Tony McGee grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan aware of the injustice that was prevalent in America. His father was a leading local activist who brought the Congress of Racial Equality to the city and ran its local office there. His parents always taught him that he could do anything, so long as he was willing to work for it.
“When there was something that wasn’t right, my parents were on top of it,” said McGee. “My father was one of the leading advocates in the area who believed in the concept of equality.”
McGee heard his father talk about becoming the first African-American foreman at the factory that he worked at, and how he used his status to elevate the job prospects for the other Black workers whom management felt were not suited for anything other than pushing a broom.
He saw his father’s drive and intelligence as he worked tirelessly to protest wrongs, working in the trenches to help local politicians get elected, a man of substance that understood the necessity of a new dawning in the country that could no longer be based on the antiquated notions of racial superiority and reckless discrimination.
He took note of his father’s commitment to self-determination and watched as he quit his factory job with a plan of action in hand. Armed with the financial freedom he’d acquired through diligent saving and planning, he saw his dad build his own entrepreneurial business portfolio that included a record store, pool hall, beauty salon and barber shop.
“My father died at the age of 40 while he was building my mother a beauty school,” said McGee. “He accomplished so much in such a short period of time. I always had a great example and positive role models in my life, so when the Wyoming situation came up, I understood what was at stake, and what needed to be done.”
The Wyoming situation that he refers to is the subject of a new CBS Sports documentary, “The Black 14: Wyoming Football 1969,” which takes a deep dive into the story of the 14 African-American football players who were kicked off the university’s football team due to their desire to protest racial injustices that were not only taking place around the United States, but ones that were closer to home as well.
Judging from the current college football landscape that is dominated by the likes of Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and a few others, it’s difficult to reconcile that Wyoming was once a football oasis and an emerging powerhouse within reach of a national championship. They were a nationally ranked program that galvanized an entire state in the mid ’60s.
Entering the 1969 season, the Cowboys were the three-time defending Western Athletic Conference champions who blazed out of the gate a 4-0 record. But before their game against Brigham Young University, 14 African-American players on the team decided to wear black arm bands on their uniforms to protest BYU, the Mormon Church’s decision to ban African-American priests and the way that they had been treated as individuals during their previous games against the Cougars.
The players were subsequently kicked off the team by head coach Lloyd Eaton, whom the players, not just the black ones but all team members, had referred to by the nickname, “Lord Eaton.” The decision was supported by the school.
The documentary takes a look at what went into the decision of the players to protest, the school’s choice to kick them off the team, and the fallout from the events.
America was rapidly changing, and issues that had gripped the nation were making their way to Laramie. Athletes across the country were using their platforms to increasingly speak out about inequalities as the Civil Rights battle made its way to America’s playing fields.
As McGee and his teammates took the field in 1969, the Vietnam War was raging with no end in sight, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated and protests were spreading across college campuses.
A year earlier in the Mexico City Summer Olympics, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos indelibly burned the marriage of sports to racial politics and protest when they raised their black-gloved fists on the medal stand.
Brigham Young University, owned and operated by the Mormon Church, was drawing increased ire from the African-American athletes at neighboring schools in the western United States. The church had a firm, long-standing policy policy that barred black men from its priesthood and leadership.
In November of 1968, at San Jose State in California, black football players boycotted a home game against BYU. In April of 1969, black athletes on the University of Texas at El Paso track team were kicked off the team when they refused to participate in a meet at BYU’s campus in Provo, Utah.
On the gridiron, Wyoming looked poised to have its greatest season ever in 1969, but their coach had no idea, and evidently no tolerance for the consciousness of his African-American players, and the responsibility they began to feel about making a difference against racist policies and injustice.
McGee’s most glaring experience with hostility took place a year earlier in Provo, on the football field while playing against BYU.
“I kept getting cheap-shotted by the BYU players and they insisted on calling me out of my name,” McGee said. “It happened to all of the Black players. It was dangerous, our physical well-being was at stake. Some of the older players told us what to expect when we played BYU, and they were right. I’d finally had enough and went to an official, trying to appeal to his sense of fair play. I tried lamenting to him what was transpiring. He told me to, ‘Shut up and play football.’ I took that to mean that as a Black man playing against BYU, anything goes.”
After the game, a sour taste was left in the Black players mouths as they walked off the field. It was exacerbated when the sprinklers immediately came on as they stepped off the grass, as they heard someone comment about the need to wash away the dirty filth that had just played there.
