No game brought more luster and historical significance than the 1967 matchup between Florida A&M and Grambling. They were the two greatest black college teams with the two greatest black college coaches (Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson, respectively) and the two finest quarterbacks to play at each school (Ken Riley and James Harris, respectively). Robinson very deliberately was developing Harris to break the quarterback color line in the pros, to forever lay to rest the canard that no black man was smart enough to play that most intellectual of positions. As Leon Armbrister, the sports columnist of The Miami Times, the city’s weekly black newspaper, exalted, “The selection of Grambling adds Super Bowl status to the Classic.”
In many ways, the Orange Blossom Classic in 1967 also embodied the recent progress in race relations. The Grambling and Florida A&M teams both stayed in integrated hotels on Miami Beach. The P. Ballantine & Sons brewing company sponsored a tape-delayed broadcast of the game on television stations in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York. Buddy Young, the first black executive in the NFL’s front office, provided the on-air commentary. The local publicity for the game was handled by Julian Cole, a transplanted Jew who counted the ritziest Miami Beach hotels among his clients.
The Orange Blossom Classic’s souvenir program featured advertisements from major national companies, including Humble Oil, Prudential Insurance and RC Cola. Coca-Cola sponsored a float carrying the Grambling College queen and her court in the pregame parade. The celebrities in attendance included the first wave of black executives hired by corporations in search of black consumers. Pepsi-Cola, the leader in the field, dispatched its vice president for special markets, Charles Dryden, a bona fide war hero as one of the Tuskegee Airmen. Greyhound sent Joe Black, the former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, who recently had been appointed the bus company’s vice president of special markets. F.W. Woolworth, a company trying to repair a reputation damaged by its segregated lunch counters in Southern cities, dispatched Aubrey Lewis, a former Notre Dame football star and FBI agent it recently had hired as an executive recruiter.
The competitive tension built as the game approached. As Grambling ran through its practice session at a junior college, two busloads of Florida A&M players arrived. They jogged around the field, chanting, “It’s so hard to be a Rattler,” before haughtily driving off. Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, incensed, told his team, “The peace dove flies out the window tomorrow!” At a pregame banquet, he had to remind his players not to start jawing at the Florida A&M team, saying, “Take it out on the field.”
On the night of Dec. 2, 1967, before more than 40,000 spectators, Grambling and Florida A&M produced a classic for the Classic. The game went down to the final play, with the Tigers holding off a final drive by the Rattlers to win 28-25. Florida A&M compiled 396 yards of total offense, slightly more than Grambling’s 382. James Harris threw for 174 yards, and Ken Riley nearly matched him, with 110 yards passing and 62 more rushing.
The scouts certainly noticed. Harris, then a junior, would be drafted by the NFL’s Buffalo Bills in January 1969. He went on to become the first black quarterback to regularly start in the NFL, leading the Los Angeles Rams to the conference title game twice in the mid-1970s. Every black quarterback to follow, from Doug Williams and Warren Moon to Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III, came through the door that James Harris opened. As for Ken Riley, he was moved to cornerback in the NFL and had an illustrious 15-year career with the Cincinnati Bengals. Even now, 30 years after retiring, he ranks fifth in NFL history in career interceptions.
In the aftermath of the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic, Grambling was able to bring black college football to the nation as a whole. The following September, the Tigers played Morgan State before a sold-out crowd in Yankee Stadium in a fundraising game for the National Urban League, a prominent civil-rights organization. That example inspired the dozens of black-college classics being played today, keeping a precious thread of prideful history unbroken.
SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN has written for American Way about Chicago, Rome and Montevideo, Uruguay. He is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a New York Times columnist.