When he graduated from Wichita Falls High School, Ronnie Littleton was going to the pros and one day would have his number retired by TCU, and likely his NFL team, too.
Instead, when Ronnie Littleton died, the obit in Fort Worth merely said, “Ronnie Littleton passed Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Arlington. Service: Arrangements pending with Wells Funeral Home in Wichita Falls.”
“The Best There Ever Was” died at 61. He had reportedly battled alcoholism for much of his life and, in 1999, he had been diagnosed with mouth cancer.
Littleton would never merit a spot in TCU’s new Hall of Fame at the basketball arena, but he did leave a legacy and make an impact that should be remembered and commended even if it does not come with a plaque and a retired jersey.
Just by coming to TCU in 1972, Littleton showed other prominent black football players it was OK to play for the Horned Frogs.
It’s mostly a lost, and deliberately forgotten, piece of ugly history, but there was a time when black players did not think they were welcome at TCU.
The year before Littleton arrived at TCU, a handful of the team’s best players announced they were leaving the school over a disagreement with new head coach Jim Pittman. On Feb. 4, 1971, defensive tackle Larry Dibbles, running back Ray Rhodes, defensive backs Hodges Mitchell and Ervin Garnett all told the coach they were leaving the program.
Pittman had implemented a dress code that did not allow “beards, mustaches and sideburns below the bottom of the ear.”
The Southwest Conference had been integrated only since 1966, and many programs throughout the South have their own horror stories of ignorance and shame they would rather not relive. Integration was often a brutal transition.
John Hill Westbrook of Baylor was the first African-American to play in the Southwest Conference in 1966, one week before Jerry LeVias debuted for SMU.
There were quiet complaints of racism against Pittman, which he denied, but losing four of the best players at the same time for the same reason was a bruise on a football program that did not need any. In the previous 11 seasons, TCU had two winning records — both six wins.
In Pittman’s first season, he suffered a heart attack and died during TCU’s game at Baylor. Assistant coach Billy Tohill replaced Pittman, and he was responsible for recruiting one of the best players in the country.
Littleton had already helped lead Wichita Falls to a state championship, and by the time he was a high school senior, he was the single-most recruited player in the United States. Those who saw Littleton in high school say he was not a man among boys on a high school football field, but Paul Bunyan against ants and fleas.
He was the running back/quarterback and, once he got the ball in his hands, the play was likely going for no fewer than 15 yards. The only chance another team had at stopping Littleton was to use not just 11 men, but closer to 15.
Wichita Falls and Ronnie Littleton lost to San Antonio Lee and future NFL quarterback Tommy Kramer in an epic 28-27 Class 4A state title game in 1971. It was the first high school game played at Texas Stadium. Wichita Falls had beaten Lee 28-20 in the 1969 state title game.
And no way was Ronnie Littleton going to conform to any code about his appearance.
According to a wonderful piece written by Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly on Littleton’s career, the NCAA was convinced this signing was crooked. Per the article, Littleton was seen around Fort Worth driving a rather expensive Cutlass, which he said was from his godmother, who also provided a monthly allowance.
The NCAA eventually gave up, perhaps because Littleton’s presence at TCU never much mattered.
In four seasons at TCU, Ronnie Littleton ran for 752 yards and one touchdown
TCU played Littleton as quickly as possible, but because the Horned Frogs were so horrible, opponents put all of their energy into stopping him. He suffered a variety of injuries, and was never the same player. All of the qualities that made him special — the ability to cut, stop, start and run away from people — were lost.
Littleton was Just A Guy at TCU. He led the team in rushing once — in 1975, when he ran for a total of 232 yards. In four seasons, he ran for a total of 752 yards with one touchdown. His team finished a combined 10-34 in his career. After TCU, he returned to Wichita Falls where he worked for Delphi/General Motors, and later worked in Shreveport and Arlington.
Littleton is like scores of young men from that era who suffered in silence through the integration of high school and college teams. These guys truly took one for the team, only they likely didn’t know it.
Ronnie Littleton never was “The Best There Ever Was,” and neither his career nor his life quite worked out the way he wanted, but he did have an impact and he did leave a legacy at TCU, it just doesn’t include a plaque or a retired jersey.
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Mac Engel: 817-390-7697, @macengelprof