On the surface Houston Antwine appeared bigger than life. At the core, the 6-foot, 270-pound native of Louise, Mississippi was simply the greatest two-way lineman in Saluki history.
“In my honest opinion, using every piece of information that I have and trying to be objective and respectful of those who played before and after us, Houston Antwine was the best lineman every to play football at Southern Illinois University,” former teammate Sam Silas said. “It’s hard to believe that anyone was better.”
Antwine, or “Twine” as he was nicknamed, was virtually impossible to move out of the middle of the line from his defensive tackle position. Coupled with his presence in the offensive line and Antwine was double trouble for SIU opponents.
“He had a terrific offensive game and a terrific defensive game,” Silas said. “He was the best I ever saw.”
SIU running back Carver Shannon was instrumental in getting Antwine to Carbondale.
“My first years at Southern Illinois most of the linemen were my size,” said the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Shannon. “I told (SIU athletic director Donald) Doc (Boydston) we needed to recruit some big linemen.
Shannon suggested recruiting the Memphis, Tennessee area.
“I was from Mississippi,” he said, “I didn’t know Willie Brown or Houston Antwine personally, but I knew that there was good competition among those Memphis high schools.”
Both Brown and Antwine soon found their way to the Salukis.
“Twine had quickness for his size,” Shannon said. “He really blossomed."
Of course, Shannon also benefited from Antwine’s presence in the line.
“Twine and I worked out a little system,” Shannon said. “He would swipe his hand on his butt for which direction I should go. If he swiped left, I went left. If he swiped right, I went right. That worked out pretty well for us. We had great success.”
During his time in Carbondale, Antwine became the most celebrated lineman ever to don a Saluki jersey. He was the dominating defensive force who led SIU to a pair of second-place conference finishes as a sophomore and junior. As a senior, Antwine anchored the Salukis’ run to the 1960 Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title.
On October 22, playing in front of a record Homecoming crowd of 12,000, Antwine blocked an Illinois State punt that Silas returned to the Redbirds’ 10-yard line. Moments later, SIU scored to take a 14-0 lead en route to a 30-6 triumph.
A week later, the Salukis routed Eastern Michigan 66-8 at McAndrews Stadium. The victory allowed SIU to clinch a tie for the conference title for the first time in 30 years. The Salukis jumped out to quick 14-0 lead and never looked back. Jim Thompson returned the opening kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown. Running back Amos Bullocks, who set a then-SIU record with 996 yards in a single season, scored twice in the game. His first touchdown came on a 21-yard run, keyed by an Antwine block.
Jack Dean played in the backfield for Northern Illinois University during the early ‘60s. Dean, who later coached at Eastern Illinois University, remembered playing against SIU and Antwine.
“We took the Illinois Central Railroad from Geneva to Carbondale on Friday. We played the Salukis the next night. I was a freshman and this was my first road trip,” Dean said. “They had a large crowd that night, and we won the toss to receive. I lined up on about the goal line to receive the kick off. I was a 17-year-old frosh at about 145 pounds. The SIU cheerleaders were all in the end zone behind me, each one had a big barking dog. Salukis. I had these dogs barking at my heels and looked down the field and bench and the likes of Houston and that big Maroon mob.
“I think we played Wheaton College the week prior for our home opener and this was a different breed of cat. I think I had a pretty good return, running from the dogs, but was welcomed to Carbondale by a smashing tackle of several of them who drove me out of bounds and into the cinder track that circled the field. I made it through the game, which I am sure Southern won, with just cinder burns from the first play.”
Antwine lettered four times in his collegiate career. Moreover, SIU won 25 of 35 games during his tenure. Antwine earned IIAC First Team honors in 1957, 1958 and 1960. He was an Associated Press Second Team All-American in 1960 and was named MVP after the Salukis’ championship run.
As a college wrestler, Antwine captured the 1960 NAIA heavyweight national title and finishing as the runner-up a year earlier.
Prior to leaving college, Antwine played in the 1961 College All-Star Game against the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles. Though he suffered an injury during the game, Antwine’s pro prospects were hardly damaged.
With the National Football League and American Football League in full operation, Antwine was a hot commodity. The Detroit Lions made selected him in the NFL Draft’s third round as the 38th overall pick. Meanwhile, the Houston Oilers of the AFL chose Antwine in the eighth round as the 64th overall selection.
Antwine opted to sign with the AFL. However, he was traded to the Boston Patriots, then coached by former Western Illinois head coach Lou Saban.
Antwine excelled in the AFL, earning All-Star status six straight seasons (1963-1968). Moreover, he was named to the All-Time All-AFL Team and to the Patriots All-1960s Team.
Antwine was recognized as one of the premier AFL pass rushers. He generally drew double-team blocking. In 142 games with the Patriots, Antwine registered 39 sacks, recovered four fumbles and intercepted a pass. He led the team in sacks three consecutive years (1967-1969).
“In my era, I did not run across any professional who played defensive tackle who was any better than he was,” said Silas, who played 1963-1970 in the NFL. “Some rushed the passer better but were not as strong against the run as Twine was. He was the best all-around. Twine was a total player.”
Silas, a Pro Bowler at defensive tackle in 1965, elaborated.
