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HBCU Football

When Morgan State beat Grambling at Yankee Stadium, more than the score was at stake

That 1968 day changed the game for HBCU football

Five months after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a football game between two historically black colleges opened another field of play in the civil rights movement.

The Sept. 28 battle between what were then Louisiana’s Grambling College Tigers and Baltimore’s undefeated Morgan State Bears at Yankee Stadium marked the first time two historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs) had played in New York City.

The game was a cultural high-water mark and a commercial success, and it brought dozens of players to the attention of an NFL that had only recently merged with the upstart AFL and was thirsty for black talent. But it also set loose a cascade of events that grievously hurt the caliber of football at historically black schools.

“We had something to prove” going into the Grambling game, said Mark Washington before a screening of the CBS Sports documentary 1st & Goal in the Bronx: Grambling vs. Morgan State. The documentary aired this week as part of the annual March on Washington Film Festival in Washington, D.C.

The documentary includes footage of players and coaches, including Grambling assistant coach Doug Porter, later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and Raymond Chester, who scored the Bears’ only touchdown that day and whose NFL career included a Super Bowl win with the Oakland Raiders. They contextualized the high stakes that day for black football players, only a limited number of whom had been recruited into the NFL by the mid-1960s.

Washington, who started as a freshman defensive back for Morgan State and went on to play 10 years in the NFL, pointed out that the undefeated Bears had been the first to integrate the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, defeating the West Chester (Pennsylvania) Rams in 1966. In 1967, they were again undefeated and ranked in the national Top 10 by The Associated Press. But they weren’t invited back to a bowl game.

“My thought was that we had been neglected,” and not just by white audiences, said Washington. While Grambling had a rich history (it was the subject of a 1968 ABC sports documentary about the team and legendary coach Eddie Robinson, Grambling College: 100 Yards to Glory), “we had proven that we were equally as good,” he said. College and Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier was one of three Morgan State players drafted by the NFL in 1967.

Before the game, former Morgan State running back George Nock recalled hearing that “the powers that be were really afraid … of black people coming together and what would transpire after that.” New York newspapers and officials were preparing for the worst, Nock said. Rumors spread about consequences if the game turned riotous.

With more than 60,000 people in attendance for the nationally televised game, things did turn tense — but only on the football field, with the Bears making a goal-line stand in the final seconds to defeat the Tigers 9-7. Not only did fans not riot afterwards, they stood up to sing “We Shall Overcome.”

The Bears approached the game as if “we should have been playing” nationally a long time ago, said Nock. “I couldn’t understand why our universities didn’t get together and have a national playoff” where Grambling, Morgan State, Tennessee State and Florida A&M (all champions in their respective conferences) could have shared in the attention and resources because, “as we know, much of the HBCUs had the best of the best.”

Louisiana native Kirk Saulny, a member of the audience, remembered hearing about the game as a 12-year-old. “You had black schools with 5,000 students, and they were the only ones who knew about the quality of the schools and the bands,” he said. “This particular game became the forerunner to black college classics all over the country.”

Those were the gains. But panel moderator William Rhoden, a former Morgan State football player and a writer-at-large for The Undefeated, also asked people to consider the losses. “Somebody said it was the beginning of the beginning, but in some ways it was the beginning of the end,” in terms of the sports dominance of “all these great black institutions.” Black student-athletes began to be recruited by white schools that were larger, had more resources and, unlike HBCUs, were often more interested in the athlete than the student.

The teachers at HBCUs tried to make every student in their classes an homage to uplift, said Nock, who is now a sculptor. At Morgan State, “the whole deal was for us to go out and show that we were equal or better than anybody out there,” said Washington, who became a chemist after his football career.

“This particular game became the forerunner to black college classics all over the country.”

Panelist Broderick Johnson Sr., an official with former President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, focused on expanding opportunities for young boys, was struck by Eddie Robinson’s comment in the film about how all his athletes were getting a college diploma. For athletes of color in elite football programs at predominantly white schools, “this issue about getting their college degree, getting an education, has been lost for thousands and tens of thousands of players,” Johnson said.

Ashland Johnson, director of public education for the Human Rights Campaign and a former Division I basketball player with Furman University, said she wouldn’t have been able to go to college without her athletic scholarship. In 2001, when she was being recruited, going to an HBCU “wasn’t even on the table.” The competition for elite black athletes was fierce, and “HBCUs just didn’t have the same amount of scholarship money.” For her, it resulted in feeling like she was part of an island of black students who were consigned to sports and not included “throughout the whole space of the school experience.”

Craig Spencer grew up in the Bronx and was 8 years old in 1968 when his uncle took him and his brother to Yankee Stadium for the game. “That was my first experience seeing HBCUs play, and I was just amazed to see 60,000-plus African-Americans at that game,” he said. Ten years later, he got a scholarship to play defensive back at Morgan State.

Spencer, now a banker in Baltimore, said Morgan State made him a man. The game was one part of a continuum in his development. HBCUs work on historical, inspirational and cultural levels. It’s part of their “golden secret,” Spencer said. Unfortunately, their legacy is the most challenged on the fields of athletic play, he said, despite or perhaps even partially because of that groundbreaking football game in 1968.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.