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College football lore continues to fail Wake Forest’s Bob Grant and his trailblazing tale

By TOM SHANAHAN

Wake Forest’s Bob Grant never got his due.

In 1964, Grant earned his stripes as a Jackie Robinson of the Atlantic Coast Conference, but his brave role desegregating college football in the South has been overlooked in life the past 60 years.

And now, it seems, in death, too.

Grant died on May 19 at age 77, although the date has been listed as May 22 (the discrepancy was Wake Forest University’s athletic department waited for word from the family before sending out a news release). The Winston-Salem Journal’s May 22 story honored Grant properly: “Bob Grant, a trailblazer at Wake Forest, has died.”

But here was the report from The New York Times, although its sports page is now run by The Athletic: Nothing.

Here’s the ESPN headline: Again, nothing shows up.

Here’s the story from Sports Illustrated website: Uh, same thing.

When the “papers of record” fail to report the news that’s fit to print, errors happen such as Grant’s Wikipedia page listing his death – finally, a week later – as May 22.


I joined Adam Gold’s WRAL sports talk radio show to discuss Bob Grant’s death and lack of media coverage of a true pioneer of the 1960s.

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If we can’t count on the national media, which sets the narrative, to tell an accurate story of college football integration in the 1960s, how can we expect fans to understand it?

Wake Forest was the first school from a major southern conference to recruit Black players out of high school. Maryland’s Darryl Hill broke ACC color line in 1963, but he was a senior transfer. Also, it needs to be noted, Maryland didn’t continue to recruit Black football players as consistently as did Wake Forest. In 1967, Wake Forest’s Freddie Summers was the first Black quarterback to start a game for a major southern school — another unappreciated fact in college football lore.

In Wake’s 1964 class, Grant was joined by Butch Henry and William Smith. They were willing to confront Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Smith left school after one year, but Grant and Henry finished their careers enduring opponents’ cheap shots. On the road fans threw objects at them, including bags of urine. They looked out the window of a team bus pulling into a stadium parking lot and observed pickup trucks flying the Confederate flags with shotguns in racks. At home on campus, they were often ostracized.

Grant, though, managed to record two more milestones that college football lore has overlooked.

— In 1966, Grant was a first-team All-ACC defensive tackle, making him the conference’s first Black football all-league selection. Understand that in the fall of 1966, North Carolina basketball player Charlie Scott was a year from playing his first varsity game for the Tar Heels and coach Dean Smith. Scott’s debut season was 1967-68, although Scott and Smith receive the most credit for leading the South into the 20th century.

— In 1968, Grant was the first Black player drafted in the NFL from a major southern conference. As a second-round pick by the Baltimore Colts, he played in Super Bowls III and V. Grant’s draft class marked the beginning of Increasing numbers of Black players available to be selected. The trend by then was more southern schools were desegregated and integrated programs such as USC were no longer following the unwritten quota limiting Black athletes to a half-dozen roster spots.

In 2020, Wake Forest honored Grant with its Trailblazer Award. A year later, national broadcaster Andy Katz presented the NCAA’s Inspiration Award to Grant.

Grant’s ground-breaking role developed despite his original plans to ride Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s historic Underground Railroad. Michigan State’s fully integrated rosters were the North Star for a Black kid from the segregated South. It certainly would have been the easier path for him to join his high school rival and friend, Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C. Raye became the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title with the Spartans.

But Grant changed plans after Gideon T. Johnson, Grant’s coach at Georgetown High in Jacksonville, N.C., persuaded him to make history opening Wake Forest doors.

Grant’s bold decision wasn’t without hearing his grandmother’s reservations, which he recalled in Episode 20 of my podcast, “The End Game.” The Zoom recording was two-and-a-half months prior to his death.

“My grandmother said, ‘You can’t go up there. You can’t take that scholarship. If you go up there, those White boys are going to kill you in your sleep.’”

Understand that the summer of 1964 was when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared in Mississippi while registering voters. They were found two months later murdered and buried in an Earthen dam.

But Grant’s grandfather felt optimistic about his grandson’s opportunity.

“My grandpa said, ‘No, if you go up there, you turn in championship performance. You carry yourself as a champion in everything you do on an off the field, in practice and in the classroom. Before you leave there, they will be clapping for you, and they will be fans of yours.”

Grant’s story also is told in Chapter 19 of my book, “THE RIGHT THING, The True Pioneers of College Football Integration.” We’re also telling his story in a Bolder Spartan Media Enterprise documentary, Game (Changers) of the Century, that is in the developmental stage.

