LARAMIE – Dispel myths, keep the memory alive, and for some, a little bit of closure.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black 14 incident at the University of Wyoming. Fourteen members of the UW football team wanted to ask then head coach Lloyd Eaton for permission to wear black arm bands for UW’s home game against Brigham Young University on Oct. 18, 1969, to protest stance by the Church of Jesus Christ-Latter Day Saints where African-Americans could not ascend to priesthood.
Eaton kicked the players off the team, and that’s where the myths and misconceptions begin.
Six of the 14 players were at UW’s College of Law Friday to talk about their experiences and tell their story. For some, it was their first time on campus in 50 years. It also was the largest group among the 14 to be together at the same time to talk about what happened.
The players present were: Tony Gibson, John Griffin, Mel Hamilton, Guillermo Hysaw, Ivie Moore and Tony McGee. They received a Lifetime Achievement Award from UW’s African American and Diaspora Studies Program.
“All of our lives were changed in different ways and situations that day, but what transpired didn’t define our lives – but it could have,” McGee said.
The big day
UW was 6-0 and ranked 16th in the country heading into its home game against BYU.
The day before the game, the 14 players went to Eaton’s office to see if he would allow them to wear the black arm bands. This was something they thought about and discussed for weeks. And, it wasn’t just about LDS policies or beliefs about African-Americans.
“It was the way we were treated on the field when we played at BYU,” McGee said. “We were called names. We got cheap-shotted all the time. There was one time I approached the referee about it and he told me ‘shut up and play football.’”
All six players said if Eaton told them no about wearing the arm bands, they wouldn’t and would play the game.
However, the group didn’t get as far as asking for Eaton’s permission.
“He came out of his office and kicked us off the team,” Hysaw said. “Then he took us into the (War Memorial Fieldhouse) and berated us.”
“He told us we can go back (home) on color or Negro relief,” Moore said. “You can go back to the Gramblings and Morgan States (historically black colleges). You can go back to picking up cigarette butts. It was like dropping Agent Orange on us.”
Added Gibson said, “I would never as a father, uncle, parent – whatever – speak to anyone the way (Eaton) spoke to us. We went to him to ask a question that never got out of our mouths.”
Griffin said about 30 minutes after Eaton’s tirade and decision he was walking through UW’s student union. A friend approached him and said, “I heard you’re boycotting the team.”
“I said, ‘No, we just got kicked off the team,’” Griffin said.
Word also spread fast through the rest of the university, and to the state capitol in Cheyenne.
A meeting was held that night at Old Main on the UW campus. Present were the players, UW President William Carlson, the board of trustees and Gov. Stan Hathaway, who drove over from Cheyenne in a snow storm.
The players said Hathaway asked Eaton to attend the meeting. Eaton refused so Hathaway went to Eaton’s house.
The university stood by Eaton’s decision.
“I realized something that evening – that Lloyd Eaton was stronger than the president of the university and the governor of the state of Wyoming,” Griffin said.
The players said they could come back individually and ask Eaton for their scholarships and reinstatement on the team, but not as a group.
Gibson said he got a call from assistant coach Bill Baker wanting him to return to the team, but there was a catch.
“He said if you tell anybody I made this call I’m going to tell them you lied,” he said. “I said there was no way I would come back and play for a man that’s going to call me liar.”
Gibson didn’t come back.
Two of the Black 14 members played professionally in the National Football League. McGee played with three NFL teams from 1971-84, and won two Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins from 1982-84. Joe Williams played with two NFL teams from 1971-72.
Griffin and Moore tried to play professionally in Canada. Moore was cut by Winnipeg.
UW beat BYU back in 1969, won the following week at home against San Jose State, but lost its final four games. The Cowboys went 1-9 in 1970 – Eaton’s final season – and went to just one bowl game until 1988.
Griffin returned to UW and lettered in 1970. He also went to Winnipeg to give professional football a shot, feeling what happened at UW ruined any chances he had at the NFL. Griffin said the Winnipeg coach told him he was going to make the team. However, Griffin said his heart wasn’t into football anymore, mostly because of what happened one Friday in October in 1969 in Laramie.
“We were radioactive. Nobody in the NFL wanted to touch us and not one university wanted us,” Griffin said. “We were on an island. It was tough coming back (to play at UW), but I had no other choice.
“We were young guys that became men in five minutes. We had to make adult decisions that day. I think about that every day and I’m going on 71 years old.
“It was a tragedy what happened to us and the university, and all because of someone’s ego.”
Hamilton was part of some of the most infamous history in UW and Wyoming history, but also made ground-breaking history years later in the state.
Hamilton was the first African-American principal in Wyoming at East Junior High in Casper. Hamilton then moved up the ranks in the Natrona County school district after that.
But it wasn’t easy, and it came at a price.
“There were four or five teachers at my school that went to the same college as Eaton — Black Hills State,” Hamilton said. “Those guys knew of the Black 14 and knew I was part of it. As their principal they worked behind my back planning on how to get rid of me.”
It didn’t work, yet Hamilton said his career in education was somewhat unfulfilled.
“The worst part to me of my experience in Casper was that I was never able to evaluate my effectiveness,” he said. “Every time I did that, I could not eliminate the racism and what they were doing to me. That stayed with me for 50 years while I lived in Casper. Everybody wanted to knock me down. God says, ‘Turn the other cheek,’ but I’ll be damned if I will turn the other cheek.’”
Hamilton also said his family was affected. He said a white boy had interest in dating his daughter, but told her he couldn’t because she was black. Hamilton also said his son was threatened physically by a coach when he was in high school.
“My life is greater, even though I still have pain,” Hamilton said. “I fight the anger, and I think I am winning, but because of (the Black 14) I am stronger.”
Hysaw earned three master’s degrees, is the Chief Executive Chair for Vistage Worldwide and has been the highest ranking African-American official at General Motors, Lexus and Toyota. Hysaw coaches CEOs, owners and founders of businesses, such as Merrill Lynch, where their gross revenues range from just under $300 million to $35 billion.
“I’m thankful that Eaton did what he did, or I wouldn’t be who I am today,” Hysaw said. “It was a blessing. I didn’t come here to be a football player. I was playing football and getting an education.
“Like I was telling a man from Uganda (Friday), I used to wear Dashikis, now I’m wearing Armani,” Hysaw added with a laugh.
Getting to the truth
Whether it is the misconception that the Black 14 athletes quit or boycotted the team, to the message the university and media spun at that time, the six members of the Black 14 want to tell their side of the story, and shed more light on what happened nearly 50 years ago
Hamilton and Griffin have spoken to groups at UW and around the state over the years, and even as far away as Germany. ESPN did a story on the Black 14 last year, and Spike Lee was executive director of a short film produced in 2018. A story on the Black 14 in USA Today is scheduled to run later this year.
In 2017, the group earned the Barrier Breakers Award from National Consortium of Academics and Sports. And, the group recently started the Black 14, LLC, which is based in Wyoming, and some of the members wore Black 14 T-shirts to help promote awareness.
But some questions will never be answered. Eaton died on March 14, 2007, at the age of 88.
“I need closure and still don’t have it, but it is close,” Hysaw said. “I need to know the truth. The biggest part was (Eaton) and what drove him to say the things he said to us that day.”
Perhaps some of that closure started Friday by coming back to UW and talking about the events and impacts.