PHOTO: Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway
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By TOM SHANAHAN
CANDOR, N.C. – Jimmy Raye’s pioneering story began with Michigan State’s Underground Railroad, departing segregated Fayetteville, N.C., in 1964.
His journey crossed the Mason Dixon Line. It carried him on to ground-breaking playing and coaching careers in college and the NFL. Seven decades later, telling his story includes historic restored train cars found in a small North Carolina town. They provide the backdrop to a story spanning sports and social significance — a story long overlooked and unappreciated.
THE INDELIBLE LEGACY OF JIMMY RAYE
NFL 360 Videos has produced the documentary set to air in Black History Month. The debut on the NFL Network is 8 p.m. ET on February 7.
A screening takes place at the Arizona State University’s Sidney Poitier American Film School on February 8 during the Phoenix-area Super Bowl week.
The Underground Railroad storyline intrigued NFL 360 producer/director Osahon Tongo, particularly as a former Georgia Tech football player born and raised long after the South’s Jim Crow laws and the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts. His research brought him across an eager partner — Rob Menzies, the founder of the Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway Company in Candor, N.C.
“Jimmy Raye!” Menzies replied to Tongo’s request. “I’m a Spartan. I’ll waive the rental fees.”
Menzies, who was born in Michigan but raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, was on Michigan State’s campus in 1967 and 1968 earning his MBA in Travel Logistics.
“I was happy to let them film here,” Menzies said. “Jimmy Raye is a good man. He certainly has been through a lot in his life. And being a Spartan, it was a very enjoyable experience.”
The sprawling Aberdeen facility is located alongside a two-lane highway, NC-211. Aberdeen trains supply nearby feed mills. Towering silos pass for Candor’s skyline. Trucks rumble in and out of the mill, transporting the processed chicken feed to North Carolina’s poultry farms.
Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway’s Underground Railroad connection is through its restored century-old train cars. Menzies brought in Smithsonian Institution consultants to properly refurbish the original furniture and wood. But the cars are more than museum pieces.
They’re also used on short trips for business meetings and entertainment. One of the cars — built in 1912 and renamed The Pinehurst — served as a corporate tent for both the 2014 men’s and women’s U.S. Open championships played at Pinehurst Golf Resort. It will again for the 2024 men’s Open.
The tracks from Candor to the Pinehurst date to trains hauling wood in the late 1890s to build the resort. The restored Pinehurst car traveled 19 miles from Candor to park on for the tournament week on the course grounds.
The Roamer, built in 1917, was the backdrop to filming Raye’s story. The restored car features a rear platform familiarly seen in old photos of political campaign whistle stops. The Roamer transported President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. Prior to World War II, England’s King Edward VIII was a passenger.
“The train cars were outstanding and luxurious,” Raye said. “I was thrilled to meet Menzies. He’s a Michigan State grad who has gone on to a very successful career in the railway business. It was an exciting deal.”
The backdrop was a nice touch and worthy of overlooking a departure from historical accuracy. Raye traveled to Michigan State in a segregated car – until crossing the Mason Dixon Line – that lacked the plush amenities of The Roamer.
“I was in the caboose,” he said with a laugh.
But The Roamer scenes provided an apt progress metaphor. Raye left behind the demeaning Jim Crow days. His story also reminds us segregation is recent history, not ancient.
Raye’s career began breaking barriers during the Spartans’ two national title seasons, 1965 and 1966. That made him the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title. Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty provided him an opportunity at a time a Black man was labeled not smart enough to play quarterback or able to lead White teammates in a huddle. Daugherty defied those stereotypes.
In 1965, Raye was as a dynamic backup used frequently behind senior All-American quarterback Steve Juday, who now lives in Arizona. Michigan State claimed national titles by United Press International, the National Football Foundation and a co-title by the Football Writers Association of America with Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s lone solo title was awarded by the Associated Press.
