When the Kansas City Chiefs took the field against the Green Bay Packers nearly a half-century ago in the first Super Bowl, they embodied the most obvious plotline of the game: How would the champions of the upstart American Football League fare against the established titans of the NFL?
Less overtly, though, the Chiefs were representing another kind of insurgent cause—that of the outstanding and widely unrecognized football programs of the HBCUs and, more broadly, HBCU culture itself. With all the retrospective consideration of Super Bowl I as the 50th Super Bowl looms this Sunday, the racial significance of that initial title game deserves to be recognized. The connection is all the more relevant as this Super Bowl’s Carolina Panthers are led by Cam Newton, only the sixth African-American quarterback to start in a Super Bowl.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ roster back on Jan. 15, 1967, included eight players from HBCUs, including defensive tackle Junious “Buck” Buchanan from Grambling and wide receiver Otis Taylor from Prairie View, two linchpins of the team. Whether as starters or reserves, graduates of Southern, Tennessee State, Florida A&M, Texas Southern, Bishop and Morris Brown also competed for the Chiefs.
The preponderance of HBCU athletes came as no coincidence. In its seven-year rivalry with the NFL, a league with deeper pockets and expansive media exposure, the AFL had to scramble to find players in the less visible HBCUs. And at a time when Washington had only recently desegregated its NFL team under pressure from the Kennedy administration, the scrappy AFL franchises could not indulge in the luxury of racism while still trying to win and survive.
In the AFL, no team searched more assiduously and successfully for HBCU players than the Chiefs. The reason why could be summed up in one name: Lloyd Wells. An alumnus of Texas Southern, Wells was one of a handful of African-American scouts in pro football, along with Bill Nunn of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tank Younger of the Los Angeles Rams. These men scoured the HBCUs for talent that would otherwise be overlooked.
In the current era of 24-7 sports media, it is hard to conceive of how thoroughly obscure black college football still was in 1967. There was, of course, no Internet, no cable TV, no satellite radio. The NCAA so closely controlled the broadcast rights to college games that on a given Saturday, no more than two or three would be shown, and never would the teams be from HBCUs. White newspapers ignored stellar black teams in their own backyards, while African-American newspapers with modest resources were hard-pressed to cover dozens of HBCU teams. As John Merritt, the legendary coach of Tennessee State, put it in a bitter joke, black college football was played “behind God’s back.”
Segregation also condemned it to that spot. Virtually none of the teams in the Southeast, Southwestern or Atlantic Coast conferences had dared to recruit a black student-athlete as of 1967. The kind of exceptional players who now suit up for Alabama or Clemson, this past season’s two top college teams, were all attending black football powerhouses like Grambling, Southern, FAMU, Tennessee State and Morgan State.
Making the rounds of those colleges, always at the wheel of a car painted in the Chiefs’ colors of yellow and red, Wells persuaded the team to make Buchanan the first pick in the 1963 AFL draft. Two years later, Wells sneaked Taylor out of a hotel room to keep the Dallas Cowboys from signing him. So astute were Wells’ assessments that he earned the nickname “Judge.”
As it turned out, even with a complement of HBCU stars, the Chiefs fell to the Packers 35-10 in the inaugural Super Bowl. But a national television audience of about 27 million got its first look—at least in the case of the white viewers—at the glories of black college football. On the victorious Packers team, halfback Elijah Pitts from Philander Smith scored two touchdowns and defensive end Willie Davis from Grambling led a smothering defense. Even the halftime show was revelatory, featuring Grambling’s marching band performing alongside the group from the University of Arizona.
“I remember watching that game with a lot of pride because of the black college players involved who were central figures for both teams,” recalled Michael Hurd, a historian of black college football and director of the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M. “It was kind of a coming-out party for black college football in that its players had a grand, national TV audience to showcase for the first time the kind of talent those programs were producing. Could even say it was sort of an HBCU ‘classic’ game in microcosm on a macro stage, complete with the Grambling band performing at halftime.”
Most importantly, the HBCU role in the first Super Bowl was not a one-off, an anomaly. Bands from Grambling, FAMU and Southern did halftime shows for the next three championship games. In early December 1967, 11 months after Super Bowl I, black college football made its television debut with a tape-delayed broadcast of the Orange Blossom Classic, the de facto championship game for HBCUs. The following September, Grambling played Morgan State in the media spotlight of New York’s Yankee Stadium.
Lloyd Wells, meanwhile, kept stocking the Chiefs with black college players, led by middle linebacker Willie Lanier (Morgan State), running back Robert Holmes (Southern) and cornerback James Marsalis (Tennessee State). Emmitt Thomas and Frank Pitts, two more HBCU products, went from reserves in the 1967 game to longtime starters.
And when the Chiefs returned to the Super Bowl in 1970 as a 12-point underdog against the Minnesota Vikings, they won emphatically, 23-7. The upset was evidence not only of the AFL’s equality but of black college football’s, too.
Samuel G. Freedman, a frequent contributor to The Root, is the author of eight books, including Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights.