There was a steady clatter of dishes from a kitchen close by, and somewhere near a man and a woman were talking loudly and laughing, so that the listener had to lean forward to hear the soft words of the black athlete. The pair was sitting at a table last week in the rear of a downtown Syracuse restaurant. Outside a steady rain was washing the streets of the city, adding gloom to gloom. "Remember," the athlete was saying, "use my name and I'll deny I ever seen you. It's not that I'm afraid, it's because we are all in this together, and no matter how I feel as an individual, how any of us feel, we're stuck with this thing as a group no matter what happens." He rubbed his eyes and laughed, but it was a sad laugh. "And you know how it has to end. Too many angry things have been said for it to end any other way. It's too damn late for everybody, for the black players, for Ben Schwartzwalder, for the university. And it's only going to get worse."
Saturday night in Houston things couldn't have become much worse for Schwartzwalder. Playing without eight black players suspended for boycotting spring practice, Syracuse was blitzed by explosive Houston 42-15. There is no way of adding or subtracting points from the score with might-have-beens, but four of the missing eight were starters, and it had to hurt. And there is no way to judge how badly the remaining players were mentally affected. But it certainly didn't help.
In its simplest form this is the way the trouble at Syracuse began, publicly at least, the way it grew and the way it became too late for everyone.
1) Nine black players walk out on spring practice, protesting that Schwartzwalder has broken a promise to hire a black coach. Schwartzwalder says he never promised to hire one.
September 27, 1970
2) Dr. John E. Corbally Jr., the chancellor at Syracuse, attempts a reconciliation. He orders Schwartzwalder to hire a black coach and quickly. One is hired.
3) Schwartzwalder informs seven of the nine players that they are no longer members of the team. An eighth player elects to join them.
4) The players file a complaint, most of it based on racial discrimination, with the Human Rights Commission.
5) Corbally orders Schwartzwalder to outline terms to allow the players to return. The Syracuse alumni quickly point out to the chancellor that they are less than happy with his decision. Since they were already unhappy with him for closing the school early last year and for letting seniors graduate without taking final exams, he is somewhat shaken. (Alumni contributions had fallen sharply during the summer.) Terms are set, watered down by the administration and offered to the players, who reject them.
6) With an eye on the alumni Dr. Corbally says to hell with it and suspends the eight for the 1970 season.
But so much for simplicity. Where did it begin?
"It started several years ago when a black student was beaten by a white football player. Then a short time later there were two vacancies on the coaching staff. We asked that they hire a black to fill one of them. They didn't. They promised us a black coach for spring training, and what did we get? We got Floyd Little for three days, and he wound up by blasting all the black athletes on the squad. So we walked out. At the time that is all we wanted: a black coach. Then the outsiders came, and everything got away from us. We didn't need them—the Floyd Littles, the Jimmy Browns, the others. It's pretty sad. The team has a black coach with no blacks to coach."
A few miles away, in his office at the university, Schwartzwalder was frowning at a story in the Sept. 16 Syracuse Post-Standard. The eight-column headline across the front page read: SCHWARTZWALDER QUIZZED ON BLACK ISSUE. He is a short muscular man, with a square bulldog jaw and white closely cropped hair. The years, 61 of them, have left a slight bulge at the waistline, but the rest is granite. As a major in the 82nd Airborne during World War II, three times he jumped into combat, and for it they gave him the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, four battle stars and a presidential unit citation. And a Purple Heart. And he can be as tough now as he was then, but he seldom feels the need.
Schwartzwalder jerked a thumb at the paper and growled, "Nobody wants to talk about football anymore. All they want to talk about is that. Some young kid I never saw before came into my office today. He asked me about that. I told him that I didn't talk to Communists, draft dodgers, flag burners or people trying to destroy our country." The hard slash of mouth dissolved into a soft smile. "He assured me he was none of those things, so I sat down and talked with him. I don't know what's happening anymore. I'm not supposed to be a football coach, I'm supposed to be a sociologist or something."
For Schwartzwalder the trouble began two years ago, after the fight between the player and the black student. "Every witness there said the student jumped the player with a club," said Schwartzwalder. "He just picked the wrong guy to jump." Still, the student filed racial charges against the football team with the Human Rights Commission. The university, shaken, ordered Schwartzwalder to speak to his players on racism.
"When he started talking about it I was stunned," said Paul Paolisso, now a senior quarterback. "My mouth fell open. Most of the other guys reacted the same way."
"It was a very big mistake," growled Schwartzwalder. At least it sounded as though he were growling. He has a voice like two bricks being rubbed together, and you can never really tell. "Before the talk the team was a unit. After that it was two groups: one black, one white. If I had known what was going to happen I would have refused to hold that stupid meeting."
The real trouble started when Syracuse brought in Little, the famed black alumnus, as a temporary coach. He left after three days saying he thought the blacks were bitter and that he'd never known the coaches to mistreat anyone. Four days later the blacks began their boycott. Chancellor Corbally stepped in, telling Schwartzwalder that he was in command of the football situation and, after repeated meetings with the black players during the ensuing weeks, that Schwartzwalder had better hire a black coach.
Schwartzwalder found his man in Carlmon Jones, a freshly graduated lineman out of Florida A&M and highly recommended by Jake Gaither, his coach. Schwartzwalder hired Jones, then called in his black players and told seven of them they were off the team. Another, Greg Allen, quit after the first reporting date this fall, saying that if the others couldn't play, then neither would he. Two stayed with the team—Robin Griffin, a starting defensive back, and Ronald Page, a sophomore back sidelined by a knee injury.
It was ironic that Syracuse should be playing Houston in its first game, happy-go-lucky Houston with, ah, how many blacks on the team?
"Heck, I don't know," said Ted Nance, the Cougars' sports publicist. "I don't think any of the coaches could tell you either unless we checked over the roster. It's something nobody thinks about around here."
At Houston, black and white players room together before games, and by far the most popular player on the team is a black, the wonderful receiver, Elmo Wright. Houston has a black offensive backfield coach, Elmer Redd, who is in his first season, but whom Houston had been trying to hire for some time. A couple of years ago there was a flurry of racial trouble on the Houston campus, but when students tried to organize the black players the players said that they wanted no part of it, that they thought conditions at Houston were fine.
So it was a loose and talented Houston against a strained and not very capable Syracuse, and the result was entirely predictable. Syracuse evened the score at 7-7 midway through the first period before the end of the world arrived. Earl Thomas ran 62 yards for one touchdown and then—a crusher—Houston took over on its own one and promptly scored on a 99-yard pass, Terry Peel to Robert Ford. Two Elmo Wright jobs, touchdown receptions of 54 and 60 yards, put the game away before the first half had ended, and they had the harassed Ben Schwartzwalder shaking his head on the sidelines.
Fortunately for Syracuse, there were easier teams than Houston coming up, but unless the situation improved rapidly it might not really matter.