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For Thou Art With Me (Part One)

April 21, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a four part story written by T. Berry of Elgin ISD, honoring John Westbrook, the first African American to play varsity football in the Southwest Conference and at Baylor. Westbrook will be honored April 25, 2010 as a Distinguished Alumni by Elgin.


By T. Berry

But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
- Isaiah 40:31

On September 10, 1966, John Hill Westbrook of Elgin, Texas became the first African American to play varsity football in the Southwest Conference. He made his debut before a national television audience and in front of a capacity crowd who had filled Baylor Stadium. With the temperature hovering around the 100-degree mark, Westbrook was sent into the game during the fourth quarter and immediately sliced through the Syracuse defense for a nine-yard gain. On the next play, John received another handoff, gaining two yards and a first down before being taken out of the game.

When the play-by-play announcer gave the name of his hometown, never had I felt prouder to be from Elgin. I had watched the Baylor Bears' season opener at my aunt's house in East Austin. Following John's appearance, I felt like going out into the middle of the street and shouting at the top of my lungs, "I'm from Elgin and couldn't be prouder. And if you didn't hear me, I'll yell a little louder. I'M FROM ELGIN AND COULDN'T BE PROUDER. AND IF YOU DIDN'T HEAR ME, I'LL YELL...."

At the time, I had no inkling of the tribulations John had endured to wear that green-and-gold uniform. Empowered with the knowledge that a black man, from Elgin of all places, had played in a Southwest Conference game, I began to sense "maybe it is possible to touch your dreams."

John Westbrook was born in Groesbeck, Texas in 1947. His parents were Etta Mae and Robert Westbrook Sr. John's father was a Baptist minister who moved his family several times during John's childhood. In 1959, Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Elgin had its pulpit open, which resulted in the family making its final move. It was in Elgin where John would grow into manhood and for the rest of his life, he always referred to Elgin as home.

And he said unto them, how is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business? - Luke 2:49

John grew up in a religious environment and when he entered the ministry at an early age, it came as no great surprise to those who knew him. He later would say, "I came from a long line of ministers. Not only was my father a preacher. My grandfather, my great grandfather, and my mother's father were all preachers." While still in kindergarten, John would line up the other kids and preach to them. Everyone began calling him "Little Preacher." At age 15, he delivered his first sermon before an overflow crowd at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church. Reflecting on that day, Reverend Q.S. Goins, long-time pastor of the Mount Carmel Baptist Church, said, "I gave him an A+. He did a remarkable job, especially for someone so young." That same year, Westbrook became an ordained minister and even preached his first funeral.

While in high school, John often accepted invitations to preach, locally and throughout the state. During the summer of 1965, while speaking at a church convention in Houston, he was introduced to his future wife, Paulette White. Forty years later, Paulette recalled that initial encounter, "I was captivated by him. He was so smart and such a great preacher. To me, he was bigger than life."

In addition to the ministry, athletics had a prominent place in Westbrook's family tradition. His father had played football at Paul Quinn College, then located in East Waco, and had been a black All-American selection in 1926. He dreamed of one day having a son who would play for Baylor University, which was situated across the Brazos River from Paul Quinn.

John's older brother, Robert Jr., had been a star running back at Booker T. Washington High in Marlin, Texas. With two outstanding athletes in the family, John obviously had big shoes to fill, but he was eager to follow in their footsteps. In the eighth grade, he went out for spring training and broke his finger. Because of the injury, John's mother would not allow him to play football during his freshman year. The future fullback had to be content with playing cornet in the Eagle Band.

In 1962, John Woods became head coach at Washington High and Westbrook became a welcomed addition to his backfield. Westbrook later commented, "I went out for football in the tenth grade because in a little town like Elgin, if you didn't play football you were a sissy, and I was a big fellow." According to Coach Woods, "John was one of the best running backs that I had ever been associated with. He was very coachable. All you had to do is tell him something one time."

During his sophomore year, John also excelled off the gridiron. Under the tutelage of Elgin educator, Vivian Bryant, Westbrook placed third in the state in debate and picked up another third-place finish in the high jump. The next season, he teamed up with John D. Collins and Larry Thomas to form one of the most prolific backfields Elgin has ever produced.

The following summer, because of his debating skills, John was selected to attend a student conference in Bangor, Maine. It was his first venture outside the Jim Crow South and his stay in New England prove to be an eye opening experience. After returning, he said, "It was the first place where I had ever been able to walk down the street and feel no hostility and there was nobody looking down on me." After rubbing shoulders with students of various ethnic groups from high schools nationwide and assuming a leadership role during the workshop, John began to focus on his future. There was never any doubt that he was going to college; the only question was where.

