Forget Me Not: Linzy Cole Quietly Revolutionized TCU Football
By Will C. HoldenFebruary 10, 2012
Linzy Cole and Jerry LeVias both own unforgettable names. Both have personalities that transcend their 5-foot-8, 160-pound playing weights. Both forever changed the game of college football.
But Cole has a better smile. You've probably never heard that. And that's why LeVias gave this interview.
There are books, movies and plaques that exist to commemorate everything LeVias has seen, heard and conquered. Reporters are still chronicling his life's work.
LeVias has never found a page, photo or frame mentioning Cole and he's ashamed he has to say that.
Maybe it's because LeVias' own story – the one about being the first black football player to integrate the impossibly segregated Southwestern Conference, the one about catching 155 passes, scoring 25 touchdowns and becoming an All-American while some of his own SMU teammates spat in his face, the one everyone seems so interested in – would have read a lot differently had it not been for Cole.
Cole enrolled at TCU in 1968, the first black football player to do so. Knowing it was the same place he had received death threats one-year earlier, LeVias called Cole every bit the battering ram to the whitewashed wall of college athletics that he was. And then some.
"Could you smile after getting kicked in the ribs? Would you try to win someone over after they told you to burn in Hell?" LeVias asked. "Linzy could. And he did."
In 2001, Cole suffered a stroke that nearly ended his life before he could take part in the telling of his own story. Unfortunately, many of his memories are muddied.
Thankfully, LeVias, Cole's teammates and his wife of 43 years haven't forgotten a thing.Bubba Thornton: "I knew I was playing the best."
Even though his oration is now limited, it's not hard for Cole to convey the man he was and still is.
When struggling to find the right words, he often defaults to "I loved..." or "really great" and occasionally "never too bad."
On his decision to attend TCU and not the 40 other schools that recruited him out of Henderson County Junior College: "I loved the school piece of TCU."
On his TCU teammates: "What a bunch of really great guys."
On the racism he experience in four years of college football: "It was never too bad."
The only thing the former wide receiver seemed lukewarm about was his athletic ability.
"I guess I was pretty good,” Cole said. “As far as I remember, I ran pretty fast." You can almost feel that trademark grin creeping across the face of a man who caught 53 passes and scored 12 touchdowns for the Horned Frogs.
That's the problem when the corners of Cole's mouth start rising, LeVias said. "You never know if he's giving you the smile that's trying to comfort and reassure you or the one that's telling you to go to Hell."
One thing is for sure, though. Despite what his old friend says, LeVias has heard Cole share experiences of intense racism at TCU.
"Most of the guys Linzy and I played with or against were from small towns in Texas," LeVias said. "They had never seen a black person. A lot of that confusion became hatred - the kind of hatred no other human being should ever have to experience."
Cole grew up in a big city. Playing high school football in Dallas, exposure wasn't the problem. Four-year schools still shying away from black players in the mid-1960s was. When he graduated, junior college was Cole's only option.
It was there that he first met Bubba Thornton. Though they would eventually become the first two junior college signees in TCU history in addition to road roommates, they were opponents first. Thornton was a defensive back at Navarro Junior College.
Though he was white, from a small town and first stared out at Cole across the line of scrimmage in a different colored jersey, Thornton remembers thinking he and Cole had more similarities than differences.
"A lot of guys were upset that there was no more segregation," said Thornton, now the head track coach at the University of Texas. "I was honestly excited about it. I saw the talent pool growing and the game of football improving.
"For the first time, I knew I was truly playing the best players in the country."Jon Sparks: "He was going to transform the sport."
Jon Sparks had to laugh. If he didn't, he would have probably cried.
He was serving primarily as a scout team defensive back in 1968, and one of his chief responsibilities was chasing Cole in practice every day.
"Linzy blew past me so many times, I lost count," Sparks said. "Athletically, you could tell he was one of the guys who was going to transform the sport."
