LARAMIE — What the scoreboard shows once Wyoming and Idaho get through playing won’t be the only significant development inside War Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Once the teams head into their respective locker rooms to catch a breather at halftime, another group of Wyoming football players will be recognized. Eight members of what will be forever known as the Black 14 — John Griffin, Guillermo Hysaw, Tony Gibson, Tony McGee, Ron Hill, Ted Williams, Mel Hamilton and Lionel Grimes — are expected back for the recognition under far different circumstances than the last time they were all on campus together.
Six members returned in February, but Saturday will be the largest known Black 14 contingent back on campus since their dismissal. They got into town a few days ago from all over the country — Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Illinois and Ohio just to name a few — as part of a week-long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of an incident that divided a football program, a school and a state at a time when social unrest amid the Vietnam War and racial tensions were at a fever pitch.
The emotions are still as fresh as they were then.
“Even now, every once in a while, the thought will come up or someone will call and they want an interview, and it stirs up different emotional feelings,” said Gibson, a junior fullback on that 1969 team. “Sometimes I don’t care about talking about it.”
By now — and with the help of those players dispelling myths of what some believe was a spin started by the school’s administration shortly after their dismissal — most know the story. Wyoming was emerging as a national power in 1969 having won three straight Western Athletic Conference championships and 31 of its last 36 games after a 4-0 start to that season.
But the day before the Cowboys played BYU that October, head coach Lloyd Eaton dismissed his 14 black players for seeking permission to wear black armbands in protest of both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ former policy that barred African-Americans from pursuing the priesthood and the way some of them said they were treated during Wyoming’s game the previous season at BYU, which is still owned and operated by the Mormon Church.
“And that was that,” said Black 14 member Jay Berry, a starting safety then. “Nineteen years old, and you go from an undefeated team to being kicked off and not one word to be said? I was just devastated.”
The incident made national headlines, with media outlets from all parts of the country descending on Laramie, but many members of the Black 14 got out of town and stayed out. For some, Saturday will be their first time back on campus since they left all those years ago not even old enough to legally drink. Now many of them are grandfathers.
Five decades have passed since. What became of those 14 lives that were drastically altered with one swift decision?
“We were kids, man,” said Griffin, a flanker then. “We were thrown into the adult world in five minutes. We had to make decisions that could last a lifetime.”
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Eleven of the 14 members are still living. James Issac, the lone Wyoming native among the group, was killed in 1976 at the age of 26 while Don Meadows (2009) and Earl Lee (2013) passed more recently. All made something of themselves first.
Issac, a defensive back on that 1969 team after starring in multiple sports at Hanna-Elk Mountain High, went on to play football and run track at Dakota Wesleyan University, where he became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. He became a teacher in Arizona.
Meadows, a lineman, ended up graduating from Wyoming before pursuing business opportunities in Seattle and Denver. Another lineman, Lee had a brief stint in the Army before returning to Wyoming to finish his degree and starting a career as an educator and administrator in the Baltimore area.
Meadows and Griffin were the only two that eventually rejoined Wyoming’s football team. Griffin played out his senior season and was preparing to start life after football when he was called into Eaton’s office in the spring of 1971. Griffin said Eaton told him he would arrange for Griffin to get a spot in training camp with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League — a gesture that stills baffles Griffin to this day.
“I have no idea,” Griffin said when asked why he thought Eaton did that for him. “I’ve talked to Tony (McGee) about it and I was talking to someone recently. Their takeaway was I think that was Eaton’s way of correcting a wrong. He may have realized at that point — and he never would’ve admitted that certainly — that he screwed up and he screwed me and the rest of the guys, and that’s how he’s making amends by opening up that opportunity for me. I don’t know how truthful that is, but it does make sense.”
Griffin said he was in line to make the team, but his heart wasn’t in it any more. Griffin quit before final roster cuts were made and returned to his native California to continue a playground director position he’d started during summers in college. Griffin, who graduated from Wyoming in 1972, also worked at a Denver-area YMCA before beginning a lengthy managerial career with United Airlines and Sports Authority.
“(The Black 14 incident) was just a snaphot in time, and I know for me personally, I went, ‘Yeah, this isn’t stopping me from being something in my life,’” said Griffin, who’s retired and lives in Denver. “You want us to go to Morgan State or Grambling? No, I’m going to be something in life. And by God, I did.”
Ivie Moore, a defensive back, also got a shot with Winnipeg but didn’t make the cut after being converted to a running back. Moore had a brief stint with the Norfolk Neptunes of the now-defunct Atlantic Coast Football League, according to profootballarchives.com, before eventually returning to his native Arkansas to work as a floor subcontractor.
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The 1969 season was part of a second stint at Wyoming for offensive lineman Mel Hamilton, who left for the military a few years earlier after a previous dispute with Eaton. Hamilton dabbled in semi-pro football in Iowa before returning to Wyoming to finish his degree in 1972, launching a lengthy education career in Casper after moving back to Wyoming with his first wife.
