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The College Football Game That Put A Dent In Desegregation

Nov 30, 2019
Originally published on November 30, 2019 7:22 pm
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DON GONYEA, HOST:

We're remembering an important football game today on the program. It was 50 years ago that a college game in Tampa served as an important milestone in Florida history. As Kerry Sheridan of member station WUSF reports, it was the first time a predominantly white school played an all-black university in the Deep South.

KERRY SHERIDAN, BYLINE: It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1969. The University of Tampa, a mostly white football team on an eight-game winning streak, was taking on Florida A&M. The Tallahassee team was also winning a lot but was unranked because it only played black teams. Five years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination and ending public segregation.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Now, in this summer of 1964, the civil rights bill is the law of the land. In the words of the president, it restricts no one's freedom so long as he respects the rights of others.

SHERIDAN: The South didn't change right away. Segregation persisted. In 1967, race riots roiled the nation, including in Tampa, after a white police officer shot and killed a black man suspected of burglary.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: In 1967, 126 cities were hit by racial violence, with 75 incidents classified as major riots.

SHERIDAN: A year later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. By 1969, tensions remained high. Yanela McLeod teaches history at Florida A&M and is working on a documentary about the school's football coach, Jake Gaither, who lobbied for years to play a white team.

YANELA MCLEOD: He was a civil rights activist who did not have a contentious kind of methodology, but it was more behind-the-scenes, and one of nurturing and fostering humanity.

SHERIDAN: He was near retirement in 1969.

MCLEOD: The one thing he wanted to do was play a white school because he wanted to show America that black people, coaches, quarterbacks, they didn't fall in line with the stereotypes of inability and intellectual deficiency in which society claimed they operated.

SHERIDAN: On game day, nearly 47,000 people poured into Tampa Stadium, recalls historian Fred Hearns.

FRED HEARNS: The atmosphere was absolutely electric.

SHERIDAN: At the time, he was a 19-year-old sportswriter.

HEARNS: I had to remain neutral. I couldn't cheer. But deep down inside, I was pulling for Florida A&M University to win because I felt it would prove to the whole world that African American football players could defeat a white team - a predominantly white team - and that Jake Gaither, who was a legend as the coach of the Florida A&M Rattlers, could out coach a white coach.

FRAN CURCI: I knew they had better players than we had.

SHERIDAN: That white coach was Fran Curci, who still lives in Tampa and is 81. Gaither died in 1994. In 1969, colleges in the north were already luring some of the best black athletes from Florida. Before he was hired as a coach at the University of Tampa, Curci insisted he be able to recruit their first black football players. And he did, signing one in 1968, followed by three more a year later.

CURCI: The name of the game in football is you got to win. And the only way - I wanted to get whatever athlete I can get. I don't care if you're white, black, purple, whatever he was. I had to have athletes that we could win with.

SHERIDAN: Inside the stadium that day, McLeod says, by and large, black people sat on one side, white people on the other.

MCLEOD: This is really good college football. And so you've got two good coaches, two excellent quarterbacks - Jim Del Gaizo for Tampa and Stephen Scruggs for FAMU. And they get on that feel, and they hash it out in a game that goes back-and-forth, back-and-forth. It's a nail-biter.

SHERIDAN: Steve Scruggs, the quarterback for Florida A&M, describes the outcome in McLeod's documentary.

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STEVE SCRUGGS: It was a monumental game for A&M and Tampa. It was a monumental game. Somebody had to lose, and thank God it was them this time.

SHERIDAN: The score - Florida A&M 34, UT 28. Afterwards, Tampa coach Fran Curci sprinted toward the winning coach, and the crowd held its breath.

CURCI: I ran across the field. I headed right for Jake. And both stands were just, oh, my God, now what's going to happen? And I put my arm around Jake, and I said, Jake, you had the best team. You deserve to win.

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SHERIDAN: Author Samuel Freedman wrote about the game in his book, "Breaking The Line."

SAMUEL FREEDMAN: All these fears that had been whipped up about how it was going to lead to fighting and rioting did not come true at all. So it became this very important emblem of desegregating public space. In fact, this is one of the largest, if not the largest, mass act of desegregation in the South.

SHERIDAN: And 50 years later, historians still marvel at how a single football game in Tampa ended an era of segregation in sports by erasing the myth that white players were superior to black athletes. For NPR News, I'm Kerry Sheridan in Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.