Wondrous Warren McVea.

He was a human water bug as a running back. Try to trap him with your hands as a defensive lineman and he will simply relax the muscles in his legs and torso, allowing your touches to suddenly slide off his body as though they were spoons slipping off a buttered noodle. You are left in the lurch, grasping at air as the water bug quickly squirts off in another burst of animated motion down the field behind you.

If you then, as one of three linebackers, pick up all this happening before your disbelieving eyes, you have about one nanosecond to make eye contact with the tiny approaching figure as he looks you one way and then dashes around you another. By the time you have all relocated your jock straps, the water bug has gone again, moving deeper into your team’s side of the fifty, and now heading on a left angled diagonal trek across the field and into the intercepting pathways of four quick, cunning, and converging defensive backs.

As interceptor one, you make a calculated dive for the dancing legs. They boogie by your empty-armed grasp and you are left tumbling on a teeth-clinching roll into the turf.

As interceptors two and three, you pick up the bug in your sites and attack from cross angles. One of you reaches a left shoulder, causing the bug to spin back. The other of you explodes against the right calf of the bug as it turns back from you in response to the other side assault. Another nanosecond later and the two of you joint interceptors are crashing into each other. A near 360 degree spin by the water bug has first freed him from your almost deadly grasp and then propelled him on a course to the opposite right pylon corner of the now even evermore inviting goal line.

As the fourth, last, and greatest interceptor. you close in upon the water bug from an angle that is slightly to his left. Your paths converge at the one yard line. Just as you are about to finally bring down the elusive bug, he stares and you blink. A quick frame later, the water bug has braked just long enough to cut behind you and step over the goal line for an 84-yard touchdown run.

At journey’s end, no ball-slamming or end zone dancing takes place. The water bug simply discards  the no-longer-needed football with a gently releasing toss and trots back to his team’s sideline.

“What an incredible run! How does the guy do it?” As a fan, your dual points of exclamation and wonder about the water bug helped invent the word redundancy as it came to apply to sports page expression in the 1960s.

That human water bug, of course, was a diminutive running back from the University of Houston named Warren McVea. Between the lines, there’s never been another one like him. His ability to escape capture in an open field made him something like the Harry Houdini of college football back in the salad days of “once upon a time.”

Here’s how it all began, once upon a time in San Antonio, just days after the John F. Kennedy assassination in November 1963. Brackenridge and Lee high schools of San Antonio met in the Alamo City in a state football bi district playoff game that is still regarded by many (and all of us who saw it) as the greatest playoff game in Texas High School Football history. It also marked the very daybreak of television’s power to make overnight stars of high school kids. The image-building job was made easier by the fact that this game featured two kids who were doing pretty darn good on their own without the face of television.

Linus Baer of Lee and Warren McVea of Brackenridge were each the star running backs of their two schools, propelling their teams over all comers with virtually unstoppable running attacks. Now they had to play each other and it was anyone’s guess as to which team would prevail. The demand for tickets was so great that the game was put on television by a San Antonio station. I’m not sure how far their TV coverage reached into other markets, but I was fortunate to have been visiting with my folks in Beeville following the Kennedy death and I got to watch it with my dad.

Both clubs put their stars back to receive on kickoffs. As a result, both clubs avoided kicking deep. The one time that Lee made the mistake of doing so, Warren McVea ran it back something close to 100 yards for a touchdown. McVea collected over 200 yards rushing in the game and both stars scored multiple touchdowns before Lee finally prevailed on a last second touchdown by 55-48.

Linus Baer went on to play for the University of Texas Longhorns. Warren McVea had his pick of any top school in the country that then accepted black players. Above 73 others, McVea chose to sign with the University of Houston and to become the first black football player in the school’s history.

At UH from 1965-1967, McVea played masterfully in multiple rolls as a running back, wide receiver, and kick returner. On September 23, 1966, McVea took a pass from QB Bo Burris and went 99 yards for an unbreakable one-play distance TD catch-and-run record against Washington State. In 1967, McVea’s 84 some-odd yard touchdown run against Michigan State led the visiting Cougars to national prominence with a 37-7 win on the road at East Lansing. He made two first team All American teams in 1966-67 and then left UH for an NFL career.

After a six-year stint with Cincinnati and Kansas City of the NFL, McVea played briefly with the Detroit Wheels and old Houston Texans of the now long defunct World Football League. By this time, the 5’8″ 160 pounds soaking wet water bug had seen his better jiggling days.

Sinking into a life dominated by domestic violence, petty crime, and heavy drug addiction, Warren McVea sadly found himself sentenced to twenty-years in the Texas Department of Corrections penitentiary system.  After several years of incarceration, McVea was paroled and left to pick up the pieces of his once promising life. From all appearances, he apparently has done that neatest escape from ignominy.

Warren McVea today is sober and living in San Antonio. He works as a courier/delivery guy in the Alamo City . He came to Houston and was admitted to the University of Houston Athletic Hall of Honor in 2004 and he has since also been inducted into the San Antonio Athletic Hall of Fame.

Life’s one day a time now. If Warren McVea can avoid a relapse into that lost dark hall of the soul, it will be the greatest escape of the water bug’s life. With God’s help, it will be done.

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