06: Breaking barriers

A young Baylor student-athlete who spent his spare time preaching and writing poetry made history by becoming the first African American to take the field in a Southwest Conference football game.

John Westbrook of Elgin, Texas, spent his first football season at Baylor University in fall 1965 playing on the freshman squad. When he wasn't playing football, the religion and psychology major might be found serving as a junior pastor at Waco's Antioch Baptist Church.

In fall 1966, Westbrook was promoted to Baylor's varsity squad as a halfback. While African American students had been attending Baylor since early 1964, no football player at Baylor--or at any of the other Southwest Conference schools--had yet competed in a varsity game.

That all changed Sept. 10, 1966. That day, Baylor was at home in Baylor Stadium in a nonconference game facing Larry Csonka and his Syracuse teammates. It was Parents Weekend, and the game was nationally televised by ABC Sports to an audience of 60 million viewers.

Westbrook entered the game in the fourth quarter and carried the ball for 11 yards in the Bears' 35-12 upset victory. Those 35 Baylor points were the most scored against Syracuse in 12 years.

The reason why Westbrook's name is perhaps not better known today is that just one week after his historic debut in 1966, Jerry LeVias suited up for the SMU Mustangs and became the second African American to play football in the Southwest Conference. LeVias, who went on to play in the NFL, is often mistakenly identified as the African American who first broke the Southwest Conference color barrier because he was the first black scholarship player to compete in SWC football.

Westbrook, meanwhile, went on to become the president of Baylor's English honors society and had his poetry featured in University publications. He graduated from Baylor in 1969 and served as a Baptist minister until his untimely death in 1983 at age 35.

A man who displayed great courage in helping to break new ground, Westbrook was posthumously inducted into the Baylor Wall of Honor in 2011.