Read an Excerpt
What it means to be a Badger
Barry Alvarez and Wisconsin's Greatest Players
By Justin Doherty
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Justin Doherty
All rights reserved.
I was an only child and had an uncle who was about four years older than I am who used to buy lots of sports magazines. We would sit down and read through them together. I just sort of became a sports junkie. From that, I started playing football out in the streets. The streets were not paved where I lived, so we started there, then we'd go down to a college field about two blocks from where I lived and started playing tackle football. I think around the sixth grade I organized a team called the West End Rinkidinks. We played the South End Bulldogs, the East End Eagles, the Gibbs Wildcats, and the Park Street Alleycats. No equipment or anything, but we scheduled games and we played.
A good friend of mine did have all the football equipment. He had helmets, he had footballs, he had his little football pants, so he started off as the quarterback. I can't remember exactly what position I was playing, but, at some point, it ended up that I became the quarterback. So I continued to play sandlot ball like that until about the ninth grade, and then our team organized a junior high school team, and I started playing there. So there was always that interest in football, basketball, and track. That's really how it all got started. This was all in Little Rock, Arkansas. I started again reading various sports magazines, and, at that time, the Big Ten Conference was without a doubt the most powerful conference in the country, so I decided that I wanted to play in the Big Ten. I did fairly well in high school and ended up getting a scholarship.
I would've been in about 11th grade when I became a starting quarterback, was the leading scorer on the basketball team, and half-mile champion, and I thought at that time I could play in the Big Ten. So I made the choice between going to one of the historically black schools and going to the Big Ten. I had something like 18 scholarship offers. The interesting thing at that time, of course, being in Little Rock, like other athletes of color down South, we couldn't go to any of the major state universities. So the guy I think I can credit with making it possible for big-time and full-time recruiting in the Big Ten was a halfback named J.C. Caroline. He was from Columbia, South Carolina, and he was recruited by the University of Illinois. He had a dynamite game as a sophomore against Michigan. Well, after that, coaches in the Big Ten started going south and recruiting, and some of the Big Ten coaches in their coaching camps included some of the coaches from the historically black schools to come in and serve on their coaching teams. There were a lot of connections made there with the Big Ten — I remember Iowa was one, Michigan State, Michigan. So a lot of those summer camps where some of the black coaches were allowed to participate opened things up for coming to the Big Ten. I think I actually wrote to the University of Wisconsin and just sort of gave an outline of what I'd done in high school. And based upon that, I got a letter inviting me to come up, and that was how I ended up in Madison.
The first summer I went up to Wisconsin I got a construction job, and on that construction team was a guy named Alan Ameche. I had a chance to work with him and, anecdotally, I just remember that Alan couldn't get any construction work done because the kids were all around him asking him this and that. And the construction boss would say, "Well, Alan, you can't be leaning on the shovel all day." I think they eventually let him go, but I think the next day he was working for another construction company. So that was one impression. I had a lot of new opportunities there — being close to Lake Mendota, which is absolutely beautiful. I'd never been out on a dock before, so just going out there and going swimming was new for me. Going out and seeing the football stadium and having a brat for the first time was great. I actually had a steak for the first time — I never had steak before, not a grilled steak. The coaching staff was very nice. Being able to go down, seeing the difference in the way things were integrated there — that made a big impression. It was a beautiful campus, and I met a lot of nice friends. I had some friends of my mother's over in Milwaukee, so I had a chance to go down there and visit them, too. But it was just the enormous size of the campus and all that, that made such an impression. I'd never been on an institutional grounds that large.
I came in as a quarterback. They had three or four on the freshman team, so I played quarterback my freshman year and was actually switched to end the next year. Playing end my second year, I got hurt. I was rushing the passer, and one of the backs threw out an elbow right across my upper arm. It created a calcium deposit there, so they redshirted me after that. Before my second year had started, I set out to do something. When we came back for fall practice that second year, one of the things we had to do is complete the mile run. I won that, and the first notice of me was made in the papers, a small line indicating I had won that. So I got hurt and came back during the spring and continued playing end. I played end through spring practice, came back for fall practice, and was still playing end.
I don't believe we had one quarterback who was over 5'9" or maybe 5'10", and, of course, you had to play both ways in those days. One of the things I did was make a very good showing at end on defense. Guards would pull out and come around, I'd go across and sort of knock them back into the ball carrier. One of our coaches felt that none of our quarterbacks were physically able to do a good job at safety, so he convinced the coaching staff to switch me to safety, and that's how I got my start. I started doing very well in that fall practice and easily made the team. Then, of course, later on in that year — it was '56 — I became a starting quarterback the last two games. The last two years primarily were split. I had a big battle with Dale Hackbart — we split the time [as starting quarterback] during my senior year.
Back home, at the time, I knew most of the Little Rock Nine. And as a matter of fact, I went back for the 50th celebration of that in Little Rock and saw them all. I don't think they'll mind me telling this, but the Little Rock Nine name is trademarked, and I did the trademark work for them. I heard about all what was going on back there while I was in Wisconsin — it was troubling because I could sit down and visualize it. I can remember when I used to walk to my high school, we walked right past Central High School. As a matter of fact, in grade school, I walked past the all-white grade school, so when I moved on to high school, I walked past Little Rock Central. Those kids really went through a lot of hell. It's just surprising to see some of the reaction that happened there. Central had some good football teams, and a few guys were really good players. It was disappointing to see some of them out there with that rowdy crowd.
