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Spirit of the Black 14
LARAMIE — All Mel Hamilton ever wanted was to make a difference in students’ lives. Whether it was college students at Wyoming, his alma mater, or Casper’s East Junior High School, where he was a principal, Hamilton wanted to educate.
He wanted to have an impact.
Yet, somehow, he wasn’t terribly shocked when he woke up one winter morning in 1999 to see someone had drawn three sixes in the snow outside his home. That teachers referred to him as “monkey this and monkey that” and even worse racist language he felt was more sad than infuriating.
As a new principal, he had tried to get rid of half a dozen teachers whom he didn’t believe were doing their jobs well. However, it was more than that. He knew it.
Hamilton has lived in Wyoming for 40 of his 62 years. He loves the hunting and fishing and the state’s postcard scenery. Yet this wasn’t just about a principal trying to improve his faculty.
“I’ve always been viewed as a troublemaker,” Hamilton said, “because of the Black 14.”
The Black 14.
It’s 40 years later and that label still produces hatred and tears and questions from those involved. Yet when Brigham Young defeated Wyoming 52-0 in Laramie’s War Memorial Stadium on Saturday, few Front Range fans realized it was the 40th anniversary of a matchup that sparked one of the great civil rights debates in American sports history.
On Oct. 17, 1969, the 14 African- American players on Wyoming’s then-undefeated football team walked into coach Lloyd Eaton’s office wearing black armbands. The team was preparing to play BYU at War Memorial the next day.
The players had a question. Could they wear black armbands in silent protest? The year before, in their victory at BYU, they said Cougars players taunted them with racial epithets. The Wyoming players had also learned that the Mormon Church, which BYU represents, did not allow African-Americans in the priesthood.
This was America, 1969. The year before, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The Vietnam War raged, and so did antiwar protests.
But this was also Wyoming, 1969. Eaton, citing a policy against protests, a rule no player had heard of, said no. He then kicked all 14 off the team for the rest of the season. Only three would play for Wyoming again.
“We knew how Lloyd Eaton would respond, but we certainly didn’t know he’d (say what he did),” said John Griffin, a flanker on that team now retired in Denver, “and that he would eventually ruin a football program for over 10 years.”
Stand up for your rights
Make it nearly 20. It took that long for Wyoming football to return to glory after the tailspin that began on that overcast Friday 40 years ago. The players were already fuming at BYU, remembering the taunts from the year before.
Fanning the flames came one Willie Black, leader of Wyoming’s Black Student Alliance. At a meeting that week, he informed the attending African-American players of the Mormon Church’s racial policies.
“What are you going to do about it?” he said, as if challenging them.
The players gathered in running back Joe Williams’ room to talk.
Eaton recruited nationwide, and his African-American players made the team much more diverse than his state.
Griffin grew up in San Fernando, Calif., where he said blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics mixed peacefully in that melting pot.
Hamilton, meanwhile, was the son of a mason and, as a 10-year-old in Wilmington, N.C., saw his father cry when white men made fun of him for asking to borrow money.
Yet there was no debate on where the 14 African-Americans stood on the BYU game.
At Wyoming, the black players played and partied and studied with the white players.
“Anytime your rights are trampled on, whether it’s religion or politics, you have to stand up for it,” Hamilton said. “You can’t throw away your civil rights, your constitutional rights.”
Of all the players, Hamilton knew best how Eaton would react. A year and a half earlier, after all, he had asked Eaton to start paperwork for his pending marriage. Coach wouldn’t do it. There was a problem.
“He said, ‘I can’t let you marry a white girl on the people of Wyoming’s land,’ ” Hamilton said.
Hamilton left the team before the ’68 season and returned to play in 1969, where he again found himself in Eaton’s office, this time with 13 African-American teammates.
Eaton had already told Williams the day before he wouldn’t allow the armbands. The players showed up to find out why. Eaton took them to the bleachers in the old fieldhouse, where he told them they were booted.
Lloyd Eaton grew up a tough farm boy near Belle Fourche, S.D., and his teams reflected his hard veneer. Wyoming football in the ’60s meant a power running game, vicious hitting in cold, windy weather and attention to detail and discipline.
Under Eaton, who arrived in 1957 as a defensive line coach under Bob Devaney and took over in 1962, Wyoming went 10-1 in 1966 and ’67 and won three consecutive Western Athletic Conference championships.
The players had never heard Eaton utter a racial epithet. He hammered on the importance of education. Yet what he said in those bleachers hit them harder than any BYU Cougar.
