Photo: Barry Southwood designed flyer from Big Rapids appearance.
By Greg Buckner, Pioneer Sports Editor
Growing up in Big Rapids in the 1960s, Tom Shanahan was a big Michigan Stazte football fan and one of his favorite memories was watching the “Game of the Century” between the top two teams in the nation in the Spartans and Notre Dame in 1966.
The game is mostly known for a controversial finish, ending in a 10-10 tie as both schools later shared the national championship for the season with identical 9-0-1 records at season’s end.
In a time where segregation between black and whites was prevlanet, Shanahan was intrigued by the fact the Spartans had a black quarterback, Jimmy Raye, and 20 other black players on the team, which was unusual in those times
The fact stuck with Shanahan after graduating from Michigan State with a journalism degree in 1978 and moving on to an award-winning career as sportswriter over 30-plus years. Shanahan wanted to tell the story of Raye and those MSU teams that blazed a path for racial equality all those years ago.
Now in 2014, Shanahan has written a book titled “Raye of Light” about Raye and the 1965-66 Spartans football teams that paved the way for the end integration in college, and he shared his story of how the book came tougher at an event Thursday at Ferris State University, where his late father, Richard H. Shanahan, was a professor.
Shanahan, a former San Diego Union-Tribune writer who now resides in North Carolina, said the origins of the idea for the book started when he had conversation with Raye’s son, Jimmy Raye III, now a vice-president with the Indianapolis Colts.
“I’ve always had the idea in the back of my mind, and I met Jimmy’s son,” Shanahan said. “I said, ‘Hey, there is an untold story about how Michigan State and the Underground Railroad of black athletes. Can you introduce me to your dad? I want to write a book about what the real story was.”
Shanahan then connected with the elder Raye, who also resides in North Carolina and serves a senior consultant to the NFL after 35 years of coaching in the league. The two got to work on rounding up interviews and completing the research to get the story out to the masses.
Shanahan said one of his biggest motivations for writing the book was to give proper credit to Raye and former MSU Football coach Duffy Daugherty who served as the Spartans head coach from 1954-1972 for their role in bringing an end to segregation in college football.
While many have credited the 1970 game between Alabama, coached by Paul “Bear” Bryant and a roster only white players a University of Southern California team that featured five black starts as a major moment in the end of segregation in the sport, Shanahan said it is Daugherty and Raye that deserve more credit for paving the way.
“Jimmy Raye and Duffy Daugherty have not received their proper national credit for their leading role in the integration fo college football,? Shanahan said. “A lot of credit has gone to Bear Bryant for that 1970s USC game and if you read my book, a lot that is debunked.”
The numbers back up Shanahan’s claim, with Daugherty creating a so-called Underground Railroad from the South to MSU by bringing in 44 black players from 1959 to 1972 (his last season).
Although Raye, who was the first black quarter from the South to win a national title in 1966 with the Spartans, is deservedly credited with being trailblazer for black athletes, Raye had his path set for him by Gideon Smith, who was the first black athlete at MSU from 1913 to 1915, with the university then going by the name of Michigan Agricultural College.
“Jimmy said he had to ride a train 36 hours from Fayetteville, N.C. up to East Lansing, and when he got there he saw a portrait of Gideon Smith, Shanahan said. “That gave him motivation to continue the job Smith started.”
While doing his research, Shanahan also stumbled upon an interesting fact, whi was that Smith, a Hampton, Va., native, was actually the first black athlete at Ferris State, than know as Ferris Institute, from 1910 to 1912.
“Ferris State University founder Woodbridge Ferris) had a unique arrangement with what is now called Hampton University,” Shanahan said. “They would bring up 10 or 12 black students from Hampton and they would take college prep classes at Ferris and transfer on to places like Michigan State and the University of Michigan. Woodbridge Ferris was a very unique individual that read Booker T. Washington’s book ‘Up from Slavery’ and he wanted to provide opportunities for black students to come up to Ferris and get an education. It just turned out one of the students was Gideon Smith, who turned out to be a great athlete.”
Smith went on to become the fourth black player to play in the NFL, playing with the legendary Jim Thorpe for the Canton Bulldogs, and an entire chapter of Shanahan’s book is devoted to Smith’s career at Ferris State and Michigan State.
Smith and Raye’s stories have served motivation for many black athletes and coaches.
One such person who was influenced by their stories was former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who became the first black coach to win a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI.
Dungy, a Jackson native, wrote the Foreword for the book.
Shanahan has been out promoting the book across the nation, including a book signing with Raye during the Spartans’ homecoming game, but he said is a special opportunity for him to come back to his hometown and share his appreciation for Smith, Raye and Daugherty’s work to end segregation in college football.
“I’ve lived on the West Coat and on the East Coast and you can’t make better friends than you can make in Big Rapids,” Shanahan said. “There was a story in the Detroit Free Press a few weeks back when the book first came out and I was very proud that it identified me as being from Big Rapids. That was a proud moment for me.”
Copies of Raye of Light are available Great Lakes Book & Supply in Big Rapids.