February 3, 2011
With the beginning of Black History Month two days ago and the upcoming Super Bowl on Sunday, I thought I would bring you a story that has gotten very little attention, especially in the Washington, DC area.
How many of you are familiar with former professional football player Tony McGee (Washington Redskins) and the Wyoming 14? It’s very unfortunate that most of you have never heard of either. They represent everything good about a previous generation that made significant contributions to the freedom and luxuries that we enjoy today.
In many ways, they were the “Rosa Parks” of the Pacific Northwest in the U.S.
College and professional athletes often get a bad rap for the way they behave, both on and off the field. A lot of the criticism is justified, but most athletes are model citizens and never get in any trouble. They go through life just like the rest of us.
Former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill once stated, “To every man, there comes a time when he is figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a great and mighty work; unique to him and fitted to his talents; what a tragedy if that moment finds him unprepared or unqualified for the moment that could be his finest hour.”
On Oct. 17, 1969, Tony McGee and the Wyoming 14 received their tap on the shoulder.
That was the day all 14 Black players were kicked off the University of Wyoming’s football team by their coach-- Lloyd Eaton.
This was all precipitated by Willie Black, head of the Black Student Alliance (BSA). Earlier in the week he had sent a letter to the school asking the university and other Western Athletic Conference (WAC) members not to schedule games with Brigham Young University (BYU) until the Mormon Church rescinded its racist policies towards Blacks (they were not allowed to become priests, strictly based on their race).
After the BSA meeting, Joe Williams (running back) had asked the coach if it would be OK for him and the other 13 Black players to wear a black armband during the upcoming Saturday game against BYU. The players also wanted to protest the usage of racial epithets by BYU during last year’s game. Williams was a tri-captain on the team. Eaton gave Williams an emphatic “NO,” claiming the action would violate a team rule prohibiting any type of demonstration. So, the players attempted to change the coach’s mind by going to meet with him in his office wearing their armbands. Eaton led them to the bleachers in the old fieldhouse, where he immediately dismissed them from the team.
According to McGee (defensive end), “He said we could go to Grambling State or Morgan State… We could go back to colored relief (welfare). If anyone said anything, he told us to shut up. We were really protesting policies we thought were racist. Maybe we should've been protesting there."
The next day, October 18, 1969, the university president, board of trustees and governor upheld the coach's decision. A civil case seeking restitution for the players was in court for three years before being denied.
Wyoming never recovered from the loss of the 14 athletes. Before they were kicked off the team, Wyoming was off to a 4-0 start and was ranked # 10 in the country. They ended the season with a 6-4 record and didn’t have another winning season until 1976 and didn’t play in another bowl game until 1987.
Coach Eaton resigned at the end of the following season—with a 1-9 record. According to media accounts, Eaton never discussed the incident again, except with his wife, Dolly. According to her, "He was not bitter… He had a good conscience about it... "All the people thought like he did. You should not make fun or criticize another religion." Eaton died in 2007 at the age of 88.
Because of the actions of these 14 Black players, BYU signed their first Black player in 1970 (Bennie Smith) and in 1978 the Mormon Church reversed its policy on Blacks in the priesthood.
McGee went on to finish his college career and received his degree from Bishop College (a Black college in Dallas). According to McGee, he was scheduled to be a first round draft pick, but he ended up going in the third round (64th pick) to the Chicago Bears in the 1971 NFL draft. Word was sent out throughout the NFL, that McGee was part of the Wyoming 14 and was a trouble maker.
He played 14 seasons in the NFL and played in back to back Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins, winning one and losing one.
In 1985, McGee's created his own TV show called, “Pro Football Plus,” a weekly sports show that he hosts.
Unfortunately, when coach Lloyd Eaton was tapped on the shoulder; he was found unprepared for the moment that could have been his finest hour.
Fortunately, McGee and his 13 teammates were well prepared for a time that proved to be their finest hour.
So, as we prepare to watch the upcoming Super Bowl, please take a few moments to reflect upon the sacrifice McGee and his teammates made. I have included a couple of links below for those who want to find out more about this moment in history.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bljO4ovARZQ (made by a 13 year old)
Raynard Jackson is president & CEO of Raynard Jackson & Associates, LLC., a D.C.-public relations/government affairs firm. He is also a contributing editor for ExcellStyle Magazine (www.excellstyle.com) & U.S. Africa Magazine (www.usafricaonline.com).