Roy Shivers: His-Story

By Anthony Harris
Updated: September 10, 2005
roy shivers

NEW YORK, NY During seven National Football League seasons with the old St. Louis Cardinals of the mid-60’s and early 70’s running back Roy Shivers ran for 680 yards, caught the ball for another 400 yards and scored 15 touchdowns, including a 94-yard kickoff return in his rookie season.

However, it is what he’s doing once his playing days came to an end that is far more noteworthy, while metaphorically piling up the yards and moving the chains.

Shivers is the General Manager and Director of Football Operations for the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.

In 18 years north of the border, in various capacities with three other franchises, (British Columbia Lions, Calgary Stampeders and Birmingham Barracudas,) his teams have made the playoffs 16 times, winning three championships in seven Grey Cup (the CFL’s version of the Super Bowl) appearances.

In five years in Saskatchewan he has been the architect of a football resurrection that has seen the Roughriders steadily improve. They finished this recent season one win away from the championship game.

Shivers is quietly respected throughout all football circles (though sadly not enough to receive comparable offers from the NFL) for his ability to recognize top talent. He signed current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia, when others looked elsewhere, to join him in Calgary.

Though the level of success in his chosen profession is impressive, the most relevant point about the 62-year old native from Hally, Arkansas is that he hasn’t forgotten where he came from and is acutely aware of the importance of helping others on his way to the top.

Upon arriving in Saskatchewan he unabashedly sought and eventually hired a Black coach, calling on his close friend and former quarterback and coach in Calgary, Danny Barrett.

“He was a guy that I knew knew the game,” Shivers told me in his deep southern voice.

“People gravitated towards him. He was a leader on the field, and he was a guy that I knew would never have a problem off the field. He’s a family man, a church going man and he’s a good person and he and I offset each other and I wanted to take him under my wing.”

One of the first things you immediately learn about Roy Shivers when speaking with him is that he’s not afraid to let you know where he’s coming from.

“We get these opportunities and we don’t take advantage of them. We were always in positions where people made decisions on us. I was now in a decision-making position where I can make a decision, and I don’t think my father and my parents, or the people I grew up with, I don’t think they would’ve approved if I went the other way when I had a choice.”

Heavy stuff. Listen further.

“I knew a Black qualified guy that could coach, and that was my whole thing. I got a chance to make a difference now, and I’m gonna make a difference by hook or by crook, because I’ve seen the other guy get his brother, cousin, uncle or whoever on the staff and nobody ever says a word.”

Simply put Shivers is a “race man”, a term that many of our people used in days gone by, and when you look at the goings on in his youth and the job done by his parents you should certainly see why.

As a four-year old he was part of the big migration of Black southern families that settled in many of this countries western cities seeking equal opportunity and fleeing Jim Crow.

To this day he remembers many of the racial incidents his family confronted. From moving to the back of the train in certain locales on their trip westward to his father calling a young White child sir and not getting the same respect.

Also, his parents instilled in him, along with his six other siblings, what kinds of racial discrimination took place before their respective births.

He says that while he tried to emulate his father’s compassion he took his mother’s outspokenness and feisty disposition.

Both served him well, particularly the valuable wisdom his dad laid on him.

“My father’s favorite saying to me was, ‘they’re not gonna give you anything free,’ he was referring to the man.”

He continues in his dad’s words, “You gotta work for what you get and it’s not always gonna be fair. You’re gonna face a lot of adversity. You’re gonna see a lot of bullshit and you gotta deal with it.”

Settling in Oakland, California Shivers had the opportunity to grow up and go to school with the likes of Bill Russell, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood and Huey Newton.

During those impressionable years several watershed events further expedited his education away from the classroom.

For instance, August of 1955 just a month after his 14th birthday near Money, Mississippi. Chicago native Emmet Till, while vacationing with family, makes an overture toward a White girl that leads to his death.

Have you ever sent a loved son on vacation and had him returned to you in a pine box, so horribly battered and waterlogged that someone needs to tell you this sickening sight is your son.

- Mamie Bradley, mother of Emmett Till

Ms. Bradley’s decision to have an open casket at her son’s funeral and Jet magazine’s subsequent showing of the mutilated body of 14-year old Emmett Till on the cover hit many people very hard, the least of which were the young Shivers and his friends in the Bay Area.

“That was shocking to us in California that something like that could happen, because we were not afraid of white people in California,” he says.

“I’d kick a white boy’s ass as soon as I’d do anybody else. So when we saw this down in Mississippi it was shocking man and enlightened a lot of people… Then I really understood what my father was talking about.”

There were also a series of personal slights that were placed at Shivers’ front door.

As the starting quarterback at Fremont High School, and later with the Aggies of Utah State University, a White counterpart bumped him as the starter (not because of skill) nevertheless, he dusted himself off and like many would be Black quarterbacks of that era shifted to running back which landed him the spot with the Cardinals.

