As old men, they've come to appreciate how their Michigan State teams, which blended white, black, North and South, reflected a changing America during a defining decade.
But as young men, they anchored themselves in the moment. While racial and civil unrest raged around them, they lived in a green zone of sorts -- an "atmosphere of acceptance," as former quarterback Jimmy Raye put it -- a world apart from their homes in more ways than one.
They came to Michigan State's lush campus in the early 1960s from places like Beaumont, Texas; Fayetteville, N.C.; Anderson, S.C.; and Roanoke, Va. Michigan State provided an opportunity -- to play college football at the highest level -- not afforded to them in their home states because of their skin color.
"All the Southern players, we were outcasts from our own states," said former Michigan State wide receiver Gene Washington, a native of La Porte, Texas. "All of the states where we were from, they would not take black athletes. We bonded at Michigan State because we all had similar stories. We could make a contribution. That was very important to us. We didn't talk about that all the time, but we knew we had something to prove, and this is our opportunity.
"We wanted to be the best in the country."
And they were. Led by coach Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State won national championships in 1965 (UPI) and 1966 (National Football Foundation) with some of the most racially and geographically integrated teams in all of college football. The 1965 roster included 18 black players, nine from Southern states (Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina). The 1966 roster featured 17 black players, 10 from the South.
In contrast, the team that earned national championship honors in 1964 -- Alabama -- came from the Southeastern Conference, which didn't integrate until 1966.
"Duffy used to always tell us that if you play with enthusiasm and you play as a team, our names would be printed in indelible ink and would last for a lifetime," Raye said. "But at the time, when you're 18 or 19 years old, you're just playing. We didn't think about the history that was being made. We were just winning."
Michigan State had a long history of accepting black athletes before those seasons. In 1913, Spartans tackle Gideon Smith became one of the first black men to play college football. Willie Thrower was the first black quarterback to play in the Big Ten in 1950. He led Michigan State to a national title in 1952 and became the first black quarterback in the NFL with the Chicago Bears in 1953. Future College Football Hall of Famer Don Coleman played tackle at MSU from 1949 to 1951.
But in the early 1960s, Daugherty made a recruiting push to the segregated South and brought in players who helped put Michigan State back on top of the college football ladder.
"If they could have played down South, they would have probably stayed down there," said Hank Bullough, an assistant under Daugherty from 1959 to 1969. "But they couldn't. So we hit the South. It was a new place to go."
Daugherty formed connections with many of the top black high school coaches by holding separate clinics for them at coaching events where they were otherwise barred. He also welcomed them to East Lansing in the spring and fall to watch drills.
Among those Daugherty befriended was Willie Ray Smith, a thriving high school coach in Beaumont, Texas. Smith's son Charles, a massive lineman nicknamed "Bubba," wanted to play for the University of Texas but couldn't because of his skin color. Several Big Ten programs and other Northern schools pursued Bubba, who ended up picking Michigan State.
If they could have played down South, they would have probably stayed down there. But they couldn't. So we hit the South. It was a new place to go.
”-- Former Michigan State assistant Hank Bullough
The Smith-Daugherty connection also led Washington to East Lansing. Washington had played high school football and basketball against Bubba Smith, who told Washington he'd put in a good word with Daugherty. Michigan State ended up bringing in Washington on a track scholarship because no football scholarships were available.
"Duffy didn't know anything about my football background," Washington recalled. "In those days when you recruited black athletes, we didn't have any film. They had never seen me run track, didn't even know I ran track. I got to Michigan State solely on Bubba's and his father's recommendation."
Washington ended up as a two-time first-team All-America receiver. He also won an NCAA championship and six Big Ten titles in hurdles.
Daugherty's connections to white college coaches who couldn't take black players also paid off for MSU. NC State coach Earle Edwards, a former Spartans assistant, helped get Raye to Michigan State. Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant encouraged Charles "Mad Dog" Thornhill, a fullback whom he had met at a touchdown club event, to be a Spartan. Clemson coach Frank Howard steered Webster to East Lansing.
