October 21, 2006
By MATT EAGAN, Courant Staff Writer
John Lobon knows his life changed during a phone call home to Hartford in the fall of 1970.
He was one of nine Syracuse University football players boycotting the season to protest racial inequities within the school's athletic department.
They wanted the school to hire an African American assistant coach and offer better medical support. They wanted improved academic counseling. And they wanted coaches to stop calling them "boy" and referring to their hair as "fuzz."
The demands were met with resistance. The players were met with scorn.
"I called my mother and I said, 'I don't know how much more of this I can take,'" Lobon said. "And she said, 'Then come home.'"
More than 36 years have passed since Lobon, now a senior vice president of Urbank with the Connecticut Development Authority, made that phone call, but his voice still catches when he tells the story.
"I was one of the first members of my family to go to college," he said. "I wasn't going to be the first one to drop out. The important thing was that I didn't have to prove anything to her. She believed in me, and realized I hadn't failed. She believed that what we were doing was just."
History sometimes takes a while to catch up with mothers, but this weekend Syracuse University is doing what it can to make amends.
Chancellor Nancy Cantor presented the so-called Syracuse Eight with the Chancellor's Medal for extraordinary courage Friday. And the players will be presented with letterman's jackets during halftime of today's football game against Louisville. The Syracuse Eight actually was a misnomer: There were nine players, but one was injured at the time.
Lobon, Greg Allen, Richard Bulls, Ronald Womack, Clarence McGill, A. Alif Muhammad (known as Al Newton at Syracuse), Dana Harrell, John Godbolt and Duane Walker were the players who refused to play.
"There is probably not a day that goes by when I don't think about what happened," Lobon said. "The pain will always be there, but my peers are saying we were right. I'm afraid that I'll lose it on the field, but I guess men can cry, too. I feel like a part of my life has been given back to me. I feel whole."
Lobon chose Syracuse after graduating from Weaver High School in 1968 because it was a prestigious school with a football tradition that included Jim Brown, Floyd Little and Ernie Davis.
Legendary coach Ben Schwartzwalder had won the school's only national championship in 1959 and was beloved by many at the school and in the city, but by 1968 the world had changed. Many felt he had not changed with it.
Bulls told the Daily Orange, the Syracuse student newspaper, in a story published this week that Schwartzwalder "was not worried about being politically correct. It was his way or the highway and he had absolutely no racial sensitivity at all."
Lobon said he saw a cultural divide.
"When Jim Brown and the others were there, the civil rights movement was in its infancy and [the athletes] had no choice but to go along with things," Lobon said. "By the time I got there, the numbers had increased. We were proud African American men who were proud to be student athletes and part of the civil rights movement."
Signs of the divide were everywhere, but the flashpoint might have been the use of the term "boy."
Coaches said they used it with all players, but the term was, and remains, especially degrading when directed at African American men.
These issues were part of a cultural rift felt throughout the nation, but the players' other issues were more specific strikes against what they saw as the institutional racism of the athletic department.
The issues were nearly settled before the 1970 season. The university agreed to investigate the complaints and Schwartzwalder said he would search for an African American assistant coach.
The players had been suspended in the preseason for missing practice, but four were reinstated for the opening game against Kansas. Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters took to the streets outside Archbold Stadium, and police used pepper spray to disperse the crowd. Six protesters were arrested.
The players concluded the university was merely appeasing them, and they decided to boycott the season.
"They were trying to divide and conquer us," Lobon said. "We refused to be divided."
All paid a heavy price for their stand. Only two of the players, Allen and Lobon, ever played football for Syracuse again.
Lobon, who lettered for Syracuse in 1971, said friends who have played pro football told him he was good enough to play, but the truth is that he will never know.
"I've wondered about that for 36 years," Lobon said. "Yes, I have that regret that I was denied not based upon my ability. But we all attended the university based on our character.
"I'm proud of what I did because it meant something. We wanted to be sure that anybody who came in after us would have to be respected as a person and that they would be allowed to develop a human identity. We did that much."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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