When the field is silent: Ole Miss and the quiet life of Billy Brewer

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When the field is silent: Ole Miss and the quiet life of Billy Brewer

Ole Miss Billy Brewer

When the field is silent

Ole Miss and the quiet life of Billy Brewer

By Al Blanton
February 26, 2017

“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” – William Faulkner

OXFORD, Miss. — There are no street signs here that bear his name. No halls that honor him. No buildings that boast his name across the façade. No fieldhouse rooms that recognize him. No museum charging a fee to tour his archives.

Billy Brewer nuzzles his Buick LeSabre Custom into a bare spot in his driveway as driblets of rain patter the windshield. It is not a cold day in January, but the rain is coming. In the front yard of the Brewer compound, the rain clatters against a hodgepodge of yard ornaments: a set of old stadium bleachers, an immobile windmill, and a chimney that seems to be out-of-place. In the back, it pat-pat-pats against the tarpaulin covering the pool.

“What y’all doin’ with your ass down here?” Brewer hisses, addressing a pair of clucking chickens that have trespassed too far onto his turf.

“I gotta get me a rooster,” he grunts, hurling the lever into park.

Walking through the rain, Brewer crosses the winterized area and flings open the door to a detached guesthouse sanctum, festooned with Ole Miss-themed décor: a life-size poster of Brewer himself, framed remembrances of his coaching and playing days, a daybed with pillows (one says “Ole Miss,” the other says “Rebels”). Tacked on a narrow wall above a staircase is a black-and-white of Brewer (laughing) and John McEnroe (surly) at a charity tennis tournament in Jackson. On another wall hangs a framed poster of a college All-Star game versus the Baltimore Colts in which Brewer participated in 1960. Scrolling down the Colts’ roster, the names UNITAS and AMECHE seem to stand out above the rest.

Brewer’s hair, whitening but still as Ole-Missy, is wavy and fixed as a Sigma Nu active. These days, he doesn’t conduct many interviews. He tosses on a windowpane sport jacket, in anticipation of pictures. He is cordial, distracted.

He fields phone calls from his cell phone — “I gotta call you back … I’m doing an interview.” His constant companion is a chocolate Labrador named Doc. He drifts off into long soliloquies, threaded together by staccato themes. Curse words skip off his lips in the midst of his storytelling. Liberal with his time, he is a kind and courteous man.

For the past 23 years, Billy Brewer has lived with the terror of knowing he’d never pace a sideline again as a college football coach. He left Ole Miss in 1993 after the same administration that once lauded him banished him to live out the tedious life of a commoner and fan.

For many, this is how Billy Brewer will be remembered — if he is remembered at all.

Outside of the Ole Miss family, where he is held in high regard, Brewer elicits two principal reactions: 1) “Didn’t he get in trouble or something?” (stitching the Scarlet Letters of N-C-A-A onto his lapel), or 2) “Who?” Memories of him somehow elude the brutal march of years.

Billy. Brewer. Hmmm. Let’s see. I give up.

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Photo Credit: Al Blanton

If you care to look, vestiges of the Billy Brewer era at Ole Miss can be found in gauzy VHS videos posted on YouTube, where the now-old broadcasts boast crude graphics and silk-throated announcers. Every once in a while, the camera will cut to Brewer, the avatar of 1980s football, wearing the raiment of the Old South: the skinny tie, the popsicle-red Sansabelts. Legs astride or squatting, Brewer will vault commands to overeager 20-year-olds, who crash their powder blue helmets into the sides and torsos of volatile opponents. The camera will pan to the bleachers, where sweaty fans wearing The Game hats and tacky ’80s garb have unfurled their Stars and Bars and are waving them proudly, the chorus of “Dixie” reverberating through the corridors, the tunnels.

It was an idyllic time in college football, untainted by commercialization, High-Def, and endless Twitter salvos. Salivating fans took in the early game (11:30 kick) hosted by JP Sports and their leviathan of announcing, the famous Bob Kesling. It was an epoch where the shoulder pads of players were as wide as Datsuns, where coaches wore sweaters with team names emblazoned across the breast — one bar on top, one bar underneath. These are the things we will remember. Yes, the initial thoughts about Billy Brewer seem to evoke nostalgic memories for the way football used to be played before money mattered too much.

