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TMCNet:  25 years ago: West Brook wins only state title, brings a community together

[November 11, 2007]

25 years ago: West Brook wins only state title, brings a community together

(Beaumont Enterprise, The (Texas) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Nov. 11--No sit-down meeting took place behind a closed office door.

Ron Walker approached Alex Durley midway through the first West Brook football season 25 years go with a message.

He stood in a locker room and told the coach to ignore racial tensions created by the merger of two schools, one all-black and the other predominantly white. He told Durley to win football games, just as he had for seven years prior.

Then everything fell into place.

"That was the single greatest turning point for our season," said Ron Walker's son, Layne, a linebacker who recalled the meeting midway through West Brook's run to its only state football championship.

"My daddy told him he was hired to coach. He told him to play his best players. I was standing right there when he did it."

The high school football playoffs begin this week, and any championship is special. But few title-winning teams will have an impact on Beaumont as large as that West Brook squad, assembled in the first year of the school's existence.

A court-ordered integration ruling less than a year earlier merged all-black Hebert and mostly-white Forest Park. Pressured to play as many white kids as black, Durley, who was black, felt handcuffed from using his best players properly until he met with Ron Walker, a white member of the school board.

What followed was a season in which communities divided by race were united with success of a football team. West Brook began the season with two straight losses and lost two more times in district play.

"There was tension," said Darrell Colbert, then a senior wide receiver from Hebert who later played for Texas Southern and the Kansas City Chiefs. "But it was more with the grownups. We knew what was happening, but coach Durley kept it sheltered from us."

That season is the first in which the UIL let second-place teams in Class 5A make the playoffs. West Brook placed second to Thomas Jefferson in District 22-5A. The Bruins won their last eight games, the final five in the playoffs at the Astrodome.

West Brook had 11 seniors who signed to play college football, including Jerry Ball, a fullback and defensive tackle who played for Southern Methodist University and 13 seasons in the National Football League.

Gerald Landry went from West Brook to the University of Houston, where he set numerous quarterbacking records.

Johnny Norwood of Forest Park, then a junior, led the team in interceptions with 11 and played for the universities of Alabama and Houston.

Each received all-state recognition, but honors and awards are minor details in a season referred to as the Miracle on the Brook.

Court ruling

Just as Durley's meeting with Ron Walker set the ball rolling for the West Brook football team, other meetings led to the school's creation.

U.S. District Judge Robert Parker ruled in April 1981 that Hebert and Forest Park high schools -- both within the South Park ISD -- were to be merged to satisfy the government's demand for desegregation.

The landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., occurred in 1954, but Beaumont schools remained behind the curve nearly 30 years later.

A Beaumont school desegregation case in 1963 and a court-ordered redrawing of attendance zones that merged Beaumont and Charlton-Pollard high schools in 1975 preceded the 1981 ruling.

The merger order came after years of complaints from parents of students at Hebert that the mostly-black school failed to match the quality of education at chiefly-white Forest Park, according to Enterprise archives.

After the ruling, SPISD board members discussed bond issues for new buildings in a central location but eventually settled on placing students from both schools in the same buildings.

For one year, ninth and 10th grade students used Hebert's old building as 11th and 12th grade students used the old Forest Park building, now West Brook. Public elections settled other matters, such as the school name and mascot.

"Everybody was predicting, 'Oh, it was going to be a terrible time. You shouldn't be doing this,'" said Michael Pollard, an offensive lineman who recalled concerns some had about how black and white players would get along with each other. "But that was from the outside."

Winning tradition

Among Southeast Texas' greatest teams was the 1976 Hebert squad, coached by Durley to a state championship in Class 3A, then the second-highest enrollment level for Texas high schools.

Hebert also won all-black Prairie View Interscholastic League titles in 1959 and 1966.

Ball, Landry and Colbert stood among dozens who dreamed of winning another title for the blue and gold. The merger squelched those hopes and brought more uncertainty than promise for the 20-some Hebert football players about to become seniors.

"We felt in junior high we were destined to be state champions," said Ball, an anchor for undefeated teams through eighth, ninth and 10th grades. "We felt like we had a special team, and we were special."

Players on those teams claim to have gone undefeated in everything -- football, basketball and track included. Not until many reached the Hebert varsity did they taste losing. Even then, a loss was rare.

"We had made a pact in eighth grade to win a championship with Hebert," Landry said.

Much of Hebert's latter-day success could be traced to Durley, who coached the 1976 state title-winners and carried a 76-7-2 record through seven seasons at the school.

Only once did Hebert lose as many as two games under Durley, the first black coach to win a UIL title.

"We respected him," Ball said. "When he walked in and looked around the room, he put the room in check without saying a word."

The pact-making players commonly played a level ahead of their grade, so they reached the varsity as juniors with plans to continue an undefeated run.

"We said we were going to win a championship as little kids because we had brothers and other relatives play there," Pollard said. "The tradition was so rich there, and we wanted to carry that tradition on."

They tried. A district championship led to playoff victories, and until an unforgettable state semifinal against Willowridge, a state title appeared to be their destiny.

Instead, the final pass in school history turned into an interception by Thurman Thomas, who became a Hall of Fame National Football League running back.

"We never experienced losing before then," said Ball, who scored the final touchdown in Hebert's 15-14 loss.

Changes coming

Former West Brook assistant and head coach Al Rabb remembers long before 7-on-7 passing leagues became a summertime staple. Players instead learned timing and routes with pickup games at the park. Many occurred during the summer of '82 at West Brook, formerly Forest Park's campus.

