Friday, September 26, 2014

Jimmy Raye and "Raye of Light"

When I was a kid, with two parents who were students at MSU in the mid-sixties, I grew up hearing stories of the Michigan State football teams of that era, particularly the 1965 and 1966 squads that compiled a 19-1-1 record, two undefeated Big Ten championship seasons, and--depending on what poll one consults--two national titles. They were among the greatest teams in college football history, led by a colorful coach and an astounding collection of incredible athletes.

When I saw photos of the mid-'60s Spartans teams, I saw plenty of black faces, but as a youngster I thought nothing of it. After all, the football I grew up with was fully integrated, with white players playing alongside black players. It wasn't until the late 1980s--or perhaps even as late as the 1990s--that I realized how unique MSU's 1960s teams were. During a time of segregation, when African-Americans were refused admission to Southern colleges and universities, MSU coach Duffy Daugherty, fearlessly and without apology, recruited African-American players to the Spartan football program. Consciously or not, Duffy was a Civil Rights pioneer.

Left to right: Clinton Jones, Bob Apisa, Bubba Smith, Coach Duffy Daugherty, Gene Washington, George Webster

Yesterday, I attended a presentation at the downtown Lansing library featuring author Tom Shanahan and the first African-American collegiate football player from the South to start at quarterback for a national championship team, Jimmy Raye of Michigan State. The two have collaborated on a book, Raye of Light, that details and illuminates the important role MSU had in the integration of college football, and the journeys of such players as Raye, Gene Washington, Charles "Bubba" Smith, Charles "Mad Dog" Thornhill.

Jimmy Raye as a Spartan

Jimmy Raye is an impressive person. He possesses a quiet, yet driven intensity that comes through in his bearing and his words. (With his shaved head, grey beard, and wire rim glasses, he looks a bit like a combination of blues singer Taj Mahal and former basketball great Bill Russell--if one can imagine that combination), I was sitting in the back of the auditorium, but I could swear that Mr. Raye was looking straight at me and his eyes were practically burning a hole through my body. Now, I know that may sound a bit overly dramatic, but that is the power that Jimmy Raye possesses. He radiates intensity, and has a deliberate, measured, and deeply thoughtful style of speaking.

The more I heard Jimmy Raye talk about the challenges he faced and the journey he has taken over the years, the more I disappointed I became that this man never was given the chance to be a head football coach. If only attitudes in the 1970s, 1980s, and even 1990s had been different, Raye would have received the opportunity he so richly deserved.

For the young Jimmy Raye, seeing Sandy Stephens lead the Minnesota Golden Gophers to the 1961 and 1962 Rose Bowls was the first inkling that playing quarterback at a major university was a possibility.

Sandy Stephens, Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback

Although Jimmy Raye initially wanted to follow in the footsteps of Sandy Stephens and attend Minnesota, he ended up in East Lansing. However, Before Raye arrived on MSU's campus from Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1964, he was concerned that he would not get the opportunity to play quarterback, since other MSU players, originally recruited as quarterbacks, had been converted to other positions. They discouraged Raye from coming to MSU, but he came anyway. (I was a little unclear as to how or why he changed his mind--probably because I was sitting in the back of the auditorium--but I'm sure it will all be illuminated in the book).

In his freshman year, Raye played on the freshman team and was voted most valuable freshman player. In 1965, his sophomore year, he was Steve Juday's backup on Duffy's first national championship team. When Steve Juday was ineffective in the 1966 Rose Bowl, Raye entered the game in relief and nearly led the Spartans back to at least a tie.  It was obvious that MSU's loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl--the only MSU loss in two years--still weighs heavily on Jimmy Raye--as it does his teammates--as he recounted the failed two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game. Raye wishes that instead of handing the ball off to Bob Apisa, as Coach Daugherty instructed, he'd faked the hand off and ran it in himself because, as he put it, the path was so clear he could have "run all the way back to Fayetteville." As Raye saw it, since Daugherty had requested that the ball be placed on the left hash mark, UCLA's defense knew that the play would run to the right and that Apisa would be the ball carrier. The Bruins' defense was prepared to focus on Apisa, and UCLA's Bob Stiles tackled Apisa short of the goal line. (He paid for it by getting knocked out cold on the play. For his sacrifice, Stiles was named Rose Bowl MVP).

Jimmy Raye said that, as much as he loved and respected Duffy, the lesson he learned from that play was that sometimes coaches just need to let the players play and trust in the players' abilities.

1965 Michigan State Spartans football team

My vantage point from the library auditorium

Raye also recounted some funny stories about the lead-up to the Rose Bowl. The team was understandably excited to be in Los Angeles for the game. Some of them, however, spent a few days prowling the Sunset Strip and certain trendy nightclubs like the Whisky a Go-Go (famous hangout for Hollywood celebrities and launching pad for bands like The Byrds and The Doors, to name a few). When Duffy heard about this, he moved the team to a monastery in the San Gabriel Mountains. Despite the good times the team had in California, Jimmy Raye insists that this had nothing to do with the Spartans' loss in the Rose Bowl.

The 1966 season was another great season for Michigan State, as they reeled off nine straight victories and were undefeated headed into the November 19 "Game of the Century" clash against the also undefeated Notre Dame. Raye said that the black players on MSU's team were conscious of the significance of the game, which was to be televised nationally, and made a point of playing the peak of their abilities to prove to the nation what African-American players were capable of doing. In one of the hardest-hitting and most equally matched games ever played, the two titans battled to a 10-10 tie. Despite the unsatisfactory result of the game for the Spartans, their African-American players proved their greatness and capabilities to a national audience, and helped change college football.

Another amusing tale involves a time when players were made to stand up alone and sing a song to the rest of the team (probably similar to the scene in Paper Lion when each player stood up and sang his school's fight song). At the time, the team was divided along racial lines with white guys sitting with white guys and black guys sitting with black guys. Drake Garrett, an African-American player, stood up and sang the Beach Boys' "California Girls." The sight of a black player singing a "white" surf song cracked up the entire team, and from that point on the racial barriers broke down.

Naturally, I had to buy Raye of Light and got it signed by both Mr. Raye and Mr. Shanahan. I'm looking forward to reading it and hope to give a full report here in this blog.

Jimmy Raye, deep in concentration and intense even when signing books.

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