BASN Focus On History: Remembering Sandy Stephens

By Tony McClean
Updated: November 7, 2005
Sandy Stephens

NOTE: This story originally appeared on the site during the 2004 college football season.

NEW HAVEN, CT.—With their 43-17 victory over Northwestern last weekend, the University of Minnesota is now 4-0. It’s the third straight season that the Golden Gophers (currently 18th in the AP college poll; 19th in the USA Today/ESPN poll) have opened the season at 4-0.

The Gophers haven’t been to the Rose Bowl since going in back-to-back seasons in 1960-61. UM has also had a small history of having several African-American quarterbacks over the years.
From Tony Dungy (yes, the Colts’ head coach) to Ricky Foggie, black quarterbacks have been common in the Twin Cities. In fact, the man who led the Golden Gophers to those back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances was an African American as well.
Sandy Stephens was the first black man to play quarterback at the University of Minnesota, and remains the only quarterback to take the Gophers to the Rose Bowl.
Born on September 21, 1940, Sanford Emory Stephens II was raised in Uniontown, Pennsylvania to athletic parents, Sanford Sr. and Helen Pryor Stephens, who met on a tennis court.
Sanford Sr. was an outstanding multiple sports athlete. The oldest of four children, Sandy and his younger brother Raymond both excelled in sports. Stephens lettered for three years in football, basketball, track and field and was a spectacular baseball player.
Before graduation from high school, he received scholarship offers from fifty-nine colleges and tryouts with the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates.
He chose to attend the University of Minnesota because it was one a Big Ten school, he wanted to compete for the right to go to the Rose Bowl, the oldest bowl game with the finest reputation and the biggest arena.
“I was going to be more than a Big Ten quarterback who was black,” Stephens said. “I was going to be a Big Ten quarterback who took his team to the Rose Bowl.” In 1960, he led the University of Minnesota to a national championship.
Stephens led Minnesota to an 8-2 record that year and in the championship game The following season, Stephens scored two touchdowns as the Gophers beat UCLA 21-3.
Stephens became the first African-American major-college All-American quarterback and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
Stephens was a second-round NFL draft choice of the Cleveland Browns and the fifth overall selection in the AFL draft by the New York Titans.
Both teams said that they wouldn’t use him as a quarterback and he never played a down in either league. The Canadian Football League (CFL) welcomed him as a quarterback. Stephens’ contract with Montreal was not an issue in 1962 when he led the Alouettes to the Grey Cup Finals.
The change in head coach the next year resulted in a relationship full of friction. Stephens’ contract was richer than the coaches, they disagreed philosophically, and the coach eventually made it impossible for him to stay.
After a short stint with the Toronto Argonauts, Stephens tried out as a walk on with the Minnesota Vikings. The night he made that decision he was involved in a near fatal accident.
Doctors were not sure how he survived the crash and were certain he would never walk correctly again. Two years after the accident Stephens signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as a fullback.
He was willing to play any of the back positions and continued to dream of playing as a quarterback in the NFL. However, the writing was on the wall when the Chiefs signed another quarterback to back up Len Dawson.
Sandy ended his active football career in 1968. He became an ardent supporter and participant of the Vikings Chapter of the NFL Alumni Association.
Thirty years after he left football, Stephens was named to the University of Minnesota All Century Team, the Star Tribune 100 All Century Top Sports Figures (No. 30), and awarded NCAA Legends status.
He was inducted into the University of Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame, the Western Pennsylvania All Sports Hall of Fame and he was nominated for induction into the National and College Football Foundation Hall of Fame.
One of his most coveted recognitions was his induction into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1997.
Sandy Stephens died June 6, 2000 at age 59. In a letter read at Stephens’ memorial services, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. recalled, “(Sandy) made us feel so proud, with his poise and dignity, as well as his athletic ability.”
“I am convinced his dreams of having an even playing field for his skills to be demonstrated were broken, but his non-negotiable dignity and private pride were never broken.”
In the introduction to his still unpublished memoirs Sandy expresses his perspective on the change in atmosphere. “As a pioneer in the field – First Black Consensus All-American Quarterback. My experiences leave me feeling like the Moses of Black quarterbacks – able to see the Promised Land, but unable to enter it.”
Judge Dickson, Stephens’ college roommate and dear friend said of Stephens, “He (Sandy) was so much more than a tremendous athlete. He always made people feel good. This is why Sandy truly was a legend.”
“He was more than just a player, he was a leader, a friend, and a great person.” His family and friends remember him as a caring, thoughtful, socially conscience, champion of the less fortunate, fiercely loyal, competitive, music loving, believer in justice, and a patriot.
NOTE: The African-American Registry contributed to this story.