BYU Football: Remembering the Black 14 Protest
It's not like they ever got used to it.
Protests, taunts and charges of racism greeted Brigham Young University's football, basketball and other athletic teams almost everywhere they went in the late 1960s and early 1970s, owing to doctrine in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - which then, as now, owns and operates BYU - that prohibited blacks from holding ecclesiastical positions in the faith.
But nothing could have prepared BYU's football players and coaches for what they would encounter on Oct. 18, 1969 when they arrived at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyo.
On the eve of the game, 14 Wyoming football players, all African-Americans, were kicked off the team by Cowboys coach Lloyd Eaton for threatening to wear black armbands to draw attention to the fact that the LDS Church did not allow black males to hold its priesthood.
The incident intensified the national spotlight on the LDS Church and BYU in what was already a period of racial strife in America. It also essentially decimated the Wyoming football program - which had played in the Sugar Bowl just two years earlier and was unbeaten going into the BYU game - for years to come.
Most of all, it forever changed the lives of a group of black players who hailed from large East Coast cities, small towns in the racially torn South and pretty much everywhere in between.
"We were young and a bit naive, and there were some things we all wish hadn't happened," said Tony McGee, perhaps the best known of the group that came to be known as the "Black 14" because he went on to an NFL career. "But I am glad it did happen. Perhaps that was our mission."
Saturday, 40 years later, the Cougars will meet the Cowboys at high noon in Laramie under entirely different circumstances than in 1969. BYU is ranked in the top 25, and has the more successful and nationally recognized football program. However, Wyoming is improving under a new coach and seeking a return to glory - something, save a short stretch in late 1980s - that the Cowboys have never really reclaimed since that 1969 season.
A slow burn, then an explosion
Antipathy toward BYU had been building that fall.
The previous year, the Cougars had played a college football game in a near-empty San Jose stadium, except for a hundred or so heavily armed guards. That was just a few hours after a bomb threat was called into their hotel at 3 a.m., and a day after their flight was diverted to a different airport in California's Bay Area for security reasons.
But in Laramie it got personal. Bottles were hurled at the BYU players, church services were picketed and interrupted and the team hotel was surrounded by demonstrators.
"It was just an ugly scene, one I will never forget," said Dick Legas, a defensive back on that BYU team and now a track coach at the school. "I remember one sign that asked if the seagulls were going to save us, and a lot of anti-Mormon stuff like that. It was just a shame."
Added Marc Lyons, who was BYU's quarterback season and is now an analyst on Cougar football radio broadcasts: "It was pretty unnerving for all of us. Several wives and girlfriends made the trip to Laramie, and I still remember coach [Tommy] Hudspeth telling them, 'I wish you hadn't come.'"
A cauldron of unrest
The irony? The Black 14 incident is largely unknown to the current players on both teams, and to many younger BYU and Wyoming fans.
But America is also a different place today than it was then. The late 1960s were a time of societal unrest, ignited by both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. And some of that unrest played out on the athletics stage -- just the year before, John Carlos and Tommie Smith had raised their black-gloved fists and bowed their heads in protest after their 200 meters race at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
The campuses were alive with activists and protests of all stripes, and it was into that cauldron that the Wyoming and BYU football teams fell into in 1969.
"We were right in the middle of the social revolution," said Mel Hamilton, who would become the most vocal of the Wyoming players. "When your time is called, your time is called."
Even without their black teammates, the suddenly all-white Wyoming football team still routed the all-white Cougars 40-7 that day to improve their season record to 5-0.
"The Wyoming guys were playing for a cause, and they were intense and ferocious, and so was the crowd," remembered Mel Olson, an all-conference lineman on that team who is now a professor of exercise science at BYU.
But victories on the gridiron in the future would become few and far between for the only major college football program in the "Equality State." Black athletes shunned the Wyoming for nearly a decade after, according to school athletic department official Kevin McKinney, who was a student at the time of the protest.
Stirred into a frenzy
Members of the Black 14 say they don't remember anything terribly controversial about the looming BYU game as the 1969 college football season unfolded.
Don Meadows of Seattle, McGee of Fayetteville, Ga., and Hamilton, who now lives in Casper, Wyo., recalled BYU as just another Western Athletic Conference rival, and really not much of a football threat.
However, that changed dramatically when they attended a meeting of the newly formed Black Student Alliance the Monday after they had walloped Texas-El Paso, 39-7, and five days before they were scheduled to play the Cougars.
During the gathering, Willie Black, a doctoral candidate in mathematics, "stirred us up, almost into a frenzy," remembered Meadows, who returned to play for Wyoming the following year.
During the meeting, Hamilton said they were told about LDS Church policies regarding race and the priesthood, and the plan was hatched to have the players wear black armbands to draw attention to that perceived racism.
