By TOM SHANAHAN
The late Howard Cosell transformed sports broadcasting with an outspoken style defending 1960s black athletes, particularly with his manner of explaining their causes to audiences. He worked against the tide of the “times.”
In 1963, Cosell supported Muhammad Ali’s right to change his name. Others continued to call him by his birth name, Cassius Clay.
Cosell defended 1968 Olympic sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos for raising black-gloved fists on the medal stand; they protested racial inequality. A young Brent Musberger compared Smith and Carlos to “black-skinned storm troopers.”
But those were just two iconic episodes among a myriad of historic athletes on Cosell’s continuum. The 1960s also was the decade of Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams and players clearing a path. Cosell wrote the Forword to Daugherty’s book, “Duffy,” published two years after he retirement at the end of the 1972 season.
In December 1964, Cosell thought he had Army football coach Paul Dietzel was in his crosshairs. The ABC broadcaster sprung a question on an unsuspecting Dietzel when they both attended a New York banquet.
When does West Point plan to recruit its first black football player?
“Well, Howard, I’m glad you asked me. We’ve got a fine young man from a fine black family arriving in the fall, Gary Steele.”
At least that’s the story Steele was told years later about how he spared Dietzel from squirming under a Cosell interrogation. The scene most likely took place at the National Football Foundation’s year-end event annually staged in December in New York.
“My whole time at West Point the Army coaching staff and my teammates always treated me as just another football player,” Steele said. “I never saw my role as the only black guy. It was the coaches saying, ‘OK, you’re third team now. How are you going to move up?’
“‘OK, you’re second team now. How are you going to move up?’
“‘OK, you’re first team now. What are you going to do to hold onto it?’”
ALL-AMERICAN, NFL DRAFT PICK, ARMY HALL-OF-FAMER
As Army’s first black letterman (1966-68), Steele clenched with the grip of a bulldog. He earned second-team All-American tight end honors in 1968 with 27 catches for 496 yards and three touchdowns on a 7-3 team. He set a single-game record with eight catches for 156 yards against Penn State.
The Detroit Lions drafted him in the 17th round – his selection no doubt tempered by his military commitment. But Steele passed on the NFL opportunity, serving 23 years until he retired as a Colonel.
In 2013, he was inducted him into the Army Sports Hall of Fame for football and track and field (he was a 6-foot-9 high jumper).
In retrospect, Steele’s legacy was worthy of a follow-up interview, but his career lacked controversy to intrigue Cosell’s inquiring style. Steele said there were moments of an upperclassman harassing him under the guise of acting as a stickler for discipline, but he doesn’t cite overt racism.
“I had a squad leader that will go unnamed that did his best to razz me badly about things,” Steele said. “My solution was always to work harder. I had some company mates say, ‘Hey, that guy is all over you. Do you think it’s prejudice?’ I always said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve got to work harder.’ That was my mentality.”
Gary Steele, second from left, at his enshrinement into the Army Sports Hall of Fame. He
is with his wife, their daughter and two sons. L-R: Mona, Gary, Sage, Chad and Courtney.
The lack of racial strife, though, doesn’t diminish Steele’s place among 1960s college football integration pioneers. They collectively pushed the ball toward an end zone of broader acceptance. They created awareness that often translates from sports to society.
And Cosell’s question wasn’t unfair.
Army not having a black letterman prior to 1966 was a condemning fact, but in reality West Point wasn’t that much different from schools with a long history of integration. Until the 1970s, programs limited their rosters to six or fewer black players.
For example, in 1960 Minnesota’s national championship team was renowned for its black stars, but the Gophers had only five black players.
Two years later, USC won the national title with just five black players. The Trojans’ next national championship in 1967 had O.J. Simpson among only seven black players. In 1969, Texas was the last all-white team to win a national crown.
That was the norm until Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s 1960s Underground Railroad teams shifted the paradigm for the approaching decade. The Spartans were college football’s first fully integrated rosters generating incipient awareness throughout college football.
In 1962, the Associated Press reported the Spartans 17 black players formed “the largest delegation of Negro players in the history of major college football.”
In the 1966 Game of the Century, Michigan State’s roster presented an extreme contrast with its opponent, Notre Dame. The Spartans had 20 black players and 11 black starters; Notre Dame just one, Alan Page.
Their Nov. 19, 1966 showdown ended in a controversial 10-10 tie with Notre Dame voted national champion by the Associated Press and United Press International polls, while the NFF named Michigan State and Notre Dame national co-champions.
Michigan State’s four black College Football Hall of Famers, Bubba Smith, George Webster, Gene Washington and Clinton Jones, led the Spartans. Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C., was the South’s first black quarterback to lead his team to a national title as the Spartans’ 1966 starter.
Their 1960s examples pushed the needle collectively along with pioneers at southern schools. Steele and Page joined them, contributing individually playing under the spotlight of national programs.
Visibility is viability.
Their success put to an end claims disunity would plague a black-and-white locker room. Texas A&M head coach Gene Stallings expressed that fear as late as 1965 while reacting to news rival Southern Methodist had signed Jerry LeVias as the Southwest Conference’s first black scholarship athlete.
