Air Coryell legend Doug Wilkerson’s path to NFL was supposed to ride Duffy’s Underground Railroad

Air Coryell legend Doug Wilkerson’s path to NFL was supposed to ride Duffy’s Underground Railroad

PHOTO: Doug Wilkerson is a member of the Black College Football Hall of Fame from his career at N.C. Central, but he planned to ride Duffy Daugherty’s Michigan State Underground Railroad. That was until a schoolyard bet gone bad.

By TOM SHANAHAN

Doug Wilkerson’s death Monday at age 73 generated stories reflecting reverently on his career at three levels of football, professional, college and high school. And he deserved all the words of praise.

He was as a three-time NFL Pro Bowler for the San Diego Chargers, a granite. He was a foundation of the Air Coryell offense as a guard blocking for quarterback Dan Fouts.

Wilkerson played at North Carolina Central and was enshrined in Black College Football Hall of Famer in 2015. It followed previous Hall of Fame inductions, the Chargers Hall of Fame, the Breitbard (San Diego) Hall of Fame and the Fayetteville (N.C.) Sports Hall of Fame.

His career started in Fayetteville at storied E.E. Smith High, one of only four Black high schools in North Carolina at the time of late 1960s desegregation with facilities sufficient to remain open.

Another chapter, though, one at the middle level of his playing career that was never written, is another interesting story of perseverance and character.

Wilkerson had accepted a scholarship from Michigan State, planning to board Duffy Daugherty’s 1960s Underground Railroad that led college football integration with its first fully integrated rosters. He would have been the 45th passenger on Daugherty’s transcendent 1960s teams.

Only a schoolyard bet that went bad prevented Wilkerson arriving at Michigan State as a freshman in 1966, the year another E.E. Smith grad, Jimmy Raye, was the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title. The Spartans and Notre Dame were named national co-champions by the National Football Federation following their 10-10 tie in the Game of the Century, Nov. 19, 1966 at Spartan Stadium.

One of Wilkerson’s classmates would have been Steve Garvey, a football/baseball player that went on to 19-year Major League Baseball career. When he had to look for a new school, the fall of 1966, North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forsest

I wrote about Wilkerson’s sudden change of plans on Pages 36-38 of “Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans and the integration of college football.” Chapter 3 was on E.E. Smith’s a foundation of a segregated Black community.

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E.E. Smith lacked resources in its segregated school days, but it was never short on high standards.  The administration and teachers were taskmasters – even at the expense of a scholarship to a Big Ten school.  There is a story embedded in E.E. Smith lore about how future NFL player Doug Wilkerson lost his scholarship to Michigan State.

Wilkerson, a 1966 E.E. Smith graduate, was a sophomore on the Golden Bulls varsity when Raye was a senior. By Wilkerson’s senior year he planned to join Raye at Michigan State until his scholarship was revoked – but not by the NCAA or Spartans head coach Duffy Daugherty.  E.E. Smith principal E.E. Miller telephoned Daugherty and informed him that Wilkerson’s punishment for an incident on campus included the loss of his Michigan State scholarship.  Wilkerson instead attended North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central), an Historically Black College and University in Durham.

“That was Mr. Miller’s decision – he was the principal,” Wilkerson said.  “It would have been nice to have gone up to Michigan State and played with Jimmy, but that’s the way it came down.  I never looked back and always kept moving forward.”

The cause was an after-school incident on campus started by a student egging Wilkerson into a footrace with a wager. Wilkerson finally relented and won the race.  The antagonist refused to pay up.

“Doug took him out behind the school and dropped him on his head,” said Jimmy Harvey, who was then a junior at E.E. Smith and went on to play football and baseball at Winston-Salem State University.  “The message was clear to the rest of us:  If they could do that to Doug, the best athlete in the school, you better stay out of trouble.”

Daugherty and Wilkerson, of course, could have ignored the principal’s punishment since no NCAA rules had been broken and no legal authorities were involved.  Wilkerson said Daugherty never tried to intervene and Wilkerson never asked him to do so.

