LARAMIE — If Mel Hamilton is being honest, he can’t say he thought this would be possible.
“Tempers were high, and there was a lot of heat with the 14 and what we thought was coming from the (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints),” Hamilton said. “I think better minds came to grips with that 50 years later and said, ‘Look, let’s clear the air.’”
Wyoming’s Black 14 and their one-time adversary have come together for a cause far greater than simply mending a relationship.
More than 50 years after Hamilton and 13 other black players were kicked off the University of Wyoming’s football team for wanting to protest racial injustices both inside and outside the Mormon Church, the two sides have partnered to donate food across America. As part of the Black 14’s Mind, Body and Soul initiative, nine cities are getting a tractor-trailer’s worth of non-perishable food items delivered in time for the holidays.
That’s 40,000 pounds of food for each location chosen by many of the 11 living members of the Black 14. The cities on the receiving end of a donation are Baltimore (where the late Earl Lee, a lineman on UW’s 1969 team, enjoyed a career in education); Denver (where former receiver John Griffin resides); Boys Town, Nebraska (where Hamilton, another lineman on that team, attended school as a youngster); Wilmington, North Carolina (where Hamilton grew up); Charleston, South Carolina; Battle Creek, Michigan (the hometown of former defensive lineman Tony McGee); Pittsfield, Massachusetts (where former fullback Tony Gibson resides); Ethete, Wyoming; and Laramie, where UW’s campus is located.
The donation to Laramie required two trucks. The Black 14 partnered with the school to give half to UW’s food pantry, so 20,000 pounds went to the university while the other 20,000 pounds were delivered to the Cathedral Home for Children. In Ethete, the donation went to the Wind River Indian Reservation.
“We picked several schools and neighborhoods that were close to our hearts,” Hamilton said.
The heartwarming initiative doubles as the latest chapter in the Black 14’s story of reconciliation that’s still making members pinch themselves more than half a century later.
“If I had bet on that, I would’ve lost money,” Griffin said of the partnership with the LDS Church. “Two years ago, I wouldn’t have thought this. But it’s a wonderful thing. Two adversaries 51 years later joining for a good cause, and that’s just part of the healing process. That wound that was pretty significant 51 years ago has healed, and what we’re doing is pretty special.”
It was, after all, the Mormon Church’s now-defunct policy prohibiting African-Americans from pursuing priesthood that set the players’ dismissals in motion, a distinction Hamilton is still trying to set straight after all these years.
“It was a shame to me that a lot of people still think we were angry at the people of the church,” Hamilton said. “We were not. We were just upset about that one policy.”
Some members were also peeved about the racist treatment they said they received from BYU’s players during their game in Provo, Utah, the previous season. Another member, Jay Berry, told the Star-Tribune last year his desire to protest had nothing to do with the Mormon Church but rather with UW discouraging its black male students from fraternizing with white co-eds.
The day before UW’s 1969 rematch with BYU, which is owned by the Mormon Church, the Black 14 wanted to discuss with then-UW coach Lloyd Eaton the possibility of wearing black armbands during the game as a way to silently protest, but Eaton dismissed them from the team before they even asked the question. Their attempt to be reinstated was denied, and no UW administrator ever publicly addressed how the school handled the situation afterward.
That is, until last year.
Eight members returned to UW last fall as part of a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the event, and the school publicly apologized to the group for the first time since their dismissal. The members were also presented with letterman’s jackets during halftime of UW’s game against Idaho on Sept. 14, 2019.
Mending their relationship with the LDS Church has been years in the making thanks to Hamilton’s personal connection. Hamilton, whose oldest son, Malik, converted after marrying within the Mormon faith and now holds the position of high priest, has stayed in contact with LDS members he knows, including Elder Gifford Nielsen, an All-American quarterback for BYU in the mid-1970s.
Hamilton approached Nielsen with the idea of partnering the Black 14’s philanthropic arm with the Mormon Church as a way to give back. Hamilton said the coronavirus pandemic specifically opened his eyes to food insecurities around the country.
“I think it woke all of us up to the fact that people who have never been in the food line are now in the food line,” Hamilton said. “People who have never been in the unemployment line looking for jobs, they’re now looking for jobs.
“People are having hardships, trying to eat and trying to pay rent. So we had to do something to try to help. And especially with the children who are trying to learn on a new modality, which, for a lot of them, is online learning, which is not good. So they need the food to try to conquer that. That’s what we were concerned about.”
Hamilton submitted a proposal to Nielsen, and the initiative was created.
“It means a lot to me. It means I’m supporting the needs of people,” Hamilton said. “I’m supporting my son’s choice to become an LDS member. I’m supporting the will of God to love people. Regardless of what people think of Mel Hamilton of the Black 14, I truly do love people and want to help, especially kids who are in need. And I hope that I can continue the relationship with the LDS members to further that help.”
Griffin said the plan was always for the food to be delivered by early November so that it could then be distributed in time for Thanksgiving, a plan that was executed successfully. Griffin was on hand Nov. 17 for the delivery to the Salvation Army’s Emergency Service Center in Aurora, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. Hamilton was on site for deliveries to Wilmington and Charleston late last week.
Every city has received its donation.
“When I became acquainted with Mel, I was deeply moved knowing the Church could offer its resources to help the Black 14 provide education and nourishment for those in need,” Nielsen said in a news release. “We have become dear friends and close allies in a unified purpose — helping our brothers and sisters.”
In all, 180 tons of food will be available for people in need — a reality that wouldn’t exist without an unlikely partnership.
“You, I and everybody has read those sad stories,” Griffin said. “We took that burden off of these families at nine locations across this country.
“That hits me right where it should. Right in my heart. It makes me feel good.”
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.