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Julius Whittier, the first African-American to letter in football at Texas, passes away

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The Texas community lost a Longhorn legend on Tuesday.

Julius Whittier
Courtesy of Texas

In the late 1960s, the winds of social change were sweeping the country.

However, even though the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education, was decided in 1954, integration proceeded at a slow pace across much of the South as the Civil Rights Movement worked to transform society.

Even though North Texas integrated its football program in 1957, many schools in the state went a decade or more without an African-American participating in the sport.

In fact, the 1969 Texas football team was the last non-integrated group to win a consensus national championship. When the Longhorns repeated as national title winners in 1970, though, change had finally arrived in Austin — San Antonio native Julius Whittier was a letterman on that team, the first African-American football player at Texas, and one of the first African-Americans to receive a scholarship at the school.

Whittier passed away on Tuesday morning, but his legacy will continue to reverberate across the Forty Acres as a Longhorn legend and one of the most important historical figures and trailbazers in the storied history of the football program.

Make no mistake — Whittier took advantage of his opportunity, too. After arriving in 1969 during a time in which freshmen weren’t eligible to play, Whittier quickly worked his way into the rotation, lettering for three seasons and helping the Horns to three straight Southwest Conference championships, in addition to the national championship in 1970.

An offensive lineman during his first two seasons, Whittier was athletic enough that the coaches moved him to tight end in 1972, a season that featured Whittier catching the only touchdown pass thrown out of the Wishbone and a 10-1 record.

In three seasons, Texas won 28 games and lost only five while Whittier was a letterman.

A philosophy major as an undergraduate, Whittier went on to receive a graduates degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs and then earned his law degree at Texas. Years in public service followed, as he served as a senior prosecutor in the Dallas County District Attorney’s office until his retirement in 2012.

He’s now a member of the Longhorn Hall of Honor.

Julius Whittier
Courtesy of Texas

What follows is an excerpt from “What It Means to Be A Longhorn,” which traces the account of how Whittier came to Texas and his experiences in Austin.

I was a small-town boy. San Antonio was my world, and I had no clue what was going on outside it back then. I thought when I got through playing in high school, I’d be pumping gas somewhere. I had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), so I took life one day at a time. Not in a spiritual manner; I looked at it like, “Today’s it. I’m going to have all the fun I can.”

When I finished my senior season at Highlands High School, I had no idea colleges were looking at me. They were sending me letters, but I didn’t know it. My mom and my coach conspired against me. They deprived me of this knowledge. They both probably knew that I was susceptible to arrogance, so after we’d lost the bi-district game, my coach called me in. He said, “I talked to your mom about this first, but these are yours,” and he handed me two grocery bags full of letters from schools all over the country. He said, “Those are yours, but I want you to read this one first,” and he handed me a letter from Coach Royal. That’s the one I fell in love with. I don’t know what happened to the rest of them.

Coach Mike Campbell came to the house and offered me a scholarship. My mom and dad stood back and let me choose. They didn’t tell me everything negative they’d heard from friends, colleagues, or teachers who expressed concerns about Texas because they’d never played a black. “Nobody’s ever gone to school there on scholarship. If you do go, you’ll be buried at the bottom of the roster,” my parents said, “You go where you want to go,” although my dad was scared for me. He’d known some guys who struck off into “white” territory and paid for it with their lives.

I came to Texas because it was big-time football 80 miles from home. And I loved central Texas. I was in the right place at the right time. I think it was divine — of God — because there were enough white people up there, if they’d wanted to kick my ass, they could have done it. Coach Royal was the right coach; Mike Campbell was the right recruiter; and the group of guys that was there was the right group. A few of my colleagues let their tongues slip, but I was comfortable that they didn’t mean me any harm. I didn’t care that some had ideas that were antithetical to integration. I didn’t care.

The kids on campus were a delight. I enjoyed going to class. The profs let me raise my hand and spout out my ideas. I blew my Afro out and majored in philosophy. In those days, no one on the football team took anything past philosophy 101. That was an introductory course, and while everyone else thought it was just a grade, it blew my mind, so I decided to major in philosophy.

