Photo: Gideon Smith at Ferris State in 1912. Note the white player in the back row with his hand extended to Smith's shoulder as an act of friendship.
The American Football Coaches Association's website story on Gideon Smith selection to receive its AFCA: The Trailblazer Award.
The award will be presented posthumously Jan. 12 in Louisville.
Smith is best known as Michigan State's first black athlete who led the school to its first two wins over Michigan in 1913 and 1915. He is a member of Michigan State's Hall of Fame.
But Smith arrived at Michigan State from Ferris State in Big Rapids. Smith played at Ferris from 1910 to 1912. In those days, Ferris founder Woodbridge Ferris had a working agreement with what is now known as Hampton University in Virginia to bring about a dozen black students a year to Ferris. They were given college prep classes and then transferred on to places such as Michigan State and Michigan. Smith was among the students and discovered his athletic prowess at Ferris.
He later played pro football with Jim Thorpe as a teammate on the Canton Bulldogs. The Pro Football Hall of Fame lists him as the fourth black pro players. He returned to Hampton as a football coach and assistant athletic director before his death in 1956 at age 78.
Smith's story is told in Chapter 5 of "Raye of Light," a book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football under head coach Duffy Daugherty. Jimmy Raye arrived at Michigan State as a freshman in the fall of 1964 from segregated Fayetteville, N.C. He said portrait of Smith at Jenison Fieldhouse inspired him, deciding if Smith could overcome obstacles in 1913 he could do the same 50 years later.
“It was so remarkable to see a black football player from 1913, and my initial thoughts were to try to imagine what kind of support system he had in the environment that existed at that time,” said Raye. “What a tremendous individual Gideon must have been, and couple that with the extraordinary talent he must have possessed to be issued a uniform. I realized what he faced must have been overwhelming, and later I felt the obstacles I faced were not as insurmountable.”
Note: Michigan State was previously known as Michigan Agricultural College and Ferris as Ferris Institute.