By TOM SHANAHAN
A uniquely American sport celebrates its sesquicentennial in the 2019 season. After Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4 on Nov. 6, 1869, college football grew the next 150 years coast to coast and beyond — halfway across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii.
The game learned to adapt to the times, albeit sometimes slowly, but no transformation has been more profound than the racial barriers Michigan State Coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams of the 1960s broke down. He also was a pioneer recruiting Polynesian athletes with his Hawaiian Pipeline.
This season also marks 60th anniversary of the first passenger boarding the Underground Railroad for East Lansing and the 65th since first player taking the Hawaiian Pipeline to Midwest of the Mainland.
It’s an overdue time to honor Daugherty and his stand against racism – through the lens of college football – with his proper place in history. And for those unaware of Daugherty’s role or mistakenly consider it a footnote, here’s what Daugherty has meant to African-Americans given a chance to overcome racism.
In 1959, Clifton Roaf departed segregated Pine Bluff, Ark., riding a train that had segregated cars headed north to the Big Ten Conference campus until reaching Cairo, Ill. His dream was to play football and graduate from a major university, basic rights that Jim Crow laws had denied him and others throughout the South.
Five years earlier, William Kaae left Honolulu for Michigan State. Freshmen were ineligible in 1954, but he was played as a sophomore on the 1955 team that beat UCLA in the 1956 Rose Bowl.
The Underground Railroad passengers of the 1960s helped dispel myths about Black athletes and sadly mistaken perceptions of immutable characteristics. Among them that more than a half-dozen or so disrupted a locker room. They were also said to be unable to lead white teammates. Daugherty’s teams were led by Black team captains, Black quarterbacks and Black linebackers.
For the first 90-plus years, college football was mostly a white game. That was true throughout the nation — not just the segregated South — until Daugherty’s teams pushed doors open wider at schools with a long history of integration and knocked down barriers in the backwards South.
Consider these numbers that illustrate Daugherty’s unmatched depth based on roster numbers impacting the integration of college football:
— In 1960, national champion Minnesota’s roster had only five black players, a typical number for integrated schools in the East, Midwest and West.
— In 1966, the National Football Foundation named Michigan State and Notre Dame national co-champions following their 10-10 tie in the Game of the Century. Notre Dame fielded one black player, Alan Page. The Spartans lined up unheard of numbers, 20 black players with 11 black starters.
— In 1967, USC’s national championship team had only seven black players, but the Trojans’ next national championship season in 1972, the roster numbered 23.
Daugherty’s Underground Railroad – powered by the Game of the Century as the first mega-TV event that predated the NFL’s first Super Bowl — showed the way to USC and the nation. A special zoom lens was flown in from England for close-ups. The 22.5 Nielsen rating set a record and remains higher than any championship game from the Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff eras.
By contrast, there was no TV for the 1970 USC-Alabama game played on a Saturday night, although myths and revisionist history have tried to elevate the significance of Alabama coach Bear Bryant inviting USC, with only five black starters that season, to play at Birmingham’s Legion Field.
The story of Bryant parading Sam Cunningham, USC’s black sophomore fullback, before his team as an example of what a football player looked like was later debunked, first by Alabama’s athletes. Eventually Cunningham admitted the narrative wasn’t true, but once a myth takes wings it is tough to shoot it down — even with facts.
College football is often called the front porch to a university, and the view of Michigan State’s integrated rosters was widespread, particularly through the 1954 and 1956 Rose Bowl victories. The Rose Bowl was college football’s penultimate game at a time when there were few national broadcasts.
In 1954, black stars Leroy Bolden and Ellis Duckett, both from Flint (Mich.) Northern, scored touchdowns. In 1956, Clarence Peaks of Flint Central ran for a TD and threw an option pass touchdown to John “Thunder” Lewis of Fremont (Ohio) Ross. Peaks and Lewis were both black.
In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower formed the the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and appointed Michigan State president John Hannah its first chairman.
