Photo: Charlie Sanders at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Tributes blanketed the NFL and college football with news that the great Charlie Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end with the Detroit Lions and All-Big Ten pick at the University of Minnesota, passed away on Thursday at age 68 following a seventh-month battle with cancer.
But none of the luminaries praising Sanders knew him longer than his old North Carolina high school rival, Jimmy Raye. They first competed in high school in the days of segregation and the Jim Crow South. Then they moved on to Big Ten schools and the NFL. Sanders' death and Raye's thoughts on his old friend remind us that segregation wasn't that long ago. Many are still among us, but we've lost Sanders.
“Charlie was a great player and great person,” Raye said. “Charlie had great size and strength. He was an outstanding blocker and was a down-the-field receiver who could run after the catch.
“He played in the NFL when the tight end was a necessity in the running game. When he played, he had to block against the Dick Butkuses, Ray Nitschkes and Dave Robinsons of the league.”
Butkus of the Chicago Bears and Nitschke and Robinson of the Green Bay Packers were Hall-of-Fame linebackers and the NFC Central. That meant Sanders and Lions faced them twice a year in what was called the Black-and-Blue Division.
Raye, the South’s first black quarterback to win a national title at Michigan State in 1966, was a high school football, basketball and baseball player at Fayetteville E.E. Smith. Sanders played the same three sports at Greensboro Dudley.
Their two historic high schools are among only six that remained open following desegregation in the late 1960s in North Carolina. The inferior facilities at most segregated high schools led to closing the schools or converting them to elementary or junior high campuses.
Raye and Sanders met in North Carolina’s Negro League High School Association state playoffs in basketball and baseball. In baseball, Dudley defeated E.E. Smith in the state final. In football, their only meeting was the Negro East-West Shrine All-Star game played in Durham. Raye, playing for the East, was the named the MVP, a key to earning his scholarship to Michigan State, while Sanders represented the West all-stars.
“He was an outstanding basketball player and also played baseball,” Raye said. “They (Dudley) were our nemesis.”
In my research for the book “Raye of Light,” I came across a photo in the Greensboro Daily News (now the Greensboro News and Record) of the 6-foot-4 Sanders and the 5-foot-10 Raye battling for a rebound. Raye was a prolific high school scorer that finished with 23 points that night. But Sanders won that battle for the rebound, scored 24 points and won the game.
Their careers traveled parallel paths as they both found opportunity to escape the South through two schools known for providing black athletes an opportunity in the Big Ten.
Raye, of course, played at Michigan State on Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams. Daugherty had wider recruiting contacts throughout the South, but Minnesota coach Murray Warmouth also recruited such stars as Sanders, Carl Eller (Winston-Salem) and Bobby Bell (Shelby) out of North Carolina.
Minnesota had a recruiting edge on Sanders through Gophers All-American basketball player Lou Hudson. Sanders was a year behind Hudson when they were basketball teammates at Dudley.
Sanders’ senior year at Minnesota the Gophers shared the Big Ten title with Indiana and Purdue, but Indiana earned the Rose Bowl berth. Sanders, a defensive end until his senior year, caught 21 balls for 276 yards and two touchdowns – big numbers for that era in the Big Ten.
The Lions drafted Sanders in the third round out of Minnesota in 1968. He played 10 seasons before a knee injury forced him to retire following the 1977 season. Raye played in the NFL in 1968 and 1969 before beginning his long NFL coaching career in 1977.
In the NFL, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Sanders caught 336 passes for 4,817 yards and 31 touchdowns. His Pro Bowl years began with his rookie year in 1968 – the first of four straight (1968-71). His missed the next two years before posting three in a row (1974-76).
In today’s wide-open NFL with friendlier passing-game rules, you could double and maybe triple Sanders’ numbers. Such was his athleticism and fearlessness going over the middle for balls. For example, the San Diego Chargers' Antonio Gates (6-4, 255), an eight-time Pro Bowler, caught 842 passes for 8,271 yards in his first 10 seasons.
Sanders was named the NFL’s All-1970s team and the Detroit Lions’ 75th anniversary team.
Following his playing days he was the Lions’ radio analyst from 1983 to 1988 and then a Lions assistant coach from 1989 to 1996. He returned to the booth in 1998 and then worked as Lions scout. He was the assistant director of pro personnel in 2000.
He also was involved in many Detroit-area community and charity causes. In 2008, he participated in the annual Jimmy Raye Youth Foundation football clinic in Fayetteville.
But stories of Sanders’ passing aren’t complete without comments from Raye, his old rival and long-time friend.
“I was really sad to hear the news,” Raye said. “He was a dear friend.”