HOUSTON — Shortly before the kickoff of the 1992 state championship game, George Floyd, the starting tight end for mighty Jack Yates High School, stepped onto the field at the University of Texas.
As he took in the stadium, packed then with nearly 78,000 seats, Floyd bumped into Ralph Cooper, a sports radio personality who had had him on his show a few times. Over the years, he had gently pressed the basketball and football star to take the school part of school more seriously.
There, surrounded by the state’s flagship university and all it had to offer, Floyd wondered aloud whether he should have listened. “Now I see what some of you all were talking about in regards to making that extra effort in the classroom,” Cooper recalled Floyd telling him.
At that moment, Floyd’s future was already in jeopardy. He had tried and failed at least twice to pass a mandatory state exam. If he couldn’t pass it, he wouldn’t graduate. A big-time college scholarship would be out of the question.
Floyd had long seen sports as his path out of the poverty, crime and drugs of Houston’s Third Ward. At 6 feet 6 inches, he excelled at basketball and then football, and his talents repeatedly gave him a shot at a different life. But, just as often, Floyd’s shaky education stood in his way.
Jack Yates High School has long been a source of identity, pride and affection in Houston’s Black community. Founded in 1926, it was named for a formerly enslaved man who became an influential minister. Graduates include city leaders and national figures such as broadcaster Roland Martin, actress Phylicia Rashad and her sister, the choreographer Debbie Allen. It has thrived in sports, producing, in 1985, what some say is the best high school team in Texas football history.
But for decades Yates has struggled in its central mission to educate students, a victim of a U.S. educational system that concentrates the poorest, highest-need children together, setting them up for failure.
By the time Floyd and his friends arrived in 1989, the city’s schools had been officially desegregated, but Yates was as segregated as ever, with a high concentration of students with significant needs and what became an endless stream of teachers and administrators cycling through. There were almost no White students at Yates, and within the Houston Independent School District at that time only 15 percent of students were White, down from about 50 percent when desegregation efforts started in the city in 1970.
Their departure was enabled by a system that allows the suburbs to cordon off their children and tax dollars from city schools. In a rare challenge to those boundary lines, the U.S. Justice Department in 1980 asked a federal court to include 22 Houston suburbs in its school desegregation case — a request that the court denied.
Citywide reforms mostly hurt Yates. When Houston sought to redistribute teachers, in 1970, the best Black teachers were sent to White schools, while the least-experienced White teachers went to Black schools, according to teachers, students and administrators who were there at the time.
Then, in 1975, working to avoid mandatory busing of students, the city started a magnet program, hoping to draw students to integrated schools by offering specialized programming. Some students were drawn to the communications magnet established at Yates. But far more, including many middle-class Black families, left for programs elsewhere in the city.
“We were losing all the cream-of-the crop students,” said Beverly Ratliff, who was Yates’s registrar from 1991 to 2014. “You don’t have a lot of people at the top level to balance off those who fall behind.”
When Debbie Allen attended Yates, in the mid-1960s, it was “like the high school of your dreams,” she said. But she said that her brother, 13 years younger, attended a private school. And she said if she were a student in Houston today, she would enroll in the district’s prestigious performing arts magnet school.
In Floyd’s senior year of high school, 21 percent of the juniors and seniors at Yates who took the mandatory state test passed all three sections, compared with 43 percent in the district and 54 percent statewide. About half the class took college entrance exams, but almost no one scored at a college-ready level.
It was a school where many students came from poor families, with little support at home, and where teachers were flooded with students with significant needs. So it was that students like Floyd, good kids who didn’t cause problems, could skate through academically, able to do the minimum.
In the years after Floyd left Yates, the school continued to struggle, targeted by one superintendent after another for overhaul and reform. In 1994, George W. Bush was elected governor, promising a new era of accountability in education, and Houston Superintendent Rod Paige targeted Yates for improvement.
His handpicked principal, Robert Worthy, found that around 900 students living in the Yates attendance zone were attending other schools. He concluded Yates had become a dumping ground for disgruntled teachers, including some who didn’t speak the languages they taught and one who used class time to run a real estate business. He removed nearly half the faculty, replacing many with inexperienced instructors from Teach for America, a favorite of reformers.
