Trojan Trail Blazer

By Chuck Culpepper Courtesy of NY Newsday
Updated: January 2, 2006

Among USC’s gridiron legends, none was less known or more important than Brice Taylor

Southern California boasts five newly minted football All-Americans and 116 in the last 80 years, but maybe none compels and impresses so much as the first.

The first ought to be a movie.
Brice Taylor cleared away tacklers as a guard on the mid-1920s teams of coaches Elmer C. “Gloomy Gus” Henderson and Howard Jones. He played at such an absurdly pioneering time for black players that his name didn’t appear in USC media guides until the 1950s even though he made All-American. Somehow, records show, he played in the first USC-Notre Dame game in 1926 and head-coached football at Southern University in Louisiana in 1926.

A descendant of the Native American chief Tecumseh, he hailed from Seattle, where they threw him a parade in the early 1950s because he’d thrived as an educator in Los Angeles, and because they remembered him at Franklin High playing football, track and, amazingly, baseball.

He was born without a left hand. He reportedly wowed people throwing and catching nonetheless.

In football, his blocking “would break up all the other players,” said Brad Pye Jr., who took gym class from “Mr. Taylor” at Los Angeles Thomas Jefferson High in the 1940s and headed the venerable black-owned Los Angeles Sentinel sports section for 30 years. “They had to play him. And a lot of days he’d go to school with nothing but crackers and water.”

In a teeming life that spanned from 1902 to his death in September 1974 in Downey, Calif., he also became an assistant minister in Pasadena, invested well in Los Angeles real estate, coached football at three other southern colleges, became the Los Angeles school district’s first black varsity football coach and, somewhere along the way – a photograph shows this occurring in August 1939 – assumed the presidency of Guadalupe College in Seguin, Texas.

That must’ve been some endeavor. Guadalupe, South Texas’ first black college, had suffered a major fire in 1936 and went mostly defunct, straining in fits and starts thereafter to keep a school going, said Anne Brawner, a Seguin historian.

According to the United States Tennis Association, he also, upon return to Los Angeles and employment at Jefferson, birthed the school’s first tennis team, which included Oscar Johnson, who in 1948 became the first black tennis player to win an integrated national championship.

“When he coached the varsity football team, I was on the ‘B’ team,” Pye said, “and boy, those guys would come in from practice, and he’d keep ‘em out there after dark, and they’d be bloody, beating each other and everything.”

As gym teacher, “He was real strict, but he was fair,” Pye said. “For me, he was bigger than life. I had read about him. He was SC’s first All-American. I think we all were afraid of him.”

Fully 30 years passed between Taylor’s USC stop and the 1950s, the next time the school granted a black player a shot at significance, yet Taylor remained known, in minds if not media books.

“I didn’t even know Brice Taylor, but I knew of him, of course,” said Ambrose Schindler, 88, who played for USC from 1936-39. “I knew he didn’t have a hand, and we had pictures.”

“I met him about 1931, when I was playing at USC,” said Julius Bescos, 93, who played for USC from 1931-34. “And he came to practice. And Howard Jones introduced him to the group . . . They said he would take on tackles and he would just demolish them because he was so quick and strong.”

“Although he was a guard, he was as fast as the backs in those days,” said C.R. Roberts, a name that rises in any discussion of Brice Taylor.

In 1956, Roberts, a fullback, became another in the litany of black football players who met discrimination traveling with predominantly white football teams. When USC visited Texas, its 2006 Rose Bowl opposition, the team hotel’s segregation policy forced him to stay at a house. He proceeded to rush for a then-school-record 251 yards – on 12 carries – in a 44-20 win.

Yet even while cross-town UCLA led USC in welcoming black players, and Roberts had to go over to UCLA to find a fraternity, and many black people rooted against USC, according to Pye, Taylor remained stridently pro-cardinal and gold.

“Yeah, he was a Trojan,” Pye said. “I couldn’t understand his loyalty to USC because of the way black athletes were just ignored.”

“He was one of the most well-spoken gentlemen,” Roberts said.

USC inducted Taylor into its second hall of fame class in 1995, 21 years posthumously. When he died, he left a wife, two grown sons and a grown daughter, according to USC. With the dearth of publicity outlets in his playing and coaching days, it has been difficult rounding up biographical information, according to Joyce Sumbi, USC Class of 1960 and historian for the Black Alumni Association founded in 1976.

Pye said he visited Taylor at a nursing home in Downey just before his death, and that Taylor always greeted people with some sort of mention of Trojan-hood that Pye can’t quite recollect. All the while, he barely mentioned the “defect” that failed to limit him from birth.

“If you didn’t see it,” Pye said, “you would never know it.”

Said Roberts, “He just said, ‘Well, I can’t hold the ball in this hand.’”