When Ricky Williams patched into a joint Zoom interview with Earl Campbell on Monday afternoon, they spoke to each other for the first time since the University of Texas, their beloved alma mater, had bestowed upon them the most meaningful of their uncountable football honors.
“Hey, Ricky! Congratulations, brother,” Campbell said.
“Right back at you,” Williams said.
“What the hell have you and the Jamail boys gotten me into?” Campbell asked with a grin.
With a forceful nudge from the three sons of the late Joe Jamail, whose name has been on the FieldTurf at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium since 1997, the university decided to name the field after Campbell, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1977, and Williams, who brought the Heisman back to Austin 21 years later.
“It’s obviously a great personal honor. But I see it more as symbolic,” the 43-year-old Williams said. “Where the country is right now, I understand the need to tear down statues. But I think what this shows is we’re not just about tearing down things. We’re about building something, and using this platform.
“I feel proud that this is my university, and it came up organically through the players. There’s a lot more that need to change. But this is a step in the right direction. I think it sets an example for the rest of the country.”
Campbell, 65, is old enough to remember how the state championship that his John Tyler High School won in 1973 kept the lid on racial tensions in his hometown of Tyler, Texas.
“I have learned the one thing the American people don’t like is change,” Campbell said. “And I think because of what happened in the last 400 years of slavery in this country to our people, that change is here. … People had to lose their lives for that to happen.”
When a group of Texas student-athletes called on June 12 for a number of changes to address racial inequities on the university campus, something quite unexpected occurred.
They got results. They got immediate results.
The academicians listened. The check-writing alumni such as Dahr Jamail listened. The university decided the leaders of tomorrow, admitted to their campus presumably for their SAT scores as well as their 40 times, had a point. And on Monday, the university announced a series of changes to make the Forty Acres a more welcoming place to African-Americans.
“Let’s start putting our money where our mouth is,” Campbell said, “our mouth where our heart is.”
That pretty much describes the actions taken Monday.
The state university of Texas, a member of the Confederacy, is taking the name of Robert L. Moore, an avowed racist, off its Physics, Math and Astronomy Building.
The University of Texas, which didn’t integrate until the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the law school to admit Heman Sweatt in 1950, will erect a statue of Sweatt near the law school entrance
The University of Texas, which in 1969 put on the Texas Memorial Stadium field the last all-white national champion, will erect a statue of Julius Whittier, who a year later became the first black player to earn a letter, at the stadium.
And the University of Texas will scrub the name of Joe Jamail, a Houston attorney and one of the university’s great benefactors, off the stadium FieldTurf.
“When you’re pulling a white man’s name off the field, and you’re going to put up Ricky and Earl? I think that is pretty significant,” said Dr. Leonard N. Moore, university vice-president for diversity and community engagement.
Williams appreciated how so many tumblers had to line up in order for the lock to open.
“It took the younger kids to stand up and say something,” he said. “Then it took the wealthy white man to do something about it. Then it took the bureaucracy to take it seriously and do something about it. I think everyone working together is how we got here.”
The “wealthy white man” is Dahr Jamail, 67, whose father had a close relationship with Royal, the coach who led the Longhorns to three national championships. Jamail met Campbell when both were in their teens. Texas was recruiting Campbell, and he came to the Jamail home for dinner. Recruiting rules were looser then.
“Joyce [Clark, the Jamail family cook] cooked fried shrimp the size of lobsters,” Jamail said.
Two decades later, in the summer after Williams’ freshman year, Campbell drove Williams from Austin to Houston to meet Joe and Dahr Jamail. Joe died five years ago. Decades later, Campbell and Williams remain close to Dahr Jamail.
“We go a long way back,” Jamail said. “It’s so hard to explain that we are truly family. When the school elevates them, it’s just putting another of our [family’s] names up, really.”
The student-athletes didn’t get everything they asked for. “The Eyes of Texas,” its roots based in minstrelsy, remains the school song. The truth, Dr. Moore said, is that “black alums weren’t even unified about getting rid of the song.”
Of the four campus buildings named for Confederates and/or racists, the university will rename one. But they promised programs and exhibits to place “The Eyes of Texas” and the racists in historical context that will provide a more complete picture.
Still, the Texas athletic department committed a “multimillion-dollar investment” to fund programs to attract and retain black students. The university promised renewed outreach for minority students in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, not to mention a more intense search for minority faculty worldwide.
When both sides get something and leave something on the table, that is called compromise. You may not know the term. It is rarely used in the U.S. Congress, where a Texan named Lyndon Johnson used it to create historic civil rights legislation in the 1950s and ’60s. In the current cancel culture, it’s easier to trash the other side than sit down and find a solution.
The changes at Texas underscore that history is a living, breathing thing. History evolves with the people who study it. That doesn’t sit well with those comfortable with the old history. But when the new version of history sheds light on issues overlooked, people scorned, heroes forgotten, it’s hard to imagine why that is a problem.
Dr. Moore pointed out that the university will have six statues of African-Americans on the campus. Sweatt and Whittier will join those of Campbell, Williams, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barbara Jordan, the late Congresswoman and a UT alum.
“UT came kind of late to the party,” Dr. Moore said, “but I think what we have here are not performative gestures, empty gestures.”
And the two most honored players in Longhorn history received an honor that just may top them all. Campbell appreciated how he and Williams received “our flowers while we live, to be able to smell them and enjoy them with our kids and grandkids.”
“Earl and I aren’t going to be on this earth for a long time,” Williams said. “Hopefully the name on the field outlives us. It will always live longer and more powerfully as a symbol.”
This version of history may be difficult to rewrite.