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John Westbrook Blazed A Trail For Others To Dream And Follow

By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation

Giving what turned out to be his final State of the Church message at Houston's Antioch Baptist Church in January 1983, John Westbrook shared a message with his congregation that also summed up his life.

"We must not worry about whether this road has been trod," the pastor said. "Someone must blaze the trail. Someone must fell the giant oaks that impede the way. The lot has been cast and it has fallen on us. What will we do?"

Nearly two decades earlier, John Hill Westbrook's lot had been cast and it fell on him to break the color barrier and become the first black football player in the history of the Southwest Conference to play in a game.

On Sept. 10, 1966, in a rare-for-the-time nationally televised (ABC) season opener against seventh-ranked Syracuse, Westbrook entered the game in the fourth quarter of the Bears' stunning 35-12 upset of the Orangemen. History was made, even if it didn't resonate at the time with the running back from Elgin, Texas.

"I wasn't very nervous - no more so than in any other football game," he said. "The fact that I was the first Negro to play in the Southwest Conference had no significance. It didn't even cross my mind."

While he admits that he also "didn't understand the significance of it at the time," it was that moment that inspired a 6-year-old boy who was watching the game from his South Waco home, just a few blocks from Baylor Stadium.

"When John Westbrook got into the game, it just lit up my imagination and it was inspiring," said Walter Abercrombie, the 6-year-old boy that would follow his dream and become Baylor's all-time leading rusher and go on to play seven years in the NFL.

"I had this dream as a young kid to go to Baylor, but I didn't know how I was going to get there. How would I be able to go to Baylor with our family income? Secondly, there weren't a whole lot of black folks getting into Baylor at the time. And thirdly, they weren't playing sports. . . . So when it happened, man, it lit up my dreams that one day I might be able to go and play there."

As inconsequential as it might have seemed to be in Westbrook's eyes that September 1966 day, the paths that he and SMU's Jerry LeVias took opened doors for so many others. LeVias was the first black scholarship student-athlete recruited to an SWC school and played in the Mustangs' season opener seven days later.

"He left three years later, battered by the hatred and prejudice he encountered but unbowed," Dave Campbell wrote of Westbrook in the 1995 Texas Football magazine. "Roosevelt Leaks, Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson and Darren Lewis would come along later, but they succeeded because LeVias and Westbrook were there first."

Clearly, neither Westbrook nor LeVias took the easy road.

An All-American and three-time All-SWC receiver who led SMU to the 1966 conference championship, Levias described it as a "living hell."

But, he considered it a source of pride, "having opened the doors and eyes of other people, so coaches could take off the handcuffs and give opportunities to other black athletes."

In an interview after he left Baylor, Westbrook said, "I felt like I was the guy that could take all the crap. I had to be the one to keep my head cool for the sake of someone coming along later."

Unlike LeVias, success on the field never came to Westbrook, who suffered a knee injury during that 1966 season and then a concussion the next year that forced him to miss five games. By his senior year, he wasn't the same player, and finished his career with just 193 yards and two touchdowns on 43 carries. And if not for head coach John Bridgers, he might never have gotten that many chances on the field.

"I think I had a lot more downs (at Baylor) than a lot of people, but I had some ups," he said. "A lot of little plateaus here and there, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. . . . I grew up."

It's a drastically different Baylor now, and even than the one that basketball player Tommy Bowman experienced at basically the same time. A two-time All-SWC pick during his Baylor career (1968-70), Bowman was recruited by Bill Menefee as Baylor's first scholarship black athlete in 1966 out of Athens, Texas.

"I was surprised, because I was there with him, both of us living in Martin Hall," said Bowman, a Baylor Athletics Hall of Fame inductee and a former Baylor Regent. "But, he was a football player, I was a basketball player, so we kind of ran in different circles. I just know that John had some difficulties that, fortunately, I didn't have to experience."

Bowman went through the integration process the year before he came to Baylor, when students from the all-black Fisher High School "were kind of thrown into Athens High School," he said.

"When we went over there, it was pretty mild," he said. "And, of course, I was an athlete. I played football, and I was accepted on the football team. I played basketball, I was accepted on the basketball team. So, when I came to Baylor, I at least had a year of being on an integrated school campus. We never really had any problems."

And like Westbrook, Bowman said that moment on Sept. 10, 1966 "didn't really resonate with me that that was some kind of a history-making deal. It was just a football game."

But, it was so much more.

Richard Pennington, author of Breaking the Ice: The Racial Integration of Southwest Conference Football, wrote: "I have long believed that John Westbrook is a forgotten hero, not only for black Texans but for white ones, as well. What he did in helping to integrate college football in this state can hardly be overestimated. We owe him a debt of gratitude. I like to look at the entirety of his life, including the years before and after Baylor, to get a sense of his many accomplishments."

An ordained Baptist minister before he arrived on the Baylor campus, Westbrook sang in the Baylor choir, was elected President of the Sigma Tau Delta English honor fraternity and was a member of the Baylor Ministerial Alliance, the honor council, FCA and the SWC Athletic Sportsmanship Committee.

After graduating, he worked on the national staff with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Kansas City, headed the Escalator Program at Southwest Missouri State University, worked as a consultant in interracial ministries with the Southern Baptist Convention and also toured for a time with the Billy Graham Crusades.

Returning to his ministry roots, he was the pastor at True Vine Baptist Church in Tyler before being called to Antioch Baptist in Houston in 1979 after a failed bid to become the state's Lieutenant Governor. At 36 years old, Westbrook died on Dec. 10, 1983, after collapsing in his home due to massive blood clots in his lungs.

Abercrombie, who now heads up the "B" Association letterman's organization, remembers his father inviting Westbrook to speak at his church in Killeen.

"I don't know if my dad invited him because he was a football player at Baylor, but he had been traveling with the Billy Graham Crusades," Abercrombie said. "Billy Graham would have him get up and share his testimony, and it was unbelievable. So, he was sort of a celebrity at the time.

"I think he opened his speech with a little joke that he knew he was a tailback, because every time he approached the coach about getting into the game, he would say, 'Boy, get your tail back.'''

Thanks to John Westbrook, the thousands of black players that have followed him no longer have to hear those words.

 

 

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