Whitley: UF's first Black players have definitely earned a scholarship
Willie Jackson and Leonard George don't consider themselves heroes for being Florida's first Black football players. But the way dignity they displayed 50 years ago still resonates.
- George and Jackson signed one day apart in December 1968.
- After sitting out their freshman seasons due to NCAA rules, both became three-year starters.
A few old Florida football players had an inspiration last fall. They wanted to start a scholarship that would be awarded to a deserving walk-on.
It was a nice idea, but it needed something to entice donations.
"I suggested we give it a face, an identity," Jimmy DuBose said.
They quickly came up with two big ones — Willie Jackson and Leonard George.
When it comes to identities, those names don't jump out like a Spurrier or a Youngblood or an Emmitt. Chances are Alabama fans born before 1955 remember the Gator duo more easily than Florida fans born after 1995.
On an unseasonably hot September afternoon in 1970, George became the first Black player to ever score a touchdown in Bear Bryant's home stadium. It's safe to say at least a few of the 58,138 in attendance were not happy.
"That was exciting," George laughed. "You had all these people waving Confederate flags and the antagonism. And then, Boom!"
A new age had arrived.
It was brought to Florida by Jackson and George, Florida's first two Black players. The school's had a lot of students in the past 150 years, but few endured more scrutiny and pressure than the duo that showed up in 1969.
"They are heroes," said Melvin Flournoy, one of the ex-players spearheading the scholarship campaign.
The Leonard George and Willie Jackson, Sr. Scholarship Endowment recently reached $50,000 in donations. That's a nice sum, but it takes a lot more to fund a scholarship in perpetuity — meaning the money will be invested and never run out.
The goal is $250,000. I'm not telling you how to spend your money, but this is a good cause if you're into paying historical dues.
The funny thing is, George and Jackson didn't consider themselves trailblazers when coach Ray Graves handed them a pen to sign their scholarship offers. They just wanted to play football and get college degrees.
George and Jackson had gone to almost all-white high schools, so they were used to sticking out. They were also accustomed to people not liking it.
On one road trip, Tampa Jesuit's team walked out of a diner because the owner wouldn't serve George. In a playoff game, Lake City sent in a scrub to start a fight with Jesuit's star running back.
"He just started whaling on me," George said.
George defended himself but didn't strike back. He knew that would only inflame the situation and assure he'd get thrown out of the game. It was something he'd heard from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"You've got to try to be peaceful, no matter what," George said.
They threw him out, anyway.
Friday nights in DeFuniak Springs and Lake City prepared the players for Saturday afternoons in Oxford and Tuscaloosa.
"You don't belong here!"
They heard that, and a lot worse.
George doesn't remember hearing anything after scoring that touchdown at Denny Stadium. He was more excited over scoring his first touchdown in college. And he never felt threatened by the taunters.
"I knew my white teammates would have my back," George said.
If Jackson and George had any problems with their teammates, they've buried those memories beneath a lot of good ones. Both were three-year starters and never sought to be civil rights symbols.
That said, they weren't blind to certain realities. Florida integrated in 1958, and by 1971 it had almost 20,000 students.
Only 343 were Black, and there were barely a handful of Black professors.
Members of the Black Student Union walked into Tigert Hall in protest one afternoon. They refused to disperse, and 66 were arrested.
President Stephen C. O'Connell refused to dismiss the charges, prompting almost one-third of UF's Black students to leave school.
They wanted the highest-profile Blacks to join them. Four football players, two basketball players and four track athletes agonized over what to do.
"It was touch-and-go," George said.
They eventually decided to stay.
"There's got to be somebody left here to keep the pressure on," Jackson told the Independent Florida Alligator, "so changes can be made."
Florida started actively pursuing Black students and faculty. By the time Flournoy came in from Gainesville High in 1972, signing Black players was no longer headline news.
They didn't have to worry much about racial animosity. George and Jackson had already taken most of those bullets.
"They were very good role models," Flournoy said. "Just looking at them and how they deal with things. It had a calming effect on me."
You want role models?
The proudest moment of their college careers was on Florida Field, but Jackson and George were not wearing football uniforms. They were wearing caps and gowns.
They graduated the same day, and went to the stadium to take a picture. With the scoreboard in the background, Jackson and George shook hands and smiled for the camera.
"That, to me, was the most important thing," George said. "We made it through all the social issues, through all the stuff going on.
"We got our degrees."
It's hard to think of a more fitting tribute than funding a scholarship in their names. Fundraisers are in the works. There's no deadline, other than wanting to see some kid rewarded with a free college education.
"We want to do it before we all die," Flournoy said. "We're all getting a little bit older, so there's a little urgency to getting it done."
As for their heroes, Jackson and George are grateful for the recognition. They just aren't sure they are heroes.
They remember people like King, Rosa Park, the Freedom Riders.
"The real heroes are the people, Blacks and whites, who put their lives and freedom on the line," George said. "They made it possible for us."
They were just two kids who wanted to play football, get educations and be treated like everyone else. But the way they did that made quite a boom.
It deserves to resonate in perpetuity.
— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley