Flowers: 'Fastest white boy alive'

Updated: March 30, 2005, 9:49 AM ET
By Mike Sielski | Special to ESPN.com

"I saw Richmond run a race one time where he hit a hurdle and fell. And he got up, got back in the race and finished second. That's the kind of stuff he is made of. And it's pretty symbolic. Hurdles may be there, but they're not insurmountable," says Richmond Flowers Sr. on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Richmond Flowers
In April 1965, Richmond Flowers set the national high school record in the 120-yard high hurdles.
Even if Richmond Flowers Jr. hadn't been such a spectacular athlete -- even if he hadn't been a standout wingback for Tennessee or set the national high school record in the 120-yard high hurdles or described himself as "the fastest white boy alive" -- his name still would resonate. And it would resonate for reasons that had nothing to do with speed, or with his athletic career, or with sports at all.

The reasons had to do with his father, Richmond Flowers Sr., who in the 1960s was likely the most hated public official in Alabama. As the state's attorney general from 1963 to 1967, Flowers Sr. became the foil for segregationist Governor George Wallace.

Flowers Sr. was a moderate who urged compliance with federal anti-segregation laws during the tumultuous civil rights movement. Who condemned and prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan and in doing so incurred upon himself and his family death threats and burning crosses. Who, in losing the Democratic nomination for governor in 1966 to Wallace's wife Lurleen, on principle played a game he had little chance of winning.

Flowers Sr.'s defiance of the era's conventions of race at once magnified and minimized the accomplishments of his son. Developing during his high school years into a world-class sprinter and Division I football prospect, Flowers Jr. was always "the other Richmond Flowers," yet he ignited a brush fire when he decided to attend Tennessee instead of staying home and playing football for coach Bear Bryant at Alabama. He did so in part because of the hatred Alabamans felt toward his father.

"I really wanted to get out of Alabama and get it behind me," he said in 1997. "I didn't want all that heavy stuff laid on me about politics and segregation and civil rights. I was a kid who wanted to be a kid."

Born on June 13, 1947, in Dothan, Ala., Flowers Jr. was everything as a kid. He was dyslexic, asthmatic and anemic. He had such fits of asthma that he gasped for breath. His feet were flat, which caused him to walk on his ankles and compelled the family doctor to fit him with heavy orthopedic shoes with reinforced arches. Despite his ills, Flowers had a natural dexterity for golf, shooting an 82 at 13. However, he abandoned the sport as he grew taller and stronger and his feet finally arched. He wanted to play football.

In the fall of 1962, the family moved from Dothan to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, and Flowers entered Lanier High School for his sophomore year. By then, Flowers' asthma was gone. "One day the light switch just went off, and it went away," he said.

As a junior, he was the team's starting halfback. But it wasn't until the following spring that he first attracted national attention. He set state records in the 120-yard high hurdles, the 180-yard low hurdles and the long jump.

During his senior year, Flowers Jr. was a standout running back. In April 1965, at the Gulf Coast Relays in Mobile, he ran the 120 highs in 13.5 seconds, a national high school record. A month later, at an open meet at Modesto, Calif., he beat 25-year-old Blaine Lindgren, a silver medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in the 120 highs.

Bryant wanted Flowers Jr. at Alabama. But after the attorney general was booed while being introduced at the Mobile meet, his son said, "That's why I'm not going to stay in this state." Despite Bryant's overtures, Flowers Jr. picked Tennessee.

"The only thing able to save Richmond was his sports," said Diane Dowdy, who was a high school classmate of Flowers Jr. and married him in 1987. "He could not be ignored. He got a lot of scorn from the adults because of his dad.

Richmond Flowers
Richmond Flowers was named first-team All-America in his junior season.
But he was adored by the kids from the other side of the tracks, by the nobodies who had moved in and struggled just as he had. He was their hero."

At Tennessee in 1965, Flowers made the All-SEC freshman team (frosh were not eligible for the varsity then). A year later, he started at wingback and caught 35 passes for 407 yards as he made the all-league sophomore team.

In his junior season, he was the Vols' leading receiver (41 receptions for 585 yards and four touchdowns) and was named first-team All-America by the Football News. As a senior, he moved to tailback and rushed for 375 yards (3.4 average), caught 25 passes for 180 yards and scored seven touchdowns. In the sweetest moment of his football career, he scored Tennessee's touchdown in its 10-9 win over Alabama.

Again, however, his feats on the track were greater than his feats on the gridiron. He was a three-time All-American. As a freshman in February 1966, at the All-Eastern Games in Baltimore, he ran the 60-yard high hurdles in 6.9 seconds, a tenth of a second off the world indoor record. As a sophomore in May 1967, he was voted the Most Outstanding Performer at the SEC Championships in Knoxville, winning the 120 highs and the 100-yard dash and finishing fourth in the broad jump. The next month, at the NCAA Championships, he set an NCAA record in the preliminaries by running the 120 highs in 13.4.

His junior track season, 1968, was his tour de force, until misfortune cut him down. He ran the 120 highs in 13.5 to defeat Villanova's Ervin Hall on April 6. Two weeks later, at the Pelican Relays in Baton Rouge, he put up a 13.3 -- again, a tenth of a second off the world record -- to beat his nemesis, Southern University's Willie Davenport, who had dominated their early meetings. After winning eight straight hurdles races, Flowers appeared to have a good shot at capturing gold at the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City, but on June 2, he blew out his right hamstring during a workout.

Still hobbled by the injury, Flowers failed to qualify at the U.S. Olympic Trials. In Mexico City, Davenport and Hall went 1-2 in the 120 highs. "I knew I could have been standing there," Flowers said. "Maybe I wouldn't have won, but it would have been a dogfight."

Drafted in the second round by Dallas in 1969, the 6-foot, 183-pound Flowers had an undistinguished career in the NFL as a safety with the Cowboys (1969-71) and New York Giants (1971-73). He then played one season in the World Football League (1975) before going to law school at Alabama.

Eventually, he became a commodities trader in Chicago. His time as a trader was tumultuous, creating a luxurious life for himself and then losing it.

He gambled $10 million of his clients' money with an ill-timed investment in soybeans in 1983. "I lost $3 million in a week," he said. "I lost $2 million of my own money and $1 million that I didn't have."

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission censured him for exceeding trading limits and fined him $2,000. By then, he and his first wife, Lucia Chew Flowers, had divorced and she moved to Florida with their three children. Flowers ended up broke in Dallas.

It wasn't until he re-established contact with Dowdy and eventually married her that his life regained direction. He moved to Florida in 1988 and a year later, he got primary custody of his three children. In August 1992, after Hurricane Andrew damaged their house, the family moved to Birmingham, where Flowers has worked selling nutritional products.

His father was convicted in 1969 of extorting money from savings and loan operators and applicants who sought licenses to sell securities, serving 18 months of an eight-year federal sentence before being paroled. Eventually, he received a pardon, from President Jimmy Carter. Flowers Sr. insists he was framed by his political enemies.

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