Sadly, even after his playing days – as an assistant coach at the University of Hawaii and UNLV – the lack of respect continued.

“I was probably the best recruiter they ever had,” the always self-assured Shivers says.

“I saw some of the things that went on, you know the favoritism and stuff, and I spoke then and I became the black sheep – the real black sheep again.”

“I understood what was going on when they started moving people around and little incidents and if you didn’t laugh at their jokes, if you questioned or didn’t go along with them they’d always label you a malcontent, you know, ‘you got a bad attitude,’ and that was hung on me simply because I spoke up and I didn’t laugh and smile and grin and steppin’ fetchit for them a lot of the time.”

Candor and sticking to his principles are commonplace for Roy Shivers. For example, when you consider his stellar credentials you have to ask the obvious question, why isn’t he in the front office with an NFL franchise?

“I have not thought about going to the NFL in 20 years. I had a chance to go to work for an NFL team about 20 years ago and they wanted me to start out scouting, driving down through the south.”

Therein displays one of the many admirable qualities of this man, for in a day and age when the hype and seduction of the mainstream (in this case the NFL) clouds the abilities of those practicing their craft, it is refreshing to see someone excel on their own terms.

“Hey! I’d rather be a big fish in a small pond than a little fish in a big pond,” he says no doubt smiling like a Cheshire cat.

If you think the league’s hiring practices for persons of color in management or coaching positions leaves a bit to be desired today, just imagine his level of angst a generation ago.

“They gave me that crap about you get your NFL administration pension, but I thought I was as qualified as a lot of other people, why should I have to go backwards,” he asks rhetorically.

“I’ve never gone looking for a job. If I do good work I think that’s good enough. You call me if you want me to come. I went through that process where people won’t even return your phone calls, and then people put labels on you and I figured there was a label out on me as a troublemaker. I made my bed and got up in it. It’s never bothered me.”

At the collegiate level, the recent hiring of 17-year NFL assistant coach Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State’s already probation troubled program (just the third African American head football coach at the Division 1-A level, while more than 50% of the players are Black) is another topic Shivers has views on.

“I would like to think that he’s written something in his contract about where he can live through that, but we’ve always been in reclamation projects.”

Which is all the more reason to marvel at what he has done in Saskatchewan in such a short time, relying on a formula very similar to what the Green Bay Packers did in their revival early in the 1990’s when they signed free agent Reggie White.

“It’s the same thing here. This is a town that is a rural community, farm and ranch and stuff like that so it was always hard to keep people here and Danny and I our pitch was hey we’re here it’s not that bad,” he says.

“That’s why we’ve been able to get some free agents here, simply because of us and talking to them as one black man to the other.”

This feeling of community is contagious. For not only has he brought winning back to Taylor Field, but the fans love him. In fact, it is not unusual for them to yell out encouraging words from their cars when they see him in town.

Ironically, football, or any sport for that matter, was not his first love.

“I always wanted to be a schoolteacher, because Black schoolteachers were my role models growing up.”

There were Black doctors and more specifically Black Bay Area recreational directors who also played a pivotal role in his development, although the latter were his only African American coaches throughout his entire playing career.

Not to justify his actions (Mr. Shivers can certainly do that on his own), but he has clearly learned from the past and wants to establish an indelible mark. He plans on leaving Regina (Saskatchewan’s capital city, geographically similar to the state of Idaho) in 2006 to spend more time with his family in Las Vegas and his grand kids. That’s where his mentoring of current coach Danny Barrett comes into play, very much like the mentoring and direction he received.

“I would like to think that when I disappear off the scene that somebody else would come on the scene and that Danny and guys that are playing now would want to try and carry it on, that’s the only way.

“What do they say? When you forget your past you are doomed. I’ve never forgot what transpired.”

This true Renaissance man is an avid reader – you’ll never find The Bachelor or other frivolous programming on in his home – of biographies of all kinds from Fidel Castro to Mae West to Marvin Gaye’s Divided Soul. And yes, he is critical of what’s going on today.

“I don’t think our young people today understand what went on 30-35 years ago. A lot of them think it’s been like this all the time and they never had to face Jim Crow or segregation. And like I tell them what’s the difference between segregation or apartheid? Nothing. It was the same thing. One is an African word the other is English.

“I like what Martin Luther King said, he tried to help somebody. And that’s all I ever tried to do and I’m not gonna take no shit from anybody either,” he says emphatically.

Tangible evidence lies in the fact that Danny Barrett interviewed for the top coaching spot at the University of Cincinnati (a division 1-a program) before deciding to stay in Canada.

“I’m like the Frank Sinatra thing. I think I’ve done it my way. It’s restricted me in a lot of instances probably from getting jobs and stuff, but I really don’t care. I’m happy with my station in life right now.”

To get to this station he has traveled a long and winding road, but if you peer out the window you can see pay dirt.

First and goal to go!