Whatever Happened to Ronnie Littleton?
In 1969 he helped the Wichita Falls Coyotes win the state football championship and went on to become one of the greatest high school players in Texas history. Then he disappeared. Twenty-five years later, I set out to find him.
Update: Ronnie Littleton, the subject of this story, passed away on December 27, 2015. From story author Skip Hollandsworth:
In December 1994—twenty one years ago—I wrote a story for Texas Monthly titled “Whatever Happened to Ronnie Littleton?” In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Littleton was the star running back for the Wichita Falls High School Coyotes. When he finished his high school career, he became one of the most recruited football players in the country. He was an athlete of tremendous talent, seemingly destined for collegiate and NFL fame. But what made him so fascinating to me and my friends, all of whom grew up in all-white neighborhoods in Wichita Falls during that era when school integration was just beginning, was the way he embraced his blackness. He was hilarious and free-spirited, and he grew his hair out in an Afro that was so big that it looked like an atom bomb exploding.
As I pointed out in my story, Littleton drifted when his football career came to an unexpected, and in the opinion of many, very unfair end. He went to work on an assembly line at a General Motors plant and stayed away from his old teammates. For much of his adult life, he battled alcoholism. In 1999, he was diagnosed with mouth cancer. After stints of radiation and chemotherapy, he seemed to have beaten it, but after a long period of remission, the cancer returned in early 2015. In September, he was given a feeding tube, and on Christmas Eve, he suffered a heart attack. He died on December 27 at the mere age of 61.
“It was tough on him,” his daughter Camille told me. “At one point, he had to have all his teeth taken out, and he had difficulty swallowing or talking. But by the time the end came, he had straightened out his life. He had put in 36 years at General Motors, earning full retirement, which also meant a lot to him. And even to the very end, he still had his great sense of humor, his love of life. I’m not sure he ever got over what had happened to him with his football career, But at the very end, he seemed at peace. He was ready to go.”
When my story on Littleton was published, I not only received letters from people in Wichita Falls who knew him, but I heard from people from other towns who told me they too had had a Ronnie Littleton in their lives. For all his feistiness, what I’ll never forget about Littleton was that he always took the time to talk to the worshipful boys like me who constantly gathered around his car in the school parking lot, asking for his autograph.
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 quarterbacks who would drop back and let fly with wild sixty-yard bombs. They reported that throughout the game the black fans would stomp on the wooden bleachers and do rhythmic chants like, “Ooh! Oongowah! We got the power!” I remember one friend’s father saying after he got back from a game, “It’s like being in Africa.” When I once asked why the Wichita Falls Coyotes never played Booker T., I was told the Booker T. players illegally stuck golf-shoe spikes in their football shoes so that they could puncture opponents’ stomachs when they stepped on them.
In 1967, when Booker T. was finally allowed to enter a white football district (a 3A district, one division lower than the 4A Coyotes), it turned out that the only controversy regarding Booker T. involved the white referees. Against all-white Brownwood High, a perennial football power in the sixties coached by the legendary Gordon Wood, Booker T. had two touchdowns nullified by penalties. Finally, after a Booker T. player ran back a kickoff untouched, all four officials reluctantly signaled a touchdown. “But their county sheriff, who was at the game, suddenly walked out on the field and called the officials over,” recalled Ervin Garnett, then the Booker T. football coach. “He pointed to the sidelines and said our runner had stepped out of bounds on the 35-yard line. So the officials called that one back too.” Booker T. lost to Brownwood, 21-14.