Yet the old coaches are fading now. The white thatches of hair, their tannic faces drawn with wrinkles, the self-cloistering in hidden lairs peppered with dusty newspaper clippings and warped 8x10s. Some have comfortably ridden off into the sunset with their retirement packages; some are broke.

Regionally speaking, Brewer is no longer a famous man, and history’s pages seem to have forgotten him. Rare is it that he is mentioned in the same breath with the titans of SEC lore: Bryant, Dooley, Stallings, Dye, Spurrier. He resurfaces from time to time in the context of the Chucky Mullins story, but the pub surrounding his life seems to have perished some years ago. He is a perennial candidate for a “Where are they now?” segment, and although the 81-year-old Billy Brewer will never go down as one of the greatest coaches in conference history, for a brief moment, he was part of something that truly mattered.

Color blind from the beginning

When God doled out a color wheel, Homer “Billy” Brewer wasn’t on the list of recipients. In Columbus, Miss., in the 1940s, the railroad tracks bisecting town separated whites and blacks into two distinct socioeconomic ranks. Often straddling this division was young Billy Brewer, who, eking out of the hardscrabble of the Depression, grew up modestly. “I came from a middle class family,” Brewer told SDS. “My mama worked at a garment plant, my daddy worked at a service station. We lived paycheck to paycheck.”

While Brewer attended Franklin Elementary, a white school, many of his friends were black. There was Job. There was Billy. And there was James “T” Thomas. “I lived below the black section in Columbus,” Brewer said. “I had probably as many meals at T’s house growing up as I had at my house.”

Because of the two boys’ mutual adoration for sports, a lifelong friendship ensued. “We were 12 or 13, maybe even younger. I don’t remember exactly. But I do remember there off 14th Avenue, over there by the creosote plant there was a big sawdust pile. Every Sunday afternoon, we’d go out there and play football with this big old fat football — short pants, no shirts, barefoot. I was the only white boy that got to play because I was with T,” Brewer once told The Dispatch of Columbus.

A stark racial juxtaposition was evident down to facilities. The football field at T’s high school had no lights, and often Billy would be found leaning on the fence to catch his friend’s Friday afternoon game. Later in the day, many of the black boys would gather to watch Billy play under lights at the Magnolia Bowl, where he was first lionized as a superstar quarterback.

Billy grew up an Alabama fan, but an assistant coach, Chubby Ellis, lit a spark for Ole Miss that has never died out. Saturdays, Brewer satisfied his wanderlust for football by traveling to various SEC venues, thumbing rides and sneaking in games if the situation required. His first Ole Miss game was against Tennessee and General Robert Neyland at Hemingway Stadium in 1951.

Although Brewer was courted by several SEC schools (including Darrell Royal’s Mississippi State), the lure and pageantry of Ole Miss, and the mythic stature of the felt-hatted head coach Johnny Vaught were difficult to overcome. Devoid of all glitz and fanfare, Brewer signed with the Rebels at the Bell Café on the square in downtown Columbus in the spring of 1956. “My scholarship included room, board, and tuition — and $15 a month,” Brewer said. “And I was happy to get that.”

‘Dog’ Brewer determined to make a difference

The patina of Billy’s young life was evident in Oxford. Mimicking a Columbus man named V.P. Ferguson, Billy had begun to use the phrase “old dog” as an affectionate greeting. Soon “Dog” became Billy’s moniker at Ole Miss.

Dog Brewer played quarterback and defensive back on an all-white, one-platoon team that went 26-3-1 during his tenure in Oxford. No program in the SEC had a greater 1950s than the Ole Miss Rebels, and perhaps the greatest of these squads was the 1959 version — a murderous, scrappy crew that rambled to a 10-1 mark and was named national champions by a handful of selectors* (but not AP). On the defensive side of the ball, the team allowed a mere 21 points all season and pitched eight shutouts.

