Monday, April 13, 2015

Football integration at La. Tech: Making it work

(12th in a series)
     The success of the integration of the football program at Louisiana Tech University, starting in 1971, is evident in the on-the-field results of the first five seasons.
     The off-the-field result ... it depends on perspective. It wasn't as easy for some of the first seven  African-American players to take the field for Tech as it was for others.
     Wenford Wilborn, a cornerback from White Oak, Texas, and Gerald Eddings, an offensive guard from Minden, La., were in that first class and both have been successful in business and family life.
      But while Wilborn, looking back, says being among the first black players at Tech "wasn't a bid deal with me because everything went so smoothly," Eddings -- although grateful for the opportunity and the education -- has a somewhat different take.
      Asked if he can remember any tough times -- because as I prepared this series I had mostly positive feedback -- Eddings replied simply "yes" and cited some examples. Read on below.
       It makes me think of a comment from a friend as I related my intention in writing about Tech's football integration to complete this season.
       "My heart hurts just thinking about what these guys have been through by growing up in the South," the friend wrote, "yet I am thrilled that they had the opportunity to play at Tech."
        I think we -- old-time Tech fans and others -- are satisfied with it. But you know that in the early 1970s the path traveled by these athletes, in an area dealing with the mixture of black and white, it was an adjustment.
       Neither Wilborn nor Eddings had an easy path to Louisiana Tech. Wilborn, small at 5-9 (maybe) and 155 pounds, was not recruited much by bigger schools. Eddings was recruited too much and, in fact, turned down a chance to play at LSU.
Wenford Wilborn, as a
White Oak Roughneck
     Both have what I think are interesting stories.
     At White Oak, Wilborn had been a standout running back (2,467 career rushing yards for a Class AA school) and cornerback, and a regional champion high jumper and member of a state champion mile-relay team. But because of his size, the only recruiting interest for football came from area Texas junior colleges and Stephen F. Austin.  Into track season, he had not signed an athletic scholarship.
       Enter E.J. Lewis, Louisiana Tech assistant football coach (defensive backs) and assistant track coach -- and, significantly, an enthusiastic, ebullient recruiter for both sports for 15 years in East Texas. He helped bring dozens of talented, productive athletes -- and some great ones -- from the area to Tech.
       "I was there looking at some other kids," Lewis remembered, "and I had no idea about this kid." Until Tommy Atkins, White Oak assistant football and head track coach with North Louisiana ties, told him about Wilborn.
       "Here's a kid who runs a 4.5 in the 40, high jumps 6-2, broad jumps 20 feet; he's All-State in football and basketball, and he's in track and field," Lewis said. So he did his research, watched football film ... and called Tech head coach Maxie Lambright.
       When Lewis cited Wilborn's credentials and told Lambright he was unsigned ... Wilborn picks up the story here, laughing: "Coach Lambright said, 'What's wrong with him?' "
       After Lewis replied, "He's a black kid."
       Long pause. Then Lambright said, "Sign him."
       In August drills, Wilborn and Larry Griffin (from Shreveport-Northwood) earned starting cornerback positions, just as fellow freshmen Fred Dean (defensive tackle) and running backs Roland Harper and Charles "Quick Six" McDaniel did. Integration in football was an immediate hit for Louisiana Tech. Winning followed: A 44-4 record for four seasons.
      Starting immediately helped ease the path for Wilborn, too.
       "Because I started right away, everything went well for me," said Wilborn. "If there were problems, I'd be the first to tell you. But I can't think of anything."
       Integration was as big a factor for him, he noted, because White Oak had been a black-and-white school since his eighth-grade year. (The high school also had been recruiting territory for Tech; a year after signing Wilborn, E.J. Lewis recruited future NFL star tight end Mike Barber from there.)
       Wilborn, Griffin and Dean -- and the emerging wild man at linebacker, Joe McNeely -- improved what had been a fairly strong defense in a frustrating 2-8 season in 1970. And for four seasons, Wilborn and Griffin held down those corners for the Bulldogs.
       "Those guys could cover anybody," said Ken Lantrip, Tech's senior QB in 1971.
Coach E.J. Lewis (bottom left), Wenford Wilborn (bottom right) and the
Wilborn family (back, from left) daughter Wendy, wife Sarah and son Ryan
       Each wound up with 15 career interceptions, and are still listed among Tech's all-time leaders. They made a better player, too, of safety John Causey, a two-time all-conference choice whose 10 INTs in 1972 is the school record.
       "Some teams hardly ever threw to my side of the field," said Wilborn, remembering a game at UT-Arlington when UTA threw 50 passes, "but only two near me, and one was overthrown."
       Still, he led the team in interceptions in three of his four seasons. But he is even more prominent in the Tech record books, even today, as a punt-return man.
       No one has returned more punts (91), only Larry Anderson -- who went on to play in the NFL -- had more punt-return yardage than Wilborn's 742, and Wilborn's 91-yard return against Eastern Michigan in the 1971 Pioneer Bowl in Wichita Falls, Texas, on a brutally cold day (Tech's first postseason victory in its "golden era") is the second-longest in school history.
       Not bad for a guy known at Tech as the "little wimp," a nickname given him by Roland Harper. Wimps is part of his e-mail address now.
       Wilborn got a tryout with the Houston Oilers, but the NFL was not his future. Coach Lewis helped him line up a job at Kodak in Longview, and soon Wenford was buying properties, building condos, making money and a family man.
