University of Wyoming offensive lineman Mel Hamilton had no way of knowing 51 years ago — when he and 13 fellow African American teammates planned to sport black armbands in an upcoming game against BYU to protest a priesthood ban on Black Latter-day Saints — that his brave stance would directly benefit a child who wouldn’t be born until years later.
You see, Hamilton, a lifelong Catholic, would go on to have a son, who would convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and likes to think that his actions paved the way so that young Malik could rise, unfettered by the color of his skin, to the position of high priest in his adopted faith.
“Little did I realize in 1969,” the elder Hamilton said on The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, “that I was fighting for my son.”
That fight came at cost. The “Black 14,” as the players are known, immediately lost their place on the Cowboys’ roster, but they earned a place in history. Their aborted demonstration — the Wyoming coach booted them from the team on the eve of the game — brought attention to the LDS Church’s then-policy preventing Black males from holding the priesthood and Black men and women from entering temples.
At the time, Hamilton, a pulling guard on the nationally ranked Cowboys, thought the sacrifices made by the Black 14 would help further the civil rights cause, and nine years later, the church ended its priesthood and temple ban. But a half-century later — with Malik now a member of that faith after meeting his Latter-day Saint wife at Utah State University — he now sees clearly a personal side to the struggle.
“All along,” Hamilton said, “the fight was against the LDS policy — not the entire religion.”
That didn’t mean that the younger Hamilton was thrilled to break the news of his conversion to his Catholic father.
“When he finally got the nerve to tell me,” the dad explained, “I said, ‘Son, what have I been fighting for all these years? I’ve been fighting for just what you have done.’”
For Malik, there was a sense of relief that came with his father’s acceptance.
“I’m really blessed that I have the opportunity that I have now,” Malik told the Casper Star-Tribune in 2019, “I definitely attribute that my dad was part of that narrative switch that allowed for those things to happen and for people to be open for that to happen.”
The elder Hamilton is pleased at how the story has come full circle.
“What is beautiful to know,” he said from his home in South Carolina, “is that I was fighting for a personal reason. My son could now be on the same playing field [in his religion] as anyone else.”
Feeding the hungry
Today’s amicable relationship with Latter-day Saints extends beyond the Hamilton family.
The Black 14 Philanthropy, founded in 2019 by the 11 surviving members of the 1969 squad, has partnered with Latter-day Saint Charities, the faith’s humanitarian arm, in donating 180 tons of food to feed hungry souls in nine U.S. cities.
The first delivery was made in Laramie and will supply food to the Cathedral Home for Children and the University of Wyoming Food Share Pantry, according to a church news release. Subsequent donations were bound for charities and food banks in Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska (specifically Boys Town, where Hamilton attended school), North Carolina, South Carolina and the Wind River Indian Reservation in Ethete, Wyo.
Each box bears witness to the new alliance among old adversaries by carrying the label: “University of Wyoming Black 14; Mind, Body and Soul Initiative; Donation in partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The large food contributions came about after Hamilton met former BYU and NFL quarterback Gifford Nielsen, now a general authority Seventy, while touring the church’s Welfare Square in Salt Lake City.
“When I became acquainted with Mel, I was deeply moved knowing the church could offer its resources to help the Black 14 provide education and nourishment for those in need,” Nielsen said in the release. “We have become dear friends and close allies in a unified purpose — helping our brothers and sisters.”
Few would have expected a collaboration back in 1969 in Laramie, where church-owned Brigham Young University was just another Western Athletic Conference rival and not much of a football threat.
That changed when the Wyoming football players attended a meeting of the newly formed Black Student Alliance five days before they were scheduled to play the Cougars. During the meeting, Hamilton said, they were told about the LDS Church’s policy regarding race, and the Black football players were encouraged to draw attention to it.
“Here we were, 18- and 19-year-olds, thrown right in the middle of this movement,” Hamilton said, “without even being prepared for it.”
Wyoming football coach Lloyd 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 when he told them they were no longer members of the squad. Hamilton says the late coach never did reconcile with the players he banished.
None of the Black 14′s white teammates stood with them either.
“That was the most disappointing thing as well,” Hamilton said. “Not one of our white fellow players came to our aid, as far as we know.”
Eaton’s actions before the televised game probably led to more national scrutiny and scorn for the LDS Church and BYU than if he had simply allowed the symbolic protest. And although the unbeaten Cowboys still drubbed the Cougars 40-7, his actions also ultimately decimated Wyoming’s football program, which had played in the Sugar Bowl the previous year.
Most of all, it changed the lives of the Black players — Hamilton, Earl Lee, John Griffin, Willie Hysaw, Don Meadows, Ivie Moore, Tony Gibson, Jerry Berry, Joe Williams, Jim Isaac, Ted Williams, Lionel Grimes, Ron Hill and Tony McGee.
“We were young and a bit naive, and there were some things we all wish hadn’t happened,” McGee, who went on to an NFL career, told The Tribune on the 40th anniversary of the game. “But I am glad it did happen. Perhaps that was our mission.”
Earlier this year, during February’s Black History Month, Sports Illustrated praised the 14 players for showing the “power of protest and principle.”
Last year, the University of Wyoming officially apologized to the Black 14 for their dismissal from the team and staged a weeklong celebration on campus. Hamilton missed, however, most of the events.
“I flew into Laramie,” he said, “and immediately went to the hospital with pneumonia.”
He did make it to that week’s game, where he and his teammates were honored at halftime.
Larry Echo Hawk — an emeritus general authority Seventy for the church — was a senior at BYU and the team’s free safety in 1969.
As recent convert to the LDS Church and one of the few minorities on the Cougar team, he remembers the protests, taunts and charges of racism that greeted the football players (and all the school’s athletic teams) in the late 1960s.
The previous year in San Jose, he said, a bomb threat was called in to their hotel, and the Cougars played the game in a nearly empty stadium, except for a few family members and hundreds of heavily armed guards.
Echo Hawk said when BYU visited Tempe to play Arizona State — before the Wyoming game — a large protest blocked the team bus from entering the stadium.
It was a confusing time for Echo Hawk, who, along with his family, members of the Pawnee Nation, had also experienced racism.
“I had respect for [the Wyoming players] for standing up for what they believed in,” Echo Hawk told The Tribune. “And it was difficult to understand why a university would dismiss them for that.”
At the same time, he said, “I had good feelings about the church because it had blessed my life so much.”
Those internal conflicts “were a lot for a 20-year-old,” he said. “My opinions weren’t fully developed and it was difficult for me.”
While he may have wanted to speak out about racial issues, he remained silent. “I don’t think I had teammates who were feeling the same way I was.”
The experiences shaped Echo Hawk’s future.
After attending law school, he spent his career advocating for Native American rights as Idaho’s attorney general and U.S. assistant secretary for Indian affairs, under former President Barack Obama.
As for Hamilton and his fellow Black 14 alumni, they plan to keep a strong relationship with the LDS Church.
“I am a Christian, so I do know the Lord had his hand in this,” Hamilton said. “I know the Lord is guiding this, and we are connected from now on. I hope we do great things together.”
The armbands have been replaced by linked arms.