(* Billingsley, Sagarin, Dunkel and Berryman. Syracuse won both the AP and UPI national championship.)

Brewer was drafted by the Washington Redskins after his junior season. Recently married to his high school sweetheart, Kay Gunter, Brewer went to the nation’s capital with high hopes. But his professional career was short-lived, spending only one year in Washington before playing for the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League for a season.

In 1962, the same year James Meredith became the first African-American admitted to the University of Mississippi, Brewer returned to Columbus to become the head coach of his alma mater, Lee High School. Brewer spent nine years at the helm at Lee; the most trying year was 1970 when Brewer was tasked with navigating the undulant, radical waters of desegregation. “I knew all the kids that were coming,” Brewer said. “I knew all their folks. Knew where they lived.”

Ole Miss

But there were no press-worthy incidents that year. In Remember the Titans-esque form, the integration of Lee football defied all odds, and the team went undefeated despite the divergent skin hues of the players. “We did not have a problem in school,” Brewer said. “The football players controlled everything. It was yes ma’am, no ma’am. I told them, ‘If you conduct yourself in that fashion, you are going to be fine.'”

Brewer’s stance on race was clear: Blacks and whites would be treated equally. In a 1991 article for the Chicago Tribune, Brewer recalled his response to an incident where a restaurateur refused to serve the blacks on Brewer’s team: “‘If you aren’t gonna feed him, he’s one of us, so you aren’t gonna feed none of us.’ We got out of there.”

While Brewer was in Columbus, Vaught and the Ole Miss Rebels were experiencing another fine decade. After Meredith eked into campus under federal protection in 1962, Ole Miss rolled to an undefeated season. Yet again, the awarders were unkind, crowning 11-0 USC as consensus national champions and leaving Ole Miss to twist in the wind (one cannot say with certainty whether the banner of Jim Crow had anything to do with the spurn).

In 1971, Brewer accepted a job at Heritage Academy, a private, all-white school across town. In one season, Brewer led the Patriots to an 8-1 clip and a league championship. That same fall, James Reed and Ben Williams became the first black players to plant their cleats in the sod of Hemingway Stadium as an Ole Miss Rebel.

Louisiana Man

Roland Dale, a former assistant under Vaught, lured Brewer to Southeastern Louisiana University in 1972 after former NFLer and Ole Miss assistant Junie Hovious suggested, “Billy’s a guy I’d go after if I were you.” Hired as the defensive backfield coach, Brewer’s duties also extended to recruiting, as he logged many miles on a radius that extended to Texas, Arkansas and the Gulf Coast.

Two seasons after Brewer was hired, Dale left the school unexpectedly, to accept a job as the athletic director at Southern Miss. One of his last moments as coach was to recommend that Brewer be installed as his replacement. Across six years, Brewer took a group of also-rans and made them winners. From 1974-79, the Lions went 38-24-2 before Brewer was hired as the head coach at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. Brewer’s 1982 squad posted a 10-3 campaign, and the team reached the Div. I-AA semifinals.

Ole Miss had experienced a decade of travails in the post-Vaught era. Coaches Billy Kinard, Ken Cooper and Steve Sloan failed to meet the standards set by Vaught, and the school, as author Willie Morris put it, had developed a “dubious national reputation on race.” Fans had grown intolerant of mediocrity, and demanded that more wins occurred beneath the songs of magnolias.

Thirsty for an “Ole Miss man,” fans clamored for a coach who understood the culture and heritage of Oxford.

And on Dec. 23, 1982, Billy Brewer was named head football coach at Ole Miss. His salary was $47,000 per year.

Coming home, for good

The Billy Brewer way at Ole Miss was an embodiment of the principles he sponged under the tutelage of John Howard Vaught. Discipline, hard work, sacrifice and clean living were the pillars on which the House of Brewer would stand. But something was much different than in Brewer’s days with Vaught, and Brewer, unlike other coaches, had more issues with which to contend.

