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In the summer of 1961, John Henry Young was more concerned with chopping wood, hauling hay and picking watermelons than he was in getting a college education.

More than a year before, John Henry had graduated with a class of 24 seniors from the all-black Dogan High School of Fairfield, Texas. But in high school, he spent more time on basketball and track than he did on homework.
So after graduation, John Henry - the product of a broken home - went to work on his uncle's farm in Streetman, Texas, 14 miles from Fairfield.

A year later, Jesse Williams of Wichita Falls showed up at the farm, and John Henry's life changed dramatically.

"I was out playing basketball in the backyard when he drove up. He asked me, 'Did you ever think about going to college.' I said, 'No, sir, I never have.' He told me he knew a coach by the name of Vinzant who was looking for athletes. Then he left, and I never thought I'd hear from him again," Young said.

Not long afterwards, however, Williams showed back up at the farm. This time he drove John Henry back to Wichita Falls, where Midwestern basketball coach Dennis Vinzant game him a tryout, and then a scholarship.

In the four years that followed, John Henry Young -- one of the honorees at MSU's Legends Weekend on Saturday -- became a basketball legend at Midwestern.

Williams explained that the meeting on the farm was not accidental. The family of his wife lived in Streetman, a town of about 300 residents "if you count the dogs and cats," Young said. Earlier, Williams had brought his wife's stepbrother, Johnny Carroll, to Midwestern. Carroll, the first black to ever play basketball at the school, had been a teammate of John Henry in high school and he recommended bringing him to Midwestern.

"I came in at a disadvantage," Young said. "I wasn't the best student because I hadn't prepared myself."

But he could fly through the air with the greatest of ease and slam a basketball like nothing we had ever seen at the time.

"I could put a basketball in each hand and jump high enough to throw one in with my left hand and then the other with my right, eight facing the goal or with my back to the goal," said Young, who stood 6-4 when he played for Midwestern from 1961 through 1965.

Back then, fans would pack the Wichita Falls High School gym early just to watch the muscular and acrobatic John Henry warm up. In his first two years, the rules allowed players to dunk in warmups but not during games.

Some still say they once saw John Henry jump up and grab a quarter off the top of the backboard, but he just laughs at such a story.

"I once bumped my head on the backboard, and someone said, 'you got up so high, you could have pulled a dollar off the top of the board,' but I never did it," he said.

Jumping and playing basketball came natural, so natural, in fact, that Young said he never even realized how good an athlete he was back then.

Passing grades, however, didn't come easy.

"I just studied really hard," he said. "Coach Vinzant and Dr. (D.L.) Ligon took a special interest in me. Between them, they motivated me to use all of my natural abilities as a human being

"I was an unsophisticated person when I came to Midwestern. There was so much about life that I did not know, and I had absolutely no social skills, but Coach Vinzant, Dr. Ligon and Jesse Williams helped bring me along and develop those skills."

Society was so much different 36 years ago.

When the Midwestern basketball team was on the road, Young and other blacks could not stay in the same hotel with the team.

"But Coach Vinzant and Dr. Ligon were always stepping out and selling us as good human beings and worth people," Young said. "They checked restaurants out to see if they served blacks. If they didn't, they'd come back out to the bus and tell us 'they don't have the food we wanted here' and we'd go someplace else."

On the road, Young heard racial remarks on the court. He'd slam dunk the ball, and someone would shout 'just like picking cotton.' But he learned to ignore the racism.

"I just loved playing the game," he said.

Not only was Midwestern basketball ahead of its time socially, it was also way ahead on the court. The Indians were running and shooting and flying through the air long before anyone ever came up with the term "run and gun."

Teams that couldn't stay with them tried stall tactics, but the better team still won. Midwestern once beat Austin College 14-11 and LeTourneau 9-8.

Vinzant was an innovative coach who had a fire in his belly that players like Young never forget.

"He was extremely explosive. He pushed his comfort zone far beyond normal. He would fight for us," Young said. "I can remember games where he'd stop and argue for five or 10 minutes. He wouldn't let the other team throw the ball in until he had certainly exhausted his argument, whether he won it or not."

Young scored 1,794 points in his four years at Midwestern, the fifth best in school history.

The Indians went 85-25 while he was here advanced to the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City his senior year.

He was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers but never pursued a professional basketball career.

"I never really realized I was that kind of athlete until much later in life. I really didn't," said Young, who was an "athlete for hire, but not for much," playing basketball and boxing in South America, Belgium and Italy after college and before a two-year duty in the Army.

After the Army, he "didn't have any interest in athletics anymore."

"I was interested in working with youth," he said.

For the last 30 years, he has worked with programs for youth all across the United States. Now, at 55, he lives in McKinney, Texas, and is the center director for the North Texas Job Corps Center.

"I promised God early on that if I ever became an educated person and was able to inherit my part of the earth, I would spend my life encouraging young people to work hard, become trained and inherit their part of the earth. I've kept that promise," he said.

Young also made sure his two daughters had ever opportunity to succeed. His oldest daughter, Melanie, graduated from Iowa State, where she was captain of the women's basketball team for two years. His youngest daughter, Monique, is a freshman at Midwestern.

Young said he grew up to become "a mixture of Jesse Williams, Coach Vinzant and Dr. Ligon."

"Those were special men. They encouraged me to lengthen my stride. They taught me to focus and strive toward a goal, to have faith and believe you can do something even though logic and reason tells you you can't.

"Now I try to help people the same way they helped me. There are so many standing in the unemployment line who, if they could come in contact with the right person, can become productive people who give to society instead of take from society."

John Henry Young came to Midwestern to play basketball.

And although he did that -- and did it very well -- he left here with so much more.

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