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By TOM SHANAHAN
I tell untold stories about college football integration. My quest is to lay down the facts of the true 1960s pioneers.
The stories are focused on but not limited to Michigan State’s 1960s leadership under Duffy Daugherty. The College Football Hall of Fame coach assembled the sport’s first fully integrated rosters while his Underground Railroad teams tapped the segregated South. However, I learned from writing “Raye of Light” presenting the facts is not enough.
Myths and fiction crafted two decades after the 1970 USC-Alabama game was played successfully distorted the game’s impact. Alabama coach Bear Bryant was misleadingly cast as an integration crusader and USC’s contribution was embellished beyond its otherwise disappointing track record. College football integration was fait accompli by 1970, but the myths and fiction have become entrenched in college football lore with the complicity of a mainstream media. It failed to vet the 1990s myths before they spread.
This has been at the expense true 1960s pioneers, North and South. The myth central to propelling the tale into lore was a scene USC player John Papadakis fictionalized for a failed move script. He depicted Bryant inviting Sam Cunningham, USC’s Black fullback, into the Alabama locker room to tell his all-white team “This is what a football player looks like.” Guffaw! Guffaw! The myth overlooks Alabama’s high school football teams were desegregated in the late 1960s. Bryant’s players knew already. Bryant was the one that needed to be educated.
Papadakis didn’t count on Cunningham admitting in 2003 the scene never happened, but no matter. The myth was accepted by then. The national media was invested in a story portraying Bryant as John Wayne. They weren’t letting go. That requires admitting they’ve been duped.
Another accepted Bryant myth was he sent Black players to Daugherty, most prominently the late Charlie Thornhill. However, Thornhill’s family and others have explained to me in “Raye of Light” that Bryant had nothing to do with Michigan State recruiting Thornhill in its 1963 class. Bryant himself admitted in a 1967 interview on film he wasn’t aware of any Black athletes that qualified academically as a feeble explanation for his all-white roster.
As I told one writer from a national website that says I “dispute” the Thornhill-Bryant story, “I don’t dispute it. I debunk it.” I’ve had another national website acknowledge Bryant gets too much credit, but they’re not willing to take on his apologists with my stories. Another site’s excuse during pandemic cutbacks was they could only afford to pay me pennies on the dollar and that “wouldn’t be fair to me.” I didn’t write the story to make money. I wrote it to shine a light on the true 1960s pioneers.
For the above reasons, I’m especially honored and grateful my story exposing Bear Bryant as a segregationist coach was awarded first place for Enterprise in the Football Writers Association of America’s 30th annual contest for the 2021 season. I explain how Bryant attempted to manipulate a backdoor entry into the 1962 Rose Bowl. He would have been successful if not for a little-know story of UCLA’s eight Black players threatening to boycott the game and Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray taking up their cause to expose Bryant.