“I don’t know if Ronnie will talk to you,” one of his former Coyote teammates told me. “He’s different these days.”
“Different? In what way?”
There was a pause. “Well, I think you’ll understand when you see him.”
In the autumn of 1969, when i was in the seventh grade in the North Texas city of Wichita Falls, I used to get on my bicycle at the end of the school day and race to the Wichita Falls High School practice field to watch Ronnie Littleton, one of the five black players on the varsity football team. It was the first year of forced busing in Wichita Falls, which had a population of 96,265, 11 percent of which was black. The school administration had shut down the black high school on the east side of town and sent the black students to one of three high schools on my side of town. School integration brought the same tensions to Wichita Falls that had afflicted most Texas cities that were integrating during the civil rights movement. There were heated speeches before the school board, and some parents tried to organize an all-white private school. Hysterical rumors ran rampant through my neighborhood about what the black students had in store for us. One was that they all carried switchblades and would stab us in the bathrooms. “They hate us because we’re white,” I remember one of the parents in our neighborhood telling me and my friends. “They think we’ve ruined their lived. And now they’re going to try to ruin ours.”
But in December—25 years ago this month—those five black players helped lead the Wichita Falls Coyotes to the state football championship in a victory that one local sportswriter likened to the stunning World Series win that same year by the underdog New York Mets. In the process, that championship season produced a new local hero for many white kids like myself—a mouthy, street-smart black teenager named Ronnie Littleton, the very type of person we had been warned against by our parents. To those of us who spent Saturday nights watching My Three Sons and Green Acres, Littleton was simply exotic. In the late sixties, no player from the conservative Texas high school powerhouses dared to do what Littleton did on the football field. Bored with the black football shoes issued to all Coyotes, he wrapped white tape around his. He wore half a dozen red and white wristbands on his arms. On the sidelines, when he took off his helmet, his Afro, the biggest at school, would mushroom straight up like an atomic bomb explosion. Each time he scored a touchdown, he performed a wild gyrating dance in the end zone, causing some parents to look away in embarrassment as if they had seen a sex act. Opposing coaches designed their game plans purely to stop him—and still he slipped around them, taunting would-be tacklers by holding the ball loosely in one hand. Playing almost every down of a game on both offense and defense, Littleton was one of the last great all-around players in Texas’ high school ranks. In 1971, his senior year, he single-handedly led an average Coyote team back to the state championship game.
Today flashy athletes are so common in sports that we hardly notice them. But after all this time, I still cannot shake the memories of those years that Ronnie Littleton spent on the white side of town. It was his ability to move on a football field that amazed me. It was his brassy charm and unbridled confidence, his ability to move through life in such free-spirited fashion. In many ways Littleton affected me more than anyone else I had known in my youth. This past fall, I decided to return to Wichita Falls and see him again.
“He’s got an unlisted phone number,” said a former Coyote quarterback.
“Is he still that famous around town?”
“Oh, man, nothing like that,” the old quarterback chuckled.
“So why the unlisted number?”
“I don’t think he wants people calling him up to remind him what his life used to be like.”
When i was growing up, Wichita Falls was so segregated that the only black people I ever spoke to were maids. Blacks rarely came to our side of town, and I was afraid to venture into the East Side, which literally was across the railroad tracks, in the bottomland. I lived in the Country Club subdivision, parts of which rivaled the finest streets in Dallas’ Highland Park or Houston’s River Oaks. Because of the area’s vast oil fields that lay under the treeless plains, some extraordinarily wealthy people made their homes in Wichita Falls. A small frame home on the East Side—the kind Ronnie Littleton grew up in, for example—was smaller than the garages of the Country Club mansions.
For sheltered kids like me, the East Side was a place of deep mystery. I heard stories about prostitutes and bootleggers who stood along Flood Street peddling their wares. I was told that if whites ever drove through the East Side at night, they would be snatched out of their cars by black men and robbed. Although I didn’t consider myself prejudiced in the slightest, the fact was that my knowledge of Wichita Falls’ blacks was gleaned mostly from the local folklore passed around my part of town. About the only time I ever read about black people in our local newspaper was when I came across a story—always placed toward the bottom of the sports page—about the East Side’s high school football team, the Booker T. Washington Leopards. My friends and I had always wanted to see the Leopards play—they had won the all-black school state football championship in 1965 and barely lost in the finals the next year—but a trip to a Booker T. game was deemed too dangerous by our parents. The adults I knew who did attend would joke about the old uniforms the black players had to wear, the silly pitchouts and reverses in the offensive game plans, and the