"(Rabb) used to open up the school in the summer," said West Brook athletic trainer Chip Whiteside, at Forest Park before the merger. "They were all here during the summer to work out."

More than 150 West Brook students arrived for football tryouts.

Some Forest Park players accustomed to mediocrity welcomed those from Hebert's championship-contending squad.

"'I'm glad you're all here. ... Now we're going to win a championship,'" Pollard recalled being told by Walter Barclay, a former Forest Park student who became Pollard's roommate at Stephen F. Austin. "That was the attitude: 'Let's just play. Let's just win.'"

Winning didn't occur easily. The Bruins lost their first two games, won three in a row and then dropped two of the next three district games. The Bruins had records of 4-4 overall and 3-2 in district.

And in Beaumont, a divide widened.

"It was blacks over there (Pear Orchard) and whites were on the West End," said Arthur Louis, then West Brook's 10th-grade football coach. "That part was not coming together. Losing was not bringing the school closer together."

Then came the meeting.

"One of the pivotal points was where we were contemplating quitting because of the politics," Ball said. "We didn't know what to do. We could see coach Durley was under pressure to do things he didn't want to do, and we weren't successful.

"Layne Walker could see I was upset, so he asked what's wrong. I said this is what's wrong, and next thing I know, Layne came back with his dad and things changed after that. I attribute that to his dad."

The Bruins began winning, and the tide shifted as the playoffs neared.

Walker, formerly of Forest Park, recalled looking into the bleachers and seeing sets of families once separated by race cheering, clapping and laughing together, all because of a successful football team.

West Brook clinched a playoff berth in its final district game, a 40-6 home victory over Vidor.

Developed leaders

Ball, a 230-pound senior, learned he didn't need to have the title of captain to be a leader. He figured that based on what Durley told him before the season.

A Beaumont native who attended Hebert football games as a child, Ball said he dreamed of being a senior team captain. Then his heart broke.

"You're living for the day you become captain of the team," Ball said. "This was my senior year, and I wanted to be captain, and I remember the day I found out I was not going to be a captain.

"Coach Durley came to me and said, 'Ball, you know sometimes things seem to work against you. And sometimes people who pat you on the back are really looking for a weak spot. But the things you do for this team speak louder than anything you would do standing in front of them. You need to be Jerry Ball. Just be yourself.'

"That meant the world to me."

Landry said he learned Durley's offense by sitting in a dark room with the coach as he dissected film. Landry did this as a high school freshman and sophomore. An injury to another quarterback midway through Landry's junior season made him a starter.

"(Durley) always told me that in game situations even your best player or your most intelligent player is going to forget things," Landry said. "He told me I had to learn all the positions -- the blocking, the receivers' routes -- all were things I had to know because I had to tell them what to do."

Colbert, a two-way threat at wide receiver and defensive back, said the way Durley prepared Landry resonated through the entire team.

"No matter the situation, he had us prepared for that situation," said Colbert, who found himself in a few tight spots with teammates in the playoffs.

West Brook won its first three playoff games by a combined 10 points, and only a quirky tiebreaker rule allowed the Bruins beyond the second round.

The Bruins tied Baytown Sterling with a touchdown shortly after Ball blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter, but Texas high school football teams did not play overtime in those days. Instead, teams settled ties with the total number of penetrations -- the number of times each team got inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

In this case, West Brook advanced after its 7-7 tie thanks to the second tiebreaker: first downs. The teams had an equal number of penetrations, but West Brook's 12 first downs beat Sterling's nine. A late touchdown by Ball in a 28-22 victory over Houston Memorial put West Brook in the quarterfinal round, and the Bruins coasted from there.

West Brook beat Dickinson by 19 and Converse Judson by 15 before a title-winning, 21-10 victory over Hurst Bell.

"In the playoffs, they got better every week," said Whiteside, still an athletic trainer at West Brook.


Like Whiteside, Louis remained in Beaumont and is at West Brook. He is the team's wide receivers coach, and his son, Christian, is the starting quarterback.

The elder Louis looked through the West Brook parking lot shortly after school let out one day earlier this week and reflected on that team from 25 years ago.

"It brought the community together, and they never were together before," said Louis, raised in a city once sharply divided by segregation.

"But Hebert people came and Forest Park people came, and it brought everybody together -- the PTA, the booster club, just everybody getting together and getting to know each other from different backgrounds and different walks of life."

To Louis, effects of the championship linger at a school filled with children born 10 years after that magical season.

"West Brook is like a melting pot as far as ethnicity," Louis said. "It's all one heartbeat. I rarely look up in the stands, but you can feel it that people are together."

Colbert said the lasting impact of that championship season came from Durley, who coached one more season and died of lung cancer at age 47 in 1984.

"He led by example," said Colbert, now a business owner and father of three in Houston. "Even today, he's the most influential guy in my life, and I've tried to carry the values of hard work, and that's what we did during spring training and in the offseason."

Ball, now a Houston-area resident, said he reflects on the story of that season whenever he travels through Beaumont on business.

"It was fragmented, but that was with the adults," Ball said of the city. "There were a lot of politics involved. There were parents trying to decide how we as kids should get things done.

"But once they understood that we had all the same values, once they realized the same values could be achieved, that was the time when Beaumont was not divided.

"Beaumont was a community."

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