I had to do my study halls because all of my philosophy classes required an average of five papers a semester. I was blessed with a great tutor. The athletics department provided tutoring for difficult courses, and since I was the only one majoring in philosophy, I had my own tutor whenever I needed him, Peter Ayo. I learned more from him about constructing a paragraph than I ever learned in English. That’s what got me into law school, the fact that I did so well in philosophy. I didn’t do well in much else.

As a sophomore, I subbed for Mike Dean and Bobby Mitchell. I had to move from linebacker to guard to do that, but I was trying to move up the charts so I could get on the field. I knew the roughest part of football would be two-a-days, so I committed myself to being in shape. I told myself I was not going to be dragging butt during two-a-days.

When I got up there, I was at the top of the fitness chart out of everybody — running backs, wide receivers, everybody. Mike Presley and I were first and second in the testing every year he was there — push-ups, sprints, quarter-mile sprints, running stadium stairs, doing weight circuits, whatever. By the time we got to practice, it was easy.

By the time I was a sophomore, I’d developed a relationship with the quarterbacks. After every play we ran, we had to make the right blocks and then sprint down the field for 25 yards. I played part of the time as a linebacker and part of the time as an offensive guard. After every play, I’d ask Alan Lowry or the running backs to throw me the ball. We were playing catch. By the time I was a senior, the coaches had noticed that I could catch the ball, plus I was in shape, so they moved me to tight end.

When I was a senior, in 1972, I caught all the touchdown passes that year. Every single one. And I caught it in the A&M game. We had one touchdown pass the entire year. I was the leading receiver that season in touchdown receptions.

They were all decent people. It was not really a difficult time for me. When I went there, I told myself, as long as I get to play based on my skills, then I’m fine. Nobody gave me a hard time in the dorm or in the dining hall. In fact, I believe I was the only one on the team who had a personal relationship with the cook. Of course, he was black, and I’d come in through the kitchen when everybody else was out front, waiting at the door.

Kids those days were active in everything: ecology, civil rights, Vietnam, the draft, segregation versus integration, divestment of UT’s investments in South Africa — that was the fun thing about UT. It seemed to be a real university. Many different viewpoints were tolerated. If there were racists on that campus, I didn’t know it. They didn’t find me, anyway. I remember walking on the west mall, with all the different booths students had set up to recruit and promote their various interests. That was one thing that made me understand how small San Antonio was. When I got to Texas, it seemed like the whole horizon got pushed back 5,000 miles. It told me San Antonio wasn’t the only town on the earth.

That was a great time to be in college, not only because we were kicking butt in football but because the kids on that campus were genuinely and sincerely involved in more than just partying and sex and drugs.

The most memorable thing for me is not even football-related. My academic experience at UT was more than just getting the grades to graduate. It was waking up and appreciating the opportunity to go to a school like Texas and thinking, “How much is there that I don’t know and don’t understand?” That was the most amazing feeling.

Had I not gone to UT, I don’t believe I’d be able to converse with as many different people as I am able to today. There’s so much here — if you just let yourself experience it — that opens you up to many other realms of life that can be hidden from you if you have no clue how to act. UT is like a key; it opens doors.

The University is part of a state that was its own country at one point. There’s no other state in the union like it. Texans are a lot like the institutions they created — for instance, the Texas Rangers. Texans are forthright — those who are true to it — they know what to stand up for, how to stand up, and when it’s time to stand up. The University, aspiring to be a university of the first class, is a symbol of that spirit. Even though we come from a racist past, we should be proud that we have created this University that attempts to collect all of what is known about us, our lives, and the world we live in and to preserve the thought and reflection of it for future generations. I’m proud of that. I’m proud to have gone to The University.

To be a starting athlete on one of the best teams in the country — there’s just no comparison. Football was my vehicle to become a Longhorn. Being a Longhorn is not simply about playing sports, it’s about being part of The University life. There’s far more to that in my life than just being a football player. I enjoyed pleasing my coach, and I enjoyed playing football. But the bigger thing is that Coach Royal turned me on to a quality University in my own state. When that group of men declared our independence in 1836, it was done with guys — whatever their thoughts on race — who had big ideas about the real world and the future. I’m proud of that.

Julius Whittier at his introduction to the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 2013
Courtesy of Texas