“Society has changed,” said Julian Brown, a 1971 E.E. Smith alum who works at the school as its Community Outreach Coordinator.  “At that time in the black community, principals and ministers were very respected. Mr. Miller was revered and feared.  He was letting Doug know that behavior was more important than football in the Big Ten.  Mr. Miller had an expression that all the students understood:  ‘Young man or young lady, count the telephone poles.’  That meant you were suspended; count the telephone poles on your way home from school.”

In the end, the principal’s punishment hurt Michigan State more than Wilkerson.  “Moosie,” as he was known in his NFL days, was an NFL first-round draft pick in 1970.  The 15-year veteran was a three-time Pro Bowler from his time with the San Diego Chargers, including the Air Coryell era.  In addition to the Fayetteville Hall of Fame, he has been inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame.  Meanwhile, Michigan State could have used Wilkerson to help stem the program’s decline in what were his college varsity seasons – 3-7 in 1967, 5-5 in 1968 and 4-6 in 1969.

Despite the severe punishment, Wilkerson remained true to his school and coaches.  He returned home from college and helped condition players.  Harvey said Wilkerson worked them to exhaustion.

“We hated to see Doug come around,” said Harvey, who now works on the alumni foundation.  “During the morning workouts, we’d be saying to each other, ‘Please, Mrs. Wilkerson, come get your son and take him home for lunch.  Give us a break!’ ”

Wilkerson said he merely continued a tradition of past E.E. Smith athletes.  He remembered as a high school kid when Bishop Harris came home from North Carolina Central.  Harris was later a teacher and coach at E.E. Smith before he moved on to college and the NFL.  He coached at Duke, LSU, Notre Dame and other schools before he became the head coach at his alma mater, North Carolina Central.  He started his NFL career with the Denver Broncos under Dan Reeves.

“You always try to give back to Fayetteville,” Wilkerson said.  “That’s the way it was when I was younger.”

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Fouts, upon hearing the story about how Wilkerson missed out on his chance to play at Michigan State amused Fouts in a phone interview, wasn’t surprised.

Doug Wilkerson blocking for Dan Fouts.

“The story you just told, that was Moosie,” Fouts said. “Nobody messed with Moosie.”

In college, Wilkerson was a 1969 Kodak All-American pick. As a pro, he played 14 seasons in San Diego after his rookie year with the Houston Oilers as a first-round draft pick. He was the 14th pick overall and first offensive lineman selected in the 1970 draft.

“He meant everything to the Chargers. You think about being in the pocket, and the most vulnerable spot was up the middle. Moosie, (center) Don Macek and Big Ed (White) kept them away from me. Moosie was playing against Joe Greene, Howie Long, Curley Culp –some of the all-time greats right there in the middle.”

— Dan Fouts, Pro Football Hall of Famer

The two other first-round offensive linemen taken after him didn’t have as lofty of an pro career. John Ward, 25th by Minnesota, played six NFL seasons. Sid Smith, 26th by Kansas City, played four NFL seasons. The Oilers’ scouts got it right, although the team lost Wilkerson in the trade.

Wilkerson was such a physical presence the Chargers considered him as big and strong as a Bull Moose. They shortened it affectionately to calling him “Moosie.”

“He meant everything to the Chargers,” said Fouts, a Pro Football Hall of Famer. “You think about being in the pocket, and the most vulnerable spot was up the middle. Moosie, (center) Don Macek and Big Ed (White) kept them away from me. Moosie was playing against Joe Greene, Howie Long, Curley Culp –some of the all-time greats right there in the middle. A lot of Hall of Famers there. He set the tone.”

Greene (Steelers), Long (Raiders) and Culp (Chiefs) are all Pro Football Hall of Famers. The Chargers faced the Raiders and Chiefs twice a year.

When Fouts put up a 300-yard passing game, was still a novel stat rather than routine as such performances have become in today’s NFL. The offensive line Chargers coach Don Coryell inherited four games into the 1978 season fit his scheme that came to be known as Air Coryell.

“That offensive line — Billy Shields, Moosie, Donnie, Big Ed and Big Ru (Russ Washington) — and the numbers we put up were because of the pass protection. We had the great players, the running backs and receivers, and it was a heck of an offense. It started up front.”