Stallings was a Bear Bryant protégé that played for the legendary coach at Texas A&M (1954-56) and coached under him as an Alabama assistant (1958-64) in the Southeastern Conference. They were among the last coaches to catch up with the “times.”
Five of 10 SEC members had integrated their rosters prior to Alabama in 1971. Texas A&M, Texas and Arkansas were the SWC’s last three in 1970 in the eight-team SWC.
Steele, admitting he was “a bit naïve,” says now he didn’t appreciate his role. He explains his West Point experience was similar to having grown up an Army brat. Race didn’t matter among friends living in Army housing.
(Ret.) Lt. Col. H. Minton Francis (L) with (Ret.) Master Sgt. Harold “Buck” Roberston in 2010.
His father Frank, who rose from an enlisted man to retiring as a Major, was posted at integrated U.S. military bases in New Jersey, Germany and Japan. Same with his high school days playing football, basketball and track and field at integrated Woodrow Wilson in Levittown, Pa., near Philadelphia.
His revelation wasn’t until a conversation with (Ret.) U.S. Army Lt. Col. H. Minton Francis, who was only the eighth African-American West Point graduate; he had enrolled in 1940 and was commissioned an officer with his 1944 class. At the time, the military was still segregated until President Harry S. Truman signed his 1948 executive order.
When Francis visited an Army spring football practice in the mid-1970s, Steele was a Captain serving a stint as an assistant coach. They chatted at the home of a friend.
Francis said, “Gary, there were a lot of folks paying attention to you hoping you’d make it.”
That hit Steele hard like a running a pass pattern over the middle with a headhunting safety awaiting him.
“This had been totally lost on me at West Point,” Steele said. “I was just trying to stay proficient as a Cadet and a Division I football player.
“As I was preparing to depart West Point in the spring of 1977 for my next military assignment, I looked around at the team assemblage in the auditorium. There were about 25 black faces in the room. Just nine years ago there was only one. I did indeed feel I had been a part of something bigger than Gary.”
Now fast forward a half-century later: Army’s 2019 roster numbered 78 black athletes among 171 (NCAA roster restrictions don’t apply to academy football). Army’s last three bowl seasons, highlighted by wins over Navy, were led by black quarterbacks, Ahmad Bradshaw (2016 and 2017) and Kelvin Hopkins (2018).
His impact ultimately reached the West Point with its first African-American Superintendent. Lt. General Darryl A. Williams played football as a 1983 West Point graduate.
GOING TO SEE THE JUDGE, ALAN PAGE
But back to that 1966 season when Steele crossed paths with Page at Notre Dame Stadium. Page wasn’t Notre Dame’s first African-American athlete, but in 1966 he was a singular black football player on the Irish roster. The College and Pro Football Hall of Famer went on to become the first of only two defensive players that have been named NFL MVP (1971; the other was Lawrence Taylor). He turned to law after his playing days and was a Minnesota State Supreme Court Justice (1992 until retirement in 2010).
Army was the Notre Dame’s third victim with the Irish won en route to their 9-0-1 record.
Alan Page (81) as Notre Dame’s only black player in 1966 at USC in Los Angeles.
“I remember lining up against Alan Page,” said Steele, who was a sophomore and Page a senior. “Oh, he was good.”
Page didn’t say it to Steele after the game, but he seemed to communicate a pioneering kinship.
“He came up and put his arm around my shoulders,” Steele said. “It was like one of those TV commercials of a dad and his kid. He said, ‘You played a good game. Keep up the good work.’ ”
Steele’s first and only taste of racial football threats came two weeks later when Army traveled to the segregated South to play Tennessee of the Southeastern Conference.
On Monday of game week, senior team captain Townsend Clarke told Steele he wanted to talk after practice. A jolt shot through the kid that was only halfway through his first varsity season as if the school principal had called him to the office over the public address system.
“Towney said, ‘You know, we’re playing at Tennessee this week.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.’ It had not registered with me what it meant to play in the South.”
Clarke continued, using Steele’s nickname.
“Gummy, look, this is your first game in the South. It’s different down there. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but as team captain I want you to know we’ve got your back. We are one with you and you are one with us.”
Fifty-four years later, Steele recounts the story with respect still dripping from his voice: “That’s leadership.”
Clarke was wise to caution his young teammate. An integrated team traveling to Tennessee had a precedent for trouble.
Just one year earlier Houston, with Warren McVea as its first African-American player, traveled for midseason game at Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. McVea endured an endless onslaught of racial taunts and slurs from the fans.
“We get to Tennessee and I’m nervous,” Steele said. “There was a pass play on the side of the field where the concrete wall and fans were close to the field. The defender and I went up for the ball and we rolled into the wall. I got up and looked up in the stands, but nothing was said. There were no issues the whole game.”
Maybe the lack of ugliness had to do with the game played at a neutral site, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, although Memphis was still the segregated South. Or maybe it was another sign times were changing.
Tennessee actually turned out to be progressing ahead of some schools. In 1968, the Volunteers’ Lester McClain made history as Tennessee’s first black player. As he ran onto the field for his first play in the season opener at Neyland, applause rose from the Tennessee crowd.