The Ole Miss job was unique in that coaches had to answer for race. So when Dog Brewer returned from a two-decade hiatus, there were approximately seven hundred black students at Ole Miss (roughly 7 percent of total enrollment of 9,236) — seven hundred more than when he was a student.

One of Brewer’s first objectives was to sanitize the dorm, a dingy, trash-strewn venue that had regressed into an Animal-House-like cesspool. There would be no drugs, stealing, or lying on Brewer’s watch; players quickly understood that the loosey-goosey era experienced under lenient predecessors was over.

Ole Miss Billy Brewer
Photo Credit: Ole Miss Athletics

Although in Brewer’s first year the team produced the first winning season since 1977, long-term success would involve a change in culture. Back-to-back losing seasons in 1984 and 85 stunted the team’s ascent, but in 1986 Brewer directed the Rebs to an 8-3-1 mark and a win in the Independence Bowl.

Retrospectively, Brewer says that Ole Miss’ sordid national reputation had little effect on his ability to recruit, but at the time he felt pressure to dispel many of the traditions — Dixie, The Confederate Flag, Colonel Reb — Ole Miss had carried throughout the years. When he was coach, Brewer replaced the beloved and controversial Colonel Reb helmet logo in favor of the scripted “Ole Miss” (conveniently and nostalgically, these were the helmets Ole Miss had once boasted in the roseate days of Vaught).

Brewer also used The Grove, a grassy area where an armed convoy carrying U.S. Marshals once paraded Meredith into school, as a trail for a nonviolent political statement. Before the games, he marched his squad — black, white and clad in street clothes — down the oak-canopied Grove walkways. That tradition has continued to this day.

On Sunday afternoons, Brewer would frequently address his team on the asperities of race. “You’ve gotta be strong enough not to retaliate. That’s going to be hard to do,” Brewer would tell them. “They are going to call you names. They are going to be ugly to you. If they do, turn and walk away. Be a better man. It’ll make you a better person. It’s going to get better and you are going to be part of a system that’s going to make it better.”

Brewer admits that often the pot was stirred, not by Southerners, but rather Northern meddlers who exacerbated the situation into something vitriolic.

True, there were horrific campus incidents, such as the time a fraternity painted “N—–” on the chest of a naked pledge or when a black fraternity house was burned. In reality, many of the incidents occurred on fraternity row; there were no racial issues surrounding Brewer’s team. Even while recruiting players, Brewer remembers only one instance where race threatened to be a factor.

“In the late 1980s, we were recruiting a defensive lineman at a junior college. He was from Los Angeles, California,” Brewer told SDS. “We had a home visit. My assistant, on the way there, said, ‘Coach, his daddy is a huge NAACP guy. He was in Mississippi at the time of voter registration. He’s one we’ve got to convince.’ I open the door and it’s a shrine of Martin Luther King. Candles lit everywhere. I’m sitting there, doing our presentation, and the father begins talking.

“He says, ‘I was in Mississippi — Belzoni, Indianola — and I didn’t have a place to stay. The hotel would not allow you in, and you couldn’t eat anywhere.’ I thought to myself ‘we’re not going to make any headway here today.’ But he said, ‘Coach, I’ve already checked you out. I know your background, I know where you came from. If he wants to go to Ole Miss, he has my blessing.'”

Perhaps the more challenging obstacle in Brewer’s way was that he lacked the facilities and funds to contend with the Alabamas and Oklahomas of the world. Yet his teams were always known for their grit. “With Billy Brewer, you knew you always had a fighting chance,” said Ray Poole, an insurance agent in Batesville.

Two more back-to-back losing seasons in 1987 and 88 frustrated the Rebels’ momentum, but a win over Alabama on Oct. 8, 1988 at Bryant-Denny Stadium proved to be an adequate poultice for the team’s wounds.

It was Ole Miss’ first win in Tuscaloosa — ever — not to mention the Rebels played spoiler for the the Tide’s homecoming and the official dedication of the Paul W. Bryant Museum.

Brewer’s game plan was to elude outstanding Alabama linebacker Derrick Thomas. “If he was on the right, we did everything to left,” Brewer said. “If he was on the left, we did everything to the right. And they couldn’t understand why he wasn’t making plays. We just ate ’em up with options.”