       "I'm proud of him; he's done so well," said Lewis. "I kind of helped raise him."
       "Coach Lewis was like a second father to me," Wilborn said. "He was such a good dude."
       Wilborn settled back in White Oak; a daughter attended Louisiana Tech; and he and wife Sarah run Willand, Inc., which for two decades has provided homes for the mentally challenged. They have 60-65 consumers in White Oak, Longview and Tyler, and a workforce of 70.               
       Gerald Eddings had rough moments in Minden, in even arriving at Tech, and after he got there -- on the practice field and in the classroom. But he was a tough, solid, all-star offensive guard, part of a football dynasty ... and a Tech graduate.
       "Louisiana Tech prepared me for the job I have and everything I am today," he said. That job is a salesman for a valve company, a position for more than 30 years, and he's been a world traveler because of it. He and wife Joyce settled in the Houston area (Sugar Land) not long after leaving Tech.
        In '71, it was getting to Tech that was a problem. He decided he did not want to go to LSU as one of the first black players there, although LSU wanted him at linebacker ("which is what I really loved."). But he wound up signing a letter-of-intent with Southern University ... and then with Tech.
       This was before the binding national letter-of-intent was established (remember, Terry Bradshaw in 1965 signed with Tech, then signed with LSU two weeks later ... and, well, he went to Tech.)
        Actually, Eddings was -- to choose a word -- tricked into signing with all-black Southern University in Baton Rouge. He was waiting to see where "Quick Six" McDaniel would go to school because he wanted to be his teammate. They had played for rival schools in Webster Parish -- Minden and Springhill.
        Eddings had signed with Tech, but when a Southern coach told him McDaniel was going to sign with Southern, Gerald also picked the Jaguars. Then he found out McDaniel indeed was signing with Tech.
Gerald Eddings
        Then Southern would not give him a release. After a hearing and court action, the ruling was that he would have to sit out his first year at Tech. So it was a redshirt season. He was part of Tech's first group of black athletes, but not an active player in 1971.
        Meanwhile, feelings about integration were strong in Minden. He went to Minden High when it was integrated, but all-black Webster High across town remained open (unlike many Caddo and Bossier Parish all-black schools which were phased out at the time). Some Webster faithful were resentful of Eddings' choices of high schools and colleges, and physical trouble followed.
        Things got physical at Tech, too -- on the practice field.
        "Fred Dean and I would go against each other in practice almost every time," Eddings recalled, "because when we didn't want to have to fight (white players) in one-on-one drills. It would almost end up in a fight every time we did go against them."
        That problem subsided in time, but Eddings said when he began playing for Tech the next year "people would mess with my wife in the stands. An ex-player harassed her ... " And, he said, "she also ran into some problems on campus."
         Plus, in the classroom, he recalled working on a paper with two white students "and I did most of the work." When they turned in the paper, the professor gave the white students an A grade and Eddings a C. "The other guys lied about who had done the work."
         But there were people he regarded as great assets, notably Tech President Dr. F. Jay Taylor and offensive line coach Wallace Martin.
         "Dr. Taylor was a good man; he did things with us far above and beyond what a college president would do," Eddings said. "We [black students/athletes] would be sitting as a group at a basketball game, and he would come sit in the middle of us, and eat popcorn and talk. He did a lot to help move things along."
         A fond memory for Eddings: "When I graduated, going across that stage, I shook his hand and he said, 'We're going to miss you.' I appreciated that."
         Just as he appreciated Martin, the ex-Tech offensive lineman from Ruston who joined Lambright's staff the same year as the football integration began.
         "He was a heckuva coach, and he was a spiritual leader," Eddings said. "He was responsible for keeping everything headed in the right direction."
         To sell his product, he visits chemical plants -- in the U.S. and Europe -- "and I meet with people and deal with them," and the Tech experience "prepared me for life today."
         Pat Collins, the Tech assistant coach who recruited several of the original class of African-American players, says he is "indebted to those guys. They saved our jobs."
         That might be a stretch, but they did change the program for the better.
         "The black guys were just awesome," said David Wilkins, who played alongside the group for two seasons. "But, remember, there were no black players or white players. We were all Bulldogs."



  1. From Tommy Canterbury: Love coach Lewis and the late Ms. Patsy, my high school English teacher.

  2. From Gerald Eddings: You will find prejudice in every aspect of life, but the question you should ask is, "As the result of integration my life and many others were changed." The stereotypical aspect change for me toward all and I know it impacted every player then for I see such a change today.
    We live in a global world, as I tried to explain, and football at Tech prepared me for it. In my last home next door was a Vietnamese family on one side and Hispanic on the other. Across the street was a Chinese family and next to it a white family that adopted a black child along with their own, neighbors to an Iranian family. My son's best friends were white and Taiwanese.
    I was the first African-American salesman to sell valves and instrumentation in the U.S. and in most cases one of the very few throughout the world.
    Tech gave me the opportunity to deal with situations and different cultures, and I will have to continue to do so until I die.