Garnett was convinced that his Leopards, given an even playing field, would eventually prove to be a better team than those from the white high schools. But in the late sixties, Wichita Falls’ white school administrators realized that if they did not come up with an integration plan soon, a federal judge would come up with one for them—one that could possibly force white students to be bused to the East Side. So in due haste they decided to shut down Booker T. as the start of the 1969 school year and send its seven hundred black students to the white high schools. The Booker T. faculty and staff were shuffled to other Wichita Falls schools; Garnett, the great football coach, was named principal at a junior high school. It was a devastating time for black parents, who said the busing plan was no different from what the slaves went through when they were shipped against their will to America. We don’t have much, black parents said, but at least we should have our own school to nurture our kids, guide them, and give them black teachers and coaches who could serve as role models. “At Booker T., the black kids knew the whole community was watching after them,” said Garnett. “Even the marginal students were put in positions of responsibility to showcase their talents and give them confidence. One of my great fears was that those kids would be lost at a white school. They would be looking at mostly white teachers who were happy to pass them with a C and get them out of their classrooms.”
But to the football coaches of the white high schools, integration was a godsend. They couldn’t wait to get their hands on some of that East Side talent. Just imagine how far the Coyotes could go, the Wichita High coaches said, if they only had that young teenage son of Faye Littleton’s, the sweet waitress who worked at the whites-only Wichita Club on top of the First Wichita Bank building. (She had raised him alone; Ronnie first met his father when he turned sixteen.) Rumor had it that Ronnie was so skilled that he could run the forty-yard dash backward as fast as he could run it forward. The kid had even installed a makeshift weight room in his mother’s garage. Everyone said he was destined for professional football.
According to local lore, when the East Side was originally divided up for school busing, Littleton’s home had been placed in the Rider High School district, the archrival of the Coyotes. But a former Wichita Falls High School coach who had become athletic director for the school system just happened to get the boundaries redrawn to land the Littletons’ street just inside the Coyotes’ territory. Although Ronnie Littleton had no way of knowing it, he was already part of a plan to take Wichita Falls High School to the state championship.
“When he came back to Wichita Falls, I’d see him driving up and down the highway, his music cranked up loud,” said a former teammate. “I’d wave at him.”
“Did he ever stop?”
“Well, he’d pretend not to notice you.”
In 1969 boys my age who followed the Coyotes had one and only one hero: a handsome, stocky running back named Joey Aboussie. With a running start, he would lower his head and steamroll linebackers flat onto their backs, ABC broadcaster Chris Schenkel was so impressed with Aboussie that he later pronounced him the best high school player in the country. Off the field, Aboussie was the all-American teenager—an honor student in school, a persuasive speaker at Fellowship of Christian Athletes banquets, a polite star who always took the time to sign autographs or throw us his chin strap at the end of games. “Are you boys going to grow up to become Coyotes some day?” Aboussie would ask us. “Oh, yes, sir, Joey,” we’d all reply. If someone had told me that another running back—and a black one at that—was about to take Aboussie’s place as my idol, I would have told him that he just didn’t understand football in Wichita Falls.
For years the Coyotes had been made up of toughened white boys, the sons of oilmen or oil-field workers who had been taught that football was meant to be played ferociously. On cement-hard practice fields, unsmiling coaches shouting, “Hit! Hit! Hit!” made the Coyotes go from one tackling drill to another. “Put the hurt on him!” the coaches would yell, blowing their whistles. Coyotes were not allowed to speak to coaches unless spoken to, and they were certainly not allowed to spike the ball and dance when they scored a touchdown. The Coyotes were so well-disciplined and so brutal that other teams dreaded playing them. In the late fifties and early sixties the Coyotes went to the state championship game four straight times.
In those days Wichita Falls High School was the only white high school in town. In the sixties its stockpile of talent was diluted as the city grew and other white high schools opened. By 1969, even with Aboussie, the Coyotes were expected only to win their district championship and then get beaten in the playoffs. Nor did it seem that integration was going to help. Many of the former Booker T. stars were so angry about the closing of their own school that they hadn’t even tried out for the Coyotes. Others had quit in disgust a few days into practice because, they said, they weren’t being given a chance to make the starting squad. The quarterback from the Booker T. team, Lulanger Washington, who was considered a major college talent with his powerful arm, and wide receiver Eddie Bagby were relegated to the bench because, the coaches said, their pass-oriented style didn’t fit into the Coyotes’ run-oriented wishbone offense.
