Jerry Levias leaves nothing to chance. The right sock always goes on before the left and unless his uniform tits precisely he takes it off and starts all over again. "It takes Jerry at least an hour to get dressed, whether it's a football uniform or street clothes," says Oiler teammate Mike Richardson. During the exhibition season Levias received 18 fruit pies from the House of Pies, a Houston bakery, for the 18 points he scored against Dallas. Levias gave the pies to the Harris County Boys' School. "Call it an offering to the gods," he said.
The gods must like fruit pie and people who put on their right socks first, for they keep smiling on Jerry Levias—if not on the Houston Oilers. The team is going nowhere this year, but Levias, the smallest regular in professional football, is, per usual, hustling right along, zigging when you think he's going to zag. So far this season, his second, Levias is the third-leading receiver in the AFC and ranks fifth in punt returns. Still he is dissatisfied. At 24, Jerry Levias wants all good things to happen at once.
"I'm a hungry black man, not a bitter one," he said recently while snaking his Stingray through Houston traffic to keep a heavy schedule of business appointments. "I can't worry about what some white man did to my great-grandfather, that some whites made slaves of my people. Right now it's In to be black and qualified. The idea is to be 'qualified,' and that's what I intend to be."
The urge to get on with the business of getting ahead has Levias making as many moves off the football field as he does running his patterns. ("Levias couldn't pass a drunk test," says one pro scout. "He's unable to run a straight line.") He has a full-time job with Conoco Oil and has gone into partnership in a Houston men's shop with Johnny Burton, who styles himself The Tailor to the Stars.
Levias has all the trappings of a successful young bachelor. Besides the midnight blue Stingray, there is a chichi apartment and an answering device for his telephone. It is this gadget rather than Levias that callers invariably hear. "Hello," says his recorded voice backed up by soft music. "This is Jerry. I'm sorry that I wasn't in, but please leave a message and I will get back to you at the first possible convenience." This is usually several weeks later.
It's a hard life. Jerry Levias' father, Charles Levias, the man he calls the Confucius of Soul, advised his son: "Work hard when you're young and play hard when you're old." Levias compromises and plays a little bit and that's about all there is time for.
"Make the most of opportunities," Levias chants as he drives around Houston. And "Got to get things going while you can." And "Make people like you." And "Be nice to everybody." The homilies flow in an uninterrupted stream.
"Good public relations are important," Levias says. And so he seldom turns down a public-appearance request. During the season his function with Conoco is largely that of making goodwill appearances and he prides himself on his record. "I don't fail them," says Levias. "Some Monday mornings it's torture to get out of bed and keep my appointments, but I do it. It's important to prove that Jerry Levias is dependable, that Jerry Levias cares about Conoco."
Levias' sense of public relations carries over to areas that have nothing to do with Oilers, oil or men's fashions. He has time for everybody, even the kids who wait at the Oilers' dressing-room door. The day before Houston played Pittsburgh, Levias was approached by a 14-year-old boy. "How you going to do this week?" he asked. "I'm going to have a big day," said Levias, smiling. "O.K.," replied the boy. "That's what I like to hear, but don't go dropping any passes. You dropped a touchdown pass against Oakland, remember, and you're the guy who holds on to everything thrown your way. That's what you're always saying, right? Don't forget, Jerry Levias, because I'll be here to remind you." "Hey, man, let up," Levias said, still smiling—but barely. "Don't you ever forget? I drop two passes in two seasons and I'm a criminal or something?" Later, in the Stingray, Levias was unsmiling. "You know that kid is right," he said finally. "A pro should never drop a pass. He ought to own every ball he gets his hands on."
Levias almost didn't get a chance to own any. "Every few years there was a new reason to keep me from the next stage," he says. "I've been too small, too sick and too black. Then the objections came full cycle and I was told not to dream about the pros—I was too small.