Breaking football's bright line of color

An excerpt from Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights, by Samuel G. Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University and columnist for the New York Times.

In the tumultuous moments after the 2007 Super Bowl ended, the two contending coaches met at midfield. Standing only inches apart, the bills of their hats nearly touching, they exchanged words of congratulation and respect. Then they embraced. Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears had been colleagues for five earlier years on the staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They were friends who spoke by phone almost weekly. They shared a fervent Christian faith. And what ultimately bound them together on this rainy February night was the force of history itself.

Dungy and Smith were the first African-American coaches ever to lead a team into the Super Bowl, the most watched game in the nation's most popular sport, virtually a civic holiday for tens of millions of Americans. While there were necessarily a winner and a loser in the game — Dungy's Colts beat Smith's Bears 29-17 — the adversaries were allies in the urgent and ongoing endeavor of bringing racial equality to sports and through sports to American society.

The road to their landmark achievement, however, was one little known in white America and shrouded by the passage of time to many blacks. ...

The road that started in Philadelphia in 1837 and passed through Salisbury in 1892 made its way during 1967 to the campuses of Grambling College in northern Louisiana and Florida A&M in Tallahassee and finally to the Orange Bowl stadium in Miami on the night of December 2. Then and there, the Grambling Tigers and the Florida A&M Rattlers met in the Orange Blossom Classic, the black college championship game, and for many years the largest annual gathering of any kind of black Americans.

Grambling and Florida A&M were the most storied teams in all of black college football. Their respective head coaches, Eddie Robinson and Jake Gaither, were legendary within their world. Their quarterbacks, James Harris and Ken Riley, were the best ever to have played the position at each school. All around the coaches and players, in that eventful year, swirled the crosswinds of civil rights activism, black nationalism, white backlash, growing integration, slum insurrection, soaring hopes, and dashed expectations.

Competitive athletics are inextricably part of America's national culture. Sports are an arena in which our values and mores, and too often our biases and bigotry, are literally played out. For most of their careers, Robinson and Gaither had held themselves at a cautious remove from the freedom movement. In private, they had supported it; in public, they had watched their words, lest they endanger the tenuous acceptance, the provisional status, that the Jim Crow South had granted them for their gridiron success. For a long time, they trusted that the sheer quality of their teams would speak for itself and provide their most persuasive argument for racial equality.

Over the course of four months in the summer and fall of 1967, as their teams headed for a showdown in black football's title game, a game played in the same city as that groundbreaking Super Bowl some forty years later, Eddie Robinson and Jake Gaither stepped off the political sideline and took a stand. In the tradition of Paul Robeson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson, they put their sporting achievements in the service of social change. What happened when they did is an essential chapter of sports history and black history and, most of all, American history.

Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights

By Samuel G. Freedman

Simon & Schuster, 318 pages, $28

Meet the author

Samuel Freedman will be a featured author at the free 21st annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 26 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He will appear on a panel with former Florida A&M quarterback Ken Riley and former University of Tampa coach Fran Curci; information at festivalofreading.com.

Breaking football's bright line of color 10/17/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 18, 2013 11:18am]

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