Excerpt: 'Heisman'

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Mark Schlabach's new book, "Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy." Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.

Washington and Jefferson opened the 1923 season with a 21-0 victory over Bethany College, a small liberal arts college in Bethany, West Virginia. The Presidents were scheduled to play Washington and Lee University of Lexington, Virginia, at home on October 6, 1923. Shortly after the Generals arrived on campus, Murphy sent them a note that said, "W & J doesn't play unless West plays." Halfback Charles "Pruner" West was the Presidents' best player. West was an African American, and many southern colleges wouldn't permit their teams to play against black opponents until the 1930s and 1940s.

Most northern schools acquiesced to the southern teams' requests, but Heisman would have no part of it.

"Well, I won't," Heisman told Washington and Lee coach Jimmy DeHart.

"Remove him or there will be no game!" DeHart replied, before pointing to the crowd in the stands to emphasize his position, which was obviously the threat of lost revenue.

"If you don't play, you lose!" Heisman yelled.

Heisman made his demand, even though he knew West had a badly sprained ankle and probably couldn't play in the game. Heisman had an opportunity to avoid the confrontation at hand but chose to ignore it.

Heisman quickly met with Washington and Jefferson president Simon Strousse Baker, who supported his coach's position. DeHart and graduate manager Richard A. Smith telephoned Washington and Lee dean Harry Campbell, who told them that "athletes of the institution had never participated against negro athletes, and that this tradition would not be violated at this time." The Generals forfeited the game by a 1-0 score. Washington and Jefferson officials handed DeHart enough money to pay for the team's train ride back to Virginia, and the "squad literally had to sneak out of town," the Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch reported on October 9, 1923. According to the report, some players even took connecting trains to Pittsburgh so they could get out of Washington, Pennsylvania, as quickly as possible.

Smith told the Times-Dispatch that the Presidents had agreed to leave West off the field when the game was scheduled months in advance.

"When I made the contract with Washington and Jefferson, I did not know they had a negro player," Smith told the newspaper. "So the contract contained no reference to a situation of that character. Later, when I learned from Coach DeHart that there was a negro on Washington and Jefferson's varsity squad, I asked Coach DeHart to explain our position to the Presidents, on the occasion of the Washington and Lee's basketball trip to Washington and Jefferson last February. Coach DeHart talked with Graduate Manager Murphy and was assured, he tells me, that West would not be played against Washington and Lee."

Smith sent a letter to Murphy a week before the game, reminding him of Washington and Lee's policy of not playing against African-American opponents.

"I had better mention the matter which Mr. DeHart spoke to you about concerning your man West playing against us," Smith wrote. "I feel that it is useless to mention this to you, as I know you realize our geographical location and of course will not attempt to play this man. The faculty here would not allow us to schedule this game if they knew we would play against him. We realize the feeling here is different than at your school, and of course hate to bring the matter up on that account and are leaving the proposition in your hands to handle as you see fit."

Murphy never responded to Smith's letter, but Heisman made the Presidents' position known before the game. Baker continued to support Heisman even after southern newspapers criticized Washington and Jefferson.

"I am sorry the unfortunate condition arose," Baker told the Times-Disptach. "I respect the tradition which Washington and Lee followed in refusing to play the game, but Washington and Jefferson College is a northern school with traditions, too. It has never made any distinction against color or creed in controlling its students. Charles West, who was the cause of the controversy, has been one of the best students in the college for the last three years. He has been an honor to the school, both as a student and as an athlete, adding to its prestige by his gentlemanly conduct and his efforts as an athlete."

West, who grew up in Washington, Pennsylvania, was the first African American to play quarterback in the Rose Bowl when he led the Presidents against California. West also was a nationally ranked runner and javelin thrower, coming out of nowhere to win the pentathlon at the prestigious Penn Relays at Franklin Field in Philadelphia on April 27, 1923. In addition, West was an alternate on the US track and field team at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. After playing professional football for a couple of seasons, West enrolled in medical school at Howard University in Washington, DC, where he helped pay for his education by coaching the school's football team. He practiced medicine for nearly fifty years in Alexandria, Virginia, until his death in 1979.

Not everyone, of course, supported Heisman's decision at the time. Three days after the canceled game, the Times-Dispatch published an institutional editorial that said, "No Southerner blames Washington and Lee for the stand it took. Social equality has not been extended to the negro here. The negro understands that perfectly and appreciates the reason for it. There would not be the slightest difference in playing football with him and in sitting down with him at a formal dinner or meeting him for a game of golf on the country club links. College sports are purely social. And social distinctions necessarily are arbitrary. If the white man of the South declines to admit the negro to his circle, that is his particular business. The question of sportsmanship is not involved, nor is that of political rights." The Times-Dispatch reported in the same edition that Washington and Lee had received many letters and telegrams defending its policy from individuals, colleges, and organizations, including a Ku Klux Klan chapter from North Carolina.

Ironically, Heisman faced a similar dilemma while coaching at Georgia Tech. The Golden Tornado considered scheduling a game against Rutgers during the 1918 season, and then was invited to play the Scarlet Knights in a postseason game at the Polo Grounds in New York in November 1918, with gate receipts being donated to the United War Charities Fund. However, there was one obstacle in the plan, according to the Atlanta Constitution: "Rutgers has a star end in Robeson, but this gink happens to be of the dark skinned gentry and Tech could hardly play a game with him in the line-up."

Heisman's decision not to bench West, his own African-American star, was an important statement of character and principle for Washington and Jefferson College, one that was due and timely. Perhaps it was easier for Heisman to make such a decision at Washington and Jefferson, where Jim Crow laws had not been ingrained in the culture for generations. Nevertheless, the decision was an important personal victory for Heisman. Through the years, Heisman had seen several young African-American men, aching to take the field in the major college game, only to be denied the opportunity by segregation. At last Heisman had a fine player in West, who justified his belief that anyone of abundant character, grit, and ability was welcomed on the gridiron to test his skills against the best competition. Washington and Jefferson's 1-0 victory over the Generals was recorded with an asterisk, but rather than simply footnoting a forfeit, it underscored an advance in human dignity.

While coaching at Georgia Tech, Heisman also had no patience for anti-Semitism. Al Loeb, who played center for Heisman at Tech from 1911 to 1914, was one of his favorite players. Loeb was a Jewish boy playing at a college in the South. Loeb later recalled, "I came to Georgia Tech wanting to get a degree and to play football. It was difficult, not that I couldn't understand my studies or that I couldn't play well enough on the field, I could do both well enough. It was difficult being a Jewish boy in the Bible-belted South. I took a good deal of kidding, some of it good natured, some of it not so good, some of it outright mean. I was ready to go home that first year when Coach Heisman pulled me aside and talked with me. He spent time with me, helping me see my way through the slights and offenses, bolstering a pride in my heritage, helping me stand as a man. I wouldn't have stayed were it not for him. As each year passed the taunts became less until they were mostly gone, and only some bittersweet recollections remained. I will always be grateful to my coach for teaching such lessons of life."