College Football Hall of Famer Gene Washington discussed his journey from segregation to open doors of opportunity at Michigan State at the College Football Hall of Fame for Black History Month.
The two-time All-American wide receiver was invited by the National Football Foundation to join a roundtable at the CFB Hall, which took place on Feb. 22 in Atlanta.
Washington, 73, took part with fellow College Football Hall of Famers Thom Gatewood of Notre Dame and John Wooten of Colorado to discuss the integration of the game and celebrate the “Breaking Barriers” exhibit that opened at the museum for Black History Month. The roundtable will be hosted by fellow CFB HOFer Don McPherson.
“It’s an honor to be included,” Washington said. “I’m so blessed to be a part of the Hall of Fame when you to think of the situation I came from. A lot of black athletes from the segregated South didn’t get the chance I had at Michigan State.”
Washington played for Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams that won national titles in 1965, as voted by UPI, and 1966, as honored by the NFF’s MacArthur Bowl as co-champions with Notre Dame.
He says he owes his boarding pass out of segregated Carver High in Baytown, Tx., to Willie Ray Smith, a legendary coach at nearby segregated Pollard High in Beaumont. His son Bubba Smith played for him, and Bubba and Washington faced each other in football and basketball as seniors in the 1962-63 school year.
When Willie Ray Smith steered Bubba to Daugherty, he encouraged Daugherty to recruit Washington, who was an otherwise unknown talent due to segregation.
As Washington can explain at the roundtable, it was a different time. Media coverage of segregated schools was typically limited to black newspapers. Recruiting services blanketing the nation were far off into the future.
But the affable Daugherty was ahead of the game with a network in the South. Willie Ray Smith and other black high school coaches trusted Daugherty with Michigan State’s reputation for black stars on the Spartans’ 1954 and 1956 Rose Bowl teams. The reputation expanded through clinics Daugherty gave in the South that were his response to Jim Crow.
Daugherty’s Underground Railroad was born in Atlanta about the same time as the Civil Rights movement. When he arrived to speak at an Atlanta clinic in the 1950s, he was disturbed Jim Crow barred black high school coaches from attending.
Daugherty subsequently staged his own clinics in the South for black coaches and invited them to clinics on Michigan State’s campus in East Lansing, Mi.
“I remember we would be doing our conditioning in the summer and Duffy would have me run patterns with (quarterback) Jimmy Raye throwing passes for the coaches to watch,” Washington said. “The first time I saw all these black coaches I was wondering where they were from. I asked some and they said they were from all these places in the South. I was surprised. Duffy never said anything about what he was doing. As I got older, I began to understand the leadership he was providing. Duffy led the way in setting aside time for black coaches. He really enjoyed those clinics.”
The Spartans’ 1965 and 1966 teams had unprecedented numbers of black players, with 20 players and 11 starters.
By contrast, Minnesota had only five black players on its 1960 national championship team and USC seven on its 1967 national championship team. But as an example of the doors Daugherty’s teams opened in the South and forced open wider nationwide, there were 23 black players on USC’s 1972 national title roster.
Daugherty’s first Underground Railroad player as a freshman in 1959 was lineman Clifton Roaf of Pine Bluff, Ark. Recently retired as a dentist in his hometown, he is the father of Willie Roaf, a College and Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Michigan State’s first Underground Railroad All-American was running back Sherman Lewis of Louisville, Ky. He was third in the 1963 Heisman Trophy voting.
Another milestone was the South’s first black quarterback to win a national title, Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C. He was the Spartans’ 1966 starter at a time when black quarterbacks were rare.
Washington also will be soon telling his story in an upcoming documentary, “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar,” produced by his daughter, writer/director Maya Washington. She is close to completing the fund-raising.
As Maya learned more about the doors Bubba Smith’s father opened for her father and the opportunities her father’s life provided her and other offspring from the Underground Railroad players, she was inspired to tell the story of Michigan State’s leading role in the integration of college football.
It’s one of two documentaries on Daugherty’s teams. “Men of Sparta” debuted last summer at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival. It was produced by Bob Apisa, the first Samoan All-American football player on the Spartans’ 1965 and 1966 teams.
The 1965 and 1966 teams featured four two-time All-Americans that are in the College Football Hall of Fame. George Webster was enshrined in 1987, Smith in 1988, Washington in 2011 and Clinton Jones in 2015. They are first foursome of black athletes from the same class named to the College Football Hall of Fame.
“We were together from our freshman year to our senior year at Michigan State,” Washington said, “Then we were all drafted in the first eight picks in the (1967) NFL Draft. It’s all because of the opportunity Duffy gave us.”