OU’s Walter Rouse and his bond with the historic grandfather he never met

OU’s Walter Rouse and his bond with the historic grandfather he never met

When Walter Rouse steps onto the field at Cincinnati on Saturday, he’ll carry with him the spirit of a man he never met but has always known, the grandfather who 60 years ago left his mark on one of the most important games and seasons in college basketball history.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Sep 22, 2023, 10:19am CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Sep 22, 2023, 10:19am CDT

NORMAN — Before football took him to Stanford and turned him into one of Oklahoma’s biggest transfer additions, Walter Rouse started with a PowerPoint.

That’s how Rouse, the 6-foot-6, 323-pound polymath from Maryland, convinced his parents to let him join the high school football team. 

Hillary Lucas and Victor Rouse were reluctant about putting their son in pads. He sold them with presentation slides outlining the discipline the sport offered and the brotherhood he’d find on the field. Rouse’s parents relented and Sidwell Friends School had a new offensive tackle.

It was the first step toward a college career now in its fifth season and the first deviation from an original aspiration, a hoop dream born on March 23, 1963 in Louisville, Kentucky.

“For the longest time I thought I was going to be a basketball player,” said Rouse, OU’s left tackle. “I thought I was going to go to college for basketball. I thought I was going to go to the NBA.”

That’s because Walter Victor Rouse, his grandfather, was a starting power forward and a gifted rebounder at Loyola (Chicago) from 1961-64. 

Vic Rouse sealed his place in basketball lore inside Louisville’s Freedom Hall in the final game of his junior season. He was in the right place to tip-in the winning basket of the 1963 NCAA Championship against top-ranked Cincinnati. The put-back downed the two-time defending champion Bearcats and clinched Loyola’s first and only national title.

On Saturday, the younger Rouse will meet Cincinnati himself, part of the unit tasked with blocking a physical Bearcats defensive line in the Sooners’ Big 12 opener (11 a.m. CT, FOX).

Onto the field at Nippert Stadium, he’ll carry with him the spirit of a man he never met but has always known, the grandfather who left his mark on one of the most important games and seasons in college basketball history 60 years ago.

“Once my dad told me about the shot I never forgot it,” Rouse said. “It stuck with me forever.”

An inheritance far beyond that historic moment

The play Loyola coach George Ireland drew up was for All-American Jerry Harkness. Like Vic Rouse and the rest of the Ramblers’ starters, he had played every minute of regulation and overtime in the 1963 title game.

The ball found Harkness as time ran down with the score 58-58. He rose to shoot, then audibled mid-air, passing to Les Hunter on the edge of the paint. Hunter’s elbow jumper came up short, but Vic Rouse was there for the put-back. He was mobbed at center court seconds later.

“Off the rim,” shouted the television announcer. “Rouse gets the score! It’s over. It’s over. We won. We won. We won. We won the ballgame.” 

His grandson keeps a recording of the broadcast on his cell phone six decades later.

“‘It’s good! Walter Rouse,’” the Sooners’ tackle exclaimed in an amateur reenactment after a recent practice in Norman. “That’s my name! I’m named after him. That’s crazy.”

The title-clinching shot was part of the rich picture family members painted for Rouse, who arrived several years after Vic Rouse died from heart disease in 1999. 

But that historic moment isn’t the only inheritance. 

Loyola (Chicago) guard Vic Rouse (40), the late grandfather of Oklahoma Sooners tackle Walter Rouse, drives on a Cincinnati Bearcats defender during Loyola’s historic 60-58 victory on March 23, 1963 in the NCAA basketball championship game in Louisville, Kentucky. (Malcolm Emmons- USA TODAY Sports)

Vic Rouse was born the son of a preacher in East St. Louis in 1943 and raised in segregated Nashville, Tennessee. Basketball took him to Chicago in the early 1960s alongside Hunter, a teammate at Nashville’s Pearl High School. 

Vic Rouse was selected by the Cincinnati Royals with the 60th overall pick in the 1964 NBA Draft and never played in the association. After basketball, he channeled his upbringing and an entrepreneurial ambition into the central passion of his final 34 years on earth.

“My father’s whole thing was education,” said Deborah Rouse, Vic’s daughter and Walter’s aunt. 

Vic Rouse committed himself to continual learning. He followed his bachelor’s degree with three master’s. He worked as an urban planner and launched his own educational consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He spent late nights reading in his study. He got a doctorate in 1998 a year before he passed away.

