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Whittier made history as first black football letterman at UT

August 7, 2018

Despite his daily struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Julius Whittier still recognizes his little sister.

“That is one saving grace for me,” said Mildred Whittier, whose brother was diagnosed with an early onset form of the degenerative brain disorder in 2012. “I will walk in to visit with him. I won’t say anything. I’ll just sit down and look at him, and he’ll just say, ‘Millie?’ He’ll smile, and he just lights up.”

Julius Whittier, the first African-American to earn a varsity football letter at the University of Texas in 1970, will be among seven honorees inducted to the SAISD Athletic Hall of Fame on Aug. 25 at the Alamo Convocation Center. The 1969 Highlands graduate will join Fennis Dembo, Tai Dillard, Dolores “Delo” Dyer, Darryl Grant, Cliff Johnson and David Vela in the Class of 2018.

Whittier starred on both the offensive and defensive lines for coach Paul Martin and the Owls. That two-way skill set caught the attention of legendary Longhorns coach Darrell Royal, who recruited Whittier as the only black player in the entire UT program in 1969.

“He wanted to play football for a big-time college program — and UT was it,” said Mildred Whittier, who will accept the SAISD honor on her brother’s behalf. “So the bottom line for him is that he accepted that challenge as something that would help him grow. He understood the implications of what he was doing and why he was there. But he never talked about that as a burden or as an issue.”

Playing offensive guard, linebacker and finally tight end in his senior year, Whittier contributed to UT’s three Southwest Conference title teams in 1970, ’71 and ’72. During the ’70 season, he made history as the first black football player to take the field for the Longhorns, who shared a national championship with Nebraska and Ohio State.

During his Longhorn Hall of Honor acceptance speech in 2013, Whittier reiterated that he took his role as a racial-barrier breaker in stride.

“I never saw myself as a maverick but more as a member of a team that exhibited greatness, on the field and off,” Whittier said. “I considered Coach Royal my dad from another pad, where I matured, learned discipline and, most importantly, learned how to play football on a winning team.”

Whittier earned both a master’s and law degree from UT, setting the stage for a distinguished career as a Dallas County assistant district attorney. Later, he worked in private practice as a successful criminal defense attorney.

“When we were growing up, a big thing for him was to occupy the bathroom while he read his books,” said Mildred Whittier. “He would be in there for hours. He was a philosopher early on, a deep thinker.”

Whittier, 68, has been living in a North Texas memory-care facility since 2016.

In the wake of recent studies linking concussions and football, Mildred Whittier said she began to wonder if repetitive head trauma associated with the sport might have contributed to Julius’ irreversible condition. She filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA in 2014 that has yet to be resolved.

“I just think that the NCAA had an obligation to help the boys, including my brother, and I don’t think they did,” said Mildred. “I think they had a lot more information than they revealed. The way the boys were trained was another issue, training to block (and tackle) with their heads. He was a brilliant guy, and now for him to be in this situation is kind of painful.”

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