“Michigan State has a long history of African-American achievement in sports and other endeavors,” said Ernest Green, a Little Rock Nine graduate that attended Michigan State on an anonymous scholarship. Green didn’t learn Hannah was his benefactor until four years after Hannah’s death, in 1991.
These milestones were widely noticed by black high school players and coaches through the South. An egregious misconception has been that Duffy built the Underground Railroad with a handful of black stars merely to win football games.
Actually, black high school coaches laid the first tracks. Roaf and those that followed him recognized Daugherty as a colorblind American. They reached out to Daugherty, viewing him as a coach they could trust and Michigan State as a safe place.
When a Michigan State professor Robert Hatch was hired by International Paper Company to evaluate Pine Bluff’s black and white schools, Roaf’s high school principal and football coach asked Hatch for help contacting Daugherty.
More tracks were laid once Daugherty defied Jim Crow laws at an Atlanta clinic. When he learned black high school coaches were denied entrance, he staged a clinic for them. He continued the practice over the years in the South as well as inviting them to Michigan State’s campus.
Daugherty’s reputation separated him from other schools such Minnesota and USC. Minnesota’s 1960 national title team included Carl Eller from Winston-Salem, N.C., and Bobby Bell from Shelby, N.C., along with quarterback Sandy Stephens of Uniontown, Pa. But those players were isolated tips compared to Daugherty’s vast network.
A steady flow developed that led to the Underground Railroad’s most famous passengers on the 1965 and 1966 national championship teams. They included College Football Hall of Famers George Webster of Anderson, S.C., Bubba Smith, Beaumont, Tx., Gene Washington, La Porte, Tx., and a northerner, Clinton Jones, Cleveland, Ohio. They were the College Hall’s first four black players enshrined from the same class and first from any school since 1940.
Smith’s father Willie Ray Smith Sr., who was a prominent Texas high school coach who had a middle school named for him in Beaumont, sent Bubba to play for Daugherty. This was after Bubba’s older brother, Willie Ray, Jr., played only one season at Iowa. He also told Daugherty about a player at a cross-town rival, Washington.
Webster and Jones were voted team captains in 1966, marking the first time two black players captained a team without a white teammate sharing the role.
Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C., was the South’s first black quarterback to win a national title. He thrived in an era when black quarterbacks otherwise weren’t trusted to play under center.
Charlie Thornhill of Roanoke, Va., was the Spartans’ middle linebacker. He was a leading tackler as opponents tried to avoid All-Americans Webster and Smith.
Thornhill’s story was an exception among recruits sent to Daugherty through black high school coaches, although Bob McClelland, a white sportswriter at the Roanoke Times and World News, called the football office for the same reputation reason. McClelland spoke to assistant coach Vince Carillot, who pushed Daugherty to offer Thornhill a scholarship upon viewing his film.
Somehow a myth developed that Bryant tipped Daugherty about Thornhill in a “trade” for Daugherty’s tip to Bryant about Joe Namath. However, Carillot and the late Thornhill’s younger brother, Nay Thornhill, say McClelland was the source.
In addition, Bryant says in his 1974 book, “Bear,” with John Underwood, that Maryland coach Tom Nugent tipped him when Namath failed his board exams at Maryland. Namath tells the same story in an HBO documentary, “Namath.” Also, Civil Rights lawyer U.W. Clemons demonstrated in a 1969 deposition that Bryant had little to no knowledge of black athletes to recruit. Clemons was the lawyer for the Alabama Afro-American student association that sued Bryant for failing to recruit black athletes.
The Underground Railroad’s first All-American pick was halfback Sherman Lewis of Louisville, Ky. He finished third in the 1963 Heisman Trophy voting.
Daugherty later hired Lewis (1969) and Raye (1972) as two of the first black assistant coaches in college football. Both went onto break ground as pioneer black assistant coaches and offensive coordinators in the NFL.
Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson said the images of Michigan State’s players on TV and in newspapers and magazines reflected the Civil Rights movement opening doors for African-Americans.
“These athlete redefined race relations in many ways,” Jackson said. “Why do we do so well in baseball, football, basketball and track? On the field the playing field is even. When the rules are objective and public, and the referees are fair, we can win. The ball field is so unique. These athletes made it to the top because fair rules lend themselves to achieving.”
