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College Footbal

Texas wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey is not playing at life

His poetry and social media following say he’s woke

There’s more to Texas junior Lil’Jordan Humphrey than his unique first name (more on that later). Humphrey is an accomplished pass-catcher on the Biletnikoff Award Watch List, recognizing him as one of the top wide receivers in college football. He ranks fourth in receiving in the pass-heavy Big 12 entering Saturday’s game against Texas Tech. He’s coming off a nine-reception, 143-yard, one-touchdown game against No. 9 West Virginia.

Humphrey’s impact extends beyond the playing field.

He’s a socially conscious student-athlete attending a large and prestigious university who determined that being a black football player on a predominantly white campus isn’t much different from being black in President Donald Trump’s America. Humphrey used his public platform as a major-college athlete to deliver a powerful message.

“I was able to use my brain and my platform that I have by bringing awareness to things that a lot of people can’t speak about,” said Humphrey. “It’s a well-known topic in today’s society right now with the NFL and Colin Kaepernick. I live it. A lot of people on the [football] team live it. My family lives it. I knew people were going to come for me. It was just in my head and something I was thinking about for a while and wanted to put in words.”

Locating his inner poet laureate, Humphrey turned a summer class assignment into a hot-button topic and became a cause célèbre after posting it on his Twitter page. Dated July 10, Humphrey’s poem encompasses the dreams, thoughts, fears, concerns and realities of a woke young black man:

Humphrey’s poem, written for professor Evan Carton’s American literature class, hit the Twittersphere with the force of a sledgehammer, soliciting rapid-fire responses both positive and negative, including words of advice from NFL Hall of Famer Ray Lewis: “Be willing to walk alone. Many who started with you won’t finish with you.”

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte and football coach Tom Herman both publicly supported Humphrey.

“I was proud of him for expressing his feelings,” Herman told reporters shortly after the poem appeared. “He wrote it and felt like he wanted to post it and share it. I support him.”

Humphrey told Herman in advance about his poem.

“I was actually concerned about what they were going to say, but when they came out and said they were proud of me for expressing my thoughts, it made me feel good,” said Humphrey, whose mother named him Lil’Jordan after his older brother wanted him to be named for Michael Jordan. “I was surprised at all the support I got from people for speaking my mind.”

“We can imagine that other universities would have handled that situation in a negative manner,” said Daron Roberts, who had Humphrey in his leadership and financial management class as a freshman. “There are personalities that probably wouldn’t have responded the same way.”

“I was proud of him for expressing his feelings,” Texas football coach Tom Herman said shortly after the poem appeared. “He wrote it and felt like he wanted to post it and share it. I support him.”

Humphrey created the idea for his poem after Carton assigned students to read America, a 1956 poem by Beat Generation influencer Allen Ginsberg. “Once we read that poem, I said, ‘Now’s your turn to write your own letter to America,’ ” Carton said. “The assignment is meant to give students practice in trying to write a skilled poem. I know he’s taken some criticism for the way he described his current situation as a black athlete in relationship to a much larger history of exploitation of black labor. I see his poem not only as a skilled poem from an undergraduate who is not a writing major, but someone who gives a very powerful but also personal statement about race relations in America.”

Some of the motivation for Humphrey’s poem is the result of a unique support system at Texas designed for student-athletes in general and black student-athletes in particular. Blacks make up about 3.9 percent of a student population in excess of 51,000. Conversely, blacks make up 62 percent of the 2018 football roster.

“Look at the numbers. It can be an intimidating place for a young African-American student or student-athlete,” said Roberts, a former NFL and college football coach, former student body president at Texas and the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation on campus. “Our story is like the rest of the country. We’re over-represented as a group when it comes to revenue sports [football and basketball] and under-represented when it comes to the student body at large.”

“Black athletes at Texas have the best support structure of any black student-athletes in the country,” said Leonard Moore, vice president for diversity and community engagement and a history professor who taught Humphrey in his class on the Black Power movement. Moore founded the Black Student-Athlete Summit, an annual event held on campus that addresses unique challenges faced by black athletes. “I think because some of us have been here, we have brought the athletic department along in terms of confronting race issues head-on. I think the athletic department embracing our summit is a testament to that,” Moore said of the three-day event held each January. “No other school could pull that off.”

As for Herman publicly supporting Humphrey, one of the best wide receivers in college football, Moore replied, “Tom realizes he has to support his players. He realizes it’s important for these players to grow intellectually.”

“Dr. Moore, Dr. Kelly and Dr. Roberts really help us by bringing awareness to things going on in the world and not being quiet about it,” said Humphrey.

Moore said black professors at Texas challenge as well as support their black student-athletes. “It’s the first time they have had professors who were just as intense as their coaches. These are professors deeply engaged in the lives of these young men,” said Moore, who teaches a signature course, Race in the Age of Trump. “We tell them, as a black man, I have a responsibility to make sure you grow intellectually.”

Added Darren Kelly, the deputy to the vice president of diversity and community engagement under Moore, who asked Humphrey to read his poem in his sociology of sport class: “In other classes, they may not get that kind of interaction with their professors. Sometimes as student-athletes, and as black student-athletes, they’re overlooked in terms of being engaged academically. We make it a point to involve them in the conversation.”

Humphrey’s poem speaks volumes in that regard.

“Dr. Moore, Dr. Kelly and Dr. Roberts really help us by bringing awareness to things going on in the world and not being quiet about it,” Humphrey said.

John Harris is a writer, editor and digital journalist who has worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, St. Petersburg Times, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He's a managing editor at Hunt Scanlon Media, and a former writer for CBSSportsline.com.