Former NFL and Notre Dame receiver Thom Gatewood knows the value of impactful role models.
In high school, he was coached by George Young — who would go on to coach the Baltimore Colts and spend 33 years in the NFL. Gatewood said he grew up idolizing sports heroes living in many of the communities he saw around him.
“There were football role models still living in many of the disadvantaged neighborhoods across the country. It wasn’t the star system that we have now that makes it difficult to reach them,” he said. “If you lived in their neighborhoods, it didn’t take much for young, black kids in Baltimore to see the likes of Frank Robinson, Lenny Moore or John Mackey. I wanted to be like them and pull people along like me to get them out of disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
This week, the College Football Hall of Fame inductee watched as his grandson, A.J. Dillon, signed a letter of intent to continue his education and football career at Boston College.
It was a moment he said was emblematic of the very reason he took the sport so seriously.
“The greatest gift the Hall gave me was waiting as long as they did to put me in,” Gatewood said. “The year I went in, my grandson was doing well in high school for football. Now, as he’s about to take the same collegiate journey I did, he’s able to appreciate the magnitude of the occasion. It’s another platform to make a connection and communicate with the next generation.”
Gatewood, a dean’s list Scholar-Athlete at Notre Dame and the football team’s first black captain, said he had his heart set on the school because it represented the pinnacle of athletics and academics in an era where blacks were disenfranchised in both.
“I had my choice of schools, but there were some schools that black athletes didn’t really attend at the time. For me, I was looking for a national stage. Most schools had regional attention. Notre Dame was the platform that would give me the national attention,” he said.
“It became natural to seek a university that would satisfy my intellect and also to do something challenging. Civil rights was an issue then and I felt that I found my way to make an impact. The PAC-12 and schools near the west coast were the first to integrate, but other conferences had much work to do. I wanted to have my face shown to young African Americans that would come after me.”
The former All-American is slated to join a panel of his peers for a “Breaking Barriers” roundtable discussion hosted by the College Football Hall of Fame for Black History Month on February 22. Gatewood said communicating the past with the talent of the future has always been a prerogative.
“For me, what I’d like to get out of the event is to use an important tool called communication. You know that communication is a major tool. In football, there’s tons of audibles and physical communication. I want to use my story to display how I became a member of the College Football Hall of Fame fraternity.”
All in all, he said he wants to be a beacon of hope for the younger generations and provide guidance to the athletes following his footsteps.
“Times are much different now,” Gatewood said. “Most teams now have rosters made of 60 to 70 percent African Americans. I believe I did my best to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement by changing the face of these academic institutions.”