A Long Way from Beaumont

When I interviewed Rufus Cormier for Farewell to Football?, he began the conversation with an anecdote about his early days at Yale Law School. While he would have preferred to stay at home and watch a Big 10 football game on TV, his wife had insisted they attend the Harvard-Yale game. In the early going, a Yale running back broke free for a long touchdown, and a fan nearby shouted, “this is an auspicious start!” Rufus recalled thinking, “this is not Southwest Conference football!”

Rufus Cormier sack in 1968 Bluebonnet Bowl
Rufus Cormier (56) had a big game in the 1968 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl, with 16 tackles and a fumble recovery. Here he’s shown sacking the Oklahoma quarterback.

Rufus had played college football at Southern Methodist University (SMU), where his teammate from Beaumont, TX, Jerry LeVias “broke the ice” as the first African-American student-athlete to play football on a scholarship at a Southwest Conference (SWC) school in 1966. The two had played in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl in the Houston Astrodome (one of Houston’s Houses of the Holy) on New Year’s Eve, 1968 . . . the last evening of the tumultuous year that started with the Tet (Lunar New Year) Offensive in Vietnam and ended with the crew of Apollo 8 reading from the Book of Genesis from lunar orbit. After that game, LeVias had gone pro in the NFL while Cormier, following his senior year at SMU (future First Lady Laura Welch Bush was a classmate), had gone on to law school at Yale.

A long way from Beaumont, TX, Rufus Cormier found himself in law classes with Bill Clinton from Arkansas and Hillary Rodham from Illinois. Bill, you might recall, served as President of the United States from 1993 to 2001, and Rufus is currently enthusiastically supporting Hillary’s campaign for president. You could say that school, paid for at the undergraduate level by an athletic scholarship, made a big difference in the life of Jerry LeVias’s football teammate from Beaumont.

“Academics”

In researching Farewell to Football?, I discovered a lot more than meets the eye to the question of how athletics and academics mix in Division I football. Rufus Cormier found that he had been well prepared for college studies by the hard-driving teachers at Hebert High School in Beaumont, and that the classwork wasn’t as hard as he might have expected. But he also had to adjust his academic plans when he realized that chemistry labs were going to conflict with football practice. He worked things out, and even in the turbulent times of the late 1960’s at a school where as an African-American he was distinctly in the minority at SMU, Cormier was named Outstanding Student of his graduating class.

Ketric Sanford UH Football
One of my favorite interviews was with Ketric Sanford (7), who still holds some Houston Cougar records for rushing and yards from scrimmage. He worked hard to get as much from academics as he did from college football.

In the late 1990’s, Ketric Sanford at the University of Houston (where he still holds several records for running the ball) found that some things hadn’t changed. As a scholarship student-athlete, he realized that he couldn’t always take the classes that he would have preferred because of required work-outs and practice for football, but that was part of the deal he was making with college sports. He tried not to let football define him.

It was surprising–and certainly reassuring–to me as a teacher to hear high-caliber football players reveal that academics meant a lot more to them than just what they needed to do to stay eligible for football. As Sanford put it, “I wasn’t an athlete, I was a student that was there because of athletics” (F2F p. 198).

So, can football really facilitate social transformation? What is football doing on college campuses? Read more about Rufus Cormier’s football journey and the relationships between athletics and academics in Farewell to Football? An American Fan’s Examination of Conscience. This book is available in paperback through the Amazon and Barnes & Noble online catalogues, and in Kindle e-book format through Amazon (CLICK HERE for Free Kindle Preview.).

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