Photo: Eric Allen gains yards against SMU at Spartan Stadium in 1969. Note the decal recognizing the 100th anniversary of college football rather than the normal Spartan logo.
Eric Allen’s obituaries, typical of ones on athletes, started out noting his records and All-American stature as a Michigan State running back.
Then they included vitals such of his age, 66, and that he had been in poor health at hospice in his hometown of Georgetown, S.C., until his Oct. 27 death. The stories continue with his athletic achievements and highlight overcoming his diminutive size as a 5-foot-9, 161-pounder. He played with speed and elusiveness to forever earn him the nickname, “The Flea."
More details of his football career explain he set an NCAA single-game record of 350 yards rushing in a 1971 win over Purdue. That same season as a senior he led the Big Ten in rushing with 1,494 yards. Awards and honors included the Big Ten MVP, All-American recognition and 10th place in the Heisman Trophy voting while playing for a 6-5 team.
All of that is true.
But Allen and other southern black players from his generation that grew up playing football at segregated high schools represent a larger role in college football’s history. They were the end of an disgraceful era in American history, and they should be remembered for it.
Allen's high school graduation date in 1968 was four and three years, respectively, AFTER the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts signed by President Lyndon Johnson. But in those racist days the law of the land didn't necessarily apply to people of color in their home state.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers great Donnie Shell, who grew up in South Carolina in the same time frame as Allen, commented on contradiction of law and southern prejudice upon his induction into the Black College Football Hall of Fame in 2015. The Steelers signed him as an undrafted free agent out of South Carolina State, one of the Historically Black College and Universities that turned so many future pros.
“They had passed Civil Rights legislation, but we still couldn’t eat in restaurants,” Shell told me in an interview last spring. “We had to order food from the window and eat outside. The doors were not open to a predominantly white school. You had to go to a Historically Black College or University.”
In the Jim Crow South, Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and Clemson coach Frank Howard, among others, dragged their feet on desegregation despite federal legislation. Bryant didn’t dress a black player until 1971 -- eight years after the campus desegregated. Howard, who coached in Allen’s home state of South Carolina, had been urged in 1967 by his school president to recruit black athletes, but he retired after the 1969 season without complying. His successor, Hootie Ingram, signed Clemson’s first black recruit his first year in 1970.
That’s more than a coincidence no matter how apologists for Howard, Bryant and other southern coaches of the time try to revise history and protect their legacies.
Allen, whose high school senior football year was the fall of 1967, was already a college sophomore by the time Howard stepped out of the way of progress. Allen was a Michigan State senior by the time Bryant and Alabama “joined the Union” – in the words of the immortal Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray of the “Los Angeles Times.”
Allen’s good fortune to defy the South was Michigan State’s enlightened head coach, Duffy Daugherty, recruited him. Daugherty blazed a trail that other northern coaches eventually followed before the south finally desegregated.
His record 350 yards rushing on 29 carries led the Spartans to a 43-10 victory in West Lafayette. He scored on runs of 24, 59, 30 and 25 yards. Daugherty said at the time it was “the greatest individual performance I’ve personally witnessed.”
Daugherty could be given to hyperbole to celebrate his players, but Allen's numbers were stunning for the time period -- long before the Arena Football League stats that are now routinely posted with rules favoring the offense. His record stood until 1978. Last year Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon's record of 408 lasted one week before Oklahoma's Samaje Perine broke it with 427.
Allen's Big Ten MVP Silver Football from the Chicago Tribune was the first for a Michigan State player despite the number of All-American players the school turned out since joining the Big Ten in football in 1953. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the Baltimore Colts but instead played four seasons in the Canadian Football League with the Toronto Argonauts from 1972 to 1975. He was the team MVP as a rookie running back/wide receiver.
“He ranks as one of the greatest Michigan State players,” said John Shinsky, a teammate of Allen’s as a defensive lineman. “He was a very humble guy. He was the same guy after he ran for 350 yards he was before it. You could always count on Eric. It was a privilege to play with him.”
Allen’s era also marked the decline of Michigan State football under the aging Daugherty following the 1965 and 1966 national championships.
Daugherty’s final six seasons were marked by sub-.500 football (27-34-1) with only a few high points. Allen’s NCAA record was one of them. So were a 23-12 win over Michigan in Allen’s sophomore year in 1969 and 17-10 victory over Ohio State his senior year in 1971. He earned All-Big Ten honorable mention as sophomore, second team as a junior and first team as a senior in addition to All-American recognition.
But stars from non-championship teams tend be forgotten sooner than others. That may explain why Allen is not a member of Michigan State’s Hall of Fame.
“Eric could really get around people,” Shinsky said. “I can’t imagine the yards he would have gained if he played on a team that was in sync like the 1965 and 1966 teams.”
The Michigan State school record Allen broke was Clinton Jones' mark of 268 in 1966 against Iowa. Jones, a two-time All-American pick that will be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2015 on Dec. 8 in New York City, played in a three-back offense that spread the ball around on the 1965 and 1966 teams.
Allen’s presence at Michigan State from 1968 as a freshman to 1971 is one of the facts from my research in the book “Raye of Light” that debunked the long-standing myth Daugherty’s pipeline to the South dried up with desegregation. The mythos is Bryant and other southern coaches in the South saw the light with Michigan State’s success in 1965 and 1966 and began recruiting black athletes to stay home.
But as noted above, Bryant dragged his feet another five years until 1971 when Wilbur Jackson and John Mitchell were Bryant’s first black players.
Allen’s very presence on the roster disputes the belief Daugherty could no longer find black talent in the South. The problem was Daugherty and his recruiters missed on too many of their southern prospects that didn't develop into stars.
As my research in “Raye of Light” notes, Daugherty signed 44 black players from the South between 1959 and his final season in 1972. That 1972 class included future stars Charlie Baggett and Tyrone Willingham from North Carolina towns.
But Daugherty missed on most of the others. Of the 44 southern black players recruited over the 1959-72 time span, 26 (59 percent) of the recruits were from 1967 to 1972. Daugherty’s 1972 recruiting class that included six black players from the South were more than Bryant’s entire roster.
The problem for Michigan State was not enough turned out to be a Bubba Smith, George Webster, Gene Washington, Charlie Thornhill or Jimmy Raye, the All-American or All-Big Ten honorees from the 1965-66 Underground Railroad teams.
Shinsky, a second-team All-Big Ten pick and honorable mention his senior and junior years in 1972 and 1973, is a Grand Valley State professor that frequently attends events involving Michigan State’s former players and the Downtown Coaches Luncheon before home games. Sadly, he noted he hadn’t seen Allen in years. Apparently, Allen didn’t return to East Lansing on his own.
Only championship teams are invited back for formal reunions, but there should be a larger place found for Eric "The Flea" Allen in Michigan State’s history, starting with Michigan State's Hall of Fame.
In contrast, Michigan State placed a plaque outside Jenison Fieldhouse in 2012 to represent a 1963 NCAA basketball tournament game between Mississippi State and Loyola Chicago. It was played at Michigan State's campus by happenstance as the host site of the NCAA regional and came to be known as the "Game of Change" largely because of a documentary produced years later. But Michigan State's campus lacks a marker representing the more far-reaching contributions of Daugherty's Underground Railroad players from 1959 to 1972.
Allen's time represented a transition in American history. The door was finally starting to crack open for increasing numbers of southern black athletes to play major college football despite existing laws of the land.