Bill Little commentary: The pilgrimage
NEW YORK -- The hair line was receding, and a touch of salt and pepper was sprinkled in amid the coal black, closely cropped hair. The eyes, which always seemed to be listening as well as seeing, flashed as he smiled.
Almost thirty-one years to the day when he should have been here, Roosevelt Leaks finally got his trip to New York.
The might-have-beens, and the should-have-beens, all but forgotten in the time that had gone, whispered quietly to him as he sat on the multi-tiered stage at the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel Tuesday night at the annual induction ceremonies of the College Football Hall of Fame of the National Football Foundation.
This coming Saturday, at a hotel across town, they will give the Heisman Trophy to the person voted the best college football player in the country during the season of 2005. In a made-for-TV event, at least three people, Vincent Young of Texas and Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart of Southern Cal, will be invited to New York for the announcement.
It was all different in the early 1970s, in fact, everything was different.
That is what makes Roosevelt Leaks' induction in the Hall of Fame so special. He is the 12th Longhorn player to be so honored, and is part of a class that also includes his friend and former pro teammate Joe Washington of Oklahoma.
Had ESPN existed back in Rosey's day, he would have been at the Heisman announcement in 1973, when he finished third in the voting as a junior. He was the odds-on favorite to win it a year later, but a devastating knee injury in spring training took that chance away. When a teammate accidentally fell into his knee one day during those spring drills, every ligament was torn. It was so bad that some of his doctors thought his career was over. Roosevelt had not had to work hard for football success, but now he was faced with a different challenge, and on equipment that would be considered primitive today, he went to work.
The first Longhorns African-American all-conference and all-American winner surprised doctors and rehabilitation specialists by playing at all in 1974, but the toll of the blow meant that the man who once gained 342 yards in one football game as a star fullback in the Wishbone offense gave up his starting position to a freshman named Earl Campbell.
Monday at a private dinner at the famous "21 Club" restaurant on 52nd Street in New York, Leaks was toasted by UT Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds, as well as current coach Mack Brown and David McWilliams, who recruited Leaks to Texas in 1971. Earlier, Leaks had spoken by cell phone with his former coach Darrell Royal, who had a conflict and was unable to make the trip to New York.
With most of the distinguished inductees during the various events of the several days in New York, the story line is pretty much the same. They have to have played at least 10 years before, must have been a first team all-American, and usually their story will include a successful life after football.
All of those fit Roosevelt Leaks.
But those do not tell his complete story.
Doug English, Leaks' former teammate and fellow all-American as a defensive tackle, traveled all the way across the country to join in the celebration for Leaks. And as he rose to speak, there was power in his voice.
"All of the things which people have said about Roosevelt were true," he said. "But as one who was there with him, I think it is important for us all to realize how brave he was."
At the time English was talking about, Roosevelt Leaks took a chance on Texas. He came out of the country, a farm near Brenham, and dared to believe he could come to the state's premier institution and play football, in fact be a star in football.
McWilliams had even addressed that head on, because there was a huge racial stigma about The University of Texas then. Julius Whittier had been the first African-American letterman in football in 1970, and McWilliams was trying to convince Roosevelt to come during that same season.
The Texas assistant ate pie and ice cream at the diner in Brenham with the Leaks family, and finally got him to sign his national letter of intent on the top of his car parked along side a country lane leading to a fishing hole.
"I told him," said David, "that he had a rare chance. He could come and be the first Black man to make all-American at Texas."
When Leaks signed with Texas, only a handful of African-Americans were on the team. Freshmen were not eligible to play on the varsity until 1972, so in 1971 he was under the radar of stardom. Steve Worster had been the consummate fullback in Royal's new fangled offense called The Wishbone from its inception in 1968 through 1970. So when Leaks entered the varsity as a sophomore in 1972, he was immediately a starter.
And he was immediately a star.
He was the workhorse of the formation, once carrying the ball 20 times in one quarter. He put up remarkable numbers, playing as a fullback in a formation where the featured backs shared the duties, but the higher profile guys usually were the running backs.
In a time when teams only played 10 regular season games and bowl games did not count statistically, Leaks rushed for a school record 1,416 yards in his junior season of 1973. That year, against SMU, he ran for the 342 yards that was a single-game record.
With his emerging star, he became an encouragement for young Black players such as Campbell.
Today, Mack Brown's football program is as diverse as any in the country, and its family atmosphere is a reflection of his emphasis on togetherness within that difference.
"Roosevelt," he said to Leaks on Monday, "this University will never be able to thank you enough for having the courage to do what you did. There is no greater disease in this country than racism. We've come a long way since you played, but there is still much to do. That's why I appreciate it so much when you are willing to talk to our players today, and be a role model for kids. Because of what happened to you, we have all changed how we approach spring training. We hit less, and we protect our veteran players because we know what they can do. So we learned from you in a lot of ways."
Leaks has done more than that. His NFL career after his time at Texas was solid, even though the extensive injury took away a step of speed. Today, he is heavily involved in charity work for kids in East Austin.
Tuesday in New York, at a morning press conference, he hooked up with Washington, who had been his roommate when the two played for the Baltimore Colts. They are part of a special class of inductees, whose honors are only beginning. Under a new alignment with the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, new honorees will not only be recognized at the New York dinner, they will be guests at the bowl game in Tempe, Ariz.
"Roosevelt saved me," said Washington. "When I was traded to Baltimore, I had to jump right in and play, and all of the terminology on all of the plays was backwards from what I had learned. What meant `right' was now `left,' so it was hard to pick it up. But Roosevelt was the fullback, and when he took his stance, he'd touch his right hip with his hand if the play were going right, and his left hand on his left hip if it were going that way."
It was so Leaks-like, helping somebody out. He was, after all, the lead blocker, the guy who opened the space for somebody to run through.
And Tuesday night in New York, he got to there himself, just like he used to when he burst up the middle, as one of the greatest running backs, not only in the history of The University of Texas, but the college game itself.