"Any time those coaches knew a black player in high school that they heard about, they would immediately call Duffy," Washington said. "He had all these coaches calling him."
That top coaches steered elite players toward another school seems unfathomable in today's cutthroat recruiting environment. But the circumstances were different then.
Daugherty was different, too, spreading the recruiting net as far as he could, even to Hawaii, where he brought in players like fullback Bob Apisa.
"Duffy has always been a diverse person," former halfback Clinton Jones said. "He had the ability to fuse with the black community as well as the Polynesian community and everybody. The coaches in the South, Bear Bryant, Johnny Majors, Darrell Royal and Bud Wilkinson, all those guys were his buddies. They loved Duffy. Had he not been a coach, he could have been a stand-up comedian.
"He had a way of pulling people together."
At the time, the Big Ten was the league of opportunity for black players from the South. Raye, who faced two obstacles of being black and playing quarterback, drew inspiration from watching Sandy Stephens lead Minnesota to back-to-back Rose Bowls as the Gophers' signal-caller.
The willingness of Big Ten programs like Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan State to accept black players resonated with those simply looking for a chance.
"There's always been great players down [South]," said former Spartans halfback Sherman Lewis, a Louisville, Ky., native. "They were all going to Grambling, Florida A&M, Tennessee State, Texas Southern. But when the Big Ten started recruiting them, instead of Florida A&M, they were going to Michigan State, or instead of Texas Southern or Grambling, they were going to Minnesota."
Said Bullough: "We were probably one of the first ones down there."
Lewis was one of three black players from the South at MSU when he arrived in 1960. The real push came in 1963 when MSU brought in players like Smith, Webster, Thornhill, Washington and Ernie Pasteur, as well as Jones, a Cleveland native.
Undoubtedly one of the great recruiting classes in college football history, the 1963 group formed the foundation for MSU's national championship runs. It included three future College Football Hall of Famers -- Smith, Webster and Washington -- and four of the eventual top eight picks in the 1967 NFL draft, including the No. 1 overall selection in Smith.
Michigan State represented a culture shock for Southerners like Washington, who not only had never played with or against white players, but had barely interacted with whites in segregated Texas. Suddenly he was sharing a room with two white swimmers from Indiana.
"Everything was completely segregated in Texas, how we lived and how we played," Washington said. "All of a sudden, I'm in a friendly atmosphere. I had no problems. It was just a great, great welcoming."
The team stayed in Wonders Hall, a brand-new dormitory. The freshmen would argue about who was the strongest or the fastest, but race never entered their debates on the field or in the locker room.
"We just bonded like brothers," Jones said.
The weather proved to be a much bigger adjustment than the demographics. After a storm dumped 20 inches of snow, Raye stayed in his room, figuring Michigan State had cancelled classes, just like they did back home in North Carolina.
He received a knock on the door. It was Bullough.
"[He] wanted to know why I was missing class," Raye said. "I said, 'Well, it's snowing.' And he said, 'If you're not going to go to class when it snows, you might as well go back to North Carolina, because it's going to be like that from now 'til April.'"
Everything was completely segregated in Texas, how we lived and how we played. All of a sudden, I'm in a friendly atmosphere. I had no problems. It was just a great, great welcoming.
”-- Gene Washington on moving to East Lansing, Mich.
Campus life brought comfort for black students, who had their own fraternities, sororities and social events, but also interacted a lot with whites. They felt welcome in East Lansing, as residents knew that most of the black men they'd see around campus played sports for the Green and White.
Michigan State wasn't immune from racial issues. As a sophomore, Jones was named Mr. MSU, the first black student to earn the honor. Yet when it came time to dance with Miss MSU at a university ball, she refused. Coaches also discouraged interracial dating, Jones said, and players who did faced retribution.
But at a time when the civil rights movement captured the nation and college campuses became centers of activism and friction, Michigan State seemed relatively tame.
"A lot of discord was going on around campuses around the United States, riots and stuff like that," Jones said. "But at Michigan State, we had hootenannies and bonfires, people were singing. It was a culture of winning."
