They remember it like it happened yesterday.
Nearly 50 years ago, the 14 African-American football players at the University of Wyoming considered wearing black armbands during their upcoming game against Brigham Young University (BYU) to protest racist practices of the Mormon Church and other indignities. They gathered in the stands at the field house on the Laramie, Wyo., campus for a meeting with their head coach to discuss the situation.
Instead of a brainstorming session, they were immediately kicked off the team — and out of school.
The now-deceased coach, Lloyd Eaton, the former players say, degraded them unmercifully during the fateful meeting on Oct. 17, 1969, with overtly bigoted remarks.
“He went berserk and started blurting out this racial venom,” recalls Tony Gibson, a former Wyoming running back. “He didn’t even let us [tell] him what we wanted to do.
“If he had said no, we had decided that we were just going to play the game. We got kicked off for something we thought about doing. We never got the opportunity to protest. It happened so fast and we were so young. I remember walking out of there thinking, ‘What the heck just happened?’”
According to seven of the players, interviewed via a conference call, Eaton began the meeting with a declaration: “Gentlemen, let me save you a lot of time. You are no longer Wyoming Cowboys.”
When the players tried to respond, they said Eaton snapped, “Shut up.”
Then came the racial invectives. He made disparaging comments about Black fatherhood. He told players they should transfer to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that would tolerate protests. He claimed to rescue players from dire situations by giving them scholarships. And so on.
“The last thing he said to us was that we could go get on ‘Negro Relief,’” remembers Ted Williams, alluding to a derogatory term at the time for public assistance programs. “That hurt. I’m not a violent person, but I almost did something. But when I looked at the group, the group was so calm.”
A half-century before former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was blackballed by the NFL for sparking a movement as he protested the murders of unarmed African Americans by police and other social injustices by taking a knee during the national anthem, few have heard about what happened to the former Wyoming players dubbed “The Black 14.”
The players considered wearing armbands in the next day’s game to support the Black Student Alliance, which aligned with similar statements at other schools in denouncing the Mormon Church policy that barred African Americans from priesthood. The Mormon Church is the parent institution for BYU. Also, several players who played in the previous year’s contest against BYU at Provo, Utah, were inspired to protest because they contended they were subjected to racial slurs from BYU players during the game — behavior that was ignored by coaches and game officials.
“This story still has a lot of relevance today, given the political climate in the country right now and some of the license to say things and ignore things in terms of civil rights and human rights,” said Guillermo Hysaw, who, in 1969, was the primary spokesman for his fellow players during the ordeal. “Even though 50 years ago you might have thought differently, it was really about denial of First Amendment rights.”
Yet unlike Kaepernick’s saga, the case of “The Black 14” has been widely overlooked.
“These guys have been nearly forgotten,” said Howard Bryant, ESPN.com columnist and author of the best-selling book, The Heritage. “It’s striking, in retrospect 50 years later, the degree to which institutions go to undermine what we’re supposed to embrace. We’re taught to stand up for what’s right. But in this case, like others, you’re left with the questions: What did these players do wrong? What was the crime?”
As the 50-year anniversary of their episode looms, many of the surviving players — who remain in contact through conference calls and visits — are resolved to set the record straight. They also seek to extract a measure of dignified closure.
“It was a bad day for us,” said John Griffin, who was once Wyoming’s leading receiver, “but it was a bad day for them, too, because it still stains the University of Wyoming and the state of Wyoming.”
Tony McGee, a former defensive end, transferred to Bishop College in Dallas and ultimately had the most successful football career of “The Black 14” group. He played 15 NFL seasons with the Washington Redskins and New England Patriots, and has starting assignments in two Super Bowls on his resume. In recent years, though, he’s tried to complete what he considers to be the unfinished business of securing retribution for the former Wyoming players whose lives and reputations were damaged by Eaton’s action.
It has taken some time to get to the current juncture: the University of Wyoming is expected to mark the 50th anniversary by honoring “The Black 14” during a Sept. 14 game against Idaho.
At various points of talks with university officials over the years, McGee has been frustrated. In a broader perspective, his efforts illustrate the difficulty inherent in attempts to persuade institutions to properly acknowledge the wrongs of the past.
McGee, mindful of the long-term effects the incident had on the personal and professional lives of the former players, originally sought a letter of apology and honorary degrees.
“They want to give us 70-year-old men a plaque, a leather jacket and a kick in the butt,” McGee said. “But what’s happened to us over 50 years is worth more than a plaque.”
