He quietly broke the color line

Army's first black football player, father of Ravens aide, takes his achievement in stride

December 05, 2008|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

Gary Steele didn't attribute much significance to the pass he'd just caught. He was merely doing his job as the sophomore tight end for Army's football team.

But in the stands at Michie Stadium, two older men gently knocked knees. It was a subtle gesture between friends, both of whom had spent time at West Point as Buffalo Soldiers in the 1940s. One of the men was Steele's father, the other his godfather.

They had never dreamed they'd see a black cadet, much less a member of the family, catch a pass on that field.

"They didn't jump up and down," said Steele, who broke the color barrier on Army's varsity football team that day in 1966. "But that was their acknowledgment that for them, something historic had happened, something that they probably never would've thought could happen."

Steele is not given to crowing about his achievements as a football player and pioneer. For years, he barely described his career to his children, who include Chad Steele, the Ravens' media relations director, and Sage Steele, an ESPN broadcaster who worked in Maryland for several years.

Chad Steele didn't realize his father was a big deal until college, when he met an old Penn State great named Charlie Pittman. "Your father was one of the best athletes I ever played against," Pittman told him.

"Dad, I can't believe you didn't tell me this," Chad told Gary later. "What does that have to do with me being your father?" Steele asked his son.

That same modesty, along with remarkable talent, allowed Steele to make a gentle transition into an institution that was still overwhelmingly white, said a former teammate, Bob Ivany.

"He was a real gift," said Ivany, now president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston. "Perhaps things could've gone differently if it had been anybody but Gary Steele. But the way he carried himself, with great style and dignity, made it a non-issue."

Steele's father rose from a Buffalo Soldier (the popular term for members of the Army's all-black units) in World War II to a major, taking his family around the world in the process. Steele recalled few instances of naked prejudice.

His parents always told him he was the equal of any man, and he accepted it.

Steele played organized football for the first time in ninth grade and showed a quick affinity for the game. As a 6-foot-5, 220-pound receiver, he was ahead of his time and drew attention from many northern universities. A young assistant named Joe Paterno recruited him to Penn State, and he was all set to sign there before a teacher summoned him to the assistant principal's office. There sat an Army football assistant, who said Steele would make a good candidate for West Point after a year of academic polishing in prep school.

Despite growing up in a military family, he had never dreamed of the academy. He delighted in watching a television series called The Men of West Point. But none of the cadets looked like him, and, well, he wasn't a great student anyway.

Once introduced, however, the idea of West Point thrilled Steele and his parents.

The coach didn't mention that Steele would break the color barrier on the varsity football team. "You might call it naivete, but the thought about being first never entered my mind," he said.

Looking back, he's certain that his coaches thought quite a bit about signing the program's first black player. He suspects that his combination of athletic ability, academic potential and cosmopolitan upbringing made him an ideal candidate.

"But I was a 19-year-old kid," he said. "It was, what do I have to do today? I have to stay academically eligible, I have to be a good cadet, and I have to play ball."

Steele showed up for "Beast Barracks" in the summer of 1965 as one of 15 blacks in a class of 1,100. Most classmates treated him well. His first roommates remain some of his best friends in the world. And if academy life ever seemed too hard, he took refuge in football, where his ability gave him standing.

"It was easy," he said. "I had the skills."

Steele carried himself with such grace, said Ivany, that few in the program considered the barriers he was breaking.

"I can honestly say I can't recall a single incident where people said, 'Here's a black guy,' " he said. "It was just accepted. I really had no idea at the time that he was the first black player at the Academy."

Army went 23-7 during Steele's career and he produced many big moments, from a game-winning catch against highly ranked Cal his senior year to a 50-yard game-changer against Navy when he was a junior. He was picked to play in the East-West Shrine Game, a showcase for top prospects, and drafted by the Detroit Lions.

Steele never seriously considered the NFL. He retired as a colonel after 23 years and went on to become a human resources director for the Kansas City school system and for pharmaceutical heavyweight Pfizer.

In corporate life, he has often told himself, "This is not harder than what I did as a ballplayer." Steele's son believes his career must have been harder than he lets on. Chad Steele has seen the team photos in which "you know right where he is because he's the only black face in the picture."

"I think it's him being modest," he said. "Wherever he is, he just takes on the challenge. He would never say it was hard, but it was."

First black football player at Navy and in ACC tells of his struggles. PG 1A

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