“The Black Student Union at Wyoming was engaging in protests on campus during our 1969 season, but we weren’t involved,” said McGee. “They wanted us to get involved with their protest against the Mormon religion. They said they heard about how we were treated when we played against BYU, and we said that that would be the only consideration we would have. We were protesting how we had been treated on the field, because we knew that it wasn’t right. We wanted to do something to shed some light on what was transpiring.”
The players decided to unify around symbolic black armbands with the number 14 on them that they planned to wear during the BYU game. But when they went to inform Eaton of their thoughts, they were summarily dismissed from the team and vilified by many at the university, and around the country, as rabble-rousers.
This new CBS documentary, “The Black 14” sheds light on how everything went down, and the fallout that not only altered the life trajectories of those involved, but eventually the entire football program and university community.
If some of the players thought they’d get a sympathetic ear from their head coach, they were quickly proven wrong.
“Eaton said, ‘I’m gonna save you a lot of breath and time, as of this moment all of you are no longer members of the Wyoming football team,'” said McGee. “He didn’t ask for an explanation or to hear our side of the story. He and one of the players got into a verbal confrontation, so he told us to go over to the fieldhouse and sit in the stands and that he would come right over.”
Whomever held on to hopes that the coach had simply overreacted and was willing to listen to the young men he’d enthusiastically recruited were in for a rude awakening.
“So we’re sitting in the stands waiting, and he comes in and just berates us,” said McGee. “He told us we could go to the black colleges like Morgan State and Grambling State, how he took us off the street like cigarette butts and how ungrateful we were, how we could all go back home and just get on Colored Relief. Everything and every statement he made was racist. And then he walked out.”
Watch “The Black 14” to see how everything went down and how, in an instant, things came crumbling down alongside the resulting aftermath, the dualities of support and backlash on both sides, the federal lawsuit and what followed.
Without their Black players, Wyoming crushed BYU and proceeded to beat San Jose State as a plane pulling a banner proclaiming, “Yea Eaton,” flew over the stadium. But without players like McGee, who had seven sacks in one game against nationally ranked Air Force earlier in the year, the Cowboys talent drain soon became apparent.
Unbeknownst to Eaton’s staunches supporters, those wins against BYU and San Jose State were the end of Wyoming’s stay among the nation’s elite programs. They got blown out in all of their remaining games. The 1970 squad went 1-9 and Eaton was subsequently relieved of his coaching duties.
10 of the 14 players never played another down of organized football and were ostensibly black listed. Wyoming has never since been in the discussion as a national championship contender.
When coaches and scouts called Eaton to inquire about McGee’s talent and character, his former coach disparaged him, as he did all of the others.
The stench of his actions left a stain on the program that took decades to remove.
McGee’s talent ultimately landed him in the National Football League, where he appeared in two Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins, winning one in 1983. He played 14 years as a defensive lineman in the NFL with the Bears, Patriots , and Redskins and accumulated a career total of 106 sacks. He played in 203 games and amazingly only missed only one game over those 14 years. In 1994, he was nominated to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
After running a 4.4 forty-yard-dash while auditioning for NFL scouts and being drafted in the third round by Chicago, McGee learned that Eaton attempted to sabotage his chances to make it in pro ball.
“I finished my career at Bishop College in Texas where I had 109 tackles in nine games and was a Black College All-American,” said McGee. “I was listed as a first round talent, and dropped to the third round. The Chicago Bears scout told me, ‘We know you’re a good ballplayer, but that Wyoming stuff followed you. The Rams wanted to draft you in the first round, but they called out to Wyoming and the folks out there told them that you were the main troublemaker.'”
But despite making it to the pinnacle of the sport and winning a Super Bowl, his experience at Wyoming remains at the forefront of his athletic journey.
“There were 14 of us,” he said. “14 lives damaged, 14 individuals that needed those scholarships, 14 individuals who put those scholarships on the line to make a statement. Now that the true story can come out, I feel better.”
Looking back, he takes solace in the fact that Wyoming later changed their policies around athletes and their rights to protest, how BYU brought in their first Black football players, how the actions of him and his teammates made it easier for other players around the country to stand up and not have to fear about a lack of due process. Those changes came eventually.
“All’s well that ends well,”said McGee. “But things didn’t end well for everyone. 48 years later, I’m glad that people are still talking about it. Over the course of the years, the truth has emerged. People back then, people we trusted to look out for our best interests, made it seem like what we did was wrong and that what we wanted to do could not be tolerated.
But my parents raised me to do what was right. And I know that I, and we, did the right thing.”
The Black 14: Wyoming Football 1969 airs on Saturday, Feb. 11 at 10:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.