Michigan State went 6-2-1 in 1963, but seniors like Lewis knew better days were ahead. NCAA rules prevented freshmen from playing, but the Spartans' freshmen scrimmaged against the varsity on Fridays before games.
"They looked different than the normal freshmen," Lewis said. "As soon as we started practicing against them, we knew they had a special class."
After a 4-5 season in 1964, Michigan State surged in 1965. A defense led by Smith, Webster and Thornhill recorded two shutouts and allowed 62 points. The Spartans had road wins against rivals Michigan and Notre Dame, holding the Wolverines to minus-39 rush yards in a 24-7 triumph.
The defense set team records for fewest yards allowed per game (173.2), fewest rush yards per game (47.3) and fewest points per game (5.6). MSU allowed an average of just 34.6 rush yards in Big Ten games, a league record (modern era) that stands to this day. Jones earned first-team All-America honors at running back, while Washington broke the team records for receptions and receiving yards he had set the year before. Michigan State won all 10 regular-season games and claimed its first outright Big Ten championship. The Spartans' lone blemish: a 14-12 loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
It was more of the same in 1966. MSU once again swept its Big Ten schedule. Fans chanted "Kill, Bubba, kill!" as Smith and the defense held opponents to 9.9 points per game and 51.4 rush yards per game. Jones earned consensus first-team All-America honors, set the Big Ten single-game rushing record (268 yards against Iowa) and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting. MSU led the Big Ten in rushing yards (223.2 ypg) and scoring (30.4 ppg).
After winning its first nine games, Michigan State met Notre Dame in what was billed as the "Game of the Century" -- each team was ranked No. 1 in one of the major polls -- and played to a 10-10 tie.
"Our practices were very, very hard and very physical," Jones said. "We used to beat each other up. So when we got in the games, the games were kind of like a holiday. We didn't feel anybody could beat us."
The 1966 season marked the first time Michigan State elected two black captains in Webster and Jones. At the time, Raye was the only black quarterback starting for a major college team. The Notre Dame game had "such social and political significance," Raye said, because Michigan State was so integrated while the Irish had only one black player, star defensive lineman Alan Page.
But the impact of these events didn't hit the players until later.
"The civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, all that was going on, and it was removed from us being in football," Washington said. "We never got into that. It wasn't on TV all the time. CNN didn't exist. We were focused in as a football family, as a university family.
"We just had Michigan State, East Lansing, on campus. We'd play a game, get back to practice and you go to class. That was it."
The big, green bubble of East Lansing was such a utopia for the Southern players that they didn't want to leave, even for Christmas.
"You're going back to where the restrooms were separate, the water fountains were separate, the hotels in downtown Houston were closed to black people," Washington said. "That's a part of our lives we don't talk about a lot."
Time allowed the players to appreciate what they'd done. Raye still has the game ball from a 1966 win against NC State, after which Edwards, the coach who helped get him to Michigan State, said that it was time for ACC schools to start keeping their homegrown talent. The following season, NC State welcomed its first black football player.
Lewis remembers the pride he felt watching the MSU-Notre Dame game in 1966 and seeing the racial contrast of the two teams. He thinks Michigan State's success those seasons impacted segregated programs like Texas and Alabama, which finally began awarding scholarships to blacks in 1970.
"They see Michigan State with Bubba Smith from Texas and George Webster from South Carolina and Gene Washington [from Texas], these guys could be playing for their teams," Lewis said. "All of a sudden, they're making All-America for Michigan State. When those coaches saw that, they said, 'Hey, we've got to keep some of these guys at home.'"
The team has lost some of its shining lights in recent years as Smith, Webster and Thornhill passed away. But those who remain still maintain close ties. They're involved with the scholarship program set up in Webster's name in 2007. Many returned in 2010 for the 45-year reunion of the 1965 squad.
Raye, a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaching staff, is finishing a book on the black players from the South who came to Michigan State (the "underground Spartan railroad," he calls it).
"As the years went by, even after we left school, the guys became closer and closer and closer, and we're just as close now," Jones said. "We've come to realize what we had, but it wasn't something that we were aware of [back then]. Very, very magical."