We remember the integration of sports the way we remember a lot of history, as a highlight reel of breakthroughs and milestones and hard battles won...
But history is more than a series of dates and a roster of famous names...along that journey there are false dawns and cul de sacs and individual stories that tend to be forgotten as we who come after celebrate the big victories.
My newspaper column is about Bill Buford of Greensboro, one of the men who helped reintegrate the NFL decades after the first black players were forced out of the league.
Reintegrating pro football
by Edward Cone
News & Record
The franchise, now fresh off its fourth Super Bowl title, was not very good. “Also-rans,” says Buford, 78, settling his lineman’s frame onto a couch in his home near Adams Farm. “That was before Lombardi.”
Another difference: Drafting a black player like Buford was a relatively unusual practice. African American athletes were trickling into the National Football League by the early ’50s, but they often signed as free agents instead of being chosen on draft day.
In any event, Buford got cut after the exhibition season, because, he believes, the Packers — like many teams of the era — maintained a tacit quota on the number of black players on their roster (he was good enough to get a subsequent contract offer from the Philadelphia Eagles). With the great Bob Mann already in Green Bay, Buford was one black man too many.
We remember the integration of sports the way we remember a lot of history, as a highlight reel of breakthroughs and milestones and hard battles won. Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers and changing the national pastime for good. Texas Western’s all-black five beating Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky team to win the NCAA championship. Closer to home, Charlie Davis and Charlie Scott bringing Big Four basketball into the modern era.
But history is more than a series of dates and a roster of famous names. If, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” then along that journey there are false dawns and cul de sacs and individual stories that tend to be forgotten as we who come after celebrate the big victories.
So along with the headliners feted during Black History Month, remember this: Three decades before Buford left his hometown of Asheville for what was then known as Morgan State College, professional football had black players, and even a black coach, Fritz Pollard. It was only later in the 1920s that the league began to segregate. The influence of Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, one of the more notorious racists in sports history, helped keep blacks out of the NFL for another 20-odd years.
Buford came of age as this relapse of overt racism was drawing to a close. He walked on as a freshman at Morgan State, quickly winning a scholarship and becoming a co-captain. The Baltimore school was a hotbed of talent, but its fortunes would wane; ironically, segregation’s end came at a cost to institutions that thrived in its shadow (including the black press that first alerted Buford to Morgan State’s rep).
Big powers had started to poach from historically black colleges and universities. Morgan State star Len Ford left for the Navy, then moved to Michigan, where he joined Mann, himself a former Hampton player, on the 1948 Rose Bowl champions. “That was the beginning of the end,” says Buford.
When Buford was drafted as a 215-pound, two-way player, pro football was not yet America’s favorite sport. The overtime Colts-Giants championship game that (along with television coverage) ushered in the modern era was still four years in the future. Something of the old barnstorming culture remained.
“Guys still came in the dressing room on Mondays with quarts of whiskey,” Buford says. “Buses stopped at roadhouses on the way to games for beers.”
And black people were a rare sight in Green Bay. “Kids at training camp wanted to touch you, they had never seen black skin before.” Even a star risked his place on the team, if not his life, when caught with a white girlfriend.
Pay was low, too. Players worked off-season jobs to pay their bills. A future NFL Hall of Famer like Buford’s old Morgan State line mate, Roosevelt Brown, had no dreams of retiring rich. That made it easier for Buford to turn down that offer from the Eagles for the 1955 season. “I was disillusioned with what I’d seen,” he says.
He went back to school and became a teacher before holding management jobs with the city of Chattanooga and the U.S. Department of Labor, from which he retired in 1995. He wishes more modern players valued education, or at least understood it as a means to an end when their careers play out.
Buford, a recent inductee into the CIAA Hall of Fame, moved to Greensboro several years ago; his wife, Velma Speight-Buford, is a former board chairwoman at N.C A&T.
Speaking slowly but clearly (he suffered a small stroke last year and still feels old football aches), he says sports really did break down barriers, if less cleanly than we may imagine. He recalls a friendly encounter with former UNC star and then-Redskin Charlie Justice, another Asheville kid.
Buford betrays no bitterness over his lost opportunity. He does admit, though, to pulling for the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
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