Tampa Bay Sports Day

Johnson: College Football’s Racial Breakthrough Game

The University of Tampa’s late, great football program — gone for nearly a half-century — gave us plenty to remember.

 There was terrorizing defensive lineman John Matuszak, who became the NFL’s No. 1 overall draft pick in 1973.

There was jaw-dropping quarterback Freddie Solomon, who finished 12th in the 1974 Heisman Trophy balloting and had an electrifying 11-season NFL career.

 There were the upset victories against much larger programs. There was the glorious era when Spartan football ruled the Tampa Bay area sports scene before professional franchises arrived.

 And there was college-football history.

 It’s the 50-year anniversary of a classic — Florida A&M University 34, UT Spartans 28 — played before a sold-out, breathless crowd of 46,477 fans on Nov. 29, 1969 at the old Tampa Stadium.

 It stands alone as a football thriller, one of the best games ever seen in Tampa at any level. There were a combined 1,135 yards and it went down to the final seconds.

 But it’s best-known for its social significance. FAMU-UT was the first interracial football game ever played in the South, contested two years before the integration of Tampa’s public schools.

 According to accepted lore, college football’s seminal race-relations moment occurred in 1970, when Coach John McKay’s fully integrated University of Southern California Trojans visited Coach Bear Bryant’s all-white Alabama Crimson Tide. USC tailback Sam “Bam” Cunningham battered Alabama with 135 yards (on 12 carries) and two touchdowns.

 That clear signal of changing times prompted a famous quote from Crimson Tide assistant Jerry Claiborne: “Sam Cunningham did more in 60 minutes to integrate Alabama football than Martin Luther King has done in 20 years.”

 But FAMU-UT has become more of a forgotten trivia question than documented history.

 “This game has been undeservedly overlooked,” said Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a columnist for The New York Times.

 In his 2013 book, “The Big Game: Football and Freedom in the Civil Rights South,” Freedman chronicled the 1967 season, when FAMU faced Grambling State University for the black college national championship at Miami’s Orange Blossom Classic.

 The book’s epilogue featured the FAMU-UT game.

 “The Florida A&M players still have their sense of history,” Freedman said. “They know what it meant. I think they appreciate (UT) for agreeing to the game. You presume a lot of white schools wouldn’t have taken the game, not wanting to risk a loss.”

How It Began

 FAMU coach Jake Gaither, who died in 1994 at age 90, was 203-36-4 in his Hall of Fame career. His teams won 22 conference titles and six black-college national championships.

 But as his storied coaching career neared its end in the late 1960s, he was deeply frustrated.

 State politicians often sought Gaither’s favor, trying to sway the black vote. But when Gaither asked for repayment — the scheduling of a game against the Florida Gators or Florida State Seminoles — he was consistently rebuffed.

 For two years, Gaither unsuccessfully lobbied members of Florida’s Board of Regents, which oversaw the state’s public universities.

 “Jake Gaither was one of the most respected and revered coaches in the nation, but he was still looked upon as a ‘black coach,’ ” said Eddie Jackson, a longtime FAMU administrator who served as Gaither’s sports information director. “Black colleges only played other black colleges. That’s why playing a white team was so important to Jake. He had to prove himself.”

 UT, meanwhile, was trying to prove it had a big-time football program. The stakes were raised with the opening of Tampa Stadium, which ultimately helped to attract the National Football League franchise that became the Buccaneers. But the Spartans, then the only game in town, wanted to be more than a nice little team.

 Coach Fran Curci, a former University of Miami assistant who was hired by the Spartans before the 1968 season, set things in motion during his first meeting with UT officials.

 “I told them, ‘If you won’t allow me to recruit black players, I’m not coming,’ ” Curci said. “When we got started in that room, I pretty much took over the meeting. I said, ‘I know you have questions for me, but let me start with my own questions. Why haven’t you had a black football player? Is this the attitude of the university?’

 “They said, ‘No, that’s why we brought you here. We want to break the color line.’ So that’s how it started.”

 Curci, hired at a $13,000 annual salary, beefed up the schedule over a multi-season span with opponents such as Miami, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Tulane and Tulsa.

 He immediately signed four black players — offensive lineman Noah Jackson, defensive end Willie Lee Jones, center Fletcher Carr and, most importantly, running back Leon McQuay of Tampa’s Blake High School.

 “All The Way” McQuay was a 195-pound back who ran 9.5 in the 100-yard dash and seemed bound for Wisconsin in the Big Ten Conference. But Curci made McQuay his personal mission.

 “I was at their house every single night,” Curci said.

 McQuay was an example of how times had changed for FAMU. Gaither no longer had his pick of black athletes.

 As it turned out, Gaither and Curci were old coaching friends, having socialized and traded tips at conventions.

 Gaither soon got a call from Curci.

 “Jake, I know you want to play some games in our stadium (Tampa Stadium), but you should just play us,” Curci said.

That was it?

 “That was it,” Curci said. “This wasn’t some sort of pre-meditated attempt to make history. Look, we were just trying to put our program on the map. We were trying to get attention and national publicity by building a big-time team.”

 Gaither, though, immediately saw the game as potentially monumental.

 “Jake knew he had to win the game — or at least look very good in the process — or else that chance (to prove FAMU’s strength) would pass him by,” Jackson said. “He didn’t tell that to the press or his players. But he knew it, deep down in his heart.”

The Buildup

 The Spartans (8-1) and Rattlers (7-1) were having outstanding seasons heading into November’s final week, so no hype was needed.

 Both sides had concerns about the opposing offenses. McQuay was the most compelling force — and Gaither made certain that he was a target.

 Publicly, Gaither was deferential and full of praise for the Spartans.

