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For Thou Art With Me (Part Four)

April 26, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last 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 was honored April 25, 2010 as a Distinguished Alumni by Elgin.


By T. Berry

On August 3, 1968, John Hill Westbrook of Elgin and Paulette Ann White of Houston were united in marriage. The newlyweds settled into Baylor University's student housing and John began practicing for his senior season.

Austin American-Statesman, July 14, 1968: "the sweetest bonus of all could be a healthy John Westbrook. He has nursed a knee injury since 1966 and was not a factor in the spring, yet says he thinks he can play this fall....'' "He could give us the outside running threat we need," Coach John Bridgers commented. "He has a lot of character and if he can play at all, he'll play."

It didn't happen. Westbrook was heavier, less mobile, and his knee would swell painfully when he tried to play. During the season Bridgers told John, "I would like to see you go to Houston or somewhere and get the best treatment on your knee as possible. I don't want you to feel that we've used you and now we don't care about you." Negotiations to have Westbrook sent to Houston were ongoing when Bridgers learned of his firing.

Fewer than 1,000 fans braved freezing temperatures in Waco to watch the Bears play their final game of the season against the lowly Rice Owls. A late fourth quarter touchdown run by Westbrook clinched the contest for Baylor and closed the book on his football career. For three years, Westbrook led the Baylor Bears in yards gained per carry. He never fumbled. Any thoughts of playing professionally were dashed after the Atlanta Falcons had his knee examined. The Cincinnati Bengals withdrew an invitation to their training camp for the same reason.

It is been unlikely that Westbrook would have made Baylor's varsity and achieved a scholarship if not for John Bridgers, who by all accounts was a fair and earnest man. He continually encouraged Westbrook, talked him up to reporters, and gave him more playing time than some assistants would have preferred. "They (assistant coaches) used his attitude toward me to stir up dissention among the players," stated Westbrook in a 1972 interview. "I'm positive, the reason why we didn't win a lot of games was not because of any lack of ability on the part of Coach John Bridgers, as it was people on his staff who were not committed to him and stirred up players to be against him."

Off the field, Westbrook's involvement in campus activities eclipsed those of the average college student. In addition to singing in the Baylor choir, he was elected President of Sigma Tau Delta, an English honorary fraternity. He was a member of the Baylor Ministerial Alliance, the honor council, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the SWC Athletic Sportsmanship Committee.

Westbrook once referred to his time at Baylor as, "four of the most miserable years of my life." According to Paulette, "John was always ambivalent when speaking of his years at Baylor." In 1972, Westbrook told a group of historians, "I think I had a lot more downs [at Baylor] than a lot of people, but I had some ups. A lot of little plateaus here and there, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.... I grew up."

His graduation was a proud moment for the Westbrook family. Unlike many college athletes, John had graduated on time. His accomplishments while at Baylor did open certain doors that otherwise might have been closed. He was planning to go to seminary school until the Fellowship of Christian Athletes offered him a position on their national staff. The FCA was headquartered in Kansas City, but John primarily traveled the country, speaking on college campuses. When the organization attempted to censor the racial content of his speeches, John turned in his resignation. While at Baylor, Westbrook had felt saddled with the burden of bringing two societies together. He had sacrificed his pride and suppressed his outrage for the sake of his people. After graduation, he was no longer under such restraints. "After we left Baylor, John was very much his own man," Paulette remembers.

A man's heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps. - Proverbs 16:9

From Kansas City, the couple moved to Springfield, Missouri. Westbrook was selected to head the Escalator Program at Southwest Missouri State University. The program was established to assist low-achieving students. In his spare time, Westbrook earned his masters degree in English from SMSU.

After spending two years in Springfield, the Westbrook family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where John served as a consultant in interracial ministries for the Southern Baptist Convention. While working for the SBC, he got an opportunity to tour the West African nation of Liberia and later joined Reverend Billy Graham's crusade. "I can remember thinking how proud his mother would have been," Paulette recalls. "It was her dream for John to be an evangelist with Billy Graham."

In 1973, his old coach, John Bridgers, came calling. Bridgers was athletic director at Florida State and asked Westbrook to become the school's athletic academic advisor. Westbrook only stayed one year in Tallahassee. When coaches insisted that he pressure professors into giving generous grades to athletes, he resigned. Westbrook had a wife and two kids to support, with no job prospects in sight, but he did leave Florida with his integrity intact. Paulette recalls how she didn't worry; despite the family facing an uncertain financial future, "I tried to be supportive. I had been with John long enough to know that whatever he decided to do, he could make it work."

They relocated in Austin. Westbrook's father felt his son was ripping and running too much and suggested John return to his roots. To provide for his growing family, Westbrook began singing, preaching, and conducting revivals at various churches. Finally the congregation of the True Vine Baptist Church in Tyler chose him as their pastor.

