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Creating Visibility on the 40 Acres and Beyond | The Tenacity of Roosevelt Leaks

Roosevelt Leaks


It was Dec. 6, 1969, and Julius Whittier was inside Jester Hall, when he experienced along with hundreds of his classmates an exhilarating feeling of celebration, and yet a unique feeling of cultural consciousness. Texas had just beaten Arkansas, 15-14, in what had been billed as the Game of the Century. But the game did more than mark a landmark win of conference rivalry; the game would stand for historical relevance. Under Coach Darrell Royal, the 1969 National Champions Texas Longhorns would be the last all-white team.

In 1970 Julius Whittier’s historic role as the first African American football player to play on The University of Texas at Austin (UT) 40 acres was followed by a talent lured from Brenham, Texas. In the previous seasons UT had watched schools in Texas and across the Southwest recruit skillful African-American athletes to their program; competition like the University of Southern California and Southern Methodist University had players of color tearing up opponent’s fields with a speed and strength that had awoken the Southwest Conference to a shift in their approach to the sport and social politics. The consequence of Southern schools fighting to remain competitive was integration. Athletes like Roosevelt Leaks became of historic significant on the field and off.

Roosevelt Leaks grew up in the Texas country and attended high school in Brenham, Texas. A versatile athlete, he played several sports throughout junior high and high school. He was particularly successful at football and baseball. But at the time football offered the best opportunity for him and many of his contemporaries to matriculate to college. In his junior year he was named an All-American, the same season his team went 12-1-1. This type of dominance, while uncontested under the lights of a large football institution, would be a predictor of Leak’s career at UT.

When Leaks entered high school, it was the first year of public sanctioned integration in most of Texas. “My class was the first class to go through integration,” Leaks recalled. “They began sending us to the white schools and turned the black school into a junior high school.” This was a trend seen across the south. As high schools began integrating the question to desegregate athletic programs was inevitable, giving African Americans an opportunity to be scouted and recruited to major Texas colleges. “I got offered opportunities to play almost everywhere, but I couldn’t go to Texas A&M because my father told me I couldn’t. So the University of Houston was the first school to show interest in me and that I visited.” But after visits to the University of Houston and Stanford University, Roosevelt Leaks settled on UT. With a great academic reputation and close proximity to his home in Brenham, UT’s contentious history with race on and off the field played a secondary role to Leak’s decision. “It was Prairie View or Texas Southern for most kids that looked like me, but I realized that my grades were pretty decent and I had a talent that could take me to a different type of school, for a different kind of experience. Texas was the best option to have that experience and be close to home. It was important to me to be close enough that my parents to see me play.”

Leaks recalls his introduction to the 40 acres as surprisingly transparent. “When I went on my recruiting trip to UT I was hosted by Loney Bennett who was a freshman at the time and Julius Whittier and Leon O’Neill (who eventually transferred to Southwest Texas, now Texas State) who were both sophomores. The conversations we had weren’t particularly inspiring, as they disclosed that they were each navigating some tough waters as the only black kids on the team and much of campus.” But when Roosevelt entered his freshman year he didn’t experience the same culture shock as some of his predecessors or contemporary peers of color. “My high school was probably 70/30 or 75/25. It wasn’t a culture shock for me to come to UT. Some of the teams I played against in high school, their teams were predominately white. I played with and against them. There were also several white baseball players from my high school that followed me to UT.” Accompanying Leaks in his freshman recruiting class was one other black football player, Fred Perry. Adding some additional support were a couple black student-athletes on the track and basketball teams. “There were not a whole lot of black athletes at the time, so we all hung out together.”

Leaks learned early on that his experience as an athlete was not like other students on campus. “There were definitely perks and doors that were open to me because of my name and my athletic ability, that wouldn’t have been open to other students of color. I was very much aware of that.” Roosevelt’s unique experience as a black athlete and a super-star athlete in some ways isolated him from the challenging social climate and racial tension on campus. Caught between the visceral racism of some of his peers across the southern region and the more subtle, institutional discrimination of the 40 acres, Leaks found himself shifting his focus to what he could control – performing on the gridiron. “I knew several of the black players on other teams in our conference, one of the players at SMU told me this story of playing for the first time in Dallas. He said students from SMU let lose a whole bunch of black cats on the field in his honor, right before the game started. Some of the things they went through on their campus…it was tough. Most of the schools in the south had a similar mentality.” While Coach Darrell Royal had finally come around to recruiting athletes of color with the backing of the athletic administration, opening the door didn’t instantaneously break tensions in the community or on campus. Reflecting on these earlier decades of integrated athletics, former UT Athletic Director Deloss Dodds (1981 – 2013) said, “the fact there were black athletes at Texas opened people’s eyes. I think athletics in some sense lead the way in acceptance and encouraging black parents to send their kids to Texas. We looked good for the world and it set a standard, a comfort level for the rest of campus.”

