When you walk down the halls of local high schools, students tell tales of football stars who made it to the NFL, such as Tommie Harris of Ellison, Darrol Ray of Killeen and Robert Griffin III of Copperas Cove.
But long before those star athletes reached their NFL dreams, two Killeen High School football stars opened doors for black players.
In 1956, Killeen High School ended segregation and sophomore Joe Searles III chose to attend the all-white school, becoming its first black football player. Searles went on to be an All-American at Kansas State, and later earned a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, the first black man to do so.
In 1968, Leon O’Neal II rose to football stardom at Killeen High and broke a barrier in a legendary college program.
“Times were like any other times in anyone’s high school years,” O’Neal said recently. “We were all from military families, so we had the same background and respect for each other (at Killeen High).”
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound linebacker was a star on and off the football field. An academic in the classroom, and a three-sport letterman, O’Neal was heavily recruited by colleges such as Texas Christian University, Michigan State University and Trinity University. But O’Neal had his sights set on the University of Texas at Austin.
“UT was and always will be a football school, and I loved that about them,” O’Neal said. “So when they wanted to recruit me straight from high school, I was not only excited but felt surprised, since this was the first time UT had ever done anything like that.”
According to published accounts, UT regents lifted the ban on black athletes in 1963 under pressure from students and faculty. But the university and the Southwest Conference did not quickly put black students on the playing fields.
Under coach Darrell Royal, black athletes joined the Longhorns football team as walk-ons in the 1960s, until O’Neal became the first black to get a football athletic scholarship.
Headlines from all over the state, including the Killeen Daily Herald, touted the history-setting scholarship. Herald sports columnist Herb Gormley described the act as a good choice. “From what we have seen, Texas could not have made a better choice. ... Leon was a team man, doing his job, a good one, in his quiet way.”
But the limelight on O’Neal had only just begun.
O’Neal played well on the freshman team, despite spending his first year in Austin under a microscope. It made news when he missed a practice, O’Neal recalled.
“I was coming home from the dentist when I hear from the radio I ran away from campus. I didn’t run away, I had to get my wisdom tooth out!” he said.
Campus life wasn’t easy, either. Ten years before O’Neal enrolled at UT, blacks weren’t welcome on the Austin campus.
“I got there when the dorms were just being integrated. Out of 200 people living in the dorms, there were only a handful of us blacks living on campus. Whites in dorms didn’t befriend us. We only had each other.”
For the first time, O’Neal said he felt what it was like being discriminated against because of the color of his skin. “I didn’t get spit at or nothing like that. But I had not as much help getting used to the campus as the other guys,” he recalled. “Yet on the field we got along to get the win.”
O’Neal’s football career at UT ended with an ankle injury and the loss of his scholarship due to academic probation. But he transferred to Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State), playing on one conference championship team, and he led the nation in interceptions in 1972.
As his college football days came to a close, O’Neal said he was heavily recruited by NFL teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Browns. Wanting to stay close to his family, O’Neal instead played football with the San Antonio Toros and San Antonio Bulls.
He left football when he married and completed his education at Prairie View A&M University. He returned to Killeen where he became an educator and coach in the Killeen Independent School District before retiring after 25 years. In 2005, he was inducted into the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame.
“My dad’s story is one where every time you see an African-American football player at UT, you can say. ‘You would not be here if it wasn’t for my dad,’” Leon O’Neal III said. “My family and I are truly proud of his legacy.”
The barrier O’Neal broke at the University of Texas helped changed the face of athletics in the South, and O’Neal will always be grateful for the opportunity. “If it wasn’t for my faith, and my upbringing none of this would happen. None.”