Pitt-Duke once was historic game

Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, 11:48 p.m.

A few days before his team opened the 1950 season against Pitt, Duke coach Wallace Wade called a meeting. But he didn't want to discuss football.

Pitt was about to travel to Durham, N.C., with a player destined to become part of a scene never witnessed on a college football field in that state: a black man playing against a white man.

Flint Greene, a backup defensive tackle for Pitt who was an all-state selection on WPIAL championship teams at New Kensington High School, made history that day, turning a 28-14 Duke victory into the first integrated football game in North Carolina. ACC historian Al Featherston said Duke and North Carolina had played against blacks only on the road out of state.

Altoona native Blaine Earon, a Blue Devils All-American defensive end, attended Wade's meeting.

“He said to us, ‘If there is anybody who has an objection, let me know,' ” Earon said from his home near Atlanta. “Nobody put up their hands. I'm serious. The only time it was mentioned was at that meeting.”

By all accounts, Greene's presence prompted no reaction on the field or in the stands.

“You didn't even know the guy was there,” said Billy Cox, the Duke quarterback.

“Flint was cheerful, pleasant and popular and mixed well with the other students,” said Alex Kramer, a manager on the Pitt team.

Greene's son, Reuben, said his father, who died in 1989 after owning four restaurants in Columbus, Ohio, was proud of his distinction.

“He didn't speak about it a lot because he thought he was just going out there and playing football and doing what he loved,” Greene said.

Pitt returns to Durham on Saturday for the first time since 1976 to meet Duke at Wallace Wade Stadium in its first ACC road game. This time, blacks comprise about half of Pitt's roster.

Times have changed

In 1950, the nation was not nearly as diverse. Only five years earlier, Pitt first offered a football scholarship to a black player, Jimmy Joe Robinson of Connellsville.

Robinson, 85, the retired pastor of Bidwell United Presbyterian Church in the North Side, said he was among only 30 blacks at the time playing major college football.

“It wasn't until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that blacks could do anything,” Robinson said.

Who could blame Wade for wanting to ensure there were no objections or plans to disrupt the game?

Another 17 years passed before Duke had blacks on its roster — William Turner, who was injured and never played; Ernie Jackson, a future All-American and the first defensive ACC player of the year; and Clarence Newsome, an ACC All-Academic selection who later served on the search committee when present coach David Cutcliffe was hired.

Wade warned his players he would pull them if they caused trouble for Greene. Duke president Hollis Edens and Wade issued a statement to reporters.

“Yes, we have heard that Pittsburgh has a Negro on its squad,” the statement read. “The coaches of each team have the unquestioned right to play any eligible man they choose to play. We have neither the right nor the desire to ask a coach to restrict or limit his team's participation on the grounds of creed or color.

“Duke students and fans have a fine record of treating visiting teams courteously. We have every reason to believe this record will be continued.”

Cox, who grew up in Mount Airy, N.C., and was a classmate of Andy Griffith's, said Wade's warning may have been unnecessary.

“I don't think we were far enough south,” he said.

Pitt broke another color barrier in 1956 when defensive back Bobby Grier became the first black player to play in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

Before that game against Georgia Tech, Marvin Griffin, the anti-integration Georgia governor, suggested that Grier stay home. Pitt replied, “No Grier. No game,” according to a story on Pitt's website.

Pitt lost 7–0, and Grier was called for a controversial pass-interference penalty that set up the touchdown. But he said the importance of his participation should not be diminished.

“It showed that sports has a way to change a whole lot of things,” he said on the website.

Post World War II Pittsburgh

Racial diversity and college football were a difficult mix, even in post-World War II Pittsburgh.

Donora's Bimbo Cecconi, who played at Pitt from 1946-49, said he was the first white player to room with a black when he moved into an attic on Fifth Avenue in Oakland with Earl Sumpter, a former high school rival from Clairton.

A year later, Cecconi, Carl DePasqua (later Pitt's football coach) and basketball player Oland Canterna of Freeport lived across the hall from Robinson, Sumpter and Greene.

During his freshman year, Robinson said, several student-athletes of both races went into an Oakland restaurant near Forbes Field and were refused service.

“The waitress said she wouldn't serve us,” Robinson said. “She pointed at me.”

Robinson said the group overturned tables and left.

“Those guys were absolutely protective of me,” he said.

Robinson said race was never an issue with his teammates.

“When I went to Pitt, a sportswriter tried to compare me to Jackie Robinson,” he said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. Jackie Robinson, his situation was broad, dynamic. I would do the young, white ballplayers an injustice if I said they gave me problems. They gave me no problems.' ”

But there was prejudice. Former Pitt player Bill Priatko, who later played for the Steelers and served as Yough athletic director, recalled playing Duke in 1951 at Pitt Stadium.

“We were losing 19-14 when Bobby Epps of Swissvale runs down the sideline 50 yards for a touchdown,” Priatko said. “We would have won the game.”

Instead, Epps was ruled out of bounds by a split-race officiating crew.

Said Priatko: “You could hear (the official's) Southern drawl: ‘He is out of bounds on the 40-yard line.'

“I don't think they wanted to see Duke lose. If you looked at the film, it showed Bobby was at least a half-yard inbounds.”

Pitt traveled to Houston to play Rice later that season. The black players, including Epps, Chester Rice, Henry Ford and Bill Adams, were forced to stay in private black homes while their teammates slept at a hotel. Kramer remembers fans calling Epps “a turkey.”

Officials called Pitt for holding on three consecutive plays in a game the Panthers lost 21-13.

“Joe Schmidt (Pitt's All-American linebacker) asked who was holding,” Priatko said. “He was told, ‘None of your business.' ”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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