 On the practice field, Gaither became a master motivator. McQuay had rejected FAMU, Gaither told his players.

 “He turned us down … he turned you down,” Gaither said.

 The Rattlers were preparing for the game of their lives.

 “We felt we were on the level of a Florida, Florida State, Miami and Tampa, but we had never received the opportunity to show that,” former Rattlers safety Leroy Charlton said. “We were not going to allow a defeat.”

 Meanwhile in Tampa, the buildup was reaching a fever pitch.

 Tickets were going fast. Some were being scalped at premium prices.

 “At first, people were grumbling about the seats they were getting,” Curci said. “Then it became a scramble to get any seat.”

 As part of the contract, it was officially a FAMU home game, even while being played at UT’s home field. FAMU selected the officials. Curci insisted that UT’s game program (and accompanying advertising) be utilized, so there were actually two different game programs sold outside the stadium.

 A few days before, Tampa police actually lobbied to cancel the game. They feared it would be too great of a risk, especially in an era when the fight for civil rights had caused ugly incidents throughout the South.

 “From the outside, people were scared something was going to happen,” Curci said. “Of course, that was absolute nonsense. They said you can’t put a black team against a white team. What would happen?

 “Well, we showed them what would happen.”

 Spirit.

 Pride.

 Sportsmanship.

 Spine-tingling athleticism.

 And a football game that simply wouldn’t stop.

Game Night

 Well before kickoff, Tampa Stadium’s two free-standing sides were filled to capacity.

 On the west side, the fans were all white.

 On the east side, the fans were all black.

 “Just the aura and the noise that was all around us, it was a positively electric, big-time feel,” said UT quarterback Jim Del Gaizo, now a South Florida resident who worked in the mortgage business.

 “There was a tension in the air like I had never seen — before or since — in that stadium,” said Tampa businessman David Epstein, who was a 14-year-old Spartan ballboy that night. “Everyone was on pins and needles right from the start. It never let up.”

 When Del Gaizo’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete from the FAMU 14-yard line in the final seconds, it was over.

 Curci sprinted to midfield for an embrace with Gaither. Curci also visited the Rattler locker room to compliment key FAMU players.

 The game stood on its own merit.

 It was a spectacle.

 Even at halftime.

 Curci cut short his halftime speech, so UT players could return to the field and witness a performance by the FAMU band, the “Marching 100.”

 “None of them had ever seen anything like that,” Curci said. “Everybody dancing. The tuba guy spinning around. The whole night was a show and that was part of it.”

 In the second half, things accelerated.

 “They scored, we scored, they scored, we scored … it was unbelievable,” Del Gaizo said. “I don’t know if the fans ever got a chance to sit down.”

 FAMU quarterback Steve Scruggs, of St. Petersburg, rushed for 111 yards and passed for 189. Del Gaizo was 23 of 45 for 423 yards, including two touchdowns to running back Paul Orndorff, a future professional wrestler (known as “Mr. Wonderful”).

 McQuay, mostly held in check, scored twice. But so did FAMU’s Hubert Ginn, a future Miami Dolphin, including a 4-yard touchdown run that put the Rattlers up 34-28 with 1:58 remaining.

 Del Gaizo needed just four completions to position UT at the Rattler 14-yard line for a frantic final-minute finish. From there, though, he tossed four consecutive incompletions.

 Ballgame.

 But so much more than a ballgame.

The Aftermath

 Carr, recruited by Curci out of Erie, Pa., said he was naive before arriving in Tampa. He went into a restaurant and was told, “We don’t serve you people.” After touring the campus, he witnessed an all-out melee in the streets, whites against blacks.

 “There were times I should have left and gone back home,” Carr said. “But I stuck it out. It showed me the world for what it is.”

 FAMU-UT showed the football world what it could become.

 “We were crushed to come up short,” said Carr, also a standout Spartan wrestler who became a wrestling coach at Kentucky and Arizona State. “But I think the game helped race relations all over, not just in Tampa. I guarantee you people at other schools took notice of it.”

 “It still has meaning, all these years later,” Curci said. “I think we all know we were part of something very special and very historic.”

 “Maybe it was nature’s way of making it all work out the right way,” Del Gaizo said. “As athletes, it was a football game, not a racial statement. I mean, if society mirrored athletics, we probably would’ve been colorblind a lot sooner in this country. But let’s face it, with the way it happened, a lot of good came out of this game.”

 Gaither invited another legendary coach, Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, to watch from the Tampa Stadium press box.

 “If people in other states can just see what happened here tonight, it won’t be long before we and other black schools will be able to play the best of our all-white neighbors,” Robinson told a Tampa Tribune reporter. “There are still some rednecks who’d object, but there are enough people who are concerned enough about seeing good football to make it possible for us, too. They know we have to live together now.”

 Beating UT was the penultimate game of Gaither’s coaching career. He defeated Grambling the following week before becoming FAMU’s athletic director.

 Curci said he has always felt honored by royal treatment from FAMU players and officials. Once, as an invited guest at FAMU’s homecoming, Curci said the FAMU school president walked across a ballroom, going out of his way to shake the old coach’s hand.

 “They still remember,” Curci said.

 Some years later, Gaither was honored at a reception. The talked turned to all of the FAMU championships. Someone asked Gaither: Which one was the biggest?

 “None of those,” Gaither said. “The biggest game was when we beat the University of Tampa.”

Joey Johnston has worked in the Tampa Bay sports media for more than three decades, winning multiple national awards while covering events such as the Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four, Wimbledon, the U. S. Open, the Stanley Cup Finals and all the Major bowl games. But his favorite stories have always been about Tampa Bay Area teams and athletes. A third-generation Tampa native, he was a regular in the Tampa Stadium stands at University of Tampa football games.