Near the end of his four-year tenure at True Vine, Westbrook ventured into the political arena. On July 20, 1977, he announced his intentions to run for the office of Lieutenant Governor of Texas. He entered the Democratic primary, attempting to unseat the incumbent, Bill Hobby. After purchasing a camper, he and his campaign aides covered 40,000 miles of Texas roads, speaking to crowds, large and small.

The Texas Observer, a progressive periodical, which has provided commentary on Texas politics for over 50 years, gave Westbrook a ringing endorsement. "Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby had the good sense to be born into a well-known and well-heeled Houston family, and his origins haven't hurt his political career a bit. Now he stands on the brink of an easy renomination over three Democratic challengers. But he is not the best of the lot. That distinction belongs to John Hill Westbrook - an intelligent, articulate, issue-oriented populist from Tyler who is a former Baylor University football star."

"Hopelessly underfinanced, Westbrook's campaign has been a well-kept secret, but wherever he has been, he has won ovations for his thoughtful, straightforward stands for the little people of Texas. In the bargain, he's won a loyal following from those who crossed his path and were both grateful and amazed to hear a politician speak the truth. Westbrook will not win this time around, but he is the best man running in 1978 for any statewide office, but he will be heard from again.... Westbrook has campaigned honestly and vigorously in a way that warrants our readers' support. You'll not be backing the eventual winner by voting for Westbrook on May 6, but you'll be doing the right thing, and it will help you come out of the booth with your head held high."

On election day, John astounded political experts by getting 23 percent of the vote and finished second in the four- man race. Over 277, 000 Texans had voted for him.

And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, how beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! - Romans 10:15

In 1979, Westbrook became pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, located in downtown Houston. Built in 1876 by descendants of slaves, shadowed by skyscrapers, and surrounded by One Allen Center, the historic church building seems almost out of place. According to Houston attorney Don R. Caggins, "When Westbrook arrived, Antioch had about 600 members. In four years, under his guidance, our membership grew to over 3,500. Every Thursday, he would have bible study, which he called `Noon Inspiration.' It wasn't limited to members of his congregation. With sack lunches in hand, business men and women, CEOs, conservatives, and members of various racial groups would spend their lunch hour listening to Westbrook teach a bible lesson. If he was still here today, Antioch would have 10,000 members, easily." Westbrook was also an advocate for the poor and downtrodden. Out of his own pocket, he unselfishly fed and housed many of the transients who sought refuge in downtown Houston.

Although his ministry was flourishing, Westbrook's health was deteriorating. Through the years, he had kept his training table appetite and his weight had ballooned to 90 pounds over his playing weight. Because of his old knee injury, he was unable or unwilling to exercise. Plus his demanding schedule didn't allow him much workout time. At times the knee would swell and require drainage. He sometimes walked with a cane and preached from a stool. There were other health problems: nasal polyps, shortness of breath, and the sleep disorder, narcolepsy. Despite warnings from his doctor, Westbrook continued his taxing round of commitments. On the evening of December 10, 1983, Westbrook, complaining that he could not breathe, collapsed at his home. According to the Harris County Medical Examiner's office, massive blood clots in his lungs were the cause of his death. Paulette, who has never remarried, recalled the suddenness of his departure, "When John passed away, it was a big shock. We didn't think his condition was life-threatening." He was 35 years old!!

Westbrook's funeral was moved from Antioch to the larger Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, to accommodate the multitude of mourners. Among the many who gave moving tributes, was the governor of Texas, Mark White.

Richard Pennington, author of Breaking the Ice: The Racial Integration of Southwest Conference Football: "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 all 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."

Darrell Royal: "Westbrook and LeVias caused a ripple effect within the league. If UT and the other conference schools were going to stay competitive, they had to integrate."

Dave Campbell's 1995, Texas Football: "On September 10, 1966, Baylor running back John Westbrook became the first black athlete to play in a SWC game. He left three years later, battered by the hatred and prejudice he encountered but unbowed....Roosevelt Leaks, Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, and Darren Lewis would come along later, but they succeeded because LeVias and Westbrook were there first."

Reverend A.W. Anthony Mays, pastor of Mount Sinai Baptist Church Austin, Texas: "John Hill Westbrook was a gifted speaker and singer who gave unusual insight to the proclamation of God's Word. Evangelism was his passion and he preached the message of Christ to be `Whosoever will, let him come.' The two churches John ministered experienced tremendous growth, especially among young people, for he could identify with their thoughts. John was blessed with a charismatic personality and a marvelous sense of humor. He is still greatly missed."

In January 1983, Westbrook had given his final State of the Church address. He revealed his vision for the future of Antioch Baptist Church. He wanted the church to provide low- income housing, day care services, a bona fide seminary, and an elementary school for hundreds of boys and girls whose parents worked in downtown Houston.

"With the help of God, we can do it," he urged. "The age before us completed their work. Our work lies ahead. We must not worry about whether this road has been trod. 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?"

Those words are a summation of how John Hill Westbrook lived his life.



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