In the 1967 season, Steele crossed paths with Southern Methodist’s Jerry LeVias, the Southwest Conference’s first black scholarship player. Army beat the Mustangs at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
It was yet another step taken by 1960s pioneering clearing a path, even though they weren’t appreciated at the time or much since then by history. However, current events in America have sparked an awakening of racial awareness. It can be viewed as another reason to look back and recognize the pioneers.
Although Steele made history playing at Army, his journey wasn’t lonesome. Among the dozen or so minority Cadets at West Point was his younger brother Michael, a West Point grad recruited as a track and field athlete.
He also points out during his sophomore season African-American Bobby Whaley was a “B-squad” player as a senior on his way to graduating with the Class of 1967. Whaley practiced but never played to earn a letter. Steele’s impact ushered in Army football’s era of recruiting black players.
Once Steele returned to campus as an assistant coach, he was involved in recruiting. He offered the same message to black and white prospects, but Herman Bulls, a black quarterback out of Florence, Ala., heard it speaking to him when he committed with the 1974 recruiting class.
“I do not recall him saying anything specific about his or my race,” Bulls said. “His message was that I could get a great education, build upon my leadership skills and have opportunity to continue playing football. He emphasized while playing would be a privilege, it would not be a requirement to keeping my scholarship and getting a great education.”
That, of course, is a major separation with civilian college football programs.
An injury contributed to Bulls leaving the football program after his sophomore year to focus on preparing for his military career upon graduation. He retired a Colonel and then entered corporate world with JLL, a Fortune 500 world restate company. He serves as vice-chairman, Americas. He has been frequently honored as one of the top African-American businessmen in the nation.
“It meant a lot to me as a 17-year-old in high school to see a Black man, who completed the West Point journey and could be a role model,” Bulls said. “We need role models for our younger generations, like Gary, in every aspect of society … including government, education and corporate America.”
In Bulls’ 1978 West Point graduating class, he was among 52 African-American newly commissioned officers.
Steele followed his military career working as the Associate Superintendent of Human Resources for Kansas City Missouri Public Schools and later with Pfizer, a leading pharmaceutical company.
Gary and his wife Mona celebrate their 49th anniversary in October. Their daughter Sage Steele is an ESPN mainstay anchor/reporter; their son Chad Steele is the Baltimore Ravens’ senior vice-president of communications; and their youngest, son Courtney Steele, is an events project manager in Los Angeles.
The next generation’s success, which has been repeated among other 1960s college football integration pioneers, is another chapter to the family tree. Steele’s life fits an episode of “The West Point Story,” the 1950s CBS TV series. He and his brother watched the show with panoramic scenes of the campus featured in the opening.
WEST POINT’S BUFFALO SOLDIERS
A Gary Steele episode would include his father and godfather, Harold “Buck” Robertson, enlisting in 1941 in the segregated U.S. Army. They were assigned as Buffalo Soldiers with the 10th Cavalry stationed at West Point, training and maintaining horses that Corps of Cadets trained on. For two kids that grew up in Harlem, this was culture shock.
“They liked to say the only horses they were familiar with pulled vegetable carts,” Gary said.
But they quickly picked up the traditions of the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black regiments formed in 1866 following the Civil War.
L-R: Michael Steele, Harold “Buck”Robertson, Herman Bulls and Gary Steele in 2010.
In addition to their routine responsibilities, they were charged with upkeep of West Point fences. That allowed for long rides as if they were cowboys on the romantic Western frontier, riding the length and width of the 16,000-acre installation.
Both made the military their careers; his father retired as a Major and Robertson as a Master Sgt. How could they have imagined returning to West Point to watch their son/godson make history?
But that’s how life played out as Gary made his varsity debut his sophomore year (NCAA rules prohibited freshmen eligibility until 1972). Army hosted Kansas State on Sept. 17, 1966 at Michie Stadium. Gary soon caught a pass.
“They didn’t jump and cheer,” Steele said. “They knocked knees. To them, history had been made.”
But life wasn’t done coming full circle.
Another chapter played out in 2010 at the Inaugural Black Service Academy Graduates Super Reunion in Washington, D.C. The event highlighted the oldest living African-American graduate of the five academies, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.
West Point’s honoree was Steele’s old friend, Lt. Col. Francis (he lived until age 91 in 2014). Gary and Michael made plans to attend. Their father had died in 2003, but they brought with them Robertson. “Buck” proudly wore his traditional cavalry hat with a yellow bandana around his neck.
“I felt it was important these two men meet,” Steele said.
Unbeknownst to Buck, Gary had forwarded his bio to the convention, allowing for the Master of Ceremonies to provide a surprise.
“They said, ‘Is Master Sergeant Harold Robertson here?’ ” Steele said. “I elbowed Buck and said, ‘Buck, they’re talking about you.’ And who ended up in the center of the photo with the Francis and the others? The Buffalo Soldier.”
Steele began to choke up as he relived the moment.
Howard Cosell missed out on revisiting Steele’s story. But CBS has a ready made episode spanning generations if it were to remake “The West Point Story.”
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