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How Buffs Bowl Teams Struck Blow Against Segregation

Feb 22, 2021
John Wooten (1956) and Bill Harris (1961) were members of the CU teams that played in Orange Bowls against all-white teams.

Editor's note: This story was originally posted on several years ago. We are reposting the story again to serve a reminder that CU Athletic Department programs actively engaged in the civil rights movement by taking a stand against segregation when such stands were not popular in much of America.

BOULDER — They came as moments of team solidarity, statements during a critical time in America, situations when brothers in arms simply refused to allow their teams to be divided.

In an era when racial segregation was still the norm in the United States, teams from the the University of Colorado delivered their message. While not celebrated on a major scale, the CU Athletic Department nevertheless played a significant role in the turbulent times of the 1950s and '60s, making it clear that civil rights would not be denied to young men who had eaten, trained, sweated and bled together.

Put another way, "shoulder to shoulder" has been much more than just a snappy fight song phrase in the annals of CU history. Colorado's history is peppered with key moments involving African-American athletes.

CU's first All-American — in any sport — was discus thrower Claude Walton, who earned the honor in 1936, followed quickly by high jumper Gil Cruter in 1937.

Colorado's first Olympian was track star David Bolen, who competed for the USA in the 1948 Olympics in London.

CU was also among the first teams in the Big Seven (later the Big Eight) to integrate its basketball and football teams, with black athletes joining the rosters of both sports by the mid-1950s.

And it is in that era the Buffs made statements that reverberated throughout the landscape of college athletics — and as a result, helped move the integration needle throughout the country.

Three of those moments came via the football team.

Following the 1956 regular season, the Buffs were invited to play Clemson in the Jan. 1 Orange Bowl. At the time, the Buffs had two African-American players, Franke Clarke and John Wooten. Clemson — as was the case with many schools in the Deep South at the time — said it would not play a team with black athletes.

The Buffs refused to relent, however.

Wooten, who later went on to a long career in the NFL, recounted the the situation several years ago for KOA radio legend Larry Zimmer for an article now available on "Classic CU," part of the network.

"Miami Beach was still segregated and the hotel personnel plainly stated they didn't want any Negroes coming down there," Wooten told Zimmer. "When it became apparent that Colorado wasn't going to back down, the Bal Harbor Hotel tried to reach a compromise. They said that Frank and I would have to stay in the same room and it would be on the top floor of the hotel. Frank and I had never roomed together. We roomed by position. My roommate was Bobby Salerno, and I didn't want to change it. I can't remember who Frank's roommate was, but I know he felt the same way.

"We stood strong. When we went to Miami Beach, we had our usual roommates and it was business as usual. And Clemson did show up at the game and we beat them."

Five years later, a similar situation arose again — and again, it involved the Orange Bowl.

At the end of a 9-1 regular season that included victories over Oklahoma and Nebraska, the Buffs were officially invited to the Orange Bowl after their last game, a victory over Air Force.

Bill Harris, one of five black players on the team, remembers oranges raining down on the field and a similar scene in the locker room as the bowl representative showed up to officially extend the invitation to head coach Sonny Grandelius and the players.

"It was unbelievable," Harris said. "I can still see us in that locker room, throwing oranges everywhere and everybody going crazy."

But just as the celebration was ready to reach its zenith, team captain Joe Romig and Charlie McBride, another team leader, called the team together.

"They stood up and said, 'We're not going to the Orange Bowl,'" Harris said. "It was quite the shock. The school administration was there, all the coaches, everyone — and you could tell they were stunned. Nobody really knew what to say. They didn't think we knew what we were doing."

The players, however, knew exactly what they were doing.

Earlier that season, the Buffs had traveled to Florida to play the Miami Hurricanes. When they arrived in Miami for the game, a separate bus showed up to take the black players to a separate hotel.

On that trip, the Buffs didn't have time to react.

But presented with more time to prepare, they were ready the second time around. When it became apparent the Buffs were going to earn an Orange Bowl bid, they met in the last week of the season and reached a simple conclusion: the Buffs were not going to go to Miami unless all the players were allowed to stay in the same Miami Beach hotel.

"It really didn't seem like a big deal at the time, it was just the right thing to do," recalled John Meadows, a freshman on that team. "We kept winning and we knew we were going to get invited to the Orange Bowl. So Joe Romig and Charlie McBride and some of the other seniors called a meeting and said, 'If we get invited, we're not going unless we get to stay in the same hotel.' I'm not sure if a vote was even taken — it was just 'OK, that's what we're going to do.' Everybody was in agreement."

But they didn't let coaches or administrators know.