Fans and teammates commonly referred to Fouts as 14, Dano or Danderoo, but Wilkerson called him “Captain Kirk.”

“He was only guy that called me that, and I kind of liked it,” Fouts said. “We were the Star Trek of the NFL.”

We’ll never know what nickname the impish Duffy Daugherty might have come up with for Wilkerson, but as “Moosie” said about his path through N.C. Central leading him to a long NFL career, “It all worked out.”

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Wilkerson losing his Michigan State scholarship was a story of perseverance to carry on. His story, rather than heartbreaking considering the happy ending, also reflected on the character of the coach he planned to play for, Duffy Daugherty. The College Football Hall of Fame coach didn’t try to intervene, never told Wilkerson to ignore the principal’s decision.

Daugherty was unfairly portrayed in a 2019 ESPN series on the 150th anniversary of college football. In the “Recruiting” episode, Charles Davis, a national sports analyst, stated, “For Duffy Daugherty, it wasn’t just him trying to be Mr. Progressive and Abraham Lincoln. He was trying to win football games.”

No one is Abraham Lincoln, and all coaches want to win games, of course, but to state to Daugherty only recruited Black athletes to win games belies the makeup of the Underground Railroad. Only 10 of the 44 southern Black recruits earned All-Big Ten or All-American honors, yet 30 (68 percent) graduated.

Davis played at Tennessee in the mid-1980s, so he was in diapers when the Underground Railroad was clearing paths of integration in the South and influencing schools such as USC and Notre Dame that had limited the number of Black athletes on their teams.

USC’s 1962 national championship team had only five Black players, its 1967 title team only seven. Notre Dame’s 1966 team that played Michigan State in the Game of the Century, Nov. 19, 1966 at Spartan Stadium, had only one Black player on its roster, Alan Page. The Spartans lined up 20 Black players, 11 Black starters, two Black team captains, George Webster and Clinton Jones, and a Black quarterback, Jimmy Raye.

Davis, though, isn’t entirely to blame for his mischaracterization. His perception of the college football integration starts with myths he’s been fed surrounding the 1970 USC-Alabama game. The revisionist history created by apologists for Alabama coach Bear Bryant celebrate Bryant as a crusader, although the record shows he dragged his feet. Alabama’s campus was desegregated in 1963, but Bryant waited until 1971 to field an integrated roster, a fact ignored by Alabama author Keith Dunnavant in the ESPN documentary and his other film appearances.

Bryant clinging to an all-white roster from 1963 to 1971 is his version of clinging to “The Lost Cause,” the South’s revisionist history of fighting the Civil War over “states rights” rather than slavery.

Gene Washington, a College Football Hall-of-Famer, also played in the Game of the Century. He had been steered to Daugherty by Willie Ray Smith, the father of Bubba Smith, another Michigan State College Football Hall of Famer along with Webster, Jones and Washington.

Willie Ray won 235 games in 33 years and two Black state tiles while coaching at three Texas high schools during segregation. When he called Daugherty asking him to take his son Bubba to escape segregation, he added he should take Washington. Smith coached Bubba at Charlton-Pollard and they had seen plenty of Washington playing at rival Baytown High.

“I never would have made it to Michigan State without Bubba and his father,” Washington said. “Duffy didn’t know anything about me. I was running hurdle times in high school that were among the fastest in the nation, but because I was at a segregated school, my times didn’t make the national lists. I wasn’t a big-time recruit.

“When I got to Michigan State, I discovered right away how nice it was on the campus. I never wanted to go home back to segregation because of the way people treated you and your family. My (assigned) roommates at Wonders Hall were two White swimmers, and we’ve been lifelong friends.”

Washington added he never felt Daugherty recruited him simply to play football.

“I loved track and field, and Duffy said as long as I was making a contribution to the team, I didn’t have to come out for spring football. Duffy kept tabs on all of us, Black and White. I was in Duffy’s office about once a week. He was on top of our academics; (athletic director) Biggie Munn, too.”

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