As a young man, Junior Coffey’s time was mostly spent working in the fields – not preparing to play football on one.
Options were slim for African-Americans growing up in Dimmitt, a panhandle town southwest of Amarillo, in the 1950s. Most went to work on a farm or enlisted in the armed forces, and Coffey said he was most likely going to do the latter.
But that all changed early in his high school career, thanks to a couple of friends in Kent Hance and Hal Ratcliff who encouraged Coffey to join the football team despite his having never played any organized sports.
“It’s a situation where at the time I was in a high school where there had not been integration,” Coffey said. “My parents were my aunt and uncle, and my aunt swore I’d never be the kid walking around on the street. My plan was set by my aunt, and the people in Dimmitt, primarily (my classmates) changed that.”
Coffey’s size at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and speed – it’s been reported he ran 100 yards in 10.2 seconds – made him a natural for the game. The first African-American athlete in Dimmitt’s history twice rushed for 1,000-plus yards and racked up 185 tackles as a senior from his linebacker position and was named an All-American.
He was also a standout on the basketball court, becoming the first African-American to play in the UIL state basketball tournament as the Bobcats reached the championship game in 1959-60 and ‘60-61.
But it was his gridiron exploits that make one of eight men being inducted into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
“I never knew anything about football,” Coffey said. “Fortunately, the guys didn’t laugh at me. They just said hang in there, you’ll pick it up.”
The coaches in Dimmitt placed Coffey at defensive tackle at first because of his size, but that changed after Coffey recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown. They knew they had to get Coffey the ball, and he moved to running back.
He rushed for 1,294 yards as a junior and 1,562 as a senior to lead Dimmitt to the playoffs. Against Olney, he carried 34 times for 253 yards and both of the Bobcats’ touchdowns, but they dropped a 15-12 decision.
“Winning galvanizes the public and the fans,” Coffey said. “When I went to the store to buy food or pick up eggs for my aunt, people knew me. That was pretty neat. I didn’t think about being the only African-American playing on the team, but just how they knew who I was.”
Fans and opponents on the road quickly learned who he was, too, but they weren’t always as welcoming.
The team wasn’t always allowed in restaurants, and it often had to stay in subpar accommodations on overnight road trips. On the field, Coffey said there was a game against Muleshoe in which there was some “name-calling against me.” His coach called the team over and said if Coffey didn’t want to continue the game, the team was going to walk off the field and forfeit. Coffey didn’t want to do that, and the Bobcats ended up crushing the Mules, 44-0.
After his high school career, Coffey was advised to go to college outside of the south, and he ended up at the University of Washington.
Coffey was a three-time All-Coast selection with the Huskies and named honorable mention All-American all three seasons. He was a key member of Washington’s 1963 Rose Bowl team, but broke his foot in the week leading up to the game and didn’t play in the second half of the Huskies’ 17-7 loss to Dick Butkus and Illinois.
Coffey was drafted to play for the Green Bay Packers in the seventh round and made the team, which went on to an NFL championship in 1965. He also played for the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants before retiring in 1971 with career totals of 2,037 yards rushing, 487 receiving and 15 touchdowns.
“See how fortunate you can be,” Coffey said. “Coach (Vince) Lombardi calls and says we’d like your service. Would you be interested in coming to Green Bay? I made that team and we ended up winning the championship. I was blessed.”
During the summers, Coffey worked with horses and eventually became a thoroughbred trainer, an occupation he continues to this day. Coffey lives in SeaTac, Wash., but hopes to make it to the banquet this weekend. He said some of his former teammates are planning a function, and he expects several of them to be in attendance.