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Zachary, Minnesota Sports Pioneer Passes Away
MINNESOTA — In University of Minnesota sports history, Percy Zachary is remembered for one season, 1952, when he became the school’s first African-American to earn All-Big Ten Conference honors.
That was his only season on the field with the Gophers, but Zachary was a memorable figure before and after that season as he left an enduring impression on people as more than a football player.
“He was a great athlete, but he was very smart, very thoughtful and very perceptive,” said Douglas Heidenreich, the dean of students at William Mitchell College of Law and a former college teammate of Zachary, 80, who died at his home last Sunday night after battling Lewy body disease. “It was a privilege to know him.”
Zachary was a two-time all-city performer at fullback at St. Paul’s Marshall High School in 1946. After two years in the Army, he played for two seasons from 1948-49 for Louisville Municipal College, a segregated branch of the University of Louisville.
At 22 years old, Zachary returned home to play for the Gophers in 1950. He sat out his first year, and an injury forced him to miss the 1951 season, but he always set an example of class and maturity on and off the field, his acquaintances said.
“(Former coach Wes) Fesler would single him out,” said Bob McNamara, an All-Big Ten running back in 1952. “He told us we needed to look at how Percy dressed and represented the team. He would go down to the argyle socks. He was perfect the way he dressed. He had a lot of ability but also a lot of humor. He really helped to keep things light in the locker room.”
The Gophers had two black players on their roster in 1950 in Zachary and Donald “Bill” McMoore, who went on to become a boxer at Minnesota. The one everyone called “Zach” was the only African-American on the team two years later, when he was dubbed “the most improved player” while becoming a standout right guard on Minnesota’s defensive line. Zachary and teammates McNamara and quarterback Paul Giel were first-team all-conference selections that year, and Giel earned the first of his two All-America selections.
Heidenreich and Zachary once were roommates. Heidenreich said the two never spoke much about race.
“It’s one of those things that now I look back on it, but I didn’t think much about then,” Heidenreich said of Zachary being the only black player on the team and the signficance of him being the first to make all-Big Ten. “I just saw Percy as a fellow friend and a good player.”
Almost as quickly as he gained stardom at Minnesota, Zachary left the team before finishing his career. He married his wife, Martha, in 1953, and started working to support his second child. The first was born when he was still in school.
“He didn’t have enough money to go back,” Martha said. “You just do what has to be done. He would say, ‘You always adjust.’ ”
Over the years, Zachary worked several different jobs, but he went back to get his degree in 1975. Before retiring as director of Dakota County’s social services program in 1993, he raised five children in St. Paul’s Rondo Avenue neighborhood. He had 19 grandchildren, some of whom continued the family’s football tradition.
Zachary and his wife rarely missed his grandson’s games at Cretin-Derham Hall and once traveled to Notre Dame to watch his grandson Marcus Freeman, now a tight end for the Carolina Panthers.
Traveling became difficult for Zachary in 2000 after he was diagnosed with Lewy body, a form of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s. He never wanted to be the center of attention, but several friends and family made a big deal out of his 80th birthday party in March.
All that his family has left to commemorate his All-Big Ten selection in 1952 are newspaper clippings, but for Zachary, his life was about much more than that.
“People here know all about what he did,” his grandson Steven Zachary Jr. said, “But he never bragged and talked about that stuff. If (the clippings) hadn’t been saved, we would have never known.”