Vic Rouse’s values have trickled down. Deborah graduated from Howard University and works as a technical editor at the D.C.-based Institute of Transportation Engineers. Walter’s father Victor, who died of a heart attack in 2019, had a master’s from American University.

Deborah remembers meals with her brother and nephew at a Qdoba in Silver Springs, Maryland. They’d lay Walter’s homework out on the table while they ate and pored over the sheets of paper together until everything was right. 

“School was always a critical part of whatever we were doing,” Deborah said. 

It remains that way. Rouse intends to return to Stanford to complete his degree in biomechanical engineering. And the kid who once savored summer trips to science camps at Harvard and SMU says he might someday go to medical school to become a heart surgeon. 

OU’s offensive tackle operates with an inherited academic voracity, passed down just like the family message that came from his grandfather and still rings in Rouse’s head.

“If nothing else, you get your degree,” he heard often growing up. “No one can take that away from you.”

The legacy of the ‘Game of Change’

Vic Rouse, right, the late grandfather of OU left tackle Walter Rouse, is shown here in a 1973 file photo with teammate Les Hunter, left, at an alumni game for Pearl High School in Nashville, Tennessee. Vic Rouse and Hunter were also teammates on Loyola-Chicago’s 1963 NCAA basketball championship team. (J.T. Phillips / The Tennessean / USA TODAY Network)

Vic Rouse’s legacy extends beyond the family tree, reaching places as far as the Oval Office and the basketball facility inside Lloyd Noble Center.

Before he was OU men’s basketball coach, Porter Moser took the top job at Loyola in 2011. A native of Naperville, Illinois, he knew some about the Ramblers’ 1963 championship when he arrived, much less about the “Game of Change” that took place eight days before the title game.

More than the national championship Loyola brought home that spring, the Ramblers Vic Rouse lifted are remembered in Chicago as a symbol in the civil right movement of the 1960s.

At the time, college basketball teams across the South remained segregated. Coaches across the sport operated under a loose agreement not to play more than two black players at the same time. Ireland, the Loyola coach, bucked that convention.

Three years before Texas Western started the first all-black lineup in 1966, the Ramblers featured four black men in the starting five with Rouse, Harkness, Hunter and Ron Miller. 

That unit powered Loyola to a 29-2 finish and endured racial prejudice on the road and at home.

There were segregated hotel stays in places like New Orleans. Deborah remembers her father’s stories of the slurs white students slung his way. Mississippi State required a state Supreme Court decision and a covert flight to East Lansing, Michigan, to face Loyola in the Round of 16.

Vic Rouse pulled down 19 rebounds in a 61-51 win over the all-white Bulldogs. A photo of Harkness and Mississippi State’s Joe Dan Gold shaking hands is the enduring image from the contest still remembered as the “Game of Change.”

The weight of the 1963 Ramblers’ accomplishments and experiences landed with Moser when he traveled to the White House with eight players from the title team to celebrate the 50th anniversary in 2013.

“President Obama being from Chicago — it was a big deal for him,” Moser said. “He was like a little kid welcoming this team into the Oval Office. But the stories those guys told of what they had to endure, what they went through even at home, that was disturbing.”

Vic Rouse’s No. 40 hangs in the rafters inside Loyola’s Gentile Arena. Moser came to understand his legacy across the decade he spent with the Ramblers, too. 

“He was an amazing man,” Moser said. “They talked about him a lot on that trip to Washington and over the years. They were just so sad that he couldn’t be there to see it all.”

For Vic Rouse, the night he tipped in the winner against Cincinnati came and went. The vitriol he experienced during his upbringing in Tennessee and through his time at Loyola never left him as he moved on from basketball, launched a successful career in business and raised a family.

“What I take away from him is that you set your mind to it and you can accomplish anything,” Rouse said of his grandfather. “You don’t let anyone stop you.”

Deborah sees the similarities between her father and the nephew who now starts on the left side at OU. She’s struck by how different the world Rouse experiences in today is from the one her father lived through at the same age.

She remembers an afternoon this summer at a seafood restaurant in Annapolis, Maryland. Rouse, who on appearances looks like nothing other than a football player, got recognized several times during the meal. 

“People don’t focus on his color,” she said. “When they see Walt they’re focused on who he is and how he played. It took a while for that to happen for my dad. I’m grateful that Walter didn’t have to experience that.”

Sixty years and a world apart, another Rouse squares off with Cincinnati on Saturday.

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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