But in a move that could be likened to Branch Rickey’s signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the cigarette-smoking, burr-headed coach of the Coyotes, Donnell Crosslin, put another black player, Lawrence Williams, at quarterback. The speedy Williams’ runs around the end were the perfect complement to Joey Aboussie’s inside blasts. Williams was a confident, thoughtful young man who never raised his voice or lost his cool. Still, installing him at quarterback was a huge gamble for Crosslin. At the time, there were no black quarterbacks starting for big white schools anywhere in the state, and there were plenty of Coyote fans who would have preferred a white quarterback, even if it meant another average season. But Crosslin told me years later, “My job was to go with the best player for the position, and that was that.”
Crosslin also named James Reed, a quiet black teenager, his middle linebacker, the central figure for the defense. Reed stood by his locker, sullen and glowering, saying little to the white players. Just before the August two-a-day practices, Reed’s father had been shot to death on an East Side street. No one was sure whether Reed would even want to play that season. But when he stepped onto the practice field, he turned into the epitome of the Coyote player—a vicious hitter who seemed to channel his anger into one punishing tackle after another.
Then there was Ronnie Littleton. Because Crollin rarely played sophomores, everyone assumed that Littleton would spend the 1969 season doing mop-up work late in the second half of games. During one of those early practices, leaning against the practice field fence with a pack of other boys my age, I got to watch him run with the ball. Littleton started toward one hole in the line and then, with a little shake of his hips, slid toward another hole. He took a few more steps, made an impossible whirling move, and slipped like a wet bar of soap through the rest of the defense.
But that was not the part that amazed me. As Littleton trotted back to the huddle, he held the ball above his head and squealed, “Ooh, that feels good!” The white players looked at one another: Coyotes weren’t supposed to talk like that. He was a football player, not Flip Wilson. On the next play, I watched my hero Aboussie plunge into the line with his rock-‘em-sock-‘em body. Then, up came Littleton again, moving faster than anyone else on the field, flicking right, flicking left, running so deftly that his shoulder pads didn’t even rattle. “Ooh, uh-huh!” Littleton shouted. The coaches just bit their lips. As Crosslin told me, “I knew that I was going to have to loosen up our typical disciplinary attitudes so the black players could feel more welcome.”
But he could not possibly have known that with the arrival of Ronnie Littleton, the Coyotes would never be the same. At the end of practice, some other boys and I hustled to the locker room door to get a good look at Littleton’s frizzed-out Afro. We waited in silence as he approached, unsure of what to expect. I remembered someone had told me that the reason blacks grew big Afros was so they could hide their switchblades in them. Then Littleton turned and gave us a huge grin.
“It’s the little honky brothers!” he said, giving each of us a soul shake—the first time anyone had shaken our hands like that. No one knew what to say. This cocky, muscled teenager was not like the older black men we knew who worked in our yards and spoke in soft voices. Finally, one boy asked him for his autograph. “Say, little honks, you know us black boys don’t know how to spell,” Littleton said, looking as serious as he could. Then, with a loud high-pitched laugh, he grabbed the sheet of paper and wrote his name.
From the day he arrived on “The Hill” (the phrase blacks used for the white part of town), Littleton became a one-man demonstration of black style. He wore flyaway shirts unbuttoned down to his chest and two-toned pants made of red leather in the front and black leather in the back. He was the first to wear sunglasses inside the high school (“My shades,” he called them), and he wore silky see-through socks as a fashion statement. For his school picture, he wore a white tie with a black shirt. “I will never forget changing clothes in the locker room at one of our first practices,” said Craig Womble, a Dallas businessman who played on the 1969 team. “Here were all the white boys putting on our white Jockey briefs. And all of a sudden, up jumps Ronnie onto a locker room bench, wearing a red silk undershirt and matching red silk boxers that went down to his knees. He starts singing while he’s combing his Afro with one of those big cake-cutter combs. Finally someone says, ‘What in the hell are you doing?’ And Littleton says, ‘Baby, I’m stylin’ and profilin’.’”