“The Patriots, in a crunch, could have taken him off the offensive line and put him on defense. And you would not find five linemen in our era who could have done that,” Silas said.
Silas also credited Antwine with his own success in pro ball.
“He came back to campus after his first year with the Patriots,” Silas said. “None of the (SIU) coaches knew enough about pro football, or even seemed interested in helping me with my aspirations. I went to Twine and asked him what I needed to know and do to make it. He was willing to show me and was patient enough to do so.”
Civil rights activist
According to Jeff Miller in his book Going Long: The Wild 10-Year Saga of the Renegade American Football League in the Words of Those Who Lived It, Antwine was key player in a time of civil rights and segregation.
“When I first came to Houston in 1961, we didn’t stay in different accommodations, but we stayed at some motel outside of town because they couldn’t find anywhere where we all could stay together,” Antwine told Miller. “I was impressed with the fact that they didn’t want to split the team up. The years after that when we went in to play, it seemed as though they had corrected that situation.
“We were going to New Orleans in 1962 to spend a week there and play an exhibition game. The team didn’t let the ballplayers know what the situation was in New Orleans until we left Buffalo: ‘Look we can’t stay as one team in the hotel.’ They put the black ballplayers in some hotel way across town.”
Antwine was front and center in a controversy over the AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans.
“I was staying at the Fontainebleau Hotel with the Eastern squad,” Antwine told Miller. “Cookie Gilchrist and some of the other guys came in and wanted to go over and visit with the guys on the Western team. We couldn’t get cabs to go over to the Roosevelt. The cabdrivers said, ‘We can’t haul you guys. We’re going to call you some colored cabs.’ And Cookie raised a whole bunch of noise. We eventually got over to the Roosevelt, and it seemed like the black ballplayers there were having the same problems. During the course of the evening, the problem persisted. Late in the evening, everybody was comparing notes: ‘You couldn’t do this, and you couldn’t do that, and you were insulted here.’”
“They were promising us cars. They were promising us everything, if we just stayed there and played. But if we did that, we would be accepting the conditions. Everybody made plans to leave,” Antwine told Miller.
League officials and New Orleans businessmen quickly scrambled to head off the player boycott. However, Antwine and his fellow African-American All-Stars didn’t budge.
And leave they did. Meanwhile, the AFL threw together a hastily planned alternative. The “new” All-Star Game took place at Jeppensen Stadium in Houston, won by the West 38-14.
In his book, Miller noted that “There are no plaques, no citations that note the action taken in Room 990 of the Roosevelt Hotel that led to the All-Star Game leaving New Orleans. So the following notation will have to do. Twenty-two black players made the collective decision; some have said since that the decision was unanimous while others have indicated there was at least some dissent and disagreement.
“It didn’t get the publicity that I think it should have,” Antwine told Miller. “We didn’t feel it was properly addressed. Back in Boston, there was one little blip in the paper showing me with my bag leaving the hotel. That was basically it. The hostility and the treatment that we received in New Orleans was never, never really publicized. I’ve talked to Cookie and he was really ticked off about it. Right now, if you ask somebody, ‘Do you remember the AFL All-Star Game that was supposed to be played in New Orleans?’ nobody remembers what happened.”
When the AFL and NFL merged for the 1970 season, Antwine remained with the Patriots through the 1971 season.
In the New England media guide Antwine was noted for “a habit of destroying training camp tackling dummies.”
He finished his pro career with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1972.
“Twine had back trouble from his playing days,” Silas said. “He had pain that ran down the back of his legs.”
'I think of him so fondly'
According to Silas, Antwine returned to Boston and became a successful insurance agent.
“At some point he moved to Davis, California,” Silas said.
“That’s true,” Shannon said. “Twine lived in the (San Francisco) Bay area. He was retired. Since I lived in Los Angeles, we reconnected. Then he and his wife moved back to Memphis.”
Antwine died on December 26, 2011, of heart failure at age 72. His death was followed by that of his wife Evelyn, who passed away from lung cancer less than a day later.
''For those of us who grew up watching the Boston Patriots, this is a really sad day,'' Patriots owner Robert Kraft said afterward. ''In the 1960s, the defensive tackle tandem of 'Twine' and Jim Lee Hunt were as good as any in the league and helped propel the Patriots to the franchise's first division championship in 1963.
''I loved hearing Houston's stories about those early days in Boston. It was such a thrill for me, personally, to spend time with the players from that era.
''I am saddened to learn of the deaths of both Houston and Evelyn and want to express my deepest sympathies to the Antwine's daughter, Regina, and all who mourn her losses. Let us all cherish life and remind loved ones how we feel about them daily.''
For Silas and Shannon, the news of Antwine’s death came as a surprise.
“I think of him so fondly,” Silas said. “First of all, he was very helpful to me. He had such a fantastic personality. Houston was a better football player than me. I recognize that. But, he was also my friend and such a wonderful human being.”
Shannon said, “Everybody was shocked. I read it in the newspaper. I talked to seven or eight former teammates. None of us got word about it. I imagine that Twine’s family had their hands full with two deaths so close together.
“Twine had a great personality. He had a very soft side, which people didn’t expect. He loved to laugh. Believe me, Twine will be missed by those who knew him best.”