I cringed as the scores came in over the weekend. Ohio State 76, Florida A&M 0. Florida State 54, Bethune-Cookman 6. Miami 77, Savannah State 7. Our HBCUs have traded their proud, rich football heritage for money. And I don’t think it’s worth it.
There’s only one reason our HBCUs schedule games against schools whose head coaches make more than their entire athletic budgets: they earn a big payday, even if that means being publicly humiliated along the way.
The irony is that the SEC wouldn’t continue to have a lock on national football championships were it not for their Black players. And it wasn’t all that long ago that Blacks were as unwelcomed in the SEC as they were at KKK rallies. But when Sam Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries in 1970 when the University of Southern California routed Alabama 42-21 in Birmingham, the conference got the message that they couldn’t win without Black talent.
Until then, if Black athletes wanted to play in the South, they had to attend HBCUs. It was never a question of talent. More than 1,200 players from Black colleges have played in the NFL, including 150 who have made it to the Super Bowl. NFL stars from HBCUs include: Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley), Michael Strayhan (Texas Southern), Walter Payton (Jackson State), Art Snell (University of Maryland Eastern Shore), Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Richard Dent (Tennessee State), Bob Hayes and Willie Galimore (Florida A&M), Donald Driver and Steve McNair (Alcorn State), Deacon Jones and Harry Carson (South Carolina State), John Stallworth (Alabama A&M), Mel Blount (Southern), Larry Little (Bethune-Cookman), Rayfield Wright (Fort Valley State), and L.C. Greenwood (University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff).
Grambling’s Paul “Tank” Younger went to the L.A. Rams and became the first HBCU player to make it in the NFL. Grambling has four players in the NFL Hall of Fame: Willie Davis, Junious “Buck” Buchanan, Willie Brown and Charlie Joiner. Eddie Robinson coached Jim Harris, the first Black quarterback to start in the NFL and be named MVP of the Pro Bowl, and Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to start in, win and become MVP of a Super Bowl.
Football has always been a part of my life. I played quarterback at Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was quarterback and co-captain of my football team at Knoxville College in Tenn., landed my first job in journalism at Sports Illustrated and wrote my first book about Jake Gaither, the legendary football coach at Florida A&M who won 85 percent of his games over 25 years and never had a losing season.
I still love the game and have deep respect for Gaither, Robinson and John Merritt at Tennessee State, the giants of a bygone era.
To fully appreciate the depth of athletic talent at Black colleges in those days, imagine all of the Black football players at the University of Florida, Florida State and the University of Miami on the same team. That’s exactly what Florida A&M had in the segregation era. When Bob Hayes, FAMU’s double-gold medal winner at the 1964 U.S. Olympics and future Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, joined the team, the only time he got off the bench was when they played the national anthem.
Gaither said that because of segregation, the only way he was able to prove the quality of his players was when they turned pro. That was true until Nov. 29, 1969 when Florida A&M played Tampa University in the first game in the Deep South between a Black college and a predominantly White university. FAMU, the underdog, won 34-28.
Unfortunately, most of our Black youth don’t know about the glory days of Black college football. I tried to help fill the gap in 1977 when I wrote, Jake Gaither: America’s Most Famous Black Coach. Recently, Vern Smith, a screenwriter and former Atlanta bureau chief for Newsweek, wrote a screenplay based on my book. We’re in the process of shopping the script, hoping to present the real story about Black college football.
The best known movie about Black college football is “White Tiger,” a made-for-TV movie starring Bruce Jenner as the first White quarterback at previously all-Black Grambling College, now Grambling State University. In the movie, Harry Belafonte plays the role of Coach Eddie Robinson. The fact that a White actor was the star in a movie about Black college football is proof that Hollywood was never serious about telling our story.
According to the Census Bureau, 53 percent of the Black population is under the age of 35. That means that more than half of African Americans were born after 1978. They don’t know anything about Jake Gaither, Eddie Robinson or John Merritt. All they see are the lopsided scores on Saturdays. Vern Smith and I hope to get our movie made if for no other reason than to let them know that it wasn’t always this way.