Julius Whittier, the first African-American letterman football player at the University of Texas died on Tuesday, September 25th.
Julius Whittier, the first black letterman football player at the University of Texas at Austin, died on Tuesday, Sept. 25. Credit: Courtesy / University of Texas Athletics

When Julius Whittier left San Antonio and Highlands High School in his rearview mirror on the way to the University of Texas at Austin in 1969, he wasn’t as interested in making history related to the Civil Rights Movement as he was in making history on the gridiron.

Whittier became the first African-American letter winner in Texas Longhorns’ football history in 1970 at a time when still less than 10 percent of the entire student body was black. His small part in societal steps forward were secondary to the opportunity he had to play the game he loved.

Yet, he used that opportunity to play as a way to gain an education and eventually become a longtime Dallas County criminal prosecutor. He died Sept. 25 at age 68, and though his family did not release a cause of death, he had been battling Alzheimer’s disease.

“I was a jock, plain and simple,” Whittier told The New York Times for a 2005 story. “I didn’t care about civil rights or making a mark. I just wanted to play big-time football.”

In 2014, Whittier’s youngest sister, Mildred, sued the NCAA on behalf of her brother and other players from 1960-2014 who did not go on to NFL careers and who had been diagnosed with brain injuries or diseases. Mildred Whittier wrote a column for the Dallas Morning News explaining her decision.

“There is no doubt that college football is the reason for his suffering,” she wrote. “At UT, Julius and his fellow teammates were taught to use their heads to block. As an offensive lineman and tight end, Julius took hits to the head on a near-daily basis for four years. These concussive and sub-concussive hits have a direct link to diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”

Julius Whittier helped the Longhorns win three consecutive Southwest Conference championships 1970-72 and play in three straight Cotton Bowl games in those years, winning the 1972 game. He was a starting tackle during his junior season and a starting tight end as a senior.

When his college playing career ended, Whittier chose to continue his education at UT in pursuit of a master’s degree even though his time on campus hadn’t been easy, facing racism on a regular basis.

Former Texas football coach Darrell Royal, Whittier’s coach during his time in the program, had introduced Whittier to former president Lyndon Johnson, who was a big Texas football fan. It was Johnson who suggested Whittier remain at UT and pursue a master’s degree. Whittier took that advice a step further and eventually earned his law degree from Texas in 1980.

He spent years working in the Dallas County prosecutor’s office, and later also worked in private practice as a criminal defense attorney.

“As the first African-American to play and letter in football at UT, I must say it was a maturing experience for me,” Whittier said during his 2013 University of Texas Hall of Honor induction speech. “Coach Royal was a disciplinarian and presented a fair deal to most of us that understood his goals. I was not given special treatment but was expected to produce like everyone, more than my fellow players. I never saw myself as a maverick but more as a member of a team that exhibited greatness on the field and off.”

Whittier was inducted into the San Antonio ISD Athletic Hall of Fame last month.

Services will be held in Dallas on Friday at 11 a.m. at the sanctuary of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, 1660 Camp Wisdom Rd.

Kyle Ringo is a freelance journalist based in San Antonio. He has covered business, college athletics, the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball for numerous publications and websites.