Doors opened slowly for black athlete
Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 21, 2006
By Mike London
In 1958, North Carolina football coach Jim Tatum journeyed to Shelby to watch all-black Cleveland High take on a rival.
Tatum was curious and wanted to observe Cleveland’s 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior quarterback Bobby Lee Bell first-hand. He saw Bell fire 65-yard bullets and watched him chase down anything that moved when he was on defense.
According to a story in Sport Magazine, Tatum was sure of three things:
* This was the best high school athlete he’d ever laid eyes on.
* He couldn’t recruit Bell because of his skin color.
* He had to do everything in his power to make sure the Tar Heels never had to play against Bell.
While Bell had no opportunity to play in the Atlantic Coast or Southeastern conferences, colleges in the West, Midwest and Northeast had their arms wide open.
When Tatum chatted with Bell’s coach, he learned the husky phenom had narrowed his list of colleges to Michigan State and Notre Dame.
That was exactly what Tatum didn’t want to hear. Notre Dame was on the Tar Heels’ schedule and UNC had agreed to start playing Michigan State in 1962.
Tatum, a sharp fellow who had won a national championship at Maryland in 1953, hatched a plan. His staff was friendly with Minnesota’s and phone calls praising Bell’s talents were made to the Big Ten school.
Minnesota head coach Murray Warmath had never granted a scholarship to anyone sight unseen, but Tatum’s scouting report was so glowing that the gifted Bell became a Golden Gopher in 1959, much to the dismay of the Fighting Irish and the MSU Spartans.
Signing Bell was the best decision Warmath ever made. His second-best was moving Bell from quarterback to defensive tackle his sophomore year.
Bell was a destructive force in Minnesota’s march to the Rose Bowl and 1960 national championship.
He also played basketball for the Golden Gophers, and in 1962, he was awarded the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior lineman.
Tatum, who died in 1959, didn’t live to see Bell succeed, but Bell went on to dominate at outside linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, was a pro all-star for a decade and a key to the Chiefs’ victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
Research failed to prove Bell played in North Carolina’s “Black Shrine Bowl,” in 1958, but it’s certainly possible he did.
The Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas that everyone is familiar with was born in 1937 and limited to white participants until 1966.
There was controversy in 1965 when Jim Kirkpatrick, a black player at Charlotte’s Myers Park High, was considered by many to be the best back in the state.
When Kirkpatrick was left off the Shrine squad and two of his white teammates were chosen to play, civil rights activists got involved, lawsuits were filed and demonstrations were threatened, but the game went on at Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium as scheduled.
In 1966, West Charlotte end Titus Ivory and Sylva-Webster running back Tommy Love were the first black players named to North Carolina’s team, and Love made two game-breaking touchdown runs for coach Red Wilson.
In 1967, there were more black players, including Salisbury Boyden’s James Teal, who would follow Kirkpatrick to Purdue.
By 1985, according to the book, “Bowl Full of Miracles,” more than half the players on both Shrine Bowl squads were black.
On Saturday, when North Carolina plays South Carolina in Spartanburg at 1 p.m., Rowan County will be represented by West defensive lineman Tristan Dorty and West offensive lineman David Melton.
The good news is no one will be worrying about how many blacks and how many whites are on the field raising money for the Shriner’s good works. It’ll just be a bunch of talented teenagers trying to win a football game.
What happened to North Carolina’s black Shrine game?
It disappeared with school integration.
But it was still alive and well in 1966. That’s something we learned in a “Friday Night Legends” conversation with former J.C. Price High quarterback Donald Graham, a Salisbury native who is now a district judge in Florida.
Graham attended the 1966 black Shrine game because his best friend, a tremendous Price lineman named Robert Phillips, played in the event.
The game Graham witnessed was likely the swan song for the “Black Shrine Bowl.” And if it was, Price High had the distinction of having a player in the first one (Steve Gilmore) and the last one.
That 1966 black Shrine game was ruled by Williamston quarterback Ricky Lanier, who in 1967 became the first black football player granted an athletic scholarship by North Carolina.
But it’s a shame Tatum couldn’t offer one to Bobby Lee Bell in 1958.
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.