Ole Miss rebounded in 1989 and 1990, going 8-4 and 9-3 in consecutive years. But an albatross year in 1991 was yet another impediment to consistent success. In 1992, the Rebels fielded perhaps the best team in the Brewer era, going 9-3 with a win against Air Force in the Liberty Bowl.

Chucky

In the winter of 1988, Roy Lee “Chucky” Mullins of Russellville, Ala., propped his elbows on the desk of Ole Miss head coach Billy Brewer and made his case for a scholarship. “He was the only kid who ever came into the office that really sold himself,” Brewer said. “I said, ‘Chucky, you’re not big enough, you’re not strong enough, you’re not fast enough.'”

The Ole Miss assistants who had scouted Mullins that winter liked his toughness and heart, but questioned his athletic ability. “We like him coach … he’ll hit you,” they relayed to Brewer. “It’s your call … he’s your type of player.”

Brewer eventually offered Mullins a scholarship, but decided to redshirt him his freshman season. Mullins’ saw his first action against Memphis State at Liberty Bowl Stadium on Sept. 2, 1989.

Billy Brewer and Chucky Mullins
Photo Credit: Ole Miss Athletics

Almost two months later, Mullins would be across town at Memphis Hospital, paralyzed from the neck down.

On Oct. 28, Ole Miss welcomed Vanderbilt to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for homecoming in Oxford. On an early drive in the first quarter, Commodores quarterback John Gromos dropped back, and on a play called “Slot Right, 150 Up,” connected with Brad Gaines near the goal line. But closing in was No. 38 for the Rebels, the scrappy kid who once plopped his elbows on Billy Brewer’s desk and begged for a chance. At the point of impact, Mullins’ shoulder met Gaines’ side, and, in a freak occurrence, Mullins’ neck was broken.

“I saw the hit,” Brewer told SDS. “I thought, ‘He’s got a severe head injury or concussion.’ The doctor later said that it was like dropping a hand grenade down his back.”

The stadium became dead still.

“You could hear whispers, people praying,” Brewer said.

Mullins lie motionless on the turf as team physicians hustled to his aid. When Brewer stood and watched the doctor remove Mullins’ facemask with cutters, he knew it was severe.

After 45 harrowing minutes, Chucky Mullins was taken off the field and airlifted to Memphis. The game went on, and though Ole Miss defeated Vanderbilt 24-16, Brewer could not get his mind off his player. After the game, he drove to Memphis to be with Chucky.

When Brewer arrived at the hospital, Mullins was wearing a halo. Brewer recalls an exchange with the team doctor, who kneeled bedside with Mullins:

“How are you with God?” the doctor inquired.

“I’m good,” Mullins replied. “I’m a Christian.”

Brewer remembers Mullins’ toughness and inspiring attitude in the midst of the ordeal. “To my knowledge, I never saw him cry,” Brewer recalled. “He never said, ‘Coach, why me?'”

Mullins remained in the hospital for several days. Medical expenses would mount, and the Ole Miss family rallied. On Nov. 4 against LSU, buckets were sent around Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and more than $250,000 was raised for Chucky and his family. It was a day when Mississippi saw no color.

With Mullins still in the hospital, the Rebels were slated to play Air Force in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 28, exactly two months after the accident. Before the game, as the Rebels gathered in the locker room, an ambulance carrying Mullins arrived. To the delight of Rebel players, Mullins was wheeled into the locker room on a stretcher. Brewer knelt beside him.

“Chucky, do you have anything you want to say?” Brewer said.

Mullins, turning his head to his coach, said in a faint whisper, “It’s time.”

The Rebels, helmetless and dressed in white, erupted into a fist-pumping chant — “It’s time! It’s time! It’s time!”

Billy Brewer and Chucky Mullins
Photo Credit: Ole Miss Athletics

Exhibiting great courage, Mullins remained in the hospital for five months as Brewer looked after him and made sure he received proper care. Later, Mullins returned to school and resumed taking classes, living in a house furnished by a trust fund and transporting himself around campus in a motorized wheelchair. By then, he had become a campus celebrity.

