Black history feature: McVea says UH stood by no matter what
Warren McVea carved out a standout career at UH almost as smoothly as he darted past defenders in the open field, but experienced some bumps and bruises at the professional level.
McVea, UH’s first black football player, was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the fourth round of the 1968 American Football League draft.
He said the toughest aspect of playing in the AFL was persuading teams to properly utilize his talents with regard to his diminutive size (5-9, 180 pounds).
"Nobody knew how to actually handle me," McVea, 61, said. "I really couldn’t take the pounding back then that a guy 180 pounds could take.
McVea spent only one season with the Bengals. During the 1968 season, he carried the ball nine times for 133 yards and a touchdown and caught 21 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns. He also averaged 22.1 yards on 14 kickoff returns.
McVea was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs prior to the 1969 season. That’s when he encountered Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram, who planned to make him a return specialist.
"I could handle kickoffs, but I could not handle punts real well. And this is what Hank Stram wanted me to be. That’s not what I wanted to be," McVea said.
McVea did return a few kicks that season, but he received a fair amount of touches out of the backfield while splitting the bulk of the carries with Mike Garrett, Robert Holmes and Wendell Hayes.
McVea had perhaps the best season of his professional career, posting career-highs of 500 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. That season was also one of the best in the Chiefs’ history. They went 11-3 in the regular season, and defeated the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in SuperBowl IV.
Career falls apart
McVea’s career, however, began to decline after 1969. The next season, Stram began to award more playing time to second-year running back Ed Podolak, who finished with 1,056 yards from scrimmage (749 rushing, 307 passing).
That meant less playing time for McVea, who had only 61 carries for 260 yards and three kickoff returns that season.
McVea remained with the Chiefs until 1973. He sat out the entire 1972 season and was limited to only four carries in his final season. Knee injuries had taken their toll on McVea.
McVea attempted a comeback with the Detroit Wheels and Houston Texans of the World Football League and later the Houston Oilers of the NFL, but failed. He was out of football by 1974.
Drugs take over
With his football career in shambles, McVea’s personal life followed suit. The deaths of his parents, Daniel and Mattie McVea, within six months of each other in 1982 while he was in the midst of a divorce, propelled him over the breaking point. McVea was driven to the edge of insanity.
"I lost it. I didn’t know where I was," McVea said. "Man, I just lost it."
To cope with his problems, McVea started using drugs. He was arrested on several occasions and served time on drug charges. He was also charged for attempted theft and setting fire to a female acquaintance’s Houston apartment.
Former Houston football coach Bill Yeoman said that this type of situation was common for professional athletes back then.
"A lot of the pro athletes would get to be nothing after they had their career," Yeoman said. "He had not planned his savings or anything else, so he just (had) hard times."
McVea was arrested for drug possession in 1993 and given 25 years in prison. However, he did not lose his friends, including former teammates and coaches. They supported his rehabilitation efforts, and one former teammate, country singer Larry Gatlin, even offered financial help.
The road to recovery
It was a slow process, but McVea finally got back on his feet. He was paroled in 2000 and has been clean ever since. He lives in Houston and works as an independent contractor for a courier company.
McVea was inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, and inducted into the UH Hall of Honor the following year.
"I was really, really pleased and impressed with how he’s backed off and straightened himself up and now’s a productive citizen," Yeoman said. "I think he’s done a real good job."
McVea’s life took many twists and turns after he signed with UH in 1964, but even now he doesn’t regret making the decision.
"I’d do the same thing over again," he said. "When you think about it, any time you see a player of the magnitude that I was, and his life goes astray for a minute, the university throws him under the bus. The relationship is over.
"With my situation with UH, I can easily say that those people over there have really stood by me."