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1962 football team: Fighting back

50 years ago, racial tensions reached a tipping point at Memphis State

By Joe MacLean
On February 1, 2012

  • The 1962 Detroit football team

 

 

Paul McLaughlin was frustrated and angry: He was upset and had had enough. So he cocked back his fist and drove it into the chin of a Memphis State defender.

McLaughlin's punch set off a chain reaction. Immediately, both benches spilled onto the field. 

For the next five minutes, the football teams from University of Detroit and Memphis State University fought. Haymakers, helmets and sucker punches – the players threw them all.

After the referees and coaches settled the chaos, the U-D Titans left for their locker room. En route, the crowd flung bottles and expletives. They were ruthless.

The anger grew so relentless that the Titans didn't even have a chance to walk to their bus. The vehicle backed up to the locker room exit, and the team jumped on through the emergency door in the rear.

John Everly, a tackle for the Titans, peered out his window as the bus drove away. He looked back at the crowd. He felt no remorse for what his teammate, McLaughlin, had started.

"As the bus drove off, I remember thinking the problems that caused the fight were far bigger than the game of football," said Everly. 

This year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of that 1962 game – a contest that provided a lesson in racism that no Titan who was involved has forgotten in the half century since.

Phil Stackpoole, one of the Titan football players, couldn't play that game. A shoulder surgery earlier in the week had left him sidelined.

His injury prevented him from participating in the brawl, too, but he did get to watch.

"We were a young team that lacked maturity. But looking back at what unfolded that day, we did not instigate the fight," said Stackpoole.

The Titans lost, 33-8. But it was not frustration over defeat that prompted McLaughlin to throw the punch. Nor did the game itself provide the motivation for the fans flinging bottles at the Titans.

For both sides, the dispute centered around one player, U-D's Robert Rice.

Rice, a tackle, was like every other Titan player on the field that day: He wore his helmet and shoulder pads, donned the red and white Detroit jersey and loved the game of football.

The only difference was Rice's skin color—he was black.

The whole game was very rough, with both teams incurring numerous penalties, remembered McLaughlin, the Titan center.

"Memphis State was cheap," said McLaughlin. "It wasn't just the slurs they said to Bob, but they would hit our punt returners when they signaled for fair catches and would hit late after whistles. The nasty treatment was because we had a black kid on our team."

McLaughlin said he had to take it into his own hands at the end of the game when a Memphis State player poked him in the eyes and called him a "nigger lover."

Rice and the Detroit Titans didn't get along like the Titans in the 2000 movie "Remember the Titans." They didn't sing Marvin Gaye's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in the locker room.

"Amongst the team, their wasn't blissful cooperation with race, but nor was there a problem with race," said Everly. "Bob had a scholarship to the architecture school, and he put most his efforts towards academia."

Rice, who is now deceased, graduated from the architecture program in 1967.

In 1962, the racial barrier was still strong in the South, with many Southern universities forbidding the integration of blacks in athletics.

When the Titans arrived in Memphis the night before the game, they experienced racism that helped fuel the frustration that would surface in the game. 

When the team got to the hotel, a white woman in her fifties saw Rice.

Everly remembered she took a look at Rice and told her husband, "Honey, we can't stay here. There's a ------."

The team often went to a movie the night before a game, so no one would get separated from the squad.

However, in Memphis when the team was buying movie tickets, a young man working in the ticket book told the Titans he couldn't let them in the theatre because of Rice's color.

The worker finally relented, but the team had to sit in the last two rows to watch the movie.

"The kid who said it was 140 pounds soaking wet," said Everly. "I was surprised how he said it so naturally and with no remorse. Bob could have given him a good whooping."  

Stackpoole, who was raised around Louvina, an African American woman who helped Stackpoole's family after his mother died, had never heard racial slurs used so freely.

"At the hotel and at the movies, it was unbelievable to see ‘for blacks' and ‘for whites' signs scattered across the town," said Stackpoole.

The culture in the South didn't respond well to people defending African Americans. That's why the football spectators responded the way they did to McLaughlin's punch.

Memphis State players and fans had been calling Rice names all game long. In the fourth quarter with the game out of reach, McLaughlin stood up for his teammate.

In 1962, U of D's football program was nearing its end. It would be eliminated in 1964 after a long, rich history that produced dozens of professional football players.

Bill Connelly, writing in The Varsity News that year, described the 1962 football campaign as the "worst season" in the program's storied history. The Titans finished with a 1-8 record and were outscored 204-90 over the course of the season.

At the time, the Tigers had a 7-1 record. Their only loss that season came to second-ranked Mississippi.

For Everly and Stackpoole, that last game of the season meant something more than a bad defeat at the end of a dismal year.

"I don't remember much of that season," said Everly. "But I do know that that game impacted me. It signaled that changes were coming."

After the game, Everly and his teammates were in a state of shock. They had read stories of racism in the South, but witnessing the ferocity of it aimed at their teammate during a college sports event made them feel naïve. They sensed that things needed to change.

"It was the first time I had witnessed racism," said Stackpoole. But "I knew racism wasn't just at Memphis State. It was a problem across the whole nation, especially in the South."

The following season, Street and Smith's Football Yearbook featured a story titled, "When Will the SEC Integrate?"

Memphis State did not belong to the SEC – U of D could not play against an SEC team because SEC teams refused to compete against teams with black athletes – but it did not support integration of African Americans in athletics.

Tom Siler, the author of the Street and Smith article, wrote that the South's smoldering race problem hovered over football, though conferences surrounding the SEC, including the Atlantic Coast Conference, were beginning to integrate.

Change was on the horizon.

When the Titan team returned to Detroit, Everly began to notice more clearly the problems Detroit had with racism.

"The North was nowhere close to perfect in the '60s. However, we sure thought we were when we compared ourselves to the South," said Everly. "In the newspapers, you read black men were murdered for talking to white women. We thought we were better than that.

"Witnessing the Southern culture was a warning for what was coming," he added. "But nothing could have prepared me or anyone for the culture change the country was about to encounter. The '60s generation was about to arrive."

 

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