Gophers’ first black QB visits class

Murali Balaji

As he entered Cooke Hall Thursday morning, Gophers great Sandy Stephens could feel the emotions he felt as a student-athlete 37 years ago.
“This is a real deja vu,” said Stephens, the first black quarterback at the University and the only Gopher inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. “I had my toughest classes here.”
Of course, the one thing missing from Stephens’ surroundings was Memorial Stadium, where he and the Gophers teams of 1960-61 were almost unbeatable. The fact that the stadium, which was filled to capacity at every home game, was torn down in favor of the Recreation and Aquatics Center still bothers Stephens to this day.
“I definitely think that was a bad move,” he said, as he gazed at a relatively unfamiliar environment. “Our summer construction work was to build bleachers for Cooke Hall.”
Gone are the football trophies that filled Cooke Hall, the memories of a golden age in Minnesota football. But also gone is the dogma of being a black collegiate quarterback, a fact that plagued Stephens and denied him a chance to flourish in the NFL.
“Today, it’s not such a big deal to have a black quarterback, and that’s a good thing,” Stephens said. “We’ve conquered that hurdle from the college perspective. Let’s see how it is on the pro level these next few years.”
But as Stephens spoke to a kinesiology class, it was clear that the memories of the late ’50s and early ’60s were still vivid in his mind, bringing to life the pain of a society that wasn’t used to black athletes in glamour positions. While Stephens said he wasn’t the direct object of fan and media anger, he is still deeply disturbed by the ostracization of his coach, Murray Warmath. Warmath was the first coach at the University to allow a black quarterback to play.
“They threw garbage on his lawn, and he had to take his kids out of school out of fear,” Stephens said. “They hung him in effigy on Washington Avenue Bridge. That really opened my eyes to how some Minnesotans felt about us, especially me, because I was a black quarterback.”
Despite the overt antagonism he and his teammates faced, it didn’t hinder Stephens from carving out a prolific career as an all-around player capable of controlling games on either side of the ball. Stephens is still the only Gophers player who has ever led the Big Ten in interceptions and punt and kickoff returns in the same year.
“(The antagonism) really motivated me to excel on the football field,” Stephens said. “I was fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting and a first team All-American in 1961. That was the year Ernie Davis became the first black Heisman Trophy winner.”
In addition to his stellar play on the football field, Stephens also excelled at baseball, basketball and track for Minnesota.
He was so highly-touted in baseball that he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies after high school and was considered to have the same potential as outfielder Richie Allen, who is currently on the Hall of Fame ballot.
The class was transfixed to a video highlighting Stephens’ illustrious career. As the images of a sleek yet powerful athlete tearing through Big Ten defenses flashed across the screen, one person in the back of the room waxed nostalgic.
“I loved watching him play,” said Barbara Foster, Stephens’s sister and a faculty member at the University’s General College. “I still love watching this video, but it’s nothing like being there and seeing the things he did on the field. I’m his No. 1 cheerleader.”
After watching the video, Gophers’ wide receiver Luke Leverson said he wouldn’t mind catching a few deep passes from Stephens.
“He had a real good arm and he was athletic,” Leverson said. “He did things kind of like what Billy (Cockerham) does for our offense.”
Even though Stephens rounded his college career at the University with a Rose Bowl championship and an All-America selection, NFL teams were still hesitant about letting an African-American run their offense. Stephens turned down large contracts from the Cleveland Browns and the New York Titans (now the Jets) to play quarterback in the Canadian Football League.
“The ‘Underground Railroad’ for black quarterbacks was to go to Canada,” Stephens said. “That was the only way you could play quarterback at that time.”
After three solid seasons with the Montreal Allouettes and the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, Stephens felt the time was right to make a return to the United States and exhibit his skills. However, a near-fatal car accident delayed his NFL debut by almost three years.
As a 27-year-old rookie with a metal pin in his right elbow, Stephens was never the same. He played for the Kansas City Chiefs as a defensive back and fullback, but the opportunity to display his quarterback talents passed him by.
“I was denied an opportunity,” Stephens said. “The NFL didn’t think I was good enough to play.”
But as his bitterness of being passed over by the NFL came to the forefront, so did Stephens’ loyalty to Gophers football. After leading Minnesota to its only Rose Bowl victory 37 years ago, he longs to see the Gophers return to Pasadena.
“I’ve been waiting 40 years for them to make it back,” he said. “I’d love to see us win another one before I breathe my last breath.”