Upon his return from Maine, he revealed his interest in attending Baylor University and perhaps playing football to Reverend Marvin C. Griffin and wife during a visit to their Waco home. Mrs. Griffin encouraged him to drop by the Baylor football office and talk with the BU coaches. Feeling nothing ventured, nothing gained, John drove his '53 Studebaker out to the stadium on Valley Mills Drive. After nervously making his way into the football office, he introduced himself to coaches Jack Thomas and Clyde Hart. To John, the two men seemed friendly and somewhat amazed as he informed them of his achievements and inquired about the possibility of one day playing for the Bears. John sensed they were not so much impressed by his high school accomplishments, but seemed astonished that he had the moxie to walk in and make such an overture. The meeting ended with the two coaches promising to send someone to scout one of his games.

Several years later, head coach John Bridgers spoke of this initial encounter, "John came by to see us before his senior season in high school. He said he wanted to come to Baylor and play football. We didn't pay much attention to him. We didn't even go down to Elgin to see him play"

It was a shame no scout was ever dispatched, because during his senior year John enjoyed another stellar season. By then it had become a chore for defensive players to bring him down. Standing 6' 1" and weighting slightly under 200 pounds, with near sprinter speed, he was equally adept at running inside or out. The 35 touchdowns he scored over a three-year high school career was a testimony to his ability to keep the chains moving and find the end zone.

Although he was salutatorian of his senior class, John was discouraged from attending Baylor by a numbers of black high school teachers from Waco. They said Baylor was too tough academically for someone from a small Class A all-black school.

And Jesus looking upon them saith, with men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible. - Mark 10:27

Prairie View had offered him a football scholarship and he considered going there. His high school coach, John Woods, had played for Texas Southern and was steering Westbrook in their direction.

"I wanted him to play for Texas Southern, but when he decided on Baylor I supported him," Woods said. "Since then, I have always felt proud to have coached the first African American to play in the Southwest Conference."

By now his father was against John going to Baylor. It had boiled down to a matter of dollars and cents. Despite the dream of his son playing for the Bears, their coaching staff hadn't offered John a scholarship. Baylor was an expensive private institution and Reverend Westbrook simply did not have the necessary funds to send him there. In addition, Baylor had only voted to integrate two years earlier and he didn't want his son to experience any unwanted grief.

John was well aware of the civil rights struggle and the history of black oppression, but held an idealist view of future race relations. He remained adamant about attending Baylor and sent for an application. He later recalled the reason for his insistence, "At that time, in 1965, if I was going to compete in a world that was becoming more and more integrated, I should go to an integrated college." He wanted to major in psychology and religion, and Baylor had a renowned department of religion. Baylor was also a Baptist institution and he was a licensed Baptist minister. To John, he and Baylor seemed a perfect fit.

As for playing football for the Bears he later commented, "While in high school, I managed to stay on the honor roll. I managed to stay out of trouble. I was active in all kinds of extra curricular activities and I couldn't conceive of myself going to anybody's college without getting involved in something, outside of studies. That's just how I was oriented."

Still unsure if he would be accepted at Baylor, Westbrook returned to Waco and asked why no scout had come to see him play. By now Coach Jack Thomas was beginning to admire the young man's determination. The Baylor coaches were aware that SMU had recently signed Beaumont's Jerry LeVias, making him the first African American to receive a conference scholarship. Coach Thomas called the Washington High School office in Elgin to check on John's character and academic qualifications. After receiving clearance from the Baylor administration, Thomas said, "You sound like the kind of guy we'd like to break the ice. Of course understand, you'd have to walk a tight rope. I think you know what I'm talking about. You got to get good grades. A lot of people will try to make you mad. Watch yourself with the girls."

Westbrook later said, "He [Coach Thomas] didn't make any specifications about being white, black, or chocolate, he just said, you know, you have to watch yourself with the ladies." It was now late in the summer and all the scholarships had been taken, but the coach did hint that if John proved himself, they might be able to give him some financial assistance later on.

John asked the coaches to give him a few minutes to decide if he wanted to go out for the team as a walk-on. He went down the hall and entered one of the newly integrated restrooms to weigh his options. When he emerged, his decision had been made. Come what may, he was going to Baylor.



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