep playing and something will turn up. If I keep at it I'll find the script. I've got to.
"The public may not understand it, but if I played the game for money alone I couldn't stand out. Sometimes I forget my paychecks and they lay in the office for weeks. Football I play for my soul. That's why it moves me. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. From the beginning I've been an ordinary-size man in a giant's game. I've always wanted to be somebody, somebody people would notice and point to. I suppose that's what the dreams are all about."
Unfortunately, Levias goes unnoticed on the street. He just disappears in a crowd of ordinary people, which is unavoidable since he is slightly under average size. He avoids the tape measure, a trick he learned early in his career. "I've existed with all the lies about my size throughout college and I'll just continue to leave it up to people's imagination," he says. However, one scout claims he measured Levias and found him to be 5'8" and 163 pounds.
The secret of Levias' success is simply that he avoids solid contact. When he was a high school player, his grandmother, Ella Levias, lectured him: "Now, I know you won't play football to kill nobody or even to hurt people. You just go out and hit them in a good Christian way." But Levias isn't the kind of man who smites his adversaries; instead, he is a good Christian who turns away from violence, a nonaggressor.
"I'm like a rat in a maze," he says. "I'm always searching for an opening and if I stop or pause then I'm going to get hit with the full impact of the lick and I can't afford too many of those. I never want to let them hit me when I have both feet planted, so I'm always doing something. I try to slip in between defenders and then slide away once I have the ball. Coaches instruct tacklers to watch the ballcarrier's waist. If they watch mine they get hypnotized. I never run more than a step without juking. When I'm out on the field with all of those big guys, it's all a blur. I hardly blink when I'm running a pattern. I can't waste the time."
Defenses around the league are beginning to key on Levias. "Catches are coming harder," he says. "No one wants to let me get deep anymore. The Los Angeles defensive coach told me they built their defenses to stop me. I mean, that moves me. I'm the same little guy they said was too small for the pros and now they have to construct the entire defense to keep the ball away from me. Now, that's something."
But Levias has maneuvers to shake free. Often his best chance is on the overthrown pass. He is an extraordinary jumper who can spring high enough to extend his elbow over the crossbar of the goalposts. Says Levias, "When a defender is looking for the ball and sees it's high over my head, he says to himself, 'Oh, wow, Levias can't get that!' Then I jump, grab it and go, leaving the cornerback behind. I did that against Earsell Mackbee in an exhibition game with Minnesota. Mackbee let me know he didn't like to be embarrassed and that guy is tough. He beat on me until my pads broke."
Pittsburgh's John Rowser found it easiest to cope with Levias by cracking him on the side of the head. It's a challenge, but not the kind Levias takes up. "I just won't take on a man physically," he says. "I've got to survive by cleverness, and that sort of thing won't get me anywhere but an early retirement."
The dangers increase with his success, and even though he sees the game as a stage for his ego, he is frightened. "I chose the role, so I accept it," he says. "I always wanted to be somebody, to be recognized and respected. But that doesn't stop me from being scared on the football field. It's a strange kind of fright. It's all mixed up with many things. It's fear of being badly hurt. I think about that before the game, then forget it while I'm playing and after it's over I shake a little and say a prayer. It's the kind of fear that doesn't tie you up but makes you run faster. It's a sick sensation in your stomach, and it hits me hardest before the game. It's so mixed up, it's hard to explain. I just know at the same time I worry about failure. I'm even more afraid of not doing well. So far I've beaten every challenge that I've faced, and that worries me. There is so much more to be accomplished."