In the hallways Littleton was always holding out his hand and giving someone “five” (which to white people was still a perplexing form of physical greeting). When he’d see a pretty girl, black or white, he’d say, “Ooh, baby, you butter my popcorn!” He used certain phrases—“getting some trim,” for example, when referring to sex—that whites had never heard before. While my friends and I cussed through abbreviations—we said things like, “Hey, that’s BS” or “I’m getting PO’d”—Littleton made profanity sound like a glorious language. “Hello, you old poop-butt, jive-ass, booty head,” I once heard him say to another black friend as a cheerful greeting.
Back in my neighborhood, the word was that these “loud and boisterous blacks” were ruining things at the high school. It was true that some black students were so upset about the closing of Booker T. that they sat in the back of the classrooms refusing to study, telling teachers their lessons were full of “boool-shit.” Others walked through the hallways and said, ”Ooh, smells bad in here. Smells like a whitey.” Though the whites were mostly intimidated by the black students, they had their own ways of making the black students feel unwanted. During a Black History Week assembly in the auditorium, for example, some students shouted, “What about White History Week?” As tensions increased, many citizens, black and white, were convinced that integration would never succeed. Then the Coyotes started winning football games.
“I heard he was arrested for carrying a weapon,” said a former running back.
“He had a gun?”
“The way I heard it, a state trooper had pulled Ronnie over and told him to get out of the car. Ronnie started leaning down like he was going for something under the front seat, but then he came back up.”
“What was under there?”
“A .357 magnum. The trooper was about to shoot him, but then he took his finger off the trigger. He recognized Ronnie’s face.”
In their first game, the newly integrated Coyotes squeaked by Lubbock Coronado, 10-3. But then they demolished Amarillo, 54-0, and in their third game, against state-ranked Sherman, the victorious Coyotes made nineteen first downs and scored 41 points in the first half alone. Wichitans began pouring into the Coyotes’ stadium to watch this collection of rich boys from the Country Club subdivision, gruff lineman from the city’s blue-collar neighborhoods, and the five East Side blacks. Ted Buss, the sportswriter for the local paper, nicknamed Lawrence Williams “Mr. Outside” and Joey Aboussie “Mr. Inside” because they were such a powerful one-two combination. But for me, the best moment in a game came when Ronnie Littleton scored a touchdown. He’d raise the ball high above his head and make back-and-forth movements with his pelvis while running in place. Then he’d spike the ball behind his back. I cheered for him like a lunatic. The irrepressible Buss nicknamed the dance the Littleton Limbo.
For a few hours on those fall Friday nights, two cultures came together. In the Coyotes’ locker room, after Crosslin had given his standard halftime speech (“Men, you can do what you want to do—if you want to do it bad enough”), one of the black players would start a chant: “Gotta get rollin’, rollin’, rollin’.” As the coaches cast sideways glances at one another, the rest of the Coyotes picked up the chant. Meanwhile, we whites in the stands would be singing our dirge of a school song (“Hail to our colors. Hail to our school. We’ll back you forever. That is our rule”). Bored black fans would wait for the song to end and then initiate a chant of their own: “Whup. . . up. . . side. . . the. . . head. Say, whup ‘em upside the head.” Before long, our whole side of the stadium had joined in.
Although Aboussie remained the mainstay of the Coyotes, even he would later admit that integration made the 1969 team great. After four victories in the playoffs, the Coyotes made it to the state championship game against heavily favored San Antonio Lee. In the first quarter Aboussie scored two quick touchdowns, then the Coyotes fell behind late in the game, 20-14. With only minutes left in the game, Lawrence Williams headed left with the ball on a critical fourth-down play, and finding nothing there, went back to the right and ran 62 yards for the game-tying touchdown. Then Aboussie scored another touchdown to give the Coyotes a 28-20 win.
