How the NFL’s Jimmy Raye Witnessed Racial Change Take Place at the 50-Yard Line

Jimmy Raye quarterbacked Michigan State to a share of the 1966 national title, then spent decades as an NFL assistant coach. (Photo: Sara D. Davis for USA TODAY)
Jimmy Raye quarterbacked Michigan State to a share of the 1966 national title, then spent decades as an NFL assistant coach.
(Photo: Sara D. Davis for USA TODAY)

Jimmy Raye couldn’t watch the college basketball game without having a flashback.

It was South Carolina vs. Ole Miss.

“There were 10 black players on the court at the same time,” Raye says. “I remember how it used to be, and how when the change started it was difficult to have even two black players out there.

“I thought to myself, ‘We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.’ There’s still a lot of progress needed when you consider the coaching and administration.”

When Raye grew up in Fayetteville, N.C., the backward customs of the segregated South dictated that he couldn’t attend Southeastern Conference schools such as South Carolina and Mississippi — and so many others in various conferences — because of the color of his skin.

Now Raye, 68, a senior adviser for the NFL who had an extended coaching career following a groundbreaking quarterback role at Michigan State, has an appreciation for what many take for granted — watching a game in which the competition is not conducted against the backdrop of segregation.

“I just happened to come along at a time when, socially, so many things were unacceptable,” Raye says. “The racism was institutionalized. But it didn’t stop me from pursuing my dreams.”

Indeed, he observed the changing culture in football from the 50-yard line. It was Raye who quarterbacked an undefeated 1966 Spartans team that claimed a share of the national championship, and played in an epic 10-10 tie against Notre Dame that year that would later be referred to as the “Game of the Century.”

Though Raye never realized his dream of becoming an NFL head coach, he helped pave the way for others.

“I was probably 9 years old, and I can remember my dad taking me to see Michigan State games — they had what they called ‘Dollar Days’ where you could get an end-zone seat — and watching Jimmy Raye,” says Tony Dungy, who played quarterback at the University of Minnesota decades before becoming the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl.

While Dungy’s father, Wilbur, was working on his doctorate from Michigan State, the family lived in a campus apartment. “I would throw the football in the backyard saying I was Jimmy Raye,” Dungy recalls. “Then seven years later, Jimmy’s recruiting me to come to Michigan State.”

Raye likely would have never had the opportunity to launch his coaching career at Michigan State if not for the so-called “Underground Railroad” that marked the legacy of the late coach Duffy Daugherty. In Daugherty’s movement, premier African-American players from the South attended schools in the North in a sports-world version of the Great Migration.

In Michigan State’s case, detailed in Tom Shanahan’s recent book Raye of Light, the players included Raye, Bubba Smith, Gene Washington and George Webster.

Daugherty’s pipeline was fortified by relationships he built with African-American high school coaches in the South, whom he hosted for clinics in East Lansing that were in stark contrast to clinics in their own region that they were barred from attending.

The University of Minnesota was another beacon of change. Three players who ultimately wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Carl Eller, Bobby Bell and Charlie Sanders — all migrated from North Carolina to play for the Golden Gophers.

Like Daugherty, Minnesota’s coach at the time, Tennessee native Murray Warmath, had relationships with African-American coaches in the South.

“When those players went to white schools, that was really a big deal,” Raye says. “Those moments were huge, but they were so rare. The watershed moment for me was Carl Eller.”

Eller, from Winston-Salem, went to Minnesota in the early ’60s. But he wasn’t the only Gopher from that era to make an impression on Raye.

Minnesota appeared in back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1960 and 1961, quarterbacked by Sandy Stephens — the first African-American to earn All-America honors at a major college.

The late Stephens didn’t grow up in the South; he was from Uniontown, Pa. But he resonated with Raye, who at the time figured that his college opportunities were limited to historically black institutions such as Florida A&M, Tennessee State, North Carolina A&T or Grambling.

“I was watching the Rose Bowl and lo and behold, Sandy Stephens was black,” Raye says. “I was amazed. I had no idea. It’s not like it is now, with so much exposure and social media. There were not a lot of national TV games. So that was the first time I’d heard of him. But these are the things that inspired us. When I saw that, I realized there was water on the other side of the bridge.”

Raye’s world soon would change as he came of age during the height of the civil rights movement. As much as he can recall historical markers such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, he will never forget what it was like to grow up in the South.

Raye knows what it was like to proceed with caution in social interaction with whites. He knows what it was like for African Americans in the segregated South to experience their institutionalized second-class citizenship, which barred them from restaurants, relegated them to the balcony at movie theaters and expected them to move to the other side of the street when approaching whites on the sidewalk.

This was always so much deeper than his ability to throw a football.

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SOURCE: USA Today – Jarrett Bell

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