“He said we could go to Grambling State or Morgan State,” defensive end Tony McGee said in a phone interview from Fayetteville, Ga.
“We could go back to colored relief. If anyone said anything, he told us to shut up. We were really protesting policies we thought were racist. Maybe we should’ve been protesting there.”
Added Griffin: “For him to say that we’re going back on subsistence programs, that infuriated me. How dare you say that to me? These are a bunch of guys who are smart guys, who are darn good athletes, and you’re going to say that? You’re missing the point here. You’re way behind the times.
“Have you been reading the newspapers?”
Move gets national attention
If Eaton hadn’t been reading the papers, he soon would. So would the rest of America.
The fallout from the suspensions was as fast and powerful as a Wyoming blizzard. Within a half-hour of their meeting, students approached players asking if they were boycotting the game.
“That’s how quickly the university was spinning this thing,” Griffin said.
In the aftermath, nearly every white player refused to speak to them. Receiver Ron Hill, one of the 14 and Griffin’s roommate, got in a fistfight with a white player behind a sorority house. Players saw locals riding through campus with shotguns hanging off the back of their pick-ups.
Reporters at the student newspaper, The Branding Iron, quit in protest of editor Phil White’s editorial supporting the Black 14. White later quit his position to finish law school.
White doesn’t blame his reporters. He blames Eaton.
“It was such a harsh thing to do, to just have the whole thing shatter into pieces in one fit of anger by this coach,” said White, whose law office today is, coincidentally, five blocks from War Memorial. “It’s always been upsetting and regrettable. If the coach had just gone in there and said, ‘What do you want to do and why do you feel this way?’ “
Not everyone blames Eaton. There is controversy about the amount of racial taunting that went on in the ’68 game. Griffin admits he doesn’t remember any taunts. Hamilton said BYU players called him the “N” word in the ’67 game. Tommy Tucker, a white linebacker and captain, is equally sure it never happened.
“I didn’t hear one thing,” said Tucker, from Salt Lake City, where he’s in the insurance business. “They were gentlemen on the field, as much as BYU can be on the field. They were whiners and complainers, as they are to this day. But this was manufactured to meet the mood of the times in 1969.”
What bothers Tucker is the Black 14 let the cause spill onto the football field.
“They signed on to play football for the university, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a gay university. I wouldn’t demonstrate against them,” said Tucker, who has yet to speak to a Black 14 member since that day.
“I come to play football and win football games. If I want to protest, I’ll do it on my own time.”
Tucker is still haunted by how the incident poleaxed Wyoming football. Without the Black 14 in that ’69 game, Wyoming defeated BYU 40-7, then followed with a victory over San Jose State.
But the damage was done. Wyoming lost its last four games. Among the 14 were four offensive and three defensive starters, plus three key reserves.
Williams was the lone senior.
A year later, Wyoming fell to 1-9, after which Eaton resigned.
The coach never discussed the incident again â€” except with his wife, Dolly.
“He was not bitter,” said Dolly from Nampa, Idaho, where she and her husband moved in retirement. He died two years ago of a stroke at age 88. “He had a good conscience about it,” Dolly said. “All the people thought like he did. You should not make fun or criticize another religion.”
She does not think her husband’s ruling crippled Wyoming football, but the Cowboys had trouble recruiting African-American players for many years, and had but one winning season in the 1970s.
They didn’t win another outright WAC title until 1987.
Church changes its policy
While this story has a sad beginning, it has a happy ending, and not because 4-5 Wyoming has an improved football team. Nearly all the Black 14 earned degrees and had successful careers.
But the biggest victories came off the field. A year after the Black 14, the first African-American played for BYU. In 1978, the Mormon Church dropped its policy excluding African-Americans from priesthood.
As it turns out, the Black 14′s legacy is greater than any bowl victory.
“No doubt about it,” Hamilton said. “Historically, people had to suffer to get the true legacy of their actions. If we went back on the team, nobody would remember that.”
It all hit home with Hamilton one day 10 years ago. His son, Malik, was attending Utah State and had some news for him. He had met a woman.
He would become a Mormon.
“He agonized about this for months,” Hamilton said. “I said, ‘Malik, what did I fight for? I fought for you to be able to do that and feel like you’d be accepted in this religion totally.’ “
Hamilton told this story this past week in the Wyoming student union, during a panel discussion honoring the Black 14. The story didn’t quite move him to tears, not like a phone call the week before did, informing him of the event.
He looked out to the packed crowd from his panel seat and it was true. There they were: about 80 Mormon students from the University of Wyoming, all wearing Black 14 armbands.