Although the Coyotes were picked to win the state title again the next year, they were upset by Odessa Permian in a playoff game. Five white Coyotes from the 1969 championship team, including Aboussie, were signed by Darrell Royal to play for the University of Texas. Lawrence Williams, who thought Royal was too racist to start a black quarterback, went to Texas Tech, where ironically he became a wide receiver (Williams made the All Southwest Conference team at that position anyway). James Reed accepted a scholarship to a small Oklahoma college. Backup wide receiver Eddie Bagby, who did not get a college scholarship, moved to California and never returned to Wichita Falls. Also quickly dropping out of sight after graduation was the embittered backup quarterback Lulanger Washington, who believed he would have received a college scholarship if he had been able to stay at Booker T. and display his passing skills.
In 1971 the only player left from the 1969 team was Littleton. By then, he was the most famous high school football player in Texas. Crosslin had created an offense that ensured Littleton would have his hands on the ball on almost every play. Littleton spent most of the game at quarterback, but he sometimes moved to tailback to take better advantage of his running skills and to catch passes. He also played his usual cornerback position on defense and returned all kicks and punts. As quarterback, Littleton would saunter up to the line of scrimmage, look over the defense, take the snap, and then start scrambling around the field for what seemed like minutes until he found an opening. Against Highland Park High School, he caught a kickoff on his own 12-yard line and stood there patiently until the kickoff team got close to him. Suddenly, as tacklers charged in, he zigged one way, zagged another, and then jitterbugged down the field for an 88-yard touchdown.
The more flamboyant that Littleton acted with his lengthy touchdown dances, the more the other teams hated him. They dove at his knees. They tackled him after he had run out of bounds. To the Coyotes’ mostly white opponents, he was an uppity black. But to us in Wichita Falls, he was our own Muhammad Ali. Unfazed by the whites around him and unaffected by any racist attitude, Littleton loved to celebrate his blackness, to poke fun at whites, and even to poke fun at himself. He occasionally walked up and down the sidelines at practice with an exaggerated roosterlike stride. “My brothers,” he dead-panned to those white players who were giving him puzzled looks, “if you want to have soul, you got to have a glide in your stride, a dip in your hip.” He started coming to school in a jacked-up blue Ford Fairlane that had an extra large engine and Super Stock Formula One tires on the back wheels. He replaced the gas pedal with a chrome replica of a human foot, he put blue shag carpet on the dash, and he had a variety of beads and chains hanging from the rearview mirror. He joked to whites that it was his pimp-mobile. With his eight-track tape blaring out Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, Littleton would roar up to the school and hit his brakes about thirty feet from the parking lot, laying rubber, scattering rocks and pigeons. “Watch out, honks!” he’s yell, hopping out of the car.
As a freshman that year, I learned Littleton’s class schedule just so I could stare at him in the hallways. “Hi, Ronnie,” I’d say in my voice that had not yet begun to crack. “Hey, little brother,” he’d occasionally reply. One day, during an interracial-understanding seminar I attended, in which black and white students sat side by side and talked about everyone being exactly the same deep down inside, I was asked by a teacher if I had any black friends. “Yes, Ronnie Littleton,” I said as the black students around the room snickered. I realize today that it must have seemed absurd to them that a white kid could believe he could ever get close to their lives. The blacks might have spent seven hours a day with whites at the high school, but at the end of the day, they got on the school buses and went back to their separate world. Despite the promises made to them about integration, they already knew how difficult it would be for them to be accepted into white society. Only someone of Littleton’s talent could overcome the barriers of race.