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Hamilton, who also earned his master’s degree in 1999, started as a teacher and a coach at Kelly Walsh High School before moving up the ranks. He moved to Roosevelt High, where he was an assistant principal, and eventually became Wyoming’s first black principal at East Junior High.
Hamilton said the Black 14’s dismissal fueled him throughout his 26 years in education.
“In part, that had to do with why I wanted to get so many degrees and wanted to climb the ladder because I wanted them to know, ‘Hey, I’ve got a little sense. I can do things other than physical education,’” said Hamilton, who retired to Lake City, South Carolina. “So yeah, that motivated me.”
Berry and McGee nearly ended up in the military as well. Both headed to Texas after transferring to Bishop College in the spring of 1970, but they were also drafted into the Army. But both were disqualified from serving because their blood pressure was too high — a development neither thought was a coincidence.
“I had high blood pressure probably with everything that was going on, and that kept me out of Vietnam,” Berry said.
Berry said he was contacted by the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Cardinals for workouts, but his back didn’t hold up. He left Bishop without playing a game and embarked on a career as an award-winning sports anchor for TV stations in his native Tulsa, Houston, Chicago and Detroit, where he still lives after retiring in 2009.
McGee, who was headed for All-America status during that ‘69 season after tallying 11 sacks in those first four games from his defensive end spot, joined running back Joe Williams as the only Black 14 members to play in the NFL. After playing his final collegiate season at Bishop, McGee was taken by the Chicago Bears in the third round of the 1971 NFL Draft, though he said he learned from one of the team’s scouts that the incident cost him a couple rounds as well as some money.
“He said, ‘The Los Angeles Rams were going to draft you in the first round. But they called Wyoming, and Wyoming told them you were one of the leaders that spearheaded the whole thing. So you fell to the third round,’” said McGee, who now lives in Fayetteville, Georgia.
McGee and Williams, who was drafted in the 12th round by the Dallas Cowboys a year earlier, combined for four Super Bowl appearances and two Lombardi trophies during their NFL careers. McGee played 14 seasons with the Bears, New England Patriots and Washington Redskins. He finished with 106.5 career sacks and was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.
After retiring in 1985, McGee started his own TV show, Pro Football Plus, that is now in its 35th year of production. Williams went on to create his own consulting business.
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Grimes was a split end at Wyoming but returned to his native Ohio and played baseball at the University of Findlay before becoming an employment diversity executive at Ford Motors. Hysaw, a California native who eventually earned his undergraduate degree from Oakland University as well as multiple master’s degrees, has also enjoyed a successful career in the automotive industry as a high-ranking executive for General Motors and Toyota.
Gibson said the Black 14 incident turned him off to the idea of looking for another college experience elsewhere. Instead, he and his wife moved back to their hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he began a 37-year career as a lineman for a local utility company.
“It hasn’t defined my life,” Gibson said. “I’m a good person. I think I’m a decent husband, a decent man and a hard worker. And I’m not going to let anybody take me down. I’m always going to stand up for what I believe in, and I think that’s important.”
Hill, a flanker, got a tryout in Canada and another with the Kansas City Chiefs, but he said he couldn’t play in the NFL at the time since he didn’t meet the league’s age minimum of 21 years old. He went on to graduate from Howard University in 1974 and taught in public school systems in Washington D.C. and Denver, where he also did some railroad work before retiring in 2005.
Ted Williams, another running back on that ‘69 team, finished college at Adams State University in Colorado. After two seasons of semi-pro ball with the Lake City Rifles, he stayed in Illinois and started a career in the industrial coating business that spanned more than four decades before retiring in 2015.
“I figured 41 years was enough,” said Williams, who still resides in Illinois.
The incident may have sent them all their separate ways much sooner than they expected, but a majority of the members still stay in contact. The group finalized the formation of The Black 14 LLC earlier this year, and many of them hop on conference calls to discuss everything from business opportunities to speaking engagements. Joe Williams and Berry are the only members that aren’t part of the LLC.
Just a few years after they were all were kicked off the team, BYU had its first African-American football player — a progressive sign that further confirmed for the group that the stand they took was worth it. Meanwhile, the Black 14 turned out better than the situation they left.
Eaton’s decision torpedoed not only the football program but his own coaching career. The Cowboys, who were fresh off a Sugar Bowl appearance in 1968 and rose as high as No. 12 in the national rankings in 1969, beat BYU that season but lost four of their last six games and had just one winning season over the next decade.
Eaton, who died in 2007 at the age of 88, was demoted after Wyoming’s 1-9 showing in 1970 and never coached again.
“I saw guys that it hurt, too,” McGee said. “But the one thing I saw in each and every guy, this didn’t define them. It shaped them, but it didn’t define them.”