That line of thinking was reflected in the experience of many of the first black football players. Julius Whittier’s perspective being one of the most revealing. “I didn’t go there with that as a goal, the goal of integrating” he says. “I went there because I wanted to play big-time football, take a shot and see how I stacked up against guys like me. If I was an icebreaker, I didn’t feel the breaking ice.” Elaborating, Whittier says he never felt as if Darrell Royal had to be dragged screaming into the era of integrated college football. “There may have been those coaches who made it their goal to make sure college football stayed white,” Whittier says. “I didn’t see that in Coach Royal, didn’t see it as a burning issue with any of the white football players, and even in looking back I don’t see it. I think the guys I played with felt comfortable they had the skills to compete with anyone, whether that guy was white or black. Coach Royal basically came to a school that got its personality from the state it served. Not that he was some big social revolutionary or anything, but I think he recognized that to stay who we were, we were going to have to use black athletes.”

The players who joined Whittier and Royal in the vanguard of integrated football, assumed the role of ambassador.  “We were given the black recruits to tour and it was our job to help them feel welcome, comfortable and make it seem that Texas was the place for them,” said Leaks. “But during my sophomore and junior year Texas did not recruit any black players.” Coaches around the region who were competing for the same recruits would often tell potential players of color that they’d ride the bench at Texas and that they were better off socially at another school.  In Leak’s junior year UT welcomed four African American players, Lionel Johnson, Ivy Suber, Patty Kennedy and Ray Clayborn, raising expectations for future recruiting efforts. In his final year in a Longhorn jersey, UT recruited its largest class of African American players ever, including, the future (and first black) Heisman Trophy recipient, Earl Campbell. This vanguard of black athletes would change UT football and the UT landscape forever.

But attending The University of Texas was never just about football for Roosevelt Leaks, it meant something to challenge himself in the classroom as well. He knew how fortunate he was to attend college, particularly a school like UT, and was dedicated to taking advantage of his opportunity. His aspirations however, were temporarily dampened when he struggled in first year and was placed on academic probation. “I really had to learn how to learn. The classes moved at a fast pace and I had to learn to ask for help and focus. I had some great help though, UT truly offered me great resources.” Those resources included a tutor that helped to teach Leaks the techniques and skills to excel in his classes. “My tutor’s name was Bill Lyons and he happened to be one of the only black tutors on campus. I remember that Bill was everywhere, he was one busy guy, because not only was he smart, but he was well respected and trusted by the other black student and particularly student-athletes.”

Bill Lyons was just one of the many unexpected friendships that Leaks developed while at UT. Like many of Leaks predecessors and peers across the country who were helping to break the “color barriers” in the athletic arena, the ability to navigate relational tensions was both an art form and a requirement for being a “first.” “I was definitely expected to uphold a certain image and be a peace maker. It took a certain mentality to come to UT and get along with my teammates.” Leaks recalls early on some of his teammates messing with him about the role he was often forced to play, but reflects that that role of bridge builder continues to inform his approach to life. “I learned a lot having to navigate this strange and at times hostile world, but a true testament to it all is that I’m still friends with my white teammates till this day. There is still great commradery with both white and black teammates from my playing days. What we started at UT on the football field is a life-long understanding and friendship.”

As history shows, Leaks wasn’t the first black athlete at UT nor was he the first to walk onto the gridiron, but his presence on campus and his accomplishments on the field demonstrated the tide turning. His talent managed to garner attention from white Texas, while signaling to black athletes they could make it at UT. In 2005, Leaks was inducted into the College Hall of Fame. At the ceremony in New York, now former Longhorn Football coach, Mack Brown (1998 – 2013) shared a sentiment that represented Roosevelt’s Longhorn career. “Roosevelt, this University will never be able to thank you enough for having the courage to do what you did. There is no greater disease in this country than racism. We’ve come a long way since you played, but there is still much to do.”