Shocker Summer: Linwood Sexton runs over racism
08/06/2014 8:32 AM
08/06/2014 8:32 AM
Editor’s note: This profile of Shocker football star Linwood Sexton appeared in The Eagle on Nov. 5, 1995, the 50-year anniversary of Sexton’s first season at the University of Wichita.
As the University of Wichita football team filed into its Topeka hotel, a night before the Shockers’ game against Washburn, Linwood Sexton prepared for the usual.
It was 1946, his junior season. By then, Sexton had established himself as the best halfback in the Missouri Valley Conference, and maybe the entire Midwest.
The players and coaches gathered near the front desk for their room keys. The entire time, Sexton kept his eye on the clerk, waiting for the inevitable.
But the inevitable didn’t come.
“I remember he was talking to someone else as I got my key,” Sexton said. “But he was looking at me as if something was wrong.”
So Sexton went up to his room. But as he and teammate Ager Caldwell walked in, Sexton had a piece of advice for his younger teammate.
“Don’t you unpack that bag,” Sexton said. “They’re not going to let us stay here.”
Sure enough, not five minutes later, WU coach Ralph Graham knocked on the door.
Blacks were not allowed to stay in the hotel. Within the hour, Sexton and Caldwell were dropped off at the Dunbar Hotel, Sexton’s home-away-from-his-teammates for four years when WU played at Washburn or Kansas.
“It was nothing out of the ordinary, except that we got that far to begin with,” Sexton said.
Yes, life as a college football star was glamorous for Linwood Sexton in the 1940s.
Stay at hotels separated from your teammates. Sneak up the fire escape so you can attend a pregame meeting. And games south of the Kansas border? Hope your buddies bring you back a souvenir.
Sexton was loved by his teammates as much as any player could be. But his teammates weren’t the ones hitting him long after he ran out of bounds.
They weren’t the ones punching him in the bottom of a pileup.
And they weren’t the ones who prevented Sexton from eating with them in Wichita’s downtown restaurants. Sexton, like all blacks, was relegated to eating in the kitchen.
Fifty years have gone by since Sexton was named All-Missouri Valley Conference for the first time. A sophomore halfback, he would earn all-conference honors twice more before ending his WU career with 1,995 rushing yards.
And still, to this day, Sexton won’t let his disgust or frustrations show.
“My philosophy has always been that no one has had the opportunity to choose their parents, because that’s just luck of the draw,” he said. “So I’ve always treated everyone as equal ... until they tear their ass, then it’s an entirely different situation.”• • •
“Above is Linwood Sexton, the dusky phantom of the W.U. Shockers, off on a touchdown sprint.”
– Photo caption from The Wichita Eagle, Oct. 14, 1945
From hometown newspaper articles to opposing players and fans, Sexton heard it all.
“I was called everything but a child of God,” he said.
The Colored Comet. The Dusky Phantom. The Negro Ghost.
And at the bottom of a pile of football players, the names got worse.
“I knew that they’d call you all kinds of names, hoping you’d retaliate and get your ass kicked out of the game,” Sexton said. “But you played both ways, and on defense you’d get a chance to wreak a little punishment of your own.”
No one questioned Sexton’s skills. A high-kneed running style made him tough to bring down; he was a passing threat from the Shockers’ single-wing offense, and he could lay a hit on a ballcarrier, too.
But the football field was the only place Sexton was treated as an equal, and even then it was limited to certain places.
WU played at Tulsa twice in Sexton’s four years; Sexton never made the trip. Same for West Texas State, where Sexton wasn’t invited.
“I just hated that so damn bad,” said Graham, Sexton’s coach in 1946 and 1947. “I was so fond of him as an individual and a great football player, and here he was denied the opportunities that all the other guys had. It really griped me.”
Graham says one of the toughest jobs he had as a college coach was telling Sexton he couldn’t make some trips, or dropping him off at the “black” hotels.
“What would you tell him?” Graham said. “I never figured it out.”
His teammates did what they could to soothe the pain. Before they left Sexton for a 1946 game at Canyon, Texas, Ray “Scooter” Morrison told him,”We’re going to bring the ball back for you.”
After a rough-and-tumble 7-6 loss, where assistant coach Jim Trimble got into shouting matches with fans during the game, Morrison ran onto the field and stole the ball.
West Texas State officials got so mad, they threatened to withhold the $2,000 guarantee made to WU for making the trip to Canyon. Meanwhile, fans chased the WU team bus all the way to Amarillo, where the Shockers caught the train home. The two teams wouldn’t meet again until 1961.
All WU players, coaches and managers signed the ball, and somebody wrote “The $2,000 Football” just below the laces.
For Sexton’s teammates, it was the best they could do.
“We were quite irritated when he couldn’t go on some trips,” Morrison said. “But back then, you’re a lot younger and you didn’t quite understand what was going on. I don’t think we realized how much prejudice there was.”
In St. Louis, Sexton was dropped off at a different hotel the night before WU met the hometown Billikens in 1946. Despite not being able to sleep because of the loud nightclub music coming from one floor below, Sexton rushed for 175 yards the next day as WU won 13-0.
Then and now, Graham marvels at one of Sexton’s touchdown runs, in which he went 75 yards and bowled over three or four players along the way.
By 1947, the Shockers were enjoying one of their finest seasons. They were unbeaten in the Valley and 5-1 overall when they went to Tulsa to face the unbeaten Hurricane. The winner would likely claim the conference crown.
