NASHVILLE, Tenn. | Taylor Stokes broke barriers at Vanderbilt, but his experience as the school's first black scholarship football player left him so embittered he couldn't even drive down the street near the university.
He once kept his helmet on as Mississippi State's student section rained both racial slurs and objects at him while he kicked seven extra points in a big Vanderbilt win. He helped tip over a couple of Volkswagen Beetles after frat boys on his own campus yelled the N-word at him.
Then his own head coach told him before a game in Mississippi to shave his facial hair or find his own way home from Oxford to Nashville. It's a memory that still riles Stokes up decades later.
"'Hey coach, wait a minute,'" Stokes recalled Friday. "'You see what color I am? How the heck am I supposed to get back to Nashville from Oxford, Miss., down here ALIVE?' So I cut my hair."
Now time has helped heal old wounds, and the 58-year-old Stokes will graduate Friday — 40 years after signing his grant-in-aid. The man who never wanted to be a pioneer overcame clinical depression, the loss of all four brothers and his father, a divorce and even a life-threatening bout of cancer is about to finish what he started so long ago.
"I had come to Vanderbilt as a pioneer but had taken nothing but bitterness and sorrow feelings away," Stokes said. "But now I get to taste the fruit. I get to drink from the cup so to speak, and the cup doesn't contain vinegar but it has a rich, sweet-tasting nectar in it."
Stokes wanted to play at Alabama for Bear Bryant. His father, Richard, wanted his son to play and earn a degree at Vanderbilt, the school that had made basketball player Perry Wallace the first black scholarship athlete in the Southeastern Conference in 1966.
He arrived on campus from his home in Clarksville, Tenn., as a wide receiver. He was good enough to play on the freshman team and practiced with the first-team offense in the spring of 1970. The return of senior Curt Chesley from an injury pushed Stokes down the depth chart. With his hard work not paying off, Stokes rebelled.
"My poor attitude began to reflect in my play and began to reflect in my schoolwork as well. I didn't go around burning down any buildings, but I had a serious attitude and I accept responsibility for that," Stokes said.
Stokes earned the kicker's job in 1971 and beat Tampa with a field goal. That season included his performance at Mississippi State and that ugly day in Oxford. At the game, Stokes ran onto the field to attempt the extra point in a 28-7 loss only to be told by the holder to get his "b. a." back to the sideline.
He said position coach Charlie Bradshaw gave no explanation for his being replaced by a white kicker, and head coach Bill Pace referred him back to Bradshaw.
"I don't want to look at myself as a victim in a sense," Stokes said. "But there were things that were out of my control that were influencing and dominating my career."
In 1972, Stokes was switched to defense in what he calls the beginning of the end. Not even having Walter Overton and Doug Nettles, Vanderbilt's next two black scholarship players around, helped. Stokes said his desire was killed.
"I could've reacted in a different way, but I didn't. How many mature 21-year-olds do you know, particularly athletes?" he said.
Stokes withdrew from Vanderbilt in the spring of 1973 and got married that fall. His father had a diabetic stroke, so Stokes took over his father's contracting business in the Washington D.C. area. At his father's urging, he tried Vanderbilt one more time in 1974. Then gave up.
So much bitterness remained that Stokes avoided West End, the street that runs past the Vandy campus on trips back to Nashville.
He focused instead on the family business. His father's death in 1982 and separation from his wife led to a diagnosis of clinical depression, which Stokes may have suffered while at Vanderbilt where he missed picking up his letterman's jacket because he had overdosed on drugs.
He credits therapy and a renewal of his faith in Jesus for his healing. But it took a new relationship with the younger sister of an old friend to push him to finish his studies at Vanderbilt. He called Overton, now general manager of LP Field where the NFL's Tennessee Titans play, who introduced Stokes to Vanderbilt vice chancellor David Williams — who also is black.
Overton said too many people thought he had been Vandy's first black scholarship football player and he wanted to correct that notion.
"He is a pioneer," said Overton, who plans to attend the graduation.
Vanderbilt found Stokes 30 hours short of a degree. With a mix of grants including funds from Vandy's athletic offices, he resumed classes in the spring of 2007.
Stokes found out how much times have changed in Vandy athletics the day he e-mailed current football coach Bobby Johnson to see if he could get that letterman's jacket. Within a couple hours, Johnson helped hook Stokes up, and his black jacket with the gold "V'' was delivered in May 2008.
If not for cancer in his right lung, Stokes would have graduated last fall. Doctors operated in August 2008 to remove a portion of his lung. Cancer-free, he returned to his studies and will pick up a bachelor of art's degree in race, culture and religion looking to counsel Christians and help minority students and athletes.
His time at Vandy may not be over yet. A professor is pushing him to pursue a master's degree at Vanderbilt's divinity school next.
Stokes said he didn't think it would take this long to complete his journey.
"One of the things I've come to understand in life is that it's not about what happens to you. It's about ... what you do about what happens to you," he said.