Fifty years ago, with America still in flames during some of the darkest times of the civil rights movement, it was the game that gave Black college football fans a reason to pause. A little more than five months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and three months following the similar untimely death of Attorney General and democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, the ailing nation needed a respite from the strife that hovered like smoke from the burning flames of urban America.
On the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium a place that was once just as reluctant to give Black athletes a chance to perform as any venue in the south Grambling and Morgan State gave this nation a glimpse into part of the culture that was the personification of its resilience.
September 28, 1968 the Tigers of legendary coach Eddie Robinson and the Golden Bears led by Hall of Fame coach Earl Banks battled in the Boogie Down Bronx in something that was more than just a football game. Before the mass exodus of talent from what are now known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) these may have been the best teams in America. That Morgan won 9-7 was merely a footnote to the event that captivated an entire nation.
With over 60,000 fans at the original Yankee Stadium, the African American national pastime was finally on center stage. It was the precursor to the modern HBCU Football Classic when teams meet in a big city and play in an NFL stadium for a lucrative payday. The game raised more than $200,000 for the New York Urban League and became a college football tradition in the Big Apple for almost 40 years.
Coach Robinson had already sent the first HBCU player Paul Tank Younger – into the NFL two decades earlier, so Grambling was already a national brand. There were 20 players from the tiny school in Louisiana playing pro football at the time and interest among the sporting public was more than a passing fancy. Legend has it that as many as 30 pro football scouts would stalk the Tigers all season hoping to find that one game-changer as the hue of pro football was changing.
Banks continued Morgans underground railroad to the league that started under his mentor Eddie Hurt. Hurts Bears won 14 CIAA championships during his era and groomed hall of fame offensive lineman Roosevelt Brown for the New York Giants, who played at Yankee Stadium.
Howard Cosell, who became arguably the most significant sportscaster of his generation because of his public defense of Muhammad Alis anti-Vietnam war protest, produced an Emmy award nominated documentary 100 Yards to Glory that put the G-Men in the same company as Notre Dame. That drew the interest of the New York Yankees organization who hadnt been receptive to its Black fan base. The organization was concerned about the potential for demonstrations and ordered extra police presence to keep order. It was the perfect time for the Yankees to fill the house that Ruth built into the grandest stage Black College Football had ever been on.
Morgan was to Grambling of the 1960s what the University of Miami was to Notre Dame of the 1990s. While it wasnt as intense as the Catholics vs Convicts hatred, there were plenty of legendary players who made their marks in the NFL. Papa Bear, as Coach Banks was known at Morgan, made the same type of impact on his players lives as Robinson did.
Banks and Robinson were cut from the same cloth. Football was a metaphor of life that developed the character of players who would become successful professionally in vocations other than football. Neither would allow his players to make excuses, which is how Willie Lanier and Leroy Kelly earned their way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Hidden behind the violent racism of the Jim Crow south, the small colleges that were founded after the Emancipation Proclamation were the only places Blacks (Negroes at the time) could earn their college degrees and a long standing cultural phenomenon was born. The tradition of the battle of the bands halftime show being as important as the games final score was born, and the Yankees organization knew this event would deliver a packed house.
Both teams were hardened by the times and their characters were sharpened by the character of these coaches. Robinson often talked of how when Grambling traveled through the deep south they would only buy gas from stations that would allow them to use their bathrooms. Banks players participated in protests across the street from campus at Northwood Shopping Center in Baltimore when restaurants wouldnt serve them.
However, this was the moment where all that didnt matter. It was the time for many players who were unknown to most college football fans to make a name for themselves. There were 31 players in this game who would go on to play pro football thanks to the stage in the nations largest media market.
Morgans Raymond Chester scored their only touchdown and blocked a punt, which led to a safety for the Bears who were on the road to an undefeated season. Chester would become one of the great tight ends in NFL history playing for the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Colts. Gramblings James Harris, who would later become the first Black quarterback to start in the NFL, almost missed the game with an ankle injury. He entered the game in the fourth quarter with a noticeable limp and little mobility and led them downfield to the shadows of the end zone.
There are those in Louisiana who still think former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Frank Lewis scored when Harris found him on a perfect slant route which set them up with first and goal at the one yard line. After Morgan stuffed them three times Robinson called timeout and couldve given Grambling a chance to win the game with a short field goal with :20 seconds remaining. However, they played for the touchdown and the Bears defense held for the fourth consecutive time to preserve the win.
The traditions of the two programs have been incredibly different in the years since. Morgan won 31 straight games before Banks retired in 1976 and theres been a revolving door of mediocrity ever since. Grambling is the reigning SWAC Champion and remains a perennial HBCU national championship contender while Morgan struggles to put winning seasons together. The Tigers play the State Fair Classic each year in Dallas and their Bayou Classic is a Thanksgiving weekend tradition in New Orleans. The Bears play Towson State in the Battle of Baltimore.
Black College Football rose from the shadows that day, which ironically played as big a role at integrating schools especially in the deep south once the perception of inferiority was put to bed.