"The Orange Bowl comes in, they have their little jackets on and Grandelius says, 'Men, we've been invited to the Orange Bowl,'" Meadows recalled. "Then Romig says, 'We're not going — unless we stay together in the same hotel.' You could hear the jaws drop. It was a big moment for all of us."

Interestingly, Harris and Meadows said, some of the players who were most hesitant about the plan were some of the black players.

"At one point, one of the guys said, 'Hey, you don't have to do that. We don't want to ruin this for everybody,'" Meadows recalled. "And even before he got done saying that, somebody else stood up and said, 'This is about us. It's all about us. We're together. We're a team. That's who we are. We're doing this together.'"

Grandelius did his best to talk the players out of their decision, but the Buffs stood firm. CU officials also tried to change the Colorado players' minds. But Romig, who would end up becoming a Rhodes Scholar and celebrated astrophysicist at CU (as well as a consensus All-American), and the rest of the Buffs held their ground. There would be no negotiating.

"I remember Joe and Charlie saying, 'This is the way it's going to be,'" Harris said. "And that's how it came down. They had some meetings, made some calls, and finally the Orange Bowl changed their minds and we were all allowed to stay in the same hotel."

The Buffs faced LSU in the game, whose roster consisted of all white players. Although Colorado lost, 25-7, it was still seen as another major step forward for integration of college athletics.

Harris still becomes emotional when discussing the moment. At the team's 50-year reunion, he delivered an impassioned speech remembering the moment and thanking all the players involved.

Harris also later served as the Colorado Alumni C-Club director and often spoke to CU athletes about that season.

"They have no idea what we went through in building the program and what it was like back in those days to just play," Harris said. "I don't think they know or realize the history. … Guys went through a lot so players today can have what they have now. I don't know if it was viewed in that manner then, but Colorado and the program were pioneers in a way in the civil rights movement. We were a driving force and made a statement."

But while the statement rang loud and clear, for the Buffs it was more of a declaration of a brotherly bond.

"We were sticking up for our friends," Meadows said. "I don't know that any of us realized or considered that we were making any kind of major statement. It was just a case of us being a team and we were going to stay that way."

Eight years later, another Colorado team would once again bump into the ugliness of racism, again in another bowl game.

This time, it was Eddie Crowder's 1969 Buffs who matched up against Bear Bryant's Alabama Crimson Tide in the Liberty Bowl.

The Buffs' roster had become fully integrated by then. The Crimson Tide, however, was still a team of all white players.

Years later, former CU great Herb Orvis told Denver Post columnist Woody Paige that Alabama fans "spit on us. They treated us like dirt before and during the game. They were screaming racial remarks totally out of line. It was all because we had black players on our team."

When CU captains Bobby Anderson, Mike Pruett and Bill Collins walked out for the pregame coin toss, Anderson and Pruett stepped back as they neared midfield and allowed Collins to represent the Buffs.

"We wanted Bill Collins, who was black, to step out in front and call the coin toss," Anderson recalled.  "We were tri-captains, but we wanted Bill to represent us because of who we were playing.  Alabama did not have any black football players, and I remember some of their fans yelling racial epithets at our team, especially at halftime and that angered us, so we wanted to make a statement."

The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, sent virtually their entire team out for the coin toss.

"A lot of them had not ever seen a black football player," Collins told Paige. "Others were even more vicious. There was a lot of name-calling. The 'N' word was coming from everywhere. I was 20, and I never heard stuff like that in a stadium. I went out to midfield by myself, and suddenly every player on the Alabama team came out to midfield. I've never felt more alone in my life."

But Collins made it clear he was not going to be intimidated — and once the coin toss was over, the Buffs sent another message by defeating the Crimson Tide, 47-33.

It proved to be another step in an inevitable change for a program that had refused to integrate up to that point.

One year later, the Tide was thumped in another bowl game by USC, which also had African-American players. The back-to-back bowl losses evidently had an effect, as one year after the loss to Colorado, Bryant and Crimson Tide welcomed their first African-American football player to the Alabama campus.

Now, more than 50 years later, it is hard for some young players to comprehend such circumstances. But as America celebrates Black History Month, Harris said it is important to ensure that such moments are remembered.

"I think it's a story that needs to continue to be told," Harris said. "It's important. It was slow going and it wasn't easy for any of us. We all went through a lot and it created a special bond on that team that has held us together for all these years.

"I think it's an important era that needs to be remembered. I would hate to see it ever be forgotten. I don't think the athletes of today have any idea what we went through so they could have what they have today — and I would hope that our story is always something that isn't forgotten. I think it's an important piece of history that needs to be remembered."