Sparks did the math: Serving as a wide receiver and return specialist, Cole visited the end zone roughly once every nine times he touched the ball. It made him a spark on an otherwise unimposing TCU team that finished 7-13 during his two years there.
With numbers like that, Sparks always wondered: "Why didn't we get Linzy the ball more? I was pretty sheltered growing up. That was the first time I really thought about race being a factor."
Spark's eyes were opened to such players - and the idea that the deck might be stacked against such players - a year earlier when the Horned Frogs played SMU and LeVias.
Due to death threats issued before the game, LeVias was flanked by a pair of bodyguards every time he left the field. Spark's father, Connie, a member of TCU's 1938 national title team, was more concerned about why there weren't two defenders flanking LeVias every time he was on the field.
Connie was unique in that way, Jon said. He was one of the few members of his generation who hardly mentioned race. His background had everything to do with it.
Not only had Connie coached integrated football teams in the Air Force during the 1950s, he played against the 1939 UCLA Bruins, a team that featured a first-year tailback named Jackie Robinson.
"My dad didn't see race," Sparks said. "He saw talent. He knew Jerry LeVias and Linzy Cole had it. He was happy that I was getting to see it."
The one thing Jon saw that his father couldn't was the world LeVias and Cole walked into off the football field.
"TCU and SMU were small, private schools and the campuses were not diverse," Sparks said. "Even into the '70s, TCU was still not a place that was very welcoming for blacks. I can't begin to imagine what that must have looked like for Linzy and Jerry showing up a decade earlier."Jerry LeVias: "I'm nowhere without him."
LeVias closed his eyes and felt a warm feeling move over him as he recalled Oct. 12, 1968. He can still see Cole sprinting across the field, displaying a confounding amount of teeth. This Cole smile smacked of "I just lost and I'm already over it."
LeVias opens his eyes. Now he feels ashamed. He's thinking about the play everyone remembers from that day, the play that a 42-year coach, Hayden Fry, called "the most spectacular punt return I've ever seen."
It’s the play he'd just as soon forget.
It all started when a TCU defender used LeVias as a spittoon and uttered what he called "the unthinkable" two inches from his face. LeVias sprinted off the field, put a dent in the nearest bench and vowed to never play another down.
By the end of TCU's ensuing drive, LeVias dishonored that vow and made a new one: "I'm running this punt for a touchdown." 89 dizzying yards later, he was declared the Babe Ruth of college football.
He loathes the designation. "I made that play out of pure hatred," he said. It flew in the face of everything he had worked for the previous summer.
To most, that summer of 1967 was the Summer of Love. LeVias spent it in Fort Worth rooming with Cole. For him, it was the Summer of Laughter.
"Linzy's one of those people who can laugh at anything," LeVias said. "Living in a time when we did, going through what we went through, that was an amazing quality."
LeVias would know. For all his talent and perseverance, laughter eluded him.
"I hardly ever smiled," LeVias said. "I looked at my situation heading into that summer, and I'd get mad as hell."
Often times, that was because the literal act of looking had become difficult.
LeVias was punched in the face while lying prone at the bottom of a pile against Baylor near the end of the 1967 season. The impact caved in a good part of the right side of his face, including the orbital wall over his right eye.
That summer of 1967 was about four months into his mandated six months away from physical contact. Doctors were worried his eyesight might go and LeVias didn't care if the rest of the world went with it. That was a problem if you were living with Cole.
"The guy talks to everyone as if he’d known you all his life," LeVias said. "Linzy Cole does not meet strangers. He could make friends with a flower."
It doesn't mean that Cole never had to choose his words carefully. Even to sympathetic coaches and teammates, complaining about mistreatment based on race was not tolerated, LeVias said.
LeVias handled the combustible situation by vise-gripping his vocal chords. Cole found another way.
"In our situation, you had to try to make a point without saying what you were really thinking," LeVias said. "Linzy could do that. He could convey his point without throwing gasoline on the flame. He won people over that way."