In recent years, Griffin conducted three lectures in Wyoming — in Sheridan, Buffalo and Gillette — and during the Q&A sessions that followed was struck by the manner in which the episode was distorted. From one generation to the next, in a state with an overwhelmingly White population with deep connections to the dominant university, the players were cast as villains.
“It was like, ‘I’m here to dispel the myths and tell the truth,’” Griffin said. “At every venue, people were shocked to hear the truth about what happened. They all had the impression that we walked away, that we boycotted the program. That was so far from the truth. We would’ve played that game. But instead, we were cast into an adult society in five minutes.”
Eaton remained steadfast in his position for the rest of his life — despite the impact it had on his career and the football program at Wyoming. Before the 1969 game against BYU, Wyoming ranked 12th in the nation in the United Press International poll. The previous season, a 10-0 campaign earned the school a berth in the Sugar Bowl. After “The Black 14” episode, the program went into a tailspin, losing its final four games in 1969 and finishing 1-10 in 1970 — Eaton’s final season.
The football program and other athletic programs at the school lost the ability to recruit Black players for years — and Wyoming’s football team floundered as a loser for more than a decade.
Yet Eaton, who died at age 88, told The Denver Post in a rare interview before his death in 2007 that he would not have changed a thing about his actions in 1969.
It was an era where Black athletes were often active in protesting societal conditions. The “Black 14” episode occurred about a year after track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black-gloved fists during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Also in 1968, after Black football players at San Jose State University boycotted a game against BYU, the coach failed the players.
Eaton’s decision to dismiss the Black football players came during the same week students staged the first protest on campus against the Vietnam War. The university president William Carlson and Wyoming Gov. Stanley Hathaway met with players in a marathon session that went past 3 a.m. on the morning of the BYU game. Eaton claimed that he dismissed the players and rescinded their scholarships because they broke a rule banning “factions” within the team. Ultimately, Carlson and Hathaway supported Eaton’s actions against the Black players.
“With the meeting, we thought everything would be fixed,” Gibson said. “But they backed him 100 percent. I was shocked at that.”
The players failed in two legal challenges, in 1969 and 1971, that contended their First Amendment rights were violated. At the conclusion of the first case, Eaton reportedly agreed to meet with the players again — but purportedly the players’ attorney never informed the players of that development. The second case never went to trial. Federal Judge Ewing Kerr — who attended a banquet honoring Eaton — threw the case out after a preliminary hearing.
Although the student senate passed a resolution that denounced Eaton for refusing to grant the players a “rational forum” to discuss their concerns and at least one professor paid for some of the Black players to remain in school, sentiments in the overwhelmingly White community outside of the campus — which included a majority of the team’s fan base — were largely one-sided.
On the day of the BYU game, fans were given bumper stickers and armbands expressing support for Eaton. The university’s Alumni Club, the Casper Quarterback Club and the Rock Springs (Wyo.) City Council were among entities that publicly sided with Eaton.
The support wasn’t surprising given the demographics of Wyoming at the time. In 1969, Wyoming’s population was 99 percent White, one percent Black. Of 8,000 students on the campus, just 28 were Black and half of them were on the football team.
“The University acted as if it wasn’t racist,” Gibson said. “But those words that came out of Eaton’s mouth, that’s all it was, racial insult stuff.”
Years later, Eaton’s words — and actions — are hardly forgotten. The incident left indelible imprints on the lives of the Black players.
“This story has followed me, life-long,” said Hysaw, who had a long career as an executive in the automotive industry.
Mel Hamilton, meanwhile, was one of the few players from the group to remain in Wyoming. An educator, he ultimately became the first Black principal in the state. Along the way, he was repeatedly reminded of his “Black 14” membership.
“It was not only 1969 for me,” Hamilton said. “It was 50 years of 1969.”
McGee, who entered the NFL as a third-round pick out of Bishop College, said he was told by one NFL scout that he had “first-round talent” but went later in the draft because of his association with “The Black 14.”
Griffin shares a flashback from his first job interview out of college.
“The first question they asked me was, ‘What are your feelings about being a member of The Black 14?’“ Griffin said. “They didn’t give it 10 to 15 minutes to warm up. They went straight to it.”
But despite the struggles the players endured over the years as a result of their college expulsion, Hysaw now looks back at that time with a sense of pride.
“We stood for something,” Hysaw said. “It was a defining moment for us, going from young men to men.”
— Jarrett Bell is the NFL columnist for USA Today and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.