Black History Month: Remembering the Black 14

9NEWS Reporter Nelson Garcia kicks off our series of stories for Black History Month-- with a look at a group of men who became kniown as the "Black 14". 9NEWS at 4 p.m. 2/5/16.

KUSA – Before the protests at the University of Missouri this past fall, there was another football team embroiled in a similar controversy with a much different outcome. It was a series of events that led Denver resident John Griffin and his teammates to be called the "Black 14".

"The Black 14 in 1969 brought about a bit of a change in all of us and also brought about a bit of a change in the university in terms of moving forward," Griffin said.

Griffin grew up in California, but he says he belonged in Laramie in 1969.

"What attracted me to the University of Wyoming [was] I'm a city kid who loves the country," Griffin said.

He was the leading wide receiver on a team that at the time was ranked 12th in the nation. But, what happened on the field is not what defined this season. It was what happened the night before a big game.

"We made a decision based on what we thought was right," Griffin said.

The 14 African-American players on the Wyoming Cowboys wanted to wear a black armband during their game with Brigham Young University. At the time, the Church of Latter Day Saints did not allow Black clergy, and Griffin says the players wanted to make a statement against the Mormon Church.

"You know, it was a simple thing to wear an armband," Griffin said.

Before they would wear them during the game. Griffin says he and the players wanted to ask Coach Lloyd Eaton for permission.

"He walked in with the other coaches, and within five minutes, we were off the football team," Griffin said. "I will never forget those words, ‘Gentleman, you are no longer Wyoming Cowboys.' We sat there in silence, and we all looked around - 'What?' And, that was it."

He could not believe his season was over for thinking about staging a protest.

"We hadn't done anything other than wore our armbands to a meeting with [Coach Eaton] which, in his eyes, that was a show of defiance," Griffin said.

Kevin McKinney was a junior at the University of Wyoming and a student assistant in the Sports Information department at the time. Currently, he is a senior associate in charge of external relations.

"We all say, 'How can that possibly happen?' but in that day and time, the coach was the man, and everything was uniform," McKinney said.

McKinney says the dismissal of the Black 14 polarized the campus and divided the state.

"People were extremely upset at what it was doing to the program and what was going to happen to Cowboy football -- not what was going to happen to those 14 guys," McKinney said.

Wyoming beat BYU the next day. But soon after, the program started losing on a regular basis. Then, McKinney says, with uproar across the country against the University of Wyoming because of the Black 14, it launched a dark time for the Wyoming football program.

"Wyoming was off limits to Black players," McKinney said. "Black student-athletes were not going to come here, and we had a real hard time with that."

The University of Wyoming, he says, eventually entered into an evolution with an emphasis on race relations that continues today. University President Dick McGinity recently launched efforts into diversity strategic planning.

"Human nature changes very, very slowly," McGinity said. "It takes generations."

When football and protests once again mixed this past fall at the University of Missouri, Griffin says it felt like 1969 again, except much different.

"Look what happened at the University of Missouri," Griffin said. "The Black athletes rose up in sympathy with the student body. The White players embraced the Black players and the coaching staff embraced the players."

McKinney says that difference led to massive change at Missouri.

"We didn't support [The Black 14] like they should've been supported. Missouri did and a president resigned over it," McKinney said.

Now, the Black 14 are celebrated for their strength. While most of them left Wyoming that year. Griffin and two other teammates stayed and appealed to the players and Coach Eaton to allow them to return next year.

Though Griffin was allowed back, he says it was very difficult to finish his college career at Wyoming and he never truly made peace with Coach Eaton.

"Honestly, I never got to that point that I'm gonna forgive him," Griffin said.

Now, the Black 14 are celebrated as a vital part of Wyoming history for their show of strength and resolve.

"While it was very difficult for those 14 kids, I think they can look back and say, 'You know what, we did make a difference,'" McKinney said.

Recently, Griffin and teammate were honored at an official University President's Dinner.

"The reception and the respect for those individuals was quite remarkable, I just have to say," McGinity said.

Griffin says that the first time that he felt that the program that once kicked him out has finally truly accepted him back as a Wyoming Cowboy.

"We got a standing ovation. Talk about a surreal moment in time. That was a surreal moment for us," Griffin said. 

(© 2016 KUSA)


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