A light when on for LeVias as he watched Cole that summer. It hasn't dimmed in 43 years.
"Even in the toughest times, there are ways to express yourself in a positive manner," LeVias said. "I'm nowhere without that lesson. And I never learn it without Linzy."Joyce Cole: "A mama's boy if ever there was one."
Joyce Cole put the phone down to hide her laughter.
"Linzy is a mama's boy if ever there was one," she said. "I needed to be approved of before our relationship could continue."
That moment was a rare one for Joyce.
Linzy married Joyce right after graduation, and his bride of 43 years is nothing if not pragmatic. Her upper lip is granite. That firm side of her only yields to her penchant for the positive. It rivals her husband's.
Listening to her speak for Linzy, it's hard to imagine a mother who wouldn't beg Joyce to marry her son.
Linzy’s stroke, Joyce explains, was triggered by untreated cases of diabetes and high blood pressure. It culminated when two blood vessels in his brain burst simultaneously. She ends that story with, "Now we know to take our blood pressure medication every morning."
Linzy is now mostly paralyzed on the right side of his body. Joyce quips: "Good thing he's left-handed."
Her lightheartedness seems to come easy now. That wasn't the case when Linzy was bedridden in the months following the stroke. Doctors said most patients who experience such brain trauma are vegetables for the rest of their lives.
When he heard that news, Thornton's response was candid: "I guess Linzy and I have something else in common."
When Thornton was six, his father had a similar stroke. He was completely paralyzed, incapable of speech and movement until he died 30 years later. Yet just like the changes Thornton embraced on the football field decades later, he found ways to embrace what his father was going through.
"It changed my outlook on things," Thornton said. "I got some fight from seeing my dad. I got courage from seeing him fight every day."
Those are the same feelings LeVias got every day for nearly two years as he watched Linzy beat the odds. "He did it all with a smile."
With the two old roommates both living in Houston, LeVias dropped what he was doing every afternoon to either call or visit Linzy for the first two years after his stroke. He watched as Linzy slowly regained his speech and partial mobility.
Time had changed little.
Just like so many years ago, LeVias was still grabbing headlines and Linzy leading a life away from the spotlight.
After a brief professional football career and a successful tenure at ConocoPhillips, LeVias started LeVias Enterprise, Inc., a well-known consulting firm that advises non-profit organizations. Linzy had also spent a brief four years in professional football. After he hung his cleats up in Houston, Linzy eventually found work at Houston Hobby Airport with the TSA and later American Airlines.
And even during his weakest moments, Linzy was still the teacher to LeVias' pupil.
"There were days when I was getting ready to talk to him and I'd say, 'Don't let him do it to you. Don't let him make this conversation about you. It's you that's helping him, remember,'" LeVias said.
Most of the time those efforts were in vein.
"Almost every day, there would be a point in the conversation where I was telling him about something I was going through," LeVias said. "I'd hang up the phone or leave his house feeling inspired and lifted up."
LeVias knows most people have that same sort of reaction when they're regaled with the well-documented story of his own life. He knows those people still probably haven't heard of Linzy, who isn’t even a member of TCU's Hall of Fame.
LeVias knows such recognition isn't something his humble friend would ever need. Pardon him, but a man named Linzy Cole once told him to speak up.
And that's why he gave this interview.
"I hope TCU never forgets our dear friend Linzy," LeVias said. "I hope a guy like LaDainian Tomlinson gets to hear his story. I hope every black athlete at TCU gets to hear it. He opened doors on that campus for them – doors that were locked pretty tight.
"And he did it all with a smile."
Writer Will C. Holden brings you some of the unique storylines from across the Conference every week in this digital edition of Stories of the Mountain West. Next week: UNLV once hung an NCAA record 164 on head coach Riley Wallace's Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. According to some, it was the moment the demonization of the Runnin’ Rebels began. Not for Wallace. He now works in Las Vegas, calls Jerry Tarkanian a close friend and is a UNLV booster with a nephew on the roster. How did they win him over?