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Columbia Missourian

FROM READERS: Brother writes of Norris Stevenson's experience as MU's first black football player

By Gerald Stevenson/Missourian Reader
January 30, 2013 | 11:49 a.m. CST
Former Missouri football player Norris Stevenson died March 3, 2012. Stevenson, pictured here on Oct. 15, 2011, during MU's 100th Homecoming, is a member of the Missouri Athletics Hall of Fame. He graduated in 1961.

This story has been modified to reflect the correct spelling of Al  Abram's name.

Gerald Stevenson is a younger brother of the late Norris Ronald Stevenson, the first African American to receive a football scholarship from MU, in January 1957. Norris died on March 3, 2012, and the following story is excerpted from his brother's reflections.

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Norris was the 4th and I was the 5th of 7 children born of Jennie and Albert Stevenson. Norris attended Vashon High School, St. Louis, Mo. (1953-1957) and Missouri U. at Columbia 1957-1961.  I also attended Vashon High School (1956-1960) and received a football scholarship from Missouri U. at Columbia — 1960-1964. Norris was the second African American athletic scholarship recipient to enroll at Missouri U. The first was the late Al Abram* — (1956 -1960), a basketball player, Sumner High School, St. Louis, Mo.

Following Norris Stevenson’s recent death (March 3, 2012), I read the wonderful and deserved tributes that chronicled his historic achievement to become the first African American to receive and accept a football scholarship from the University of Missouri (1957-1961).

My brother was a person of faith — with commitment to principle — and focused determination.

In January 1957, Norris became a legitimate pioneer and trailblazer in his acceptance of an MU football scholarship. He helped rescue MU from its segregated football past; and that includes all of the glory and certain humiliations that come with such a tardy, yet appreciated racial inclusion. However, in one of his characteristic understatements he shrugged, “It was a sign of the times."

Norris’ pioneering and trailblazing business at MU was often quite tricky and hardly predictable. How would MU football make his inclusion work in these racially unchartered waters? One simple answer: Forget skin color! Go win some football games! Unfortunately, since racist attitudes often flirt with insanity, the road to racial common sense became more like executing a high wire circus act.

When word got around St. Louis that Norris had accepted a football scholarship from MU, some of his Black peers thought “he had lost his friggin' mind.” You see, during the 1950s and early '60s many Black high school athletes could recite chapter and verse racial slights and insults that they either experienced or heard from other Black athletes who competed in sport events in Columbia, Missouri — MU’s hometown. Plus, if you viewed MU football televised highlights you might have asked, “Heh! Where are all the colored boys?"

At least Illinois U., our eastern neighbor state, had a few Blacks on their football team. Iowa U., our northern neighbor, had Blacks who starred in winning their '50s Rose Bowl game. And our western neighbor and hated MU rival, Kansas U., had an established history of Blacks in their athletic programs. (Our older brother, Al (Big Steve), a Kansas University alumnus and great St. Louis high school athlete (1951), favored KU, but never gave MU a serious thought.)

Apparently, Norris saw a bright light in MU. Oh, he was well aware of the university’s racist past. But Norris was hardly ever preoccupied with just negative and ugly aspects of a situation. His modus was to evaluate a situation, weigh the advantages as best he could and make his decision accordingly. He was annoyed by any unnecessary distractions including some Black critics and cynics fueled by misplaced envy. He dismissed their dissent as quickly as if swatting flies. Still, he was not waylaid into believing that MU had miraculously drunk from the Holy Grail and emerged singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

A t the time, Columbia was a small college town of about 30,000 not including the population of the 3 universities: Stephens and Christian colleges and the largest — the University of Missouri. From my observation, African American citizens lived a 2nd class, semi-apartheid existence in Columbia with practically no substantive political power. They resided in one section of town and Whites lived everywhere else. Their condition was quite similar to Norris’ impoverished Southside, St. Louis Black community — Compton Hill — aka “The Hill,” or as I characterize us, “The Forgotten People.” Why? Because nobody Black or White seemed to give a damn about our unforgivable poverty.

