Black History Month: Wyoming Football and Why The “Black 14” Still Matters

It’s Black History Month. Therefore, there will be an abundance of coverage on websites, television, podcasts, and more involving African-Americans. Naturally, we’ll hear about known stories, but I would like to focus on unsung narratives involving African-Americans in sports. I will give perspective on how they impacted sports today, whether it’s an individual, team or particular moment. We conclude our series with recognizing the “Black 14.”

For the United States, the 1960’s were filled with protests and arrests, violence and calls for peace as a number of social movements unfolded. From dissents about the Vietnam War to support for Civil Rights, it was common to see people stand up for their beliefs. Unsurprisingly, the protests traveled to the University of Wyoming.

Controversy erupted over the dismissal of 14 African-American football players from the Cowboys’ football team. They were known as the “Black 14.” The fourteen players grew tired of being called names and being on the wrong end of tireless cheap shots against Brigham Young University. After seeking help from officials, nothing transpired in their favor.

In an interview with CBS Sports, Tony McGee, declared:

“This was something that we felt, as African Americans, was something that was transpiring every time we played Brigham Young. So, our [other teammates] were not really involved with it.”

Along with McGee, the other 13 included: Jerry (Jay) Berry, Tony Gibson, John Griffin, Lionel Grimes, Mel Hamilton, Ron Hill, Willie Hysaw, Jim Issac, Earl Lee, Don Meadows, Ivie Moore, Joe Williams, and Ted Williams. These young men went from being celebrated on the field to being stripped of the opportunity to play football and continue their education. While some of the fourteen were later reinstated, they were certainly impacted by the initial expulsions.

After hearing from team captain Joe Williams, head coach Lloyd Eaton was aware of the players’ plans to conduct a peaceful protest. The 14 proceeded to wear black armbands to signify unity and solidarity. According to Jay Berry, former Wyoming football player stated that he and his teammates wanted to use their rights as students to explore free speech in addition to the problems with the BYU football team.

Prior to playing BYU on October 18, 1969, the players met in Coach Eaton’s office. During the meeting, they were chastised not to wear the armbands. As you might imagine, Coach Eaton yelled at the players telling them that they will never play another down at Wyoming. From there, the insults continued to grow. He told the players that they were fortunate to be playing at Wyoming. He went on to say that they would be at Morgan State and other historically black colleges and universities if it weren’t for Wyoming.

Rumors surfaced that the “Black 14” wanted to protest BYU due to the university barring black men from the priesthood. Again, Berry denied the reports. Whether true or not, issues raised from the football players not being on the field and in the classroom.

To no surprise, the university supported Coach Eaton’s decision. As you can imagine in Laramie, where the African-American population is less than 2 percent, it ignited a divide between the town, university and the student-athletes. This came at an unfortunate time for both the players and the football program. Wyoming started 4-0 that season while being ranked 12th in the country. The Cowboys were on the verge of mirroring their success from the previous two seasons where they finished 20-2.

Not to say that Wyoming was akin to elite college teams of today, but they were emerging as a notable program. After the controversy with the university, the football team headed in a downward spiral. The following season after the fourteen black players were off the team, they finished 1-9. After that, they didn’t reach another bowl game until 1976.

Over forty years later, Wyoming Football isn’t on the path that it once was during a brief period in the late 1960s. Dating back to 1967, Wyoming yielded three 10-win seasons.

Some can attribute that to other college football programs becoming recruiting juggernauts. While that is the case, it’s not all that hard to correlate their steady decline with what occurred in 1969. Since the incident at Wyoming, the university has struggled to recruit African-American players. Although future student-athletes of today weren’t born in 1969, you can’t change history.

While the story of the “Black 14” isn’t well-known compared to Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and other notable African-American protestors in sports, there is appreciation for what the fourteen black football players did for college football and society. Despite being depicted as ungrateful and bitter student-athletes, all fourteen players obtained their degrees (some from other universities), and some eventually played in the NFL.

In a lot of ways, they risked their education and chances to play professional football to take a stand for what was wrong. Many careers were negatively impacted, but the end result was worth the risk of taking a stand.

Some believe that since the events in 1969, racially-motivated instances have lessened at major universities. Although there is some truth to that, issues with race continue to have a place in college football and at universities. From questionable hiring practices for African-American head coaches, faculty, and staff to fans using racial slurs towards players, there is still a long way to go to reach equality.

 

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