The oversized St. Louis Cardinal lineman squeezed into the airplane seat next to a front-office staffer and began babbling about esoterica. "Do you have a soul?" the lineman said. "Well, I know I have one. I've been on earth before." The Cardinals had won that afternoon's game against the Washington Redskins, and no one else on the flight home was engaged in deep discussions about reincarnation, life after death or the tragic fate of man.
The player rambled on. "A long, long time ago I was here and I was a cockroach," he said, "and people pushed me around and stepped on me and finally killed me. Then I was reincarnated as a buffalo, and people shot me and I died." The lineman paused. "And then I came back as an American Negro," he said. "I can't win no way!" Later, when all the excitement started, the front-office staff member was to remember that remark vividly.
Others were to recall the time a group of black Cardinals strolled into the dressing room with medallions dangling from their necks. Two or three of them were young players, still largely unproved personnel like Linebacker Jamie Rivers and Running Back Roy Shivers and Defensive End Fred Heron, but there were also such performers as Bobby Reynolds, a first-string tackle, and Cornerback Bobby Williams. At the first sight of this black contingent descending upon the dressing room the other players merely gawked. Then the acknowledged leader of the team's white supremacy cell, an outspoken man with a quick mind and a caustic wit, stepped toward Williams. He looked the 26-year-old player up and down and finally said, "What the hell's that around your neck? You trying to strangle yourself?"
Williams said jokingly, "Man, that's black power!"
The white player groaned and rolled his eyes at the ceiling. "Bobby," he said, "if you're indicative of black power and all the other niggers are as smart as you, we whites will never have anything to worry about!"
Ernie McMillan, the 260-pound offensive tackle in his seventh year with the club, sat in front of his locker shaking his head dolefully. Later he said to a friend, "One of the white boys asked 'What are those things?' and Bobby said, 'black power,' and the white player believed him. Now, how naive can a guy be? Those aren't black-power medallions. Did you ever see one around Stokely Carmichael's neck or Rap Brown's? And yet some of these white players are naive enough to believe the first thing that's told 'em!"
It will come as no surprise to astute pro-football fans that the Cardinals of St. Louis have had a racial problem. The lid blew off the simmering pot at the end of last season, and since then deep thinkers have been trying to figure out what is uniquely rotten about this team. They might have saved their energies. The Cardinals are working hard and fruitfully on their racial problems, and though the situation they have is probably slightly worse than that on any other NFL team, it is not so much worse that the rest can be sanctimonious about St. Louis. Not for one moment. Prejudice is too common a commodity in professional football; routine, expected. Almost every team, for example, has a cell of white racists like the one on the Cardinals, one that geographical origin does not explain. On the Cardinals, the white racist group was dominated by a player from the North, and several of the most outspoken anti-Negro players were from above the Mason-Dixon line. Says Prentice Gautt, the veteran running back who has now been hired as an assistant football coach at the University of Missouri: "Somebody said to me once, 'You must have a hard core of red-necks on the Cardinals.' I said, 'You deal in understatement!' "
"Two or three bad racists polarized the whole team," says a white Cardinal who has managed to remain apart from the clique. "When one of the white supremacists first came here he was a pretty straight guy. The racists put the heat on him and let him know it had to be one way or the other. They tried the same thing with me. The problem was that the leader of the racist clique was intelligent. He was a natural spokesman for bigots, and because he was clever and witty and such a good ballplayer, he commanded respect and greatly influenced new ballplayers."
"The haters come in all shapes and sizes," says Willis Crenshaw, the handsome first-string running back whose home town is St. Louis. "A few of them have these quick tongues, yes, but some of them are just plain stupid, too. White trash. If it wasn't for football, they'd be zeros. We have one hater who poses as a good Christian boy. It's a hoax. He thinks he can counsel Negroes, but at the same time he's no different from the others on the team. After we made our complaints and the whole thing came out into the open, this guy went around saying that it came as a big surprise to him. Sure it did. The reason he was surprised is he thought you were supposed to treat Negroes bad. That's the way it's done where he comes from."
Roy Shivers, the tough little runner from Utah State who signed for an estimated $300,000 in bonus and salaries, speaks bitterly of the general situation on the Cardinals. "Every white player wants to be a coach," Shivers says, "and he practices on the Negroes. Every time a Negro player makes a mistake on the ball club he's got two coaches and six players clustering around him to tell him what he did wrong. This situation comes straight down from the coaching staff and the front office. We even have certain ballplayers who'll cuss the coach out, but let a Negro do something like that and see how long he'll stay here. There's a double standard any way you look. That's the history of this team and, for all I know, the other teams, too. Back in Wally Lemm's day it was really bad on the Cardinals. Veterans like Thunder Thornton and Prentice Gautt—they can talk for hours on what was done to them. But I don't think it's that much better right now."