Photo: Pete Rozelle wrote the 1967 draft picks on a chalk board as they were selected.
The NFL Draft opens Thursday night with all the trappings of an Oscars-like extravaganza, although we’re stuck with stuffed-shirt commissioner Roger Goddell and his minions as presenters.
A better show would include Angelina Jolie flashing some leg or Bill Murray slipping in a tribute to the late Harold Ramis. As for the rest of the broadcast, we can count on ESPN and the NFL Network to provide a program packed with information, analysis and highlights worthy of a presidential election night.
Cameras will capture thrill-of-victory shots of excited athletes celebrating with tearful family members. There will be cutaways to agents calling their bankers. Also, TV will exploit agony-of-defeat shots of dejected athletes as they fall down the draft ladder (and mentally scale back the size of their first mansion).
But no matter how well the 2014 NFL Draft turns out, it won’t match the 1967 edition dominated by Michigan State with four of the first eight picks Spartans. Three of the four players escaped the segregated South to play for progressive head coach Duffy Daugherty on what came to be called the Underground Railroad
Larger-than-life defensive end Bubba Smith of Beaumont, Tex., was the first overall choice by the Baltimore Colts. The Spartans’ 6-foot-8, 295-pounder was followed by No. 2 pick Clinton Jones (Cleveland, Ohio), halfback, Minnesota Vikings; No. 5 George Webster (Anderson, S.C.), linebacker, Houston Oilers; and No. 8 Gene Washington (La Porte, Tex.), flanker, Minnesota. All four were two-time All-Americas on Michigan State’s 1965 and 1966 national championship teams.
Sounds like great theater, right?
Well, it was another world before ESPN televised its first draft in 1980.
Gene Washington pointed out in his day the proceedings quietly took place with little to no pomp.
“The draft was going on and I just happened to be in the football office,” recalled Washington, who in another quaint custom of the times was still in school as a senior. “One of the assistants called out to me, ‘Gene, you’ve got a phone call.’ ”
Washington took the phone – the kind wired to the wall -- unaware of who was on the other end.
“The guy says, ‘Congratulations, Gene. You’ve been drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round. And Gene, you will be playing for Bud Grant. Bud is coming down from Winnipeg in the Canadian Football League to coach the Vikings.’ ”
At that point Washington knew this was about his professional future.
“I said, ‘Who are you?’ The guy says, ‘My name is Sid Hartman from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.’ I told him, ‘That’s great news and I’m glad you shared it with me.’ After a while I hung up, and about a week later I got my first call from someone at the Vikings. That’s all the fanfare we got back in those days.”
Millennials will have trouble imagining a world without up-to-the-second cable sports news updates. And they might point to Miami in the 2004 draft when the Hurricanes set a record with six first-round choices, but those picks were Nos. 5 through 21. That doesn’t begin to eclipse Michigan State in 1967.
More significantly, the Spartans’ impact on the 1967 draft signaled the rise of the African-American athlete.
In 1960 the NFL numbered only 12 teams and 11 of the first-round picks were white players.
The only black athlete was Northwestern running back Ron Burton as the No. 9 choice by the Philadelphia Eagles.
By the time of the landmark 1967 NFL draft, the league had inflated to 26 teams as a result of the NFL-AFL merger. There were 11 black and 15 white players chosen in the first round.
It’s no coincidence four of the 11 black first-rounders were Spartans. As the 1960s Civil Rights era progressed, Michigan State led the integration of college football under Daugherty, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Daugherty had long indiscriminately recruited black athletes from the North; later he mined the segregated South.
When Michigan State and Notre Dame played in the 1966 Game of the Century that ended in a controversial 10-10 tie, the Spartans featured 11 black starters – four on offense, including pioneer black quarterback Jimmy Raye, and seven on defense – among a roster of 20 black players. Those were unheard of numbers for the time. Notre Dame had one black player, starting defensive lineman Alan Page.
USC’s 1967 national championship team had only seven black players despite the school’s integrated California location. But the Trojans’ number jumped to 23 black players by the time of their 1972 national championship team.
The 1970 USC-Alabama game is misleadingly credited as a turning point in the integration of college football when Sam Cunningham, the Trojans’ black fullback, pummeled Bear Bryant’s all-white Alabama lineup.
But that 1970 USC roster included only five black starters – Cunningham, quarterback Jimmy Jones, halfback Clarence Davis, defensive end Tody Smith (Bubba’s brother) and linebacker Charlie Weaver. The game was played four years after Daugherty’s 1966 trail blazers.
One myth surrounding USC’s rout of Alabama was Bryant paraded Cunningham through the Crimson Tide locker room; he supposedly told his athletes that times were changing and Cunningham was what a football player looked like. However, as the myth grew, Alabama’s players said it never happened.
But the point missed about the oversimplified myth that developed to separate Bryant from his history of segregated teams was USC featured Jones as one of college football’s pioneer black quarterbacks. Jones was a returning starter that Bryant knew would be lining up for the game in Birmingham; Cunningham was a sophomore in an era when freshmen athletes were ineligible for the varsity. Cunningham wasn’t named a starter until shortly before the Alabama game, so Bryant would have known little – if anything -- about him.
It’s true Bryant integrated his roster with two black players in 1971, but he was behind the times. Five SEC schools integrated their football teams before Bryant. Also, Condredge Holloway, a black high school quarterback from Huntsville, Ala., was a senior in 1970. He said Bryant told him he would recruit him but not as a quarterback. Holloway instead went to Tennessee and made history as the first black starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.
Bryant failed to learn times were changing from the play of Jimmy Jones or Jimmy Raye’s legacy.
Michigan State’s fully integrated rosters in the 1960s helped clear the way at other schools.
Previously integrated teams began recruiting more black players. Southern black athletes began to have options beyond historically black colleges.
As Pulitzer Prize-winner Jim Murray once wrote,
“Citadels of prejudice have been crumbled by athletics. It is the proudest chapter of its history.”
Fast forward to the modern NFL draft, and the black athlete’s influence has grown along with the multi-billion-dollar league. The 2013 draft with 32 teams included a first round with 24 black players, seven white and another example of the changing face of America -- one Samoan player.
During Thursday night’s Oscar-like show, many more black athletes will enjoy the grand theater of the modern NFL Draft.
Someone needs to tell them they are standing on the shoulders of pioneers from the landmark 1967 draft.