This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the great demonstrations across America in support of the Civil Rights movement. Much has been written and spoken about this chapter in our nation’s history. Throughout the discussion, many have recognized the influence of athletics in opening the doors of white-only institutions and the resulting integration of our society. Many share the belief of Alabama assistant football coach Jerry Claiborne, who observed, “Sam Cunningham did more for integration in sixty minutes than Dr. Martin Luther King did in twenty years.”
Cunningham was an African-American football player at USC. In 1970, his team travelled to Birmingham to face the University of Alabama, a school that still refused to recruit black players. The Trojans of USC crushed Alabama 42-21. Cunningham ran wild in the game, and the following year Alabama officials allowed Bear Bryant to recruit black athletes. The last walls of segregation at southern colleges crumbled away.
"Through personal recollections of the participants and a wonderful ability to put those memories into words, Jim Dent has written an inspirational and enjoyable book."
THE KIDS GOT IT RIGHT is the story of another event that served to move the civil rights meter a few steps closer to the goal of equal justice. Jim Dent, who has written football history (from Bronco Nagurski to Bear Bryant), tells the story of the Texas-Pennsylvania high school football rivalry of the 1960s where the two states, both claiming superiority on the gridiron, battled in the Big 33 game in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
The first Texas-Pennsylvania battle occurred in 1965. Pennsylvania made certain they would win the game by scheduling the contest for the same weekend as the annual Texas High School All-Star game. The best Texas players stayed home for the most prestigious game in the state. The Texas team was coached by former NFL great Bobby Layne, who took the Texas loss personally. He vowed not to suffer the same fate in 1966. When Pennsylvania once again scheduled the game to conflict with the Texas all-star battle, Layne went all the way to Governor John Connelly to get the Texas game rescheduled. Of course, he appealed to state pride to accomplish the task, and the Governor intervened to eliminate the conflict in games. In the '60s, as well as today, Texas football is king.
The Texas-Pennsylvania game may have been an exhibition, but the fiercely competitive Layne pulled out all the stops to win. He knew that with the proper players, his team would have a speed advantage over Pennsylvania. One of the players Layne wanted on his team was Jerry LeVias, the African-American quarterback of Hebert High School in Dallas. Layne wanted LeVias to play wide receiver. Black football players were not considered for Texas high school all-star games until Layne selected LeVias for the Pennsylvania game. LeVias was a pioneer in other respects. He was the first African-American to play in the Southwest Conference after he chose to accept a scholarship to Southern Methodist University.
THE KIDS GOT IT RIGHT is the story of LeVias and Big 33 game teammate Bill Bradley, who would attend the University of Texas, a school that would not even recruit LeVias or any football player of his color. Their friendship as they prepared for the contest with Pennsylvania speaks volumes about overcoming racial prejudice. After the game, Levias would toast Bradley as “My blue-eyed soul brother.”
Through personal recollections of the participants and a wonderful ability to put those memories into words, Jim Dent has written an inspirational and enjoyable book. His books on American football are an incredible history of the game that has become America’s pastime. Football has come a long way since the era when African-American players of the South left their home states in order to play college football. The primary goal may have been to win a football game, but along the way, we became a better nation when segregation was defeated on the football field.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 27, 2013