It’s been 50 years since Allen University first shut down its football program for financial reasons.
But the men who played on those teams in the mid- to late-1960s, most now in their 70s – haven’t forgotten what football meant to them, and to their alma mater.
Teddy Keaton, the 43-year-old coach now charged with reviving Allen football in 2018, wasn’t born when the Yellow Jackets fielded powerful, all-black teams in the era of segregation. But after he was hired in January, Keaton quickly learned that the passion for football among those former players still burns hot.
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“The alumni base, the old players, wanted it back,” he said. “I don’t think (school president Ernest McNealey) wanted to deal with football, but alumni … sometimes they want it back when they’ve had it. There’s a lot of pride in having a football team; it’s a culture-changer.”
If there was any doubt about that, Keaton or McNealey only had to ask Clyde Hill, Allen Class of 1959 and a restaurant owner in Newberry, who came to Allen on a football scholarship; he later ran track and spent his college days arranging transportation for Allen’s sports teams.
Hill calls the 1950s and 1960s “the good ol’ days of (Allen) football.” Ever since the school did away with the sport after 1968, Hill has believed the school needs the sport and its pageantry (including a band and cheerleaders) to thrive.
“HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) like us (who) brought football back have had success if they do it right,” he said. The school ended a five-season “experiment” with football in 2006 with the program badly in the red.
This time, Hill believes the school has realistic ambitions. McNealey insisted alumni raise $500,000 to fund the football team and stay within that budget. Hill then reached out to fellow alumni and former players to get the ball rolling.
One alumnus, Leonard Burton, Allen Class of 1967 and an Atlanta accountant, didn’t play football but remembers the sport’s impact. “When Allen had a good team, it was one of the top teams in the conference (Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, or SIAC, where Allen was a member from 1947-68),” he said. “We were always a football school.
“Allen gave me a great education, so I wanted to give back. I look forward to Allen being back in prominence.”
Former players are even more enthusiastic – players such as William “Billy” Chapman, Class of 1968, a defensive back and running back and now owner of a Columbia property management business. He took charge of designing and building the current Yellow Jackets’ locker rooms.
Chapman, who played at segregated Lakeview High in Lexington, considered going to Indiana to play college ball, and also flirted with playing for Allen’s arch-rival, Benedict College. “But I went across (Taylor Street) to Allen, and it was the best decision I ever made,” he said.
“It was a family atmosphere, and I liked that,” he said of his playing days. “I bonded well with the other players. We had excellent teams; one year, we went 8-2. And we ate Benedict’s lunch the whole time I was there.”
In fact, most records of Allen football are difficult-to-impossible to come by today, but Chapman provided old school yearbooks that show records of 7-1-1 in 1956 – Allen beat Benedict 32-0 and South Carolina State 19-0 that season – and another 7-1-1 season in 1963, though without game scores.
According to Benedict athletics records, the schools played each other 21 times between1924-66 (some early results aren’t listed). From 1946-66, Allen won nine times and Benedict six; three seasons in that span had no scores listed. Benedict won the final meeting, 12-6, before terminating its program in 1967. The Tigers brought back football in 1995.
Rep. William “Bill” Clyburn, a Democratic House member from Aiken since 1995 and cousin of U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, played for Allen from 1960-63. “We beat South Carolina State all four years, and Benedict three of four,” he said with a laugh. “We never lost more than 1-2 games.
“We had really great football teams then; (major colleges) were segregated, so we had the best (black) talent.”
Allen’s most famous football alum, lineman Sam Davis, went on to star on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynasty teams of the 1970s (four Super Bowl titles) and is in the NFL team’s hall of fame. Chapman remembers Allen players Charles Bryant, who played with the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals; John Cash, a defensive lineman with the Denver Broncos; and George Harold, who played for the Baltimore Colts.
Waltar Bright, a defensive back from 1964-67 and a member of Allen’s hall of fame, said the Yellow Jackets’ competition then was equally stout. “I bumped heads against a dozen guys who are now in the NFL Hall of Fame,” he said.
Bright’s most vivid memory came vs. Florida A&M. “We had to play Bob Hayes, who’d just won gold at the Olympics” and went on to star for the Dallas Cowboys. “I was very fast myself, but Sam (Davis, Bright’s roommate) told me, ‘You might’ve been fast in Pennsylvania (his home state), but this is the fastest man in the world.
“One play, Hayes faked me and went down and out; when I looked, he was 12 yards downfield.” Fortunately for Bright, Davis sacked the FAMU quarterback on the play.
“I told Sam, ‘Man, if you weren’t so big and ugly, I’d have to kiss you,’” he said, laughing.
For most Allen players, the best memories are from the Benedict rivalry. “On Friday nights (before games), you could hardly get down Taylor Street,” Clyburn said. “Saturday, it was so crowded, people coming from everywhere.” Allen’s on-campus stadium, long since razed, drew crowds of around 10,000, he said.
The Yellow Jackets also held their own against S.C. State, the only state-supported HBCU in South Carolina. S.C. State’s records show the Bulldogs led the series, which began in 1915, 16-9, but Allen won five straight games from 1959-63, including an 18-7 decision in ’63, when the Bulldogs were 8-2. SCSU won the final five meetings (1964-68).
“They had good athletes,” said Sam Goodwin, a two-way lineman for S.C. State from 1961-64, later a coach at his alma mater and now a Columbia minister. “Back then, people came from across the country when we played Benedict and Allen, wearing suits and dresses to games. It was a big thing.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, though, unintentionally led to Allen football’s demise. “People then supported football because we didn’t get (black athletes) into many white schools,” Goodwin said. “That Saturday was our outlet.” As black players began attending previously all-white schools, talent – and interest – fell off.
Those “glory days” are gone forever, but Allen’s former players are eager to see their school’s restored football program now. Most have inked Sept. 1 on their calendars, when Allen hosts a club team from Columbus (Ga.) State in the season opener at Irmo High’s W.C. Hawkins Stadium.
“I’m planning on it,” Bright said of traveling from his Pennsylvania home. “I told Billy (Chapman), I’ll come down and coach if they ask me.”
Clyburn is equally excited about seeing Allen football once again.
“I tell you, my friend, that’s one of the things I’m looking forward to: being there on Sept. 1, coming up and walking around the campus on Friday, looking around and reminiscing,” he said. “I’ll be one of the first in the stadium to see them run in.
“It’s amazing: after all the games I’ve seen – NFL, USC, Clemson – I just want to see those guys run out there in the blue and gold.”