Trailblazers like Bobby Bell integrated college football

SOECharlesHallmansquareIt’s commonplace today seeing young Black men sign up to play big-time college football, such as during last week’s National Football Signing Day. But it wasn’t that long ago when Blacks were Jim Crowed out of college football.

“You asked me has the game changed? Yes, it changed a lot,” responded Bobby Bell to our question. We spoke on New Years’ Day after the Gophers played in their first New Years’ Day bowl game since 1962.

Bell played as a Gopher lineman on that Minnesota team, led by Sandy Stephens, the first Black quarterback to lead a predominately White institution’s football team to two bowl

Bobby Bell (l) with Gopher football player Isaac Hayes
Bobby Bell (l) with Gopher football player Isaac Hayes

games and a national championship. He was as well the last QB to lead Minnesota to a Rose Bowl win.

Bell’s Pro Football Hall of Fame bio calls him “the most highly honored college lineman of the 1962 season.” He won the Outland Trophy that season as the nation’s best interior lineman.  He later played for the Kansas City Chiefs (1963-1974).

Bell, who’s also in the College Football Hall of Fame, came to Minnesota from the South, recruited by a coach who himself was from the South. He is eternally grateful to the late coach Murray Warmath, the man who recruited him out of a segregated North Carolina high school in the late 1950s.

Warmath signed him, Stephens and other Blacks to play Gopher football, clearly the exception at a time when Southern schools as well as many Northern schools didn’t recruit Blacks for football or any other sport.

“I’m from [Shelby] North Carolina. I couldn’t go to the [predominately White] schools down there,” recalled Bell. “I had to leave [home], and by me leaving and going to Minnesota, it gave me the opportunity to play in Minnesota on the same level.”

He originally wanted to play quarterback, but Warmath instead had other plans:

“Coach Warmath wanted [his] best players…on the field. If I have to change positions, I’m going to change positions. They moved me from quarterback my freshman year — I was offensive tackle and defensive end [in] my sophomore year,” said Bell.

The Gophers as a result became one of college football’s few integrated teams in the late 1950s. Stephens “was the first Black All-American quarterback,” noted Bell. “We had an all-Black backfield — Bill Munsey and Judge Dickson.

“He [Warmath] didn’t care whether you’re Black or White. We ended up Big Ten champs, national champs, and Rose Bowl champs during that period. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Although switching positions ultimately paid off for Bell, a two-time Hall of Famer, that wasn’t always the case when Blacks were often switched not for ability but because of race. Those days, thankfully, are over.

Bell explained, “Sandy Stephens wanted to play quarterback in the NFL, but he ended up going [to Canada] because they wanted to move him to defensive back. Tony Dungy was moved to defense — he was a quarterback in Minnesota. Jimmy Raye went to Michigan [as a QB], but [the NFL] made defensive players out of them.”

Today’s current and incoming Black players owe a lot to these folk and others like them who decades ago blazed the way for them to play any position in college football. “Now we’ve got Black quarterbacks,” Bell observed. “The game has changed a lot.”

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