The greatest high school football league of all time was all-Black
By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer
Editor's Note: As part of FOX Sports' series of Black History Month Stories, writer RJ Young is examining the players, teams and moments that changed college and professional football.
- Read the rest of the series:
- Chuck Ealey Deserves to be in the College Football Hall of Fame
- When the Kansas City Chiefs were Pro Football's Champions of Change
- How Florida A&M Coach Jake Gaither Helped Save Bob Hayes' NFL Career
Thursday Night Lights came before Friday Night Lights — both the 1988 Odessa Permian Panthers that author Buzz Bissinger made famous and that TV show y’all liked with the hard-drinking fullback.
From 1920 to 1970, the squads in Texas’ all-Black Prairie View Interscholastic League were made to play on Thursday — and sometimes Tuesday or Wednesday — to make way for the segregated all-white teams who played on Friday.
But if you waited until Friday night, you missed some of the best high school football teams and players in history.
Players such as Dick "Night Train" Lane, Gene Upshaw, Bubba Smith and "Mean" Joe Greene. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The PVIL began in 1920 as the Texas Interscholastic League of Colored Schools. By 1939, the league had taken on its new name and adopted formal rules for districting, playoffs and a state championship game.
From then until the late ‘60s, when the end of segregation led the league to merge with Texas’s University Interscholastic League, anybody who’d heard of the PVIL knew just how fertile that soil was with football talent.
Problem was, not enough people knew. But it wasn’t because they weren’t looking.
"If you found anything about us in the papers, it was just the championship game or the major scores," said Luther Booker, coach of Houston’s Yates High School, in author Michael Hurd’s history of the PVIL. "Mostly we were totally ignored, and I think that was terrible."
Hall of Famer "Mean" Joe Greene (75), from the PVIL's Dunbar High School in Temple, Texas, won four Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
From 1960 to 1965, no team in the PVIL had answers for the Booker T. Washington Bulldogs from Conroe, about 40 miles north of Houston.
Under head coach Charles Brown, the Bulldogs played for the state title in five of six years, with players so good white folks made sure not to miss their games.
Frank Moaning was a member of the 1960 Bulldogs team that went undefeated.
"I was walking in downtown Conroe one day," he said, "and I was wearing my letterman’s jacket. I passed a couple of white guys and heard one of them say, 'They need to take that n----- coach Brown and let him coach the white team ’cause these white boys ain’t doin’ nothin’, and these n-----s don’t never lose."
The man dropped the worst slur in the English language but still felt obliged to give the players from Conroe credit.
Ball don’t lie, as they say, and the football players who honed their games on PVIL fields were the truth.
The league stocked the rosters of historically Black colleges and universities in and around Texas: Prairie View A&M, Texas Southern, Grambling State, Jarvis Christian, you name it.
The list of names of PVIL products who went on to play pro football is damn near endless: AFL all-star wide receiver Jerry LeVias, San Diego Chargers great Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd, Canadian Football League running back Ray Dohn Dillon, Oakland Raiders trailblazer Eldridge Dickey, Raiders running back Allen Merchant, CFL champion halfback Leo Taylor.
And that’s just a taste. Six PVIL stars went on to become Pro Football Hall of Famers, including "Mean" Joe Greene and Ken Houston.
The list of PVIL players’ achievements contains first after first after historic first.
Jerry LeVias, the first Black scholarship athlete in the Southwest Conference at SMU.
Eldridge Dickey, the first Black quarterback taken in the first round of the NFL Draft — and a full round ahead of University of Alabama star Ken Stabler.
Alphonse Dotson, the first small-college player named to a major All-America team in 1964, his senior year at Grambling State.
But even among these giants of the game, perhaps nobody cast a longer PVIL shadow than Dick "Night Train" Lane.
With Lane on the roster, Austin’s L.C. Anderson High School dominated the league in the mid-1940s. The team's rep grew so large that, according to Hurd, the players were invited to scrimmage the University of Texas Longhorns in 1944 — and these high school boys beat the flagship state university's football team.
"Night Train" and the Yellow Jackets hooked some horns that day.
