The National Football Foundation (NFF) & College Football Hall of Fame hosted an inaugural Black History panel yesterday at the Hall in Atlanta with Hall of Fame inductees Thom Gatewood (Notre Dame); Gene Washington (Michigan State); and John Wooten (Colorado) taking center stage. Don McPherson, a College Football Hall of Fame inductee from Syracuse, emceed the 90-minute discussion.
“When the first Hall of Fame class was inducted in 1951, many colleges in the South remained segregated, yet the leaders of our organization had the gumption and the strength to say that our very first class should include an African-American,” said NFF President & CEO Steve Hatchell in reference to Duke Slater, the legendary tackle at Iowa from 1918-21 and a 1951 inductee. “Black History is significant to us, and not just one month out of the year but every month of the year, so having these four Hall of Famers with us today represents something very, very special.”
The discussion, part of the “Breaking Barriers: A Salute to Black History in College Football, Delivered by UPS” celebration at the Hall, took place in the Game Day Theater on the second floor of the Hall with more than 200 people in attendance and more than 18,000 watching on Facebook Live. Click here to watch a replay.
Washington, who grew up in the segregated South during the late 1950s and early 1960s before playing for Hall of Fame Coach Duffy Daugherty at Michigan State, recollected about not being able to play against-or-with white players, resulting in-little-to-no information about the great black players in the South at the time.
“When I went to Michigan State, I was blessed to have the opportunity because of Duffy Daugherty, the head coach at Michigan State, would come down to Texas and all through the South, and he was the only white coach, who would come down and put on coaching clinics for all of the black coaches,” said Washington. “I was recruited mainly because of Bubba Smith and his father [a black coach in the South who attended one of the clinics] who put in a good word with him for me… My being here with you, I am sharing with you that that is how it started.”
Gatewood, who played for Hall of Fame Coach Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame, talked about the opportunities that football created for him, including the marketing and sales company that he founded as well as a broadcasting career. He remembered growing up in segregated Baltimore with a dad who had wanted to work construction but being blocked from joining the unions because of his race. The experience, coupled with his time in South Bend, inspired him.
“So, I needed a dream, and the key, in my opinion, for opportunity is preparation, and preparation needs education,” said Gatewood. “So, that means some educator, a parent recognized some talent in this kid, and by nurturing that gave me the motivation to say that I have to find a way to really cultivate this further so I can get to that dream.”
Wooten, who was a Texan by birth and grew up in segregated New Mexico in the late 1930s, emotionally talked about his journey and travails. He was one of six children to a mother who worked as a maid, and he was the only child in his family who was able to attend college. He paid special tribute to the coaches and administrators at Carlsbad High School who voted to integrate his high school, giving him the opportunity to play high school football and eventually attend the University of Colorado.
“The thing that stays on my mind every single day is what are you doing to help somebody,’ said Wooten. “And that is the reason why I sit here with you guys today…How can we make this relate to what is going on in our world today, and not just inspiring the black youngster but educating and making everybody realize and feel responsible that you are your brother’s keeper.”
VIPs in attendance included: Hall of Fame inductee Jim Brown’s daughter Kim; Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee COO Brett Daniels; Celebration Bowl Executive Director John Grant; Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau President & CEO William Pate (who also serves on the Hall’s board); Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) commissioner Dennis Thomas, Morehouse College (Ga.) President Dr. John Wilson; and Coca-Cola Company Director of Sports Entertainment and Community Marketing Allyson Young.
“As the birthplace of the civil rights moment and the epicenter of college football, Atlanta is the perfect place for this celebration,” said Dennis Adamovich, the College Football Hall of Fame & Chick fil-A-Fame Experience CEO. “The many intersections of college football and black history provide an amazing platform for engaging the community, and we’re honored to host this unique event here today at the Hall.”
Justine Boyd, the Regional Development Director in Atlanta for the United Negro College Fund, Was also in attendance. The United Negro College Fund is donating $1 from every admission to the Hall during this week to the Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU). She was joined at the event by students from Atlanta-area HBCUs Spellman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University.
“You all are in Atlanta, the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement and the home of Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Keisha Bottoms, an Atlanta City Council member who represented Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, an honorary chairman of the month-long Black History celebration at the Hall. “If you are often in Atlanta, you know that we take our stars for granted because they are often in our midst, but I am reminded today that there are so many stars not just in Atlanta but in our nation who deserve recognition, and there voices deserve to be heard so I am grateful that you have all gathered today.”