He rushed for 1,807 yards in 1971, passed for more than 400, and scored 26 touchdowns. He was named all-state on both offense and defense and was also named a high school all-American. Littleton took the Coyotes straight to the state championship game, once more against San Antonio Lee. When he was on defense, the San Antonio receivers he covered ran deep patterns on every play just to wear him out. Still, on offense, Littleton rushed for 181 yards and scored 2 touchdowns. But with two and a half minutes to play, San Antonio Lee quarterback Tommy Kramer fired a 35-yard touchdown pass just over Littleton’s outstretched hands to wide receiver Richard Osborne. The Coyotes lost, 28-27—and Littleton lay on the field and wept. We Coyotes fans wept with him. If we had only known that we had just seen him play the last great game of his career, we probably would have wept even more.
“I remember he’d watch all the pro games on television,” said another former offensive back. “He’d see Tommy Kramer playing for the Vikings and Richard Osborne playing for the Eagles.”
“The two guys who beat him in the state championship game?”
“Oh, yeah. And he’d see his friend Lawrence Williams, who played a few years for the Chiefs and the Browns. And Ronnie would get so upset that he would have to turn the television off.”
The college coaches came fromaround the country. The University of Nebraska wanted him as its lead tailback. The University of Oklahoma promised him a position in its wishbone, then the most powerful offense in the nation. But in a stunning announcement, Littleton said he would be attending lowly Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, a perennial Southwest Conference underdog with a weak offensive line. For three years the NCAA investigated the recruiting of Littleton, wanting to know why, after signing with TCU, he suddenly began driving a black Cutlass with a 455-horsepower engine. But the NCAA finally gave up, unable to disprove Littleton’s story that his godmother had provided the car along with a monthly spending allowance.
Whatever the case, in the second game of his freshman year, Littleton found himself playing quarterback against mighty Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Confident as ever, Littleton strutted to the line, looked over the Fighting Irish defense, got the ball, and was demolished. On each play, Notre Dame swarmed him from the blind side while his knee was planted. As the game progressed, he improvised desperately, trying to outrun the defenders around the end. And still he kept getting hit. After one vicious tackle, he felt something rip in his leg. Although he finished the game with magnificent courage, his future in football was already over.
Because of his bad knee, he rushed for only 133 yards and two touchdowns his freshman year. He reinjured the knee and then injured his other knee during his sophomore year. In the off-season he had operations, and by his junior year, he was being shot up with painkillers before most practices and games. But Littleton could no longer make those spit-on-a-griddle moves. Linebackers were able to catch up to him when he tried to run outside. The pro scouts stopped keeping files on him. By 1975, his senior year, his biography in the TCU football media guide devoted more space to his high school career than to his college years. He was seen by TCU students as much in the off-campus bars as he was on the field. When coaches learned he had broken curfew the night before the game against UT—he had been out partying with his friends—he was told not to suit up for the game.
The story of what happened to Littleton would soon become a familiar one as American sports became more integrated. It is the storey of the kid from the poor black neighborhood, devoting himself to a game only to discover, too late, that the game has betrayed him. For Coach Garnett, who never got to fulfill his own dream of coaching Littleton at Booker T., the end of Littleton’s career was a tragedy. “He never really had anyone to guide him about college or about how to handle his life,” said Garnett. “No one even sat down and told him who he was outside of his life as an athlete. No one taught him what it meant to survive in the world if there was no football. And no one told him that he would be a star in the white world only as long as he kept being a star athlete.”
Littleton left TCU and moved back to Wichita Falls—and that is where I lost track of him. He had gone back to his East Side homies, guys who had also experienced their share of failures. Joey Aboussie, after a respectable career as a running back for the Longhorns and a few years as a CPA in Fort Worth, had also returned to Wichita Falls, to start an oil-drilling company with his in-laws. When Lawrence Williams’ three-year pro career was over, he came back, moved into a neighborhood away from the East Side, and sold cars and then worked as a retail ad salesman for the Wichita Falls newspaper. It was Aboussie and Williams who were asked to give speeches at the high school sports banquets or at the Coyotes’ pep rallies. But people didn’t see Littleton. He had become an invisible man—which is exactly the way he wanted it.
“Oh, I guess I saw him a few years ago,” said a former lineman, ‘at a Coyotes game.”
