Black & white

On field, 1958 Colts very much a team, but race kept them apart outside world of football

December 25, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,

Lenny Lyles is not a bitter man. In fact, it pains him to tell this story. He hesitates, knowing how it will sound. He was a different man in 1960, frustrated and angry, and it was a very different time in America. But the guilt hasn't totally faded.

It almost doesn't matter to him that, in the end, nothing happened. For a moment, he wanted it to happen.

He wanted to break the leg of Baltimore Colts center Dick Szymanski, his former teammate on the 1958 NFL championship team.

"I was with San Francisco at the time, playing defense, and we were tangled up in a big pile," Lyles said, adding that it wasn't personal; he just wanted to hurt the franchise that he felt had never given him a fair shot. "His leg was caught underneath someone. I had a chance to break his leg, and I got up off it. I'm thankful and happy now I didn't do that. But I was angry. I couldn't forget [the year before] that they kept a guy with a broken arm and let me go."

Fifty years ago Sunday, the Colts and the New York Giants played what is widely considered to be the greatest game in NFL history. The iconic black-and-white footage of Colts fullback Alan Ameche stumbling across the goal line for the winning score - his head down, the football tucked tightly in his right arm - will be replayed hundreds of times in the coming days. It capped off a contest that has been celebrated by historians as the genesis of the modern NFL and the moment when pro football wedged itself permanently into our culture and our living rooms.

But 1958 was hardly an idyllic time in America if you were one of the six African-American players on the Colts. The country was only four years removed from the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation in schools, and Baltimore, like much of the South, was slow to adjust.

Most of the time, Lyles, Lenny Moore, Milt Davis, Jim Parker, Johnny Sample and Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb weren't allowed to stay in the same hotels as their white teammates on road trips. They rarely, if ever, socialized with the white players, in part because they couldn't enter the same restaurants, bars and movie theaters. In Westminster, where the team held its annual training camp, the African-American players encountered so much blatant racism on a daily basis, they decided one year to boycott the welcome banquet being thrown for the Colts by the city.

Lyles, 72, and Moore, 75, are the only black players still alive from that team, and Lyles was just an anonymous rookie in 1958. He was drafted that same year out of Louisville, where he went from being the first African-American scholarship player in school history to the Cardinals' all-time leading rusher. He rarely played in Baltimore, though, despite being one of the fastest men in the country and an electric kickoff returner.

It was widely suspected at the time that teams had an unspoken agreement to keep no more than seven African-American players on their roster at one time. Lyles acknowledged that he didn't handle it well and was frustrated that the coaching staff didn't seem particularly interested in working with him to help him improve. He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers after one season, and was so angry about the way he was let go, he tried to take it out on the Colts the next season. He returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in a 34-10 victory, harassed the Colts' wide receivers relentlessly and contemplated breaking Szymanski's leg.

"I hate saying these things, but it's what happened," Lyles says.

The Colts brought him back in 1961, and Lyles started at defensive back for the final seven seasons of his career, which ended after 1969.

"It was tough in Baltimore," Lyles said of his first stint with the Colts. "It was almost like they didn't want me to make the team. Back then, blacks always had to compete against other blacks. I think after drafting Jim Parker, Lenny Moore and myself consecutive years in the first round that three blacks in a row was just too much for some people."

Moore, a future Hall of Famer, was one of the undisputed stars of the 1958 championship team, a versatile athlete who broke the mold as one of the few players of that era equally adept at running the ball or lining up at wide receiver. He scored 14 touchdowns that year, was second in the league in total yards from scrimmage with 1,536, and was named first-team All-Pro.

But in many respects, he was still treated like a second-class citizen in Baltimore.

In his autobiography, All Things Being Equal, Moore describes an incident that happened shortly after the 1958 championship game. He was invited to a banquet at an all-white Baltimore country club for a dinner honoring boxer and war hero Barney Ross, but when he arrived, he was told he had to use the back entrance, by the kitchen.

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