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‘He represented us’: George Floyd’s lasting impact as a two-sport athlete in Houston

Floyd’s death has hit particularly hard for those with roots in the 3rd Ward


Growing up in Houston’s 3rd Ward, Eddy Barlow found inspiration in George Floyd. As he watched Floyd make big plays as a two-sport athlete at Jack Yates High School on his way to earning a college hoops scholarship, Barlow realized there was an escape from the Cuney Homes housing project where they lived.

“I’m a little younger than George, but it was exciting when I got to Yates and walked those same halls where he played,” said the 38-year-old Barlow, who would also go on to become a star player at Yates and play professionally overseas. “In basketball, he was a Dennis Rodman type, a blue-collar player. In football, whenever we’d go to a game and hear his name after he scored a touchdown, that was exciting because he represented us.”

Floyd’s death last week at the hands of police in Minneapolis, where Floyd had moved several years ago, has hit particularly hard for those with roots in the 3rd Ward. The protests, which began last week in Minneapolis and have now gone global, are indicators of just how horrifying the footage was of the Houston native pleading for his life while three officers sat on him, one with his knee pressed firmly on Floyd’s neck.

Like the rest of the nation, Barlow was awakened to the news on May 25. He had been alerted to the video by a friend, who added: “They killed Big Floyd.”

“Looking at the video, I was scared to see, but I had to see,” said Barlow, who’s now an assistant basketball coach at Yates. “To watch your friend die, to watch your friend say his last words and scream out for his mother … it leaves you with a wide range of emotions. No human being deserved that. Especially George. …

“George was idolized by young boys living in the projects because he was the first guy that many of us witnessed get an athletic scholarship where we grew up. He was one of my role models. He was one of us. That’s why his death is so hard to take.”

Maurice McGowan, the longtime football coach at Yates, remembers noticing Floyd’s football talent during a scouting visit to the now-closed Ryan Middle School in Houston, which was a feeder school to Yates (which has a long list of notable alumni, including Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad and two-time Super Bowl champion Dexter Manley).

“He was a tall, skinny kid who told me he was a basketball player,” McGowan said of Floyd. “But he was big, and you could see his potential. His friends on the football team convinced him to come out, but he really didn’t have a football mentality.”

While Floyd excelled in hoops — a 1992 story noted Floyd scored 29 points in a basketball win over Austin High School — he faced a difficult adjustment on the football field for Yates, a longtime football power which in 1985 became the first historically black school to win a University Interscholastic League state championship in the big school division (Beaumont Hebert was the first black school in Texas to win a UIL state football title in 1976) with a 37-0 win over perennial powerhouse Odessa Permian (the school that was the subject of Friday Night Lights) to complete a 16-0 season.

According to McGowan, the biggest challenge for Floyd was that he was too nice. And that left the coaches with limitations on where they could play him on the gridiron.

“To have him blocking, that was never going to happen,” McGowan said. “So we put him in at tight end. Over time, he got better and better.”

Floyd’s basketball gifts — his size, strength and skills in the post — made him an easy target in the passing game.

“We had all that height split out wide because he could run, and he had great hands,” McGowan said. “We put in a play down near the goal line where our quarterback would just throw the ball to the back of the end zone and George would just go up and get it. He made some helluva catches for us in that season we went to the state championship.”

While Floyd improved in his catching ability and his understanding of the game, he never fully embraced the physicality of the sport. That was made clear during one practice when Floyd caught a ball on a post route only to see Yates middle linebacker Oscar Smallwood, who would play at Texas Tech, closing in for a big hit.

“Oscar was 6-foot-4, 240 and would hit anything that moved, he was that scary,” McGowan said. “When George caught the ball and saw him, he stopped the play and just handed Oscar the ball. It was funny because we all knew he didn’t want to get hit.”

Michael Hickey was briefly teammates with Floyd in high school. He graduated in 1991, one year before Floyd’s 1992 squad lost in the Class 5A Division II state championship game.

“They might have been younger than us, but they gave us hell in practice,” Hickey said. “They had guys who played big-time college football, one of the guys went to play in the NFL [running back Jerald Moore played for the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints]. That was a special group. George didn’t play college football, he was one of those special guys.”

Floyd accepted a basketball scholarship at South Florida Community College (now South Florida State College) to play for George Walker, who grew up near Houston and was an assistant coach with the Cougars during the Phi Slama Jama era of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Walker was in need of a power forward.

George Floyd (left) with his South Florida Community College teammates and coach, George Walker (Bottom Right).

George Walker

“He was very athletic and had some ball skills big guys don’t have, so I offered him a scholarship,” Walker said. “Those were the attributes I was looking for in a post guy.”

Floyd broke his foot early in his freshman year, but he came back and had a strong sophomore season. While the school didn’t track stats back then, Walker recalls Floyd averaging 14 points and eight rebounds that season.

“Just a solid player for us,” Walker said. “I could not have asked for more.”

Floyd’s friends are thankful to recall memories of Floyd, to honor their former teammate. But they are hurting.

“Every time you find yourself trying to calm yourself down, you turn on the news or you go to social media and you see the video of him dying being played again and again,” Barlow said. “When this happens, we’re always hopeful for change. But if we still have these people who have hate in their heart as police, and people who appear racist as police, what makes people think anything is going to change?

“Just look at the man’s history,” Barlow said of Derek Chauvin, the officer charged with third-degree murder, who had 15 conduct complaints against him from civilians before he was fired last week. “A background check that reveals that would keep me from getting a job at Chick-fil-A, but he does that over and over and stays a police officer? I just don’t understand.”

Neither does McGowan.

“If those officers were afraid of anything, it must have been his size, but George was a gentle giant,” McGowan said. “His death is personal. This is doing something to our family.”

Hickey, who is the current head football coach at Yates, can attest to that bond. Even though they played together only one season, Floyd reached out last year to congratulate Hickey when he was named the head coach at Yates.

“The George Floyd I remember is the guy who was always smiling, always inspiring, always telling you, ‘I love you, brother,’ or, ‘God bless you, brother,’ ” Hickey said. “A pleasure to be around.”

Barlow, meanwhile, remembers the times during his 13-year career as a professional basketball player when he would often use social media to document his travels around the world, including Hungary, Germany and Romania. With each post, Barlow knew there would be one person back home in Houston who would constantly respond with love and support.

George Floyd.

“When I’d come home, I’d see him and he’d say, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ ” Barlow said. “He seemed happier for me than I was. He would tell me, ‘You did this for us,’ and that really made me feel so special because what I was able to accomplish was largely because of him.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.