The con man, the NFL wide receiver and the wild spring training scam of 1971

One afternoon at his home in Houston, Jerry LeVias received an email out of the blue. The email led to a phone call, and now here LeVias is, deep in conversation about a moment lost in time.

Speaking over the phone, LeVias takes a deep breath.

“Whew,” he says, “it’s like an out-of-body experience, because I had forgotten all about this.”

Let us go back in time to the morning of Feb. 20, 1971. That’s when a report from United Press International circulated in sports pages across the country. It was only the first layer of a much bigger, stranger story.

That day, newspapers hit curbs featuring an article in which Jerry LeVias — the first Black football player in the Southwest conference who went on to become a speedy Houston Oilers receiver — announced he was done with football. LeVias appeared in Lakeland, Fla., the spring training home of the Detroit Tigers, on Feb. 19. He hoped to become a baseball player.

LeVias stayed in the team’s dormitories, and he told the press he had lost his passion for the gridiron.

“I don’t ever want to go back,” UPI quoted LeVias as saying. “I’m just a little thing, you know, and I’m a little tired of getting belted around all the time.”

LeVias’ comments in the article grew increasingly inflammatory.

“It was a mistake to play those two years in Houston,” he said, per UPI. “The players there don’t give it all they got.”

The venting went on. “It’s tough to play,” this man said, “when you’ve got a quarterback who won’t throw the ball to you because he’s jealous of all the attention you’ve received.”

Tigers scouts and executives were naturally intrigued. LeVias had the short and compact build of a toolsy infielder.