“A Coyotes game?”
“I didn’t have much of a conversation with him. I didn’t know what to say.”
“He was drunk. Completely drunk.”
For weeks I made calls to the AC Delco plant where Littleton worked building oxygen sensors for GMC cars and trucks. I called his close friends, asking if they could persuade him to talk. For a few minutes we actually had a polite chat on the phone. (Ronnie: “Why do you want to see me? Me: “Because I think it’s important to talk about those days.” Ronnie: “Why?” Me: “Because none of us can stop thinking about them.”)
Finally, this past September, forty-year-old Ronnie Littleton whipped his red pickup truck with oversized tires and mag wheels into the Ramada Inn parking lot in Wichita Falls. He got out, ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair, adjusted his wraparound sunglasses, then headed toward the hotel with the same bowlegged strut that I used to imitate years ago. In my years as a journalist, I have interviewed many people, but I cannot remember ever being as nervous as I was at that moment.
“I remember you,” Littleton said, although I could tell he didn’t. We went into the hotel restaurant, where he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and ordered coffee. He took off his sunglasses and squinted at me. “You know, I’ve given away all those clippings, the trophies, even my letter jacket,” he said. “It’s long, long gone.” He was wearing blue jeans and an athletic T-shirt that didn’t quite hide his soft belly. “Man, I don’t even know what I can tell you.”
I wasn’t sure what he’d want to talk about. I asked him about his wife, Bobbie, a nurse whom he married in 1981. “She’s gone through some shit with me,” he said, giving a faint smile. We talked about why the most recent Coyote teams were lucky to have winning seasons. “I don’t know if those kids are dedicated to winning like we were,” he said. “We got up every morning wanting to win. It was our life then. We were united, black players and white players, to get to that state championship.” His voice trailed off, and he sipped some coffee. Despite the dark circles under his eyes, he was still as handsome as a I remembered from high school. “Go on, my man, ask me anything,” he said in a quiet voice. He knew I wanted to hear as much about the downfall as I did about the glory days.
I had already picked up bits and pieces about what had happened to him. I had heard that when he came back to Wichita Falls, he began stopping by a liquor store on East Side Drive, where he’d purchase a half-pint of Jack Daniel’s and a tall can of malt liquor. I had heard he would drive out to a farm-to-market road beyond the city limit signs and drink alone. I had heard about the one time he tried to prove himself as football player again. He had joined a small semi-pro football team, the Wichita Falls Roughnecks, coached by James Reed, one of the five original black Coyotes. After graduating from college, Reed too had come back to Wichita Falls. (Today he lives in the Dallas suburb of Arlington, where he owns a small construction-cleanup business.) Littleton told Reed that he wanted to see if he could still run past people. But there were times when Reed didn’t let Littleton play, because he showed up drunk. After one Roughnecks loss, in which Littleton wasn’t allowed to play, Reed looked along the sideline and saw Littleton weeping at the end of the bench.
“So I heard you did some drinking,” I said.
He took a drag on his cigarette. “Yeah,” he said. “Oh, yeah.”
“Actually,” I said, “this happens to a lot of guys in sports whose careers are cut short.”
“But it wasn’t supposed to happen to me.” He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray and lit another. “I know I was drinking to cover up the pain. But maybe I was mad at God too. Oh, yeah. Everything I had dreamed of for my life was gone.”
For a long time, he said, he didn’t want to talk about football. He had difficulty talking to his old teammates. He would start drinking on Sundays when he’d watch the NFL games, and he’d drink on Friday nights, about the time the Coyotes’ games started. He did attend some games, but he kept noticing the way the white people gave him double takes—the same people who used to cheer him, who now could not believe that the young man they had once elevated to such prominence was hiding a flask under his coat. He hated it when someone came up to him and said, ‘So, hey, Ronnie, what are you doing with yourself now?”