Grant, noting the KKK’s ominous presence in those days, emphasized Wake Forest president Dr. Harold Tribble, athletic director Gene Hooks and football coach Bill Tate also took a courageous stance.

“They were crazy!” Grant said. “They had to be out of their minds to do what they did at that time in the South. Nobody wanted sports integrated.”

Grant’s enrollment was among the early dominoes that included Houston’s Warren McVea, 1964; Southern Methodist’s Jerry LeVias, 1965; Kentucky’s Nate Northington and Greg Page, 1966; Tennessee’s Lester McClain, 1967; and Auburn’s James Owens, 1969.

Together, the events and pioneers made college football integration a fait accompli by the 1970 season. Even Alabama coach Bear Bryant lifted his dragging feet. He signed Wilbur Jackson in 1970 to become the seventh of 10 Southeastern Conference football programs to integrate. That made Alabama among 33 of 37 major programs with Black players.

Such progress was largely ignored by a 1960s sports media that avoided race. Grant’s story was reported locally, but there was little national awareness of a growing trend. The sports journalism failure back then has continued into the 21st century .

A cruel irony celebrates the results of the 1970 USC-Alabama game, Bryant and USC’s Sam Cunningham, a Black fullback, as an overnight tipping point through revisionist history spread 20 years after the game was played.

The reality was the decade-long march of progress of the true pioneers allowed for two teams from the Pac-8 Conference to schedule season-opening games in the South. The ABC-TV national game of the week was No. 10-ranked Stanford upsetting No. 4 Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. On the same day, No. 3 USC defeated No. 16 Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham.

Another forgotten fact was Stanford, with its all-minority backfield, won the Pac-8 and Rose Bowl, while USC finished without a bowl game. Yet the national media remains comfortable with the 1970 USC-Alabama game. The popular misconception worked its way into the national folklore with the aid of poorly researched sports writing.

The Athletic celebrated unvetted 1970 folklore on the 150th anniversary of college football in 2019 and ESPN on 50th anniversary of the USC-Alabama game in 2020. When considering the 1970 USC-Alabama myths, try supporting the folklore with another moment in American history when racism was solved overnight. That’s harder to find than Bob Grant’s name in college football lore.

The result has been Bryant’s poor track record on integration was successfully obscured and USC’s role was aggrandized. That’s the national narrative at the expense of the true pioneers.

I learned of Grant’s death on May 20 from Bill Overton, another one of Wake Forest’s pioneering Black players from the 1960s who went on to a Hollywood acting career, and I posted the news that day on X (formerly Twitter). Overton notified me because he’s on the advisory board of our documentary team.

The lack of reporting on Grant’s death prompted me to write this added chapter to his story. College football lore, a reflection of popular culture shaped by a small fraternity of media outlets, has failed to grant Bob Grant his due.

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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

David Maraniss: “HIstory writes people out of the story. It’s our job to write them back in.”

Responses from Ken Burns and Howell Raines when I expressed my frustration with myths and fiction about Bear Bryant overshadowing the true stories of college football integration.

Burns, award-winning filmmaker: “Keep plowing ahead.”

Raines: Former New York Times executive editor: “Straightening out history is an endless task.”

Below are links to click on to purchase my books focused.

My books tell the true story of college football integration in the 1960s and address the myths and fiction that allowed a false narrative surrounding the 1970 USC-Alabama game to usurp the credit from the true pioneers. As I said when I spoke at the National Sports Media Association book festival, no two books provide an accurate portrayal more than RAYE OF LIGHT and THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

I’ll put my facts up against anybody, anytime, anywhere. Watch here.

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Click here for my story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and Segregation awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. I tell untold stories on Michigan State’s leading role and the true pioneers of college football integration. Click here to read the summary as a first-place story.

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Click here to purchase The Right Thing To Do

THE RIGHT THING TO DO

The True Pioneers of College Football Integration in the 1960s

Foreword by Ruffin McNeill

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Click here to purchase Raye of Light.

RAYE OF LIGHT

Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

Foreword by Tony Dungy

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Click here to purchase my children’s book, Bubba’s Dad, Duffy and College Football’s Underground Railroad

The book for now is only a Kindle version on Amazon. Print and audio platforms available soon.

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My next children’s book coming soon: How Duffy Put Hawaii on the Football Map

TAGS: INTERN PROGRAMLARUEN FREELANDMICHIGAN STATE WOMEN’S TRACK

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