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Breaking down barriers

How two people helped change face of college football

Posted: Wednesday November 2, 2005 3:19PM; Updated: Wednesday November 2, 2005 4:51PM
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Ray Bellamy
Ray Bellamy helped desegregate college football as an athlete at the University of Miami in the late '60s.
Courtesy of the University of Miami

A Sports Illustrated writer who's given a vast swath of real estate to tell a story can still find himself frustrated at not having enough space. That's especially so if the subject is rich enough, and the subject of my report in this week's magazine -- on the black pioneers who integrated big-time college football in the Deep South during the '60s-- proved to be rich as Croesus.

Over the fall I spent several weeks hop-scotching through Kentucky, Florida, Texas and points in between, and no stopover proved to be more memorable than a Sunday morning spent in southwestern Georgia.

One of my breakfast companions that day was Dr. Henry King Stanford, the 89-year-old former president of the University of Miami. Not long after arriving in Coral Gables in 1962, Stanford received a courtesy call from football coach Andy Gustafson. The two chatted until Gustafson, his hand on the doorknob as he prepared to leave the president's office, asked if there was anything in particular he might do to please the new boss. In fact, there was, Stanford said: Recruit a black football player.

"That doorknob turned to molten metal," Stanford says today, recalling the moment.

Gustafson pointed out that LSU would cancel its scheduled game with the Hurricanes. "Who's making policy at the University of Miami?" Stanford snapped back. "We or LSU?" "Other parts of the university had been desegregated," Stanford told me matter-of-factly. "I just decided we should be doing this."

Joining Dr. Stanford at breakfast was the remarkable man who ultimately desegregated Miami football -- and indeed, if you don't consider Maryland part of the Southeast, was the first black football player to sign with a big-time college in that part of the country.

Today, Ray Bellamy is 57, still lean and rangy enough that he looks as if he could still line up and catch passes, as he did in his trailblazing days. Bellamy grew up in a family of nine children, with migrant-worker parents who kept their kids busy during the summer picking vegetables. In the winter the Bellamys bivouacked in Palmetto, Fla., where Ray was expected to distinguish himself in school, even though his father was illiterate. Bellamy became student-body president at all-black Lincoln Memorial High, but college -- especially a rich kid's school like Miami -- seemed unfathomable.

"The plan was, join the Army and stay in the Army, because anything was better than the life I was living," he says, with a nod to the Vietnam War. "It would have been fine if I'd been killed in the line of duty."

But thanks to Stanford's leadership, a new Miami coach named Charlie Tate followed up on a tip from a bird dog, signing Bellamy to a grant-in-aid. Before the end of his senior year in high school he began receiving the "Dear Nigger" letters. "I call 'em my love letters," Bellamy says. Once he had arrived on campus, a car swerved and nearly hit him. "I didn't know what I was getting into," he says. "Had I known, I might have braced myself better."