The years passed, he said. He started drinking from his bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the mornings. The police pulled him over for DWIs, and yes, he did get arrested for keeping a .357 magnum in his car. But he had no intention of slowing down. He tried crack. He let his hair grown down to his shoulders. Soon the East Side was full of stories of Littleton acting crazy and looking for a fight. “If he thought you said something to him the wrong way, he would explode,” said a woman who knew him well. “You just learned to get away from him.” Ronnie Littleton had gone from the beloved schoolboy football hero to the bad black dude.
In 1988, to keep from being fired after missing too many days of work, he went to the rehabilitation center at Red River Hospital in Wichita Falls. Thirty days later he was back out drinking. He went a second time, yet quickly returned to the bottle. His life spiraling downward, he could not imagine what he could do to raise himself back up. On the streets one day, he happened to run into Lulanger Washington, the backup quarterback from that 1969 team. As it turned out, after Washington graduated from high school, he was so angry at whites for closing down Booker T. and ruining his chance for success in college that he decided to get even. He bought a pistol and learned to stick people up., Wearing a nylon stocking over his face, Washington would wait for white people to come out of a downtown bank after cashing their paychecks, and he’d slip up behind them, aiming a gun at the backs of their heads. But by the early eighties, Washington had given up his life of crime and became a street preacher on the East Side. “There are so many of us over here who grew up with this suppressed anger at our positions in life,” he said. “Some of us felt we had never had a chance to show what we could do, and we wanted someone to pay. What I told Ronnie was that we have got to make the best of our lives, whatever our lives turn out to be.”
Even as Washington said those words, he knew it was harder than ever for black people in Wichita Falls. The East Side had rapidly deteriorated since he and Ronnie were boys. With few higher-paying jobs available, residents found it harder to escape the undertow of poverty. Crack had arrived, and soon after came the gangs and the violence. A few years ago a police officer was assigned to walk the hallways of Wichita Falls High School to keep gang members from other schools from causing trouble. “You remember how you used to be scared of coming over to the East Side?” Washington asked me. “I’m telling you, it was a church picnic back then. Now even the black folks are scared of the East Side, all those guns and bullets. I hate to say I told you so, but a lot of life went out of the East Side when Booker T. Washington High School closed. The community lost pride in itself. The adults stopped watching over these kids, making sure they didn’t fail. The streets just got too tempting.”
But there are still many success stories coming out of the East Side. Some of them are the most unexpected. In September 1991, after he realized he could no longer remember the Lord’s Prayer, Ronnie Littleton tried rehabilitation for a third time. “This time,” he told me, “I was ready to make it work.” He said he had remained sober for the past three years, even though there are moments when his body craves liquor. “It’s a battle, my man, one day at a time—but I’m not giving up,” Littleton said. And to my astonishment, he gave me that same cheerful grin that I first saw by the Coyotes’ locker room door.
I wanted to tell Ronnie Littleton how I could still do a perfect imitation of his walk, and that a quarter of a century later, I was still using words and phrases that I had first heard him say. I wanted him to know how his jivey hilarious attitude had really changed my life. He had helped usher Wichita Falls through those first painful days of integration, and he had also taught many of us white kids to loosen up. But he waved me off. “That was a long time ago, and I’m a different person now,” he said. “I’ve been given a second chance, and I just want to say, ‘Thank you, God.’”
As we walked to the hotel door, he put on his wraparound sunglasses and suddenly said, “You know what’s strange? Sometimes I think about the way my body moved back then, all the moved I’d make to get free. Oh, Lord, man, if I could just get around a little like that today.” He laughed in his familiar high-pitched way, gave me an old-fashioned soul handshake, and got in his red pickup with the mag wheels and drove off. For an instant I thought I was back in high school, watching him in his pimp-mobile with the blue shag on the dash. I remembered how he’d stick his head out of the window, shout, “Good-bye, little honks,” then lay rubber for his home on the East Side. In my mind, he will always be that glorious teenager, uncatchable, moving like a stunning burst of light.