Things were rocking along until the spring of 1991. On May 1 of that year, while preparing for class, Mullins stopped breathing. He had developed a blood clot and was sent back to the hospital in Memphis. He descended into a coma as loved ones gathered, including Brewer.

The light in Chucky Mullins’ life went out on May 6.

Days later, in front of 2,000 mourners, Brewer eulogized No. 38 at Tad Memorial Coliseum in Oxford. Chucky Mullins was eventually laid to rest in a cemetery in Russellville.

Since then, Chucky and Billy’s legacies have taken divergent paths. Every year, Chucky is honored as the Chucky Mullins Award is given to an Ole Miss defensive player. Recipients of the award receive a framed “38” jersey and have the honor of wearing that number on the field the following season. In 2006, the No. 38 was officially retired. The Chucky Mullins story was not merely inspirational because of his fighting spirit; it became a source of healing in a race-haunted state.

The Chucky Mullins Courage Award

Past recipients of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award include Chris Mitchell (1990), Jeff Carter (1991), Trea Southerland (1992), Johnny Dixon (1993), Alundis Brice (1994), Michael Lowery (1995), Derek Jones (1996), Nate Wayne (1997), Gary Thigpen (1998), Ronnie Heard (1999), Anthony Magee (2000), Kevin Thomas (2001), Lanier Goethie (2002), Jamil Northcutt (2003), Eric Oliver (2004), Kelvin Robinson (2005), Patrick Willis (2006), Jeremy Garrett (2007), Jamarca Sanford (2008), Marcus Tillman (2009), Kentrell Lockett (2010), D.T. Shackelford (2011), Jason Jones (2012), Mike Marry (2013), D.T. Shackelford (2014), Mike Hilton (2015) and John Youngblood (2016).

Each award recipient receives a framed Mullins jersey and has the honor of wearing Mullins’ No. 38 on the field the following season. In 2006, the number was officially retired, joining Archie Manning’s No. 18 as the only retired numbers in the Rebels’ storied football history. A 38 patch, rather than the jersey number, was worn from 2006 until 2010. The decision was made in March 2011 for the jersey to remain retired and be worn only by the Chucky Mullins Courage Award winner each year.

Source: Ole Miss Sports

Brewer hasn’t been so esteemed. Two years after Chucky’s passing, Brewer was fired. Six winning seasons, an 8-3 record against Mississippi State, multiple players in the NFL, and his Ace of Spades: The Chucky Mullins Story, could not beat a royal flush of NCAA recruiting allegations that effectively ended his coaching career.

Since that time, Brewer fought to clear his name and has lived a quiet life of obscurity. His blighted exit took some time to shrug off, but he’s managed to move on with life, piddling in real estate and managing a furniture store in Tupelo for a while.

While living only a stone’s throw from campus, Brewer remained an outsider to his beloved program for many years. But over time, the Ole Miss faithful seem to have forgiven him for his transgressions and has welcomed him back into the Ole Miss fold. In 2011, he was inducted into the Rebel Hall of Fame. He has never left Oxford.

Brewer’s role in Chucky’s life, and in the subsequent good that came of it, cannot be understated — though it remarkably has been understated and overshadowed by Brad Gaines’ three decades of pilgrimages to Mullins’ gravesite. Documentaries have been made, and Brewer remains the forgotten man in the story, a subplot.

Brewer himself is still haunted by the memories of 38. He sees it in telephone numbers, on restaurant checks. Inside the guesthouse, he produces an old picture, splattered with green stains. There are two hands — one black, one white.

One is the hand of Chucky Mullins, the other, enveloping it, is the hand of Billy Brewer. Underneath is an inscription: We are the hands and feet of God.

Affixed to a wall inside Brewer’s guesthouse wall is a poem about Mullins, written by David Sipley:

Give me a fatherless home and I’ll find strength in my mother.

Give me poverty and I’ll make plans for a better life.