Dick "Night Train" Lane (81), from the PVIL's L.C. Anderson High School in Austin, Texas, was known for his hard-hitting style, which is on display here in the 1956 NFL Pro Bowl.
From the PVIL to Nebraska’s Scottsbluff Junior College to four years’ military service to making the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent in 1952, Lane was on track to become the most feared defensive back the NFL had ever seen.
Vince Lombardi called him "the best cornerback I’ve ever seen."
At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Lane hit like a train running two minutes late. His signature move, a clothesline tackle called the "Night Train Necktie," was considered more dangerous than helmet-to-helmet contact for more than a half-century.
If Lane didn’t hit a receiver after he didn’t make the catch, that was probably because Lane made the catch himself.
His rookie year in Los Angeles, Lane set an NFL single-season record with 14 interceptions — and 72 years later, that record still stands.
What’s more? PVIL alumni Lester Hayes (13) and Emmitt Thomas (12) sit tied for second and third in the single-season picks rankings.
In 13 NFL seasons, Lane made seven Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams and twice led the league in interceptions.
"Train will always be the Godfather of cornerbacks," Hall of Fame defensive back Lem Barney said. "He was as large as some linemen of his era. He also was agile and very fast. His tackling was awesome. He did the clothesline and other tackles that just devastated the ball carrier."
Lane was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974. He was the first PVIL product to be enshrined in Canton, but players with ties to the league kept adding to its Hall of Fame legacy even after the PVIL’s official end in 1970.
Joe Washington (24), from Lincoln High School in Port Arthur, Texas, drove Oklahoma to three Big-8 titles and twice finished in the top-five in voting for the Heisman Trophy.
Players such as "Little Joe" Washington, who starred at Port Arthur’s Lincoln High — once a PVIL power — in ‘71.
Washington’s father, Joe Sr., was a renowned PVIL coach who began running the football program at Bay City’s Hilliard High School in 1952 before taking over at Lincoln in ‘65.
After a couple of decades coaching in the same league in which Lane perfected his necktie tackles and in which Dickey’s ambidextrous passing left fans’ jaws dropped to the floor, Joe Sr. was not an easy football man to impress.
Despite hearing "Little Joe" was the finest middle-school talent in town, Joe Sr. was too busy coaching varsity to be impressed by preteen running back prodigies — even if the genius ball carrier was his own flesh and blood.
"Little Joe" wasn’t that good of a football player, according to his pops.
Joe Sr. remained skeptical of his son’s prowess until his junior high coach nagged Joe Sr. to watch "Little Joe" play.
"His coach asked me to come down and look at Joe, who was already ‘better than all the kids we have,’" Joe Sr. said. "I went to one game, they were playing for the championship, and Joe scored about 30 points."
Even then, Pops didn’t push it.
When "Little Joe" got to Lincoln, his father didn’t play him at his natural position of running back until he was a sophomore. That was the year "Little Joe" became a Texas high school sensation.
In 1971, with Joe Sr.’s other son, Ken, at quarterback and "Little Joe" running the ball, Lincoln finished 11-1 with a district title. Ken went on to play college ball at the University of North Texas, followed by a couple years in the CFL.
"Little Joe" did just a little better.
He was so unstoppable as a high school senior that Parade magazine put him on the cover of its issue announcing the high school All-America team. Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer won his recruitment.
"Little Joe" was a two-time NCAA All-American and a driving force behind three Big Eight titles for the Sooners. His junior year, he was third in the Heisman voting, and he finished fourth as a senior.
The San Diego Chargers chose him fourth overall in the 1976 NFL Draft, and Joe Washington Jr. began his nine-season stint in the league. He led the NFL in catches in 1979, made All-Pro in ‘81 and became a Super Bowl champion with Washington in ‘83. In 2005, he was selected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
"Little Joe" did big things.
But he still wasn’t the best his pops had ever seen. That honor went to Sam Clark, a player Joe Sr. coached at Hilliard.
"Joe knows that," Joe Sr. said. "He saw him play. He was bigger than Joe, 200 pounds, could catch, run punts back as quick as a water bug. He was the best running back I ever had."
Joe Washington Sr. didn’t think his boy — a bona fide Hall of Famer — was the best.
That’s how good the Prairie View Interscholastic League was.