“We were loaded with TFA brand-new teachers who had no classroom management skills,” Ratliff said. “It didn’t work well for Yates.”
A spokeswoman for the Houston schools declined to comment but said there have been improvements at Yates in recent years. Among them: the school inaugurated a $75 million building in 2018, and Yates has been designated as an International Baccalaureate world campus school, a rigorous, prestigious program.
Nonetheless, in 2018-2019, the most recent year for which data is available, the school earned a “D” on its state report card. In recent years, Yates has been on a leadership carousel, with seven principals in the past 13 years. And enrollment has been on a steady decline for years. With fewer than 900 students, Yates now competes in the third-tier athletic conference, a precipitous fall from the glory days when Floyd and his friends walked the halls.
For top athletes at Yates, things were easier — for Floyd and also for Dexter Manley, the former Washington Redskins star who graduated in 1977 even though he was unable to read or write.
“One thing about athletes, at every level there were people to help you,” Manley said in an interview. “Because football is king in Texas — I mean king — that means those faculty are going to work with the head football coaches. They’re going to give you the support. They’re going to give me the help.”
Teachers asked little of him, he said, satisfied that he turned up for class and even that he sat toward the front. “You’re getting a lot of credit for attendance,” Manley said. He laughed when asked if he ever was asked to write a paper, and said he’d get “help” from girlfriends on tests.
Near the end of his all-pro career, Manley testified before a Senate panel on education that he had been illiterate through high school and college. He struggled to read his statement. “The only thing that really made me feel good in schools was athletics,” he said through tears. “That built self-esteem and some self-worth in Dexter Manley. Other than that, I had no identity.”
“You didn’t fail, sir,” Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) told him. “The system failed you.”
Four months later, George Floyd started high school in that same system.
‘I’m gonna be big’
While Floyd stood out as an athlete almost as soon as he arrived at Yates, he seemed to be paying less attention to his schoolwork. He was a middling student, doing enough to pass but not much more, according to his teachers and coaches. Mostly, they remembered him for being a sweet, gentle kid, always giving hugs, and a jokester in the back of the class who didn’t cause problems.
His high school friends said their interests centered on sports, hanging out together and going out for burgers after practice. They don’t remember doing much schoolwork at home, especially during sports seasons, and said that would have been especially hard for Floyd, who helped care for younger siblings.
“We had a lot of great memories,” said Jerald Moore. “Of course, great memories don’t include math class.”
At that time, the crack cocaine epidemic was raging. Kids who had dropped out of school could be seen roaming the neighborhood, selling drugs and stealing cars around Cuney Homes, the low-rise, red-brick public housing project where Floyd grew up, just a couple of blocks from the school.
But Floyd and his buddies — Moore, Vaughn Dickerson, Jonathan Veal and Herbert Mouton — stayed away from drugs and crime, thanks in part to the discipline demanded by sports.
Floyd’s sport was basketball, but his friends were all playing football, and “positive peer pressure” got him onto that team too, Veal said. Early on, he was singled out for his talents. Dickerson remembers when the two of them were tapped by the football coach as freshmen to ride to the playoffs with the varsity team.
“That was saying you had potential to make it out of the ghetto,” he said. “That was saying you had potential to get a Division 1 scholarship — not only that, but probably make it to the pros.”
It wasn’t easy for Floyd. The Yates style was rough, what Coach Maurice McGowan called “physical” ball, so much so that some other teams were scared to line up against them. But coaches had to “scream and holler” at Floyd to be more aggressive, McGowan said.
“He didn’t like the physical part,” McGowan said. “It took me the longest time to figure out where we were going to play him.”
Just as he did in class, Floyd was known to goof off on the field. At least once, he avoided blocking a defensive player so he could run into the end zone and get into a TV shot when Moore, who went on to play in the NFL, scored a touchdown. But he had raw athletic talent. In the 1992 championship game, Floyd made three catches for 18 yards. And he was picked that year by the Houston Chronicle for its citywide all-star team.