Give me an empty stocking at Christmas and I’ll rejoice in seeing the happiness of others.

Make me a hero and I’ll give credit to my teammates.

Injure my body and I’ll work to prepare it so I may perform again.

Take my life and I’ll leave behind an inspiration so others will do the best they can.

To Chucky Mullins, Brewer is eternally bound.

A Final Thought

The life of Billy Brewer inherently begs the following questions: What is the significance of Ole Miss football? And in the final analysis, what will Billy Brewer mean to that legacy?

Driving through Oxford, the rain falling, Brewer points out the varied evidence of growth of this small but compelling little Southern town—“that uptown is buzzin’ boy!”

A new hospital here, a multi-million dollar campus renovation there. He pulls into the parking lot fronting Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, stares at its façade. The happy tour continues. He drives over to a new complex that houses an indoor practice facility, meeting room, and a restaurant called 1810 Grill.

The rain is coming harder now, and Brewer swings into a charming neighborhood. At the end of the street, he nudges the Buick up to a gate. Rowan Oak, the stately, cedar-lined antebellum once home to Southern gothic author William Faulkner, is just beyond. There will be no official tours today, for the museum is closed for the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Brewer pauses for another private moment, then hurls the lever in reverse and drives away.

***

From the beginning, the South has been sorely misunderstood. It is a complicated place. A peculiar place. A place protective of its customs, but doomed to forget them.

Perhaps Ole Miss is much like that.

Why is Ole Miss significant? It seems that often, Ole Miss is a referendum on the South. So Ole Miss goes, so the South goes.

And times, they are a-changin’.

Always the staging ground for questions of race, the South may have lost the War but is winning battles, one moment at a time. And these most important victories were not won with cannons, guns and swords. They were won on buses, at lunch counters. In jails and city streets. In dank locker rooms where men, covered in grime and sweat, labored shoulder to shoulder for the cause of victory.

It is because of these heavy trials that the South is stronger, its people are stronger. And if a roster of men and women who made Southern race relations just a little bit better were produced, the name BREWER would be on the list. For his life has been a long-playing symphony of healing between the races, his attitude a prosthetic for amputated souls.

Brewer’s overall record is 125-94-6, including a 68-54-3 mark in Oxford. He saved Ole Miss football at a time when things couldn’t have been darker. But the wins, the losses matter little when stacked against his contribution to the human race. Perhaps Brewer gets little credit because his protests were not riotous and loud. They arrived in subtle, respectful moments. Like a humble acolyte of change, Brewer carried his candle with little fanfare or recognition.

Perhaps Brewer has failed to be properly recognized because we are a society sick from the epidemic of winning.

In the article for the Chicago Tribune, Brewer stated, “I have always, really, lived on the fringe of the whites and blacks all of my life.” It seems he was just the right man for that fringe.

Now Colonel Reb is gone and the vestiges of Dixie have all but disappeared at Ole Miss. In the fall of 2016, total undergraduate enrollment was 18,517, with 2,365 African-Americans, or 12.7 percent (five percent more than when Billy Brewer took over the reigns in 1983). Race relations have improved.

James “T” Thomas’ grandson, who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT, has enrolled as a student. In 2012, Courtney Pearson was selected as the first black homecoming queen.

Billy Brewer had a hand in facilitating these changes, and he is a man who deserves to be celebrated. A street sign. His name above a room. A day set in his honor.

Yet certain sadness exists when there are no more victories to be won, when the field is silent. When life banishes you to live out the tedious life of a commoner and fan. But a quote from Theodore Roosevelt springs to mind when reviewing Brewer’s legacy: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”

Billy Brewer will always be an arena man. For the war of race has never been won on a scoreboard.

It is won in the hearts of men.

billybrewer5
Photo Credit: Al Blanton

Postscript

While Brewer was at Lee High School, a commission was established to resolve issues between blacks and whites. A note in the school yearbook underscored the success of the effort: “The major factor of the Commission’s success was due to the fact that for the first time blacks and whites were able to communicate on controversial matters that needed to be brought out in the open.”

The quote was found on page 38.