Again, Sexton stayed home.
“They had sent word up that I couldn’t come down there because they could not guarantee how safe my life would be playing there,” Sexton said.
“They wouldn’t have permitted him to play, even if he did go,” teammate John Stucky said, “because they never had before.”
Tulsa won a tight game, 7-0, but ask any Shocker today what the result would have been with their regular left halfback.
“Take it from me, because I’m the one who got more playing time when he couldn’t go,” said Morrison, who is a member of the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame along with Sexton and three other teammates.
“Linwood would have made the difference.”
WU still made its first bowl appearance that season, but racism would get worse before it got better. Blacks were allowed to play in Oklahoma by 1950, but in 1951, Drake’s Johnny Bright – a Heisman Trophy finalist – had his jaw broken while playing Oklahoma A&M. The Valley took no action against A&M, so Drake left the conference for five years.
In that respect, Sexton was lucky.
“I really don’t look back at it that much,” Sexton says today. “The only thing I think about is that the good Lord was really looking to touch me, to allow me to play as much as I could and as well as I did without any injuries that affected me the rest of my life.”• • •
“To the greatest fellow and the best player I have met.”
– Jack Bell’s message to Sexton on “The $2,000 Football”
Dick Sanders, as versatile an athlete as Wichita has produced, considers Linwood Sexton his hero.
“He was the best athlete I knew growing up,” Sanders said. “I adored him so much, I wanted to kill (Tulsa’s) Hardy Brown when he knocked Linwood down one time.
“But later on, Linwood came back and decked him.”
It must have been a strange sight in the late 1940s, a white teen following a black teen five years his elder home from school. They’d play basketball, football, anything in Sexton’s neighborhood of Ninth and Cleveland, and Sanders was usually the only white boy.
Sanders was also a regular in the Sexton house for Sunday dinner, where Beatrice Sexton was known as a great cook who could make anything from scratch.
“My dad worked second shift, and Linwood probably saved me from getting in a lot of trouble and messing up,” Sanders said.
But Sexton helped to save more teens than Sanders. He helped countless kids, both black and white, by starting his own form of YMCA.
Sexton’s college job was as custodian at Henrion Gymnasium, then the home of WU’s basketball team. Admittedly, the job was easy. He and Stucky could clean up the place in about two hours every day.
But on weekends, Sexton opened Henrion’s doors to Wichita’s youth.
“Mother would fix sandwiches for us,” Sexton recalls. “We would play a while, eat a while. We did that all the time.”
Henrion was also where Sexton made his money, $50 a month. It was enough of a fortune to help Sexton earn his nickname: Moneybags.
The nickname, one of the few good-natured names thrown Sexton’s way, came from two sources: One, Sexton’s tightness with a dollar.
“His pant pockets had fishhooks in them,” Sanders jokes.
Actually, Sexton didn’t need to spend much money. Breakfast cost a quarter on campus, and between stuffing fruit into his pocket and two cafeteria workers who took a liking to him, Sexton’s stomach was filled until dinner, which was free to the players.
Throw in maybe 15 cents for a bus token to school and Sexton might spend 40 cents a day.
But Sexton was also the best-dressed Shocker. While many players came from the coal mines of Pennsylvania or returned to Wichita from serving in World War II, Sexton’s clothes came from the best fabrics that his father, Edwin, could find.
Edwin Sexton was a tailor, and Linwood was in coat and tie every day.
“They said I was changing clothes so much that I had to be taking somebody’s suits from my dad’s shop before they came to pick them up,” he said.
Sexton’s teammates kidded him because they loved him. The Pennsylvanians and Chicagoans on the team hadn’t seen much racism, and many local teammates knew him from his days as a three-sport star at Wichita East High.
But more than that, it was Sexton’s personality.
“When we made our trips by train,” Stucky said, “you found Linwood not by himself, but in the middle of the biggest bunch of guys.”
Sexton said he never had a problem among teammates. Even Art Hodges, another backfield standout and one of only two Shockers from the South, told Sexton he had never had a friendly relationship with a black man before meeting Sexton.
“You’re around him for three minutes and you like him,” Sanders said.
Still, there were occasional problems around the university. Some teammates wanted Sexton to join the Men of Webster, their social fraternity. But Stucky knew better, figuring that the fraternity’s alumni would not stand for a black member.
“I thought we would end up hurting a good friend,” Stucky said.
Sexton was asked to pledge, but as Stucky predicted, the alumni forced the fraternity’s officers to deny Sexton admission.
“Linwood was upset,” Stucky said, “but he rolled with it because it wasn’t the first or the 100th time he had run into that type of thing.”
So Sexton continued playing football, avoiding verbal and physical abuse, and staying close to his friends.
“There was a room upstairs in the library, and that’s where I’d study,” Stucky said. “Well, I’d hear this rap on the window and I’d see Linwood’s face through the glass. He’d come in, put his feet on the table and we’d have some good conversations.
“I hope they were as valuable to him as they were to me.”
To this day, Sexton and Stucky are good friends. Sexton, 69, is in his 42nd year at Steffen Dairy Foods and lives in Harvey County, while Stucky is a retired dentist who farms near Hutchinson.
When their sons were growing up, the men made it a point of meeting at every Halstead-Fairfield game to rehash old times. They also get together at a monthly meeting of old-time WU lettermen.
“I grew up in Pretty Prairie and had never known a black person,” Stucky said. “But Linwood made such an impression on me, because he was taking the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and holding his head up.”