MU had no Black professionals — educators, administrators — on campus. Their absence in this “reputable institution of Higher learning” spoke volumes. Worse, the administrators of this taxpayer funded, land grant institution demonstrated little concern for that racial inequity. However, MU did employ Blacks as maintenance workers, cafeteria employees, etc, of course, without any meaningful access to administrative powers. NOTE: In some downtown stores only African American college students with an ID were allowed to shop.

MU didn’t stand alone in regressive race resolutions. The Big 8 Conference, of which MU was a member, only had a sprinkling of Black football players. Some conference members had none.

Kudos to MU official(s) who ushered MU’s football program from the dark ages into interracial enlightenment. Maybe MU just wanted a more competitive football team. No crime, no robbery. Still, there were those officials at MU suspected of opposing integration on any level. So, the question was not just Norris’ ability to handle racism, but the athletic department and coaches’ courage to stand up for something as well.

Norris had no blueprint to follow — no experienced Black consultation on or off campus. Consider that only 10 years before, Jackie Robinson had just broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball; Martin Luther King Jr. and the current Civil Rights Movement were still in its infancy; and the St. Louis Cardinals, along with other professional baseball teams such as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, remained sluggish in including more Blacks.

So, welcome Norris?

Logic said, “No way that a Black kid from a predominantly African American environment, just 3 months past his 17th birthday should enroll in a predominantly White University of Missouri with little history of including Blacks.  But Norris’ faith said that the same God that led him through the streets of “The Hill” would not abandon him at the University of Missouri.

Norris was a child of parents who believed in Jesus Christ and that through him all things are possible. Our parents were certainly not perfect people, but indeed hard working and humble enough to know that their belief required service to help others help themselves.  It was through this faith that their manifestation of God’s grace enabled them to execute their mission without any equivocation. Norris Stevenson was a product of that faith.

I thought he was more interested in Indiana University, a member of the more reputable Big Ten Football Conference; a conference that that was known to recruit “blue chip” (all-star) high school athletes nationwide. Consequently, Norris was concerned that he might get overlooked at IU and instead, chose the University of Missouri.

Norris enrolled at MU in January of 1957. He was later joined in September by two other excellent African American high school football running backs — Mel West of Jefferson City, who became his roommate, and Willie Richardson of Columbia. Since freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition, they were assigned to the freshman team. Richardson left after the freshman year.

In 1957, Frank Broyles, a southerner, was the new varsity football coach for MU. He left a year later, so, Norris and Mel never played for him.

In 1958, Norris and Mel’s sophomore year, MU hired a new head coach straight out of a head coaching stint at Arizona State — a young, mid-thirties guy named Dan Devine. Devine had northern credentials and a light history of coaching Black ballplayers. One of the major sport magazines considered him a liberal among coaches.

Nevertheless, Norris couldn’t remember ever having a conversation about race with MU coaches. “It didn’t happen” he said. He wasn’t complaining. That was his recollection. The omission of a conversation on race demonstrated to me the problem coaches may have had with approaching the subject. How do you not speak of race with your first ever football player of color? They might have referenced Branch Rickey, 1947, General Manger of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Reportedly, he made sure that he and Jackie Robinson were on the same page regarding potential racial obstacles. Possibly, MU officials might have attempted to avoid racial issues in order to make Norris’ assimilation seamless to fit in as “just one of the guys.”

What MU officials had not anticipated were the restaurants, establishments, etc. that refused service to African Americans. Unfortunately, that embarrassing scenario played out one too many times for Norris and Mel (and Al Abram*) before it ceased.

Another option wisely dismissed might have been to give its first football player of color special treatment. Most Black athletes wanted no part of that, since it often worked against them. Instead, the maxim often recited among Blacks was: “You have to be twice as good as the White athlete in order to succeed.” However, if there was one Black athlete who did not subscribe to that maxim, then, put him in a museum and charge some money.  Our boast was more like: “Don’t single us out in any regard. We’ll deal with that something special.”

Norris was not interested in any entrees about race if it couldn’t be handled intelligently and constructively. As a student athlete, he accepted responsibility for his assimilation and appreciated whatever support was appropriate from the coaching staff — no more, no less, no half steppin’.

Mel West was familiar with an integrated school environment in Jefferson City, so his adjustment appeared easier. Both knew that race was the elephant in the room, and that the coaches were aware as well. The unknown factor was that that elephant came equipped with other troublesome issues that neither one anticipated.

