Tony McGee got kicked out of Wyoming with the Black 14 but still made it to the Super Bowl
Just contemplating a protest in 1969 ended the football careers of many of his teammates
Tony McGee had no idea what would come next after he and 13 other black players were kicked off the undefeated and nationally ranked Wyoming Cowboys football team in the midst of the 1969 season. The defensive end had been playing like an All-American and maybe even a future pro, racking up 11 sacks in just four games. But now his football career, his college education and his entire future were in doubt.
One thing McGee knew for sure was that he would never play for Wyoming again. As far as he was concerned, the ouster of the group that came to be known as the Black 14 had revealed head coach Lloyd Eaton as not just a hard-edged taskmaster but also a hardheaded racist.
Wyoming’s black players had proposed wearing black armbands in their home game against Brigham Young University. A few wanted to protest the Mormon Church’s dictum forbidding black members from becoming priests. But for most of them, including McGee, the beef was more personal: BYU’s all-white squad had hurled racial slurs and cheap shots at black players during their game a year earlier.
But when the black Wyoming players raised the idea of a protest with their coach, Eaton did not want to hear it. Instead, he berated and insulted them, saying they were troublemakers, half of whom did not know their fathers. Then, he kicked them off the team. McGee recalls Eaton saying the players could go back home to live off “colored relief.” Or, if they were lucky, maybe they could go play for Morgan, Grambling or some other historically black college or university.
Nearly 50 years ago, a group of Wyoming football players decided to take a stand against what they perceived to be racial discrimination by an opponent and it cost them.
As it turned out, McGee was among the fortunate. He went on to play his senior year at Bishop College, a now-defunct historically black college near Dallas, where he continued to dominate. After he graduated, he was drafted by the Chicago Bears, launching a 14-year NFL career that included tours with the New England Patriots and the Washington Redskins, as well as two Super Bowl appearances. After his playing career, McGee became an entrepreneur and a broadcaster with a Washington, D.C.-area show, now called Pro Football Plus, that has aired for 33 years.
The University of Wyoming football program did not fare as well. After dismissing its black players, the team won its next two games but lost the final four contests of the 1969 season, causing the Cowboys to plummet from the national rankings. The next season, Wyoming went 1-9, its worst record since 1939. The mass dismissal prompted black athletes in all sports to shun the university, and it was nearly a decade before a significant number of them would again suit up for Wyoming.
Eaton was fired as head coach after the disastrous 1970 season. He was hired as director of player personnel for the Green Bay Packers and was demoted to scout after four years. He worked for an NFL-run scouting service before retiring in the mid-1980s.
Even when his career was crumbling, Eaton stood by his decision to summarily dismiss his black players. His stance was publicly supported by the coaching staff, most of the team’s white players, most students at Wyoming and nearly the team’s entire fan base, which spanned the whole state.
In a 1982 interview with The Denver Post, Eaton said he had no regrets. “Hell, no,” he said, adding, “They were biting the hand that feeds them.”
McGee, who was born and raised in Battle Creek, Michigan, said his future looked bleak in the weeks immediately after he was kicked off the Wyoming team. Although he was a top talent, at first no other schools showed interest in him. “What had happened was in the back of people’s minds,” he said, “they thought I was a troublemaker.”
McGee ended up at Bishop mainly by luck. Jay Berry, a black teammate who was also headed to Bishop (but never played there because of medical reasons), talked McGee up to the coaches, who offered him a scholarship over the phone. At Bishop, McGee picked up where he had left off at Wyoming: shedding blockers, making tackles and terrorizing quarterbacks. By the end of the 1970 season, he was selected to play in several all-star games and was recognized as one of the nation’s best black-college players.
Football people told him he could have been a first-round draft choice — if it weren’t for what happened at Wyoming. “It is hard to know how much money that cost me,” McGee said.
He ended up being chosen in the third round by the Bears. He went on to a long and productive pro career, highlighted by back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 1983 and 1984 when he played for Washington.
Even as McGee was having his way on the field, he was planning for his life off of it. He remembers telling a teammate, “When I stop working here, I am not working for anyone else.”
It was an idea he got from his late father, who was a serial entrepreneur and activist. His father worked at the Kellogg Co., where his activism helped move black workers from “the brooms to the machines,” McGee said. Later, his father opened a record store, barbershop and pawnshop. He later opened a beauty shop, which he was expanding into a beauty school when he died while McGee was still in high school.
McGee launched a physical therapy business in Washington’s Virginia suburbs during his final year in pro football. He operated the business for years and combined it with a health club before selling it to a health care firm after 13 years.
Through his many years in football and in business, McGee, 69, said his experience at Wyoming seemed to fade from the public mind. But that changed over the past several years, as a wave of athletic activism pushed the story of Wyoming’s Black 14 back into the limelight.
First, players at the University of Missouri backed campus protests in 2015 by refusing to play unless the university president resigned. Then, the NFL protests ignited by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made storytellers curious about McGee and his Wyoming teammates.
“Interest has picked up tremendously in the last few years,” McGee said, adding that he has been contacted by documentarians, playwrights, moviemakers and foreign reporters all intrigued by the Wyoming story.
McGee said he supports the idea of athletes as activists, and he understands why Kaepernick and his supporters chose to take a knee during the national anthem to protest inequality. But he said Kaepernick should repeatedly make clear in his own voice the motives for his protest so they could not be distorted.
“When I look at him, I understand what he is doing. But he needed to — in the beginning, in the middle and even now — make sure individuals understand what he was protesting for and who and what he was protesting against,” McGee said. “Once you started to get the ear of the people and once people wanted to get involved, then you explain that again. Then you get up off your knee and move forward for progress.”
McGee knows from personal experience that protest comes at a price. For most of the Black 14, being thrown out of Wyoming meant the end of their football careers. McGee estimates that seven or eight of his black teammates had the talent to play in the NFL, but only one other, running back Joe Williams, went on to join him in the pros. Several did earn college degrees and went on to careers in education, in the auto industry and in television, among other professions.
Looking back, McGee is proud that the planned protest forced change. Just a year after the black players were kicked out of Wyoming, BYU recruited its first black player. In 1978, the church announced that a divine revelation had opened the Mormon priesthood to African-Americans.
But there has been no formal reconciliation between the players and the university, although there have been conversations on campus about repairing the breach. In 2002, a student group at Wyoming dedicated a bronze sculpture in the basement of the student union. It shows a black armband on a player’s arm. But none of the Black 14 is in the university’s Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame. Eaton, who died in 2007 at age 88, also is not a member of the hall.
Kevin McKinney, Wyoming’s senior associate athletic director for external operations, was an intern on the athletic department staff in 1969. He recalls that virtually the entire state, himself included, was against the black players then. But in the years since, he said, eyes have been opened.
“People have certainly eased their feelings about it,” he said. “As far as we’re concerned around here at the university and in the state generally, people can now see how courageous they were and how unfairly they were treated.”
Several years ago, he said, two of the black players were back in Laramie for a sports banquet. When they were introduced, the entire room rose in applause. Now, he said, the university is working on inviting all of the surviving Black 14 players back to campus. One preliminary idea is to have a memorial dedicated to them on the facade of the football stadium.
“It has been a long, long time,” McKinney said. “If we presented them on the field at halftime, I think they would get a wonderful reception. I really think the state of Wyoming is much more open-minded and much more respectful than it used to be.”
For his part, McGee sounds open to some kind of reconciliation, although he can never forget what happened to him and the rest of the Black 14. “We were thinking about protesting racism in another institution,” McGee said. “But what we did not know, until everything went down, is that we were living with it every day.”