Among the four organizations sanctioned by the NCAA to name a national title, that accounted for the Spartans owning 2.5 titles compared to Alabama’s 1.5. It’s a fact largely overlooked by the national media smitten with Alabama coach Bear Bryant folklore.
Documentaries on Showtime and ESPN misleadingly portray Alabama as the two-time defending national champion. The Crimson Tide also split their 1964 title (AP and UPI) with both Arkansas (FWAA) and Notre Dame (NFF).
Charles Davis, now a CBS analyst, exposes his lack of 1960s history understanding. Davis, born in 1964, regurgitates conspiracy theory long espoused by Alabama author Keith Dunnavant, a Bear Bryant apologist.
In the ESPN series, Episode 3, Integration, on the 150th anniversary of college football produced by the Herzog & Company, Davis says at the 18:57 mark, “Even with the tie, Notre Dame and Michigan State both finished ahead of unbeaten Alabama in the final rankings. Alabama had been No. 1 the last two years, 1964 and 1965.”
Does Davis understand the split 1964 and 1965 titles? Or did he simply rely on flawed research fed to him?
The misconception favoring Alabama in college football lore has been at the expense of the true 1960s pioneers — Michigan State’s players and pioneers at southern schools who integrated their football program prior to Alabama, in 1970. Alabama was one of the last southern football programs to desegregate.
Click here to listen to Ken Burns on the importance of understanding Michigan State’s leadership driving college football integration in the 1960s.
Click here to listen errors about Duffy Daugherty’s legacy broadcast to millions by ESPN in its 150th college football anniversary series, in 2019.
In 1966, Daugherty named Raye his starter. The Spartans played Notre Dame to a controversial 10-10 tie in the Game of the Century on November 19 at Spartan Stadium. The quasi-national championship was played before a record TV audience of 33 million and overflow crowd of 80,011. The NFF named the Spartans and Irish co-national champions, although Notre Dame earned titles from AP, UPI and the FWAA.
Daugherty later encouraged Raye to take up coaching, employing him part-time in 1971 and fulltime in 1972. By 1977, the San Francisco 49ers hired Raye as one of only eight Black assistants in a 28-team league. In 1983, he was the NFL’s second Black coordinator; Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson named him offensive coordinator.
One door, though, remained closed to him – head coach. But that had more to do with the times in America than qualifications. Pro Football Hall of Fame Coach Tony Dungy and many Black coaches consider Raye a mentor.
Credit is finally catching up to Raye, 76, as an elder statesman. In real time, the sports media was ignorant or, at best, indifferent to recording Black milestones into the 1960s. These chapters of lost history explain the importance of understanding Critical Race Theory and Black Historiography.
Raye’s stature as the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title wasn’t acknowledged until research for the release of the 2014 book “Raye of Light, Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty the Integration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans.” The NFF has validated Raye’s place in history. The book was the first to fully explain the impact of Daugherty’s 1960s teams, college football’s first rosters fully integrated.
In 2018, Michigan State inducted Raye into the school’s Hall of Fame, joining his famed Underground Railroad teammates who are in the College Football Hall of Fame, Bubba Smith, George Webster, Gene Washington and Clinton Jones.
In 2022, the NFL named Raye among its inaugural recipients of its “Awards of Excellence.” Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Fouts was the Master of Ceremonies for the event at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Fouts praised Raye’s NFL career spanning five decades for his “perseverance.”
Recent books on race and sports cite Raye’s historic roles. In John Feinstein’s 2021 book, “Raise a Fist, Take a Knee,” he turned to Raye – not just Tony Dungy – for quotes. In Jason Reid’s 2022 book, “The Rise of the Black Quarterback,” he turned to Raye – not just Doug Williams – for quotes.
This year’s Super Bowl marks the first time two Black quarterbacks have met for the NFL championship: Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts.
And now, NFL 360 provides Raye a national audience with a fitting train backdrop.
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