Black told the players about how seven black members of the UTEP track team, including Bob Beamon, who would go on to win a long jump gold medal in world-record fashion at the 1968 Olympics, had refused to compete against BYU earlier that year. He told the players about the incident at San Jose the previous year in which 21 black players refused to play and urged a fan boycott in a game the Spartans won, 25-21, in the empty stadium.
"It was our time to rise up," Hamilton said.
Wyoming coach Eaton, a strict disciplinarian, said at the time he kicked the players off the team for breaking rules regarding protests. The players say he used racial slurs and made derogatory comments about the players headed toward "Negro relief" when he told them they were no longer members of the team.
The coach was reassigned within the Wyoming athletic department after losing his last four games of 1969 and going 1-10 in 1970. He died in Kuna, Idaho, in 2007.
Although Eaton's actions probably led to more national scrutiny and scorn for the LDS Church and BYU than if he had allowed the protests, former Cougars coach Hudspeth says he will never forget the gesture.
"Lloyd Eaton, out of respect for us, didn't suit up his black football players that day," said Hudspeth, now an athletic department official at Tulsa University. "Lloyd was a great gentleman, a great supporter of the conference."
What Eaton's actions - and the support he received in the aftermath from university and government officials in Wyoming - accomplished for certain was to alienate the Cowboys' black players, students and faculty.
"When it was over, I had more hurt feelings from how the Wyoming people reacted and the way I was treated than the whole thing with BYU," McGee said.
Wyoming and San Jose State weren't the only places where BYU teams were met with protests and outrage during that era.
Most notably, when BYU's basketball team played at Colorado State the following winter (1970), protestors threw raw eggs and a flaming molotov cocktail on the floor, and a piece of angle iron struck a newspaper photographer, drawing blood and knocking him unconscious. Approximately 50 blacks and whites charged onto the floor at halftime to disrupt a performance by BYU's Cougarettes, and police were called in to quell the riot.
But many believe what happened on that snowy day on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming provided an impetus for the church to change its policy.
Hudspeth, predecessor to legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards, said that during those tumultuous times - he cannot remember the exact date or how - he was "made aware" that LDS Church leadership wanted him to add African-Americans to his team, and fast. The following year, BYU's team included Ronnie Knight, a black defensive back on scholarship from Sand Springs, Okla., by way of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Junior College.
In 1978, the LDS Church lifted the ban on blacks holding the priesthood and disavowed the practice many viewed as racist and discriminatory.
Changes also have come to some of the members of the Black 14. Hamilton's son, Malik, became a member of the LDS Church and now works as a banquet chef for BYU, with his father's acceptance.
But neither Hamilton, nor any other black members of the Wyoming football team regret the bold decision they made in 1969 - or the price they paid for it in the aftermath.
"That's what this whole thing was all about - the fight for equal rights," Hamilton said earlier this week at a symposium recognizing the 40th anniversary of the Black 14.
"I think we got our point across."
Saturday's BYU-Wyoming football game in Laramie, Wyo., marks the 40th anniversary of what would come to be known as the "Black 14" protest. On the eve of a Cowboys-Cougars game in 1969, 14 African-American football players at the University of Wyoming were kicked off the team by coach Lloyd Eaton for threatening to wear black armbands during the game to protest the racial policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- which operates BYU.
Several BYU coaches and players who participated in that game, and three members of the Black 14 who angrily watched from the stands, recently gave The Salt Lake Tribune their recollections of the event that had an effect not only on both institutions and their future football teams, but race relations in the United States as a whole.
Marc Lyons -- Olympus High math teacher, KSL-Radio football analyst
Larry EchoHawk -- Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior
Dick Legas -- BYU assistant track coach
Mel Olson -- Former BYU assistant football coach, current BYU professor
Ken Serck -- All-conference offensive lineman
Chris Farasopoulos -- The "Galloping Greek" played in the NFL for Jets, Saints and Giants
Gordon Gravelle -- All-conference lineman played in the NFL for the Steelers, Giants and Rams
Dennis Poppinga -- Father of BYU stars Brady and Kelly Poppinga
Jerry Berry, Tony Gibson, John Griffin, Lionel Grimes, Mel Hamilton, Ron Hill, Willie Hysaw, Jim Isaac, Earl Lee, Tony McGee, Don Meadows, Ivie Moore, Joe Williams, Ted Williams
Postscript: 10 of the 14 Wyoming players eventually graduated from college; Isaac, the only player from Wyoming, is deceased; the whereabouts of Ted Williams and Moore are unknown to their former teammates; Ted Williams, Griffin and Meadows returned in 1970 to play for Wyoming; McGee and Joe Williams played in the NFL and Griffin played in the Canadian Football League
Source: Black 14: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Wyoming Football