Jackson, from Greenville, S.C., was a pioneer himself at another Big Ten school, Illinois. He attended on a football scholarship hoping to play quarterback for the Illini, but he later transferred to North Carolina A&T, an Historically Black College and University in Greensboro, N.C.
The opportunity he missed at Illinois made him a fan of Raye’s as Michigan State marched toward history.
“Jimmy Raye was one of my heroes,” Jackson said. “We pulled for him. There weren’t many black quarterbacks in the pipeline then. We knew that people like him had tremendous pressure on them. They had to not just play but perform better than their competitors. We knew there would be alumni pressure to play the white quarterback and Jimmy would have to sit. We knew there were two sets of rules.”
Daugherty ignored the hate mail he received when Raye was the Spartans’ backup in 1965 and heir apparent for the starting job. When a prominent booster told Daugherty they no longer would be friends if Raye started in the 1966 season, Daugherty responded he didn’t have to wait. He ended their friendship with the conversation.
By the 1967 season, Kentucky was the first school in the Southeastern Conference to recruit black football players. Alabama waited until 1971 to play two on its roster. Georgia, LSU and Mississippi were the last holdouts in 1972. Georgia had three black players and LSU and Mississippi one each.
Those were baby steps compared to Daugherty. He recruited more southern black freshmen (six) in 1972, his final class, than were on entire SEC varsity rosters that same season. The 1972 class included Tyrone Willingham of Jacksonville, N.C., who followed his playing days as a pioneer black head coach at Stanford and Notre Dame.
Beginning with Roaf, the Underground Railroad stopped for 44 players from eight southern states – all but Alabama, Tennessee and Maryland.
Although Roaf’s place in history was overshadowed by some famous Spartans, he was more typical of the Underground Railroad players than the bon vivant Bubba Smith. Only 10 of the 44 (23 percent) earned post-season honors (All-Big Ten, All-America), while 30 (68 percent) graduated.
The graduation rates demonstrate the passengers were driven by their education opportunity as much or more than football.
Daugherty was ahead of the nation in that manner, too. By the 1980s, after schools began to heavily recruit black athletes, the NCAA was alarmed by a black football player graduation rate of 34 percent, in 1984. It responded to the exploitation with stricter eligibility requirements.
Roaf’s time at Michigan State as a student-athlete was both significant and ironic.
Significant, because he used his degree to return home, practicing as a dentist in his community 40-plus years. He said he felt indebted to Michigan State for an education that allowed him to he provide for his family. His wife, Andree Layton Roaf, was a Michigan State graduate that was the first black woman on the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Ironic, thanks to living his football dreams through his son, Willie Roaf, who grew into both a College Football and Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Daugherty was also known for his Hawaiian Pipeline through personal contacts in paradise. Bob Apisa of Honolulu Farrington was college football’s first Samoan All-American pick, launching tsunami wave of Polynesian talent that continues to grow at the high school, college and professional levels.
College football Saturdays have long started in the East with afternoon tailgates, including Ivy League tweed jackets. But 150 years later the sun doesn’t set on college football’s day until the final tailgate luaus and snaps from scrimmage in Hawaii.
Daugherty’s finger prints span the mainland and reach across the water to the Islands. The Underground Railroad carried the game forward to America’s ideals of equal opportunity.
Duffy’s career record with two national titles and as a leader of the integration of college football is on par and exceeds in some ways the career of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, a 2013 recipient of the Congressional Medal of Freedom. Smith recruited the first black player in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Charlie Scott, who played from 1967 through 1970.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and biographer David Maraniss has written, “History writes people out of the story. It’s our job to write them back in.”
Now it’s time to right one of the football’s — and the nation’s— wrongs by giving Duffy Daugherty and his Underground Railroad their proper due, with a place on a historical shelf among the sport’s trophies and honors.
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Research for this story was taken from RAYE OF LIGHT, Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. The Foreword is by Tony Dungy.