Floyd had visions of greatness. One night, Veal said, he and Floyd were hanging out on a hill near the football field where they often confided in each other. “Floyd makes a statement,” Veal recalled. “This blew my mind. He said, `I’m gonna be big. I’m gonna touch the world.’ ”
It wasn’t always easy to be so dreamy at Yates. Drug-detecting dogs would sometimes roam the halls, sniffing lockers. A student newscast from the mid-1990s discussed problems of graffiti on broken doors in the restrooms, and students recorded several public service announcements warning of the dangers of drugs. At the start of Floyd’s junior year, one of their friends, a stellar athlete named Carl Owens, was shot and killed at a dice game. Owens lived across from Floyd in Cuney Homes. “He was like our big brother,” said Milton “Poboy” Carney, another classmate who lived in Cuney Homes and sometimes stayed with Floyd’s family.
Dickerson, whose brother was with Owens when he died, said his death put a dark cloud over their junior year. “Carl’s death was so devastating that to this day, I still think about it.”
It could be hard to see a future, said Moore.
“We didn’t have any examples, any real role models besides just the local older guys who had just regular jobs or drug dealers,” he said. “Growing up I didn’t see any men doing anything but janitorial work in the apartment complex that I lived in. I may see the mailman, you know. … Even the doctors didn’t look like me. So I didn’t think about being a doctor or a lawyer.”
As much as he could, Floyd kept the mood light, his friends said. He was gentle and funny, cracking jokes. If the team lost a game, Floyd imposed a rule: They could sulk on the ride home, but that was it.
“He would say something that would just break the mood. You had to laugh. I don’t care how upset you were,” Veal said. “He just had that spirit about him that would not let you get too down on yourself.”
Floyd would sometimes high-step his way down the hallway, imitating the school’s celebrated drum majors, his long legs jutting up and down. “He’d have the whole hallway just laughing,” said Mouton, the only one of the group to earn a college degree.
Teachers liked him, too, said Bertha Dinkins, who taught government at Yates for 18 years.
“He was a different one. Very quiet,” she said. Other athletes could be disruptive in class, but Floyd rarely was. The two bonded, she said, when she told him she, too, had lived in Cuney Homes.
The school kept careful track of academic eligibility for athletes, partly because opponents would sometimes accuse Yates of playing students who were failing, said Ratliff, who as registrar was partly responsible for certifying eligibility. At any given time, some 30 to 40 percent of athletes were “on the bubble,” she said, but Floyd always made the cut.
“He passed all his classes,” said McGowan, adding, “It wasn’t A’s and B’s.”
That was good enough to play football, but not necessarily to graduate in Texas, where students were required to pass a three-part proficiency test. When Floyd was a senior, the test was relatively new and passing rates were low. In 1999, a suit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund asserted that the exam was racially biased against Black and Hispanic students, who as a group scored lower than White students. Over the years, as teachers adjusted and pressure ratcheted up, passing rates rose. By 2002, the last year before the state changed tests, 77 percent of Yates students passed.
By the spring of his senior year, Floyd had failed the exam two or three times. There was one more chance before graduation.
But when Floyd took the test again, he again failed the math section.
After four years at Yates, he couldn’t graduate and wouldn’t walk across the stage with his friends. Dickerson, Veal, Mouton and Moore — all of his buddies — were headed to college to play football.
“He didn’t want to be around anybody no more,” Dickerson said. “He felt like he was an outcast. Everybody is going off to college and they’re looking at George like `Where you going? What school are you going to?’ ”
What Dickerson and his friends didn’t know was that fall, after high school, Floyd took the Texas state exam again, according to Ratliff, the registrar.
This time, when it was too late to graduate with his friends and too late to get a big-time college scholarship out of high school, Floyd passed the test, and in December 1993, he was awarded his high school diploma.
A new chance in South Florida
He wasn’t on the same track as his friends, but sports still gave Floyd a chance.
George Walker, the basketball coach at what was then called South Florida Community College, was from Houston and in search of a power forward. He spoke with the principal at Yates about Floyd.
“They were all pushing for me to take him down to South Florida,” he said. “It’s pretty good when you’re recruiting a kid and the whole community is behind him.”
