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Hooper: Tampa deserves praise for historic 1969 game between FAMU and UT

Published Oct. 30, 2013

I ran into David Epstein last weekend just moments after moderating a panel discussion at the Times Festival of Reading.

I shared how Samuel Freedman, author of the new book Breaking the Line, former Florida A&M quarterback Ken Riley and former University of Tampa football coach Fran Curci spoke on the panel about the halcyon days of black college football, its juxtaposition to the civil rights movement and one unforgettable night in 1969 when FAMU played UT at the old Tampa Stadium.

Epstein left me astonished when he said, "Oh, yeah, I was at that game."

The current owner of State Vacuum of Tampa worked as a 14-year-old ball boy for all the games at the stadium, and to this day, the historic meeting between the Rattlers and Spartans stirs his memories: a first between a historically black university and a predominantly white university in the South.

"I remember the east stands were totally African-American and the west stands were almost all white," Epstein said. "I didn't notice any racial tensions, it was just electric. There were not too many times the stadium was packed with 46,000 people. There was no dirty play on the field. It was an unbelievable football game, and A&M won it fair and square.

"After the game, nobody was upset, there was no fighting. It wasn't like going to a Florida-Georgia game."

Freedman says sports annals and civil rights accounts don't properly reflect the magnitude of that game. He calls it the largest integrated event in the South at that time.

In his book, Freedman primarily focuses on the 1967 seasons of FAMU and Grambling and how the legendary coaches — the Rattlers' Jake Gaither and the Tigers' Eddie Robinson — sought to challenge segregation in their own unique ways.

Grambling's Robinson channeled his energy toward grooming his quarterback, James Harris, to become the NFL's first black starting quarterback. While blacks had broken the color barrier in the league years earlier, longtime white coaches considered quarterback to be too cerebral for African-Americans.

Gaither, meanwhile, focused on winning approval from the state's Board of Regents so his team could play against a predominantly white school. More popular than the school president with elected officials, Gaither artfully achieved his goal, but the board never put the decision in writing, fearful the game might set off racial violence.

It took two years to bring the game to fruition because like so many achievements during the civil rights movement, Gaither needed a willing partner from the other side and Curci admirably filled the role. He assumed the coaching position at UT only with the promise that he could recruit black players.

UT's board members said, "That's why you're here."

Curci never dwelled on the fact that many considered such a game a no-win proposition for a white coach. He viewed it as a chance to garner more attention for his upstart program, and his friendship with Gaither — they met at a coaching clinic — spurred his interest.

Freedman's superb work focuses as much on the impact of the civil rights movement on the historic programs as it does the courage of Gaither and Robinson, but just the text about the game between FAMU and UT and how it came into existence makes it worthy of purchase.

It's a proud moment for this city that should be remembered and celebrated.

That's all I'm saying.

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