Norris' initial observations about MU seemed more like an adventurer sending dispatches about his new world discoveries. Almost everybody was White. The number of Black students was barely over fifty, not even a full percentage of the 20,000 plus students enrolled at MU.  

Yet, he related colorful stories of Black student relationships, including their “in” terminology, such as “members” and “home”’ that identified their African American connection.

Just as interesting were his observations of White teammates. He mentioned names like Jim Miles, Danny LaRose and the exceptional ability of quarterback Mike Shannon, who later won baseball world series with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was pleased and relieved that these type individuals helped foster a more relaxed atmosphere.

On the 1960 football season…

At that season’s beginning, Mel West, a left halfback, was the face and darling of the team. As he went, so did MU. Norris was impressed with Mel’s excellent field vision and great balance. To me, his running style was a juggling contrast in smooth and glide, grit and grind with a bounce. Also, MU had a great defense and very opportunistic special teams play highlighted by the punt returns of Donnie Smith. As MU’s surprised wining momentum continued, so did the opponent’s resistance. The one major weapon lacking from MU’s offense was big play potential, especially since their passing game was limited. Welcome Norris.

Norris, a right halfback, was a slasher. His speed and savvy represented breakaway, big play potential. This is where his trek became interesting. When he entered the game the opponent and the entire stadium knew what he was going to do — run the sweep. Once I wondered out loud, “Heh, isn’t the play calling suppose to be a secret?” But they still couldn’t stop him!

That year, Norris Stevenson did all of his damage as a substitute — a 2nd string halfback. Consider that he and Mel were among the top 5 rushing (yards gained) running backs in the Big 8 Conference. In the meantime, Dan Devine made what I consider to be a preemptive explanation to those who wondered why Norris was “just” a 2nd stringer, when he reportedly said, “Norris Stevenson is the best 2nd string halfback in the country.”

Conversely, the NCAA named Norris “Back of the Week” after he ran through those tough Oklahoma Sooners in their home “snake pit”, breaking their modern day rushing record. That meant he did what no other modern day college running back in the history of college football had done in Norman, Oklahoma; and, on that day he performed better than any running back in the country. At season’s end, the Big 8 Conference named Norris the 2nd best halfback at his position in the entire conference. Apparently, their evaluation of Norris’ talent was a dramatic upgrade from MU’s. Or, was it?

I never bought the idea that MU coaches felt Norris was a 2nd string halfback. They weren’t stupid. And somewhere in there lies a seminal moment:

In June, 2009 Norris related to me that he had attended another of many events at MU. While there, he was glad to greet a former assistant coach. As they conversed, they inevitably talked about those football teams from 1958-60. Norris assumed that they were just going over old territory. Not this time.

What happened next rattled even Norris’ sturdy perspective. The coach revealed to him that during those years, big time MU backers affected some of Dan Devine’s football decisions. These influential backers prevented Devine from starting two African Americans (Norris and Mel) in the same backfield. One Black starter was more than enough. He delivered this nugget to Norris in the company of about 7 to 8 others.

“He didn’t pull you aside to tell you?”

“No, he didn’t.”

“He said it In front of all those people?”

“Yes he did.”

“Whoa!”

The coach’s revelation confirmed what some of us had always theorized about those years; that race politic was a nagging participant in MU football. Now, it was confirmed as fact. Of course Norris was stunned, not just because of what the coach said, but because he said it.

You see, in the mid-60s, after Norris received his Masters Degree and began teaching in the St, Louis Public School system, he and Dan Devine resumed communication. Initially, Devine made inquiries regarding potential high school football prospects for MU in the St. Louis area. Later, when Devine became head coach at Notre Dame, he offered Norris the position of backfield coach. Norris refused the offer due to personal considerations.

When Devine retired, their communication turned on a more personal note. From my view, their relationship had to be based on trust and respect, since Devine had a reputation for being uncomfortable with one-on-one situations. Plus, Norris was not one to pose politely without speaking with directness and honesty. He didn’t "BS” sensitive subject matter. So, I characterized their interactions as candid. They were good. Still, the race revelation that the assistant coach volunteered regarding “only one Black starter” in MU football never came up.