Floyd liked the idea of going to a school near the beach and, without a high school diploma at that point, South Florida was his best option. Walker recalled several talks with Floyd about whether he could pass the GED exam. “He told me, `Coach, I know I can pass the GED.’ I took him at this word that he could.”
And he did. As with so many other Black athletes, Floyd’s talents benefited his school. But Floyd’s experience at South Florida was much like Yates — he went to class and he played ball, but he left without a degree.
“This is a system that sells dreams,” said Ellen J. Staurowsky, a professor of sports media at Ithaca College. She said coaches say education is important but what they really care about is sports. “The educational bargain is not being delivered to football players and basketball players.”
Leaving South Florida, Floyd once again found opportunity in sports. He was offered a football scholarship at Texas A&M University-Kingsville — at last, he would arrive at a four-year school.
But Floyd had not done well on placement tests, which meant he had to take developmental courses in reading, writing and math. Those courses consumed Floyd’s time, but did not count toward the credits required for eligibility, meaning Floyd was able to practice with the team, but not able to play in games.
“The coaches, they might try to help you out but at the end of the day they can only tell you `go here, go there.’ They didn’t actually help. You’re kind of on your own,” said Demetrius Lott, who was a friend and teammate of Floyd’s. “Once you’re ineligible, it’s hard to bounce back.”
The rules around remedial courses hurt students who need the most help, often Black students who are more likely to arrive from subpar high schools, who might be the first in their family to attend college. The system asks them to manage a full class load, plus remedial courses, plus time-consuming sports activities.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Ramogi Huma, who played football at the University of California at Los Angeles and is now executive director of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group. He said Floyd’s story is evidence that universities are not focused on the best interests of students like him.
“The colleges are pretending students have a real opportunity to graduate,” he said. “If they took it seriously, they would count those classes.”
The NCAA, which had ratcheted up academic requirements in response to critics, says some remedial courses are counted toward eligibility under today’s rules. But Huma argues that not enough of them count, and that doing so would amount to an admission that colleges are recruiting athletes who are not academically qualified, undermining the colleges’ argument that players are students first who don’t need to be paid.
The billions of dollars universities earn from television contracts and other revenue mostly benefit White coaches and administrators. The mismatch has prompted a rethinking of whether the long-standing bargain — free tuition in exchange for playing sports — is enough. Five states have passed legislation since last year that would let college athletes earn endorsement money, with others considering similar measures.
Kingsville has had particular tensions around how athletes were treated, with some alumni charging that there are too few Black faculty or staff members, while mostly Black athletes are exploited for the money they bring to the university.
“We all did feel like we were being used,” said James Guidry, who played football for Kingsville in the late ’80s before playing professionally for nine years. He said Black athletes found little support from the university. After football season ended in the fall of his senior year, he said, his coach asked him whether he was coming back in the spring.
“Why would they ask me that?” he said. “It’s like, `We don’t really need you here, thank you for your four years of service.’”
Floyd ran into other problems beyond his grades during his college years. In June 1996, he was arrested for domestic battery for allegedly hitting a girlfriend with a mop handle. The case was ultimately dismissed that December, and Floyd was not enrolled at Kingsville that semester.
But he returned the following semester and, by many accounts, was popular and happy in Kingsville. “We talked, we joked, we played video games all night,” said DeRon “Smoke” Rutledge. “He was just an easygoing guy who loved to have fun.”
Veal remembers coming to visit Floyd at college and seeing how happy he was, though he was frustrated that he wasn’t playing. “Man, but I want to play. I want to play,” he told Veal. “His mind-set, his personality was almost always positive and optimistic.”
But Floyd never did play. After two years in Kingsville, he left, again without earning a degree, this time out of options and headed back to Third Ward.
Soon after arriving home, he was arrested again, this time for delivery of a controlled substance. Floyd admitted the offense and was found guilty, his first conviction.
He worked odd jobs and briefly enrolled in the historically Black college across the street from Jack Yates. He joined a collective of hip-hop artists, trying again for fame that could carry him out of Third Ward.
But none of those attempts were very lasting. School was done, collegiate sports were over and Floyd was heading toward an uncertain future.
Mary Lee Grant, Arelis R. Hernández and Julie Tate contributed to this report.