Being the first African American starting quarterback in the Big Ten is something I am very proud of. I'm very proud of the job that I was able to help the team do during that time. I think it was certainly a start to what we're seeing today. It's almost getting to the point where it's not a subject of discussion these days, particularly in the college ranks, and it's even getting better in the pro ranks. It was a great feeling. One thing I can say, truly, during all that turmoil and all the things that were happening, and the fact that I was playing quarterback, I do not recall one racial incident or one racial slur while I was playing. I know that has occurred in other situations, but it never even occurred from our opponents. Even when we played down in Florida (against Miami) and West Virginia. One of the things that really made me feel good was when I went up to Wisconsin during the summer before my freshman year. I went over to the barber shop that generally cut African Americans' hair, and there was a guy there — he was a white man, but he was generally friendly with the guys in the barber shop. We were talking, and I walked in there, and, of course, the guy asked what position I played. I said I played quarterback. This guy told me I would never play quarterback at Wisconsin. So I told him to just wait and see. I never saw him again, at least I never recognized him. I just wonder what his take would have been on that. That was the type of thing that drove me to success, comments like that. Also the fact that I did not want to get cut from the squad and have to go back to Little Rock and tell everyone what happened back in Wisconsin. There were a lot of things that inspired me to do what I did. And, of course, the engineering education was great. It was helpful to me in getting my first job after college and it was helpful in practicing in the area of law that I practiced in.
I do have a real appreciation for the opportunity I had because, after two tries at pro football and getting hurt both times, it was nice to have something to fall back on. After I was hurt in Canada in '59, I was able to get on the phone and call one of the alumni who worked in an engineering company in Chicago. He was able to set up an interview for me, so I didn't have to sit around long after I left the football camp. I had a job and was able to start law school in Chicago, so I can't say enough about the education I had. The professors I had did not allow me to do less than I had to do. They were very helpful to me and somewhat sympathetic to the football schedule.
From the football standpoint, I played with a group of guys who were tough. They were tough-minded, good on defense, very good and very loyal to the team, and never said quit. I think back to our '58 season, that could and probably should've been a Rose Bowl trip. We fought, but, hey, we gave it our best. In terms of the school, you couldn't have asked for more of an academic foundation. The courses were rigid, the professors were very good. You knew that once you came off the football field and once you got out of the classroom, you'd been subjected to the best type of training and school that you could get. That's what I take out of it.
Sidney Williams was the first African American starting quarterback in Big Ten history. He won UW's Ivan Williamson Scholastic Award in 1958. He was selected by the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Draft. Williams, who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was a highly respected patent lawyer for the Upjohn company. He was appointed executive director of trademarks and domestic patents for the company in 1990. He retired in 1995.
Growing up on the east side of Madison, there was a park that all the kids from the east side kind of hung out at, called Ethan Park. I can remember as a seventh or eighth grader, we used to go down there and have pickup baseball and football games. It would be like touch football, only we really played tackle. All my buddies went out for ninth-grade football at Madison East High, so I just kind of joined in. That's basically how I got my start.
I remember the first maybe week or so of practice, I was going to be an offensive end — that's the position I went out for. Claude Hungerford was the coach, and he'd line guys up, and you'd run down the field, and he had a couple of quarterbacks that he had picked out, throwing balls. I'd catch 'em and run back, and in the interim I'd throw the ball back to the center. Then, of course, he'd snap the ball and I'd get in line, get a run, catch a ball and run — for two or three days. Hungerford called me over and said, "How would you like to play quarterback?" He kind of took me back a little bit, but I said, "Sure." So he had me line up underneath center and take a few snaps and get in the rhythm of throwing to my other buddies who were going out for offensive end. He just actually picked me out of the crowd and said, "You're going to be my quarterback in ninth grade." And that was it. That was my start.
My sophomore year in high school, I didn't play at all because we were on the JV squad. My junior year, I played a little bit; I didn't start at all and just was on the team. My senior year was when I really kind of blossomed as a quarterback. After the season was over with, I made the all-city football team, which was a big honor for me. It was Madison East, Madison West, and Wisconsin High. I was selected to the all-area team, which was kind of like southern Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, and then, lo and behold, they picked me as all-state quarterback. Actually, I didn't really have intentions of going on to college. As a matter of fact, with all my high school buddies [doing things together], there were probably six or seven of us who decided we were going to join the Marine Corps. It was during my senior year that Milt Bruhn, the Wisconsin head coach, contacted me and started talking to me a little bit about going to the University of Wisconsin.
I go back to my high school days, my old east-side buddies, we used to sneak into games at Wisconsin and watch them. Minnesota really heavily recruited me, probably more so at the time than Wisconsin did. I went up there probably three or four times; I traveled with my parents and gave them what you would call a verbal commitment — there was no signing, it was a verbal commitment that I'd attend the University of Minnesota. Then my parents got involved. My mom and dad said, "Do you really want to go to Minnesota? Wouldn't you rather stay here in Wisconsin?" Basically, long story short, they convinced me that Madison was the place to be. And actually Milt found out that I was interested in going to Minnesota, and he called me up one day and said, "You need to come down to the university here — we need to talk to you." He got me into his office, locked the door, and said, "I'm not going to let you out of here until you commit because you're going to go to the University of Wisconsin." And that was it. Between Milt and my mom and dad, all three of them convinced me that Wisconsin was the place to be.
I didn't play as a sophomore at Wisconsin — this was when you had to play both ways. I didn't really play a whole lot my sophomore year until basically the last three games of the season. Perry Moss came to me — Perry was the offensive coordinator — and he just said, "I'm going to give you an opportunity to play and start a game." It was against Northwestern. Anyway, I started those three games as a sophomore. We won — we beat Northwestern, we beat Illinois, and we beat Minnesota in the last game. And I think that was kind of the takeoff for my career at Wisconsin. I played in all the games both my junior and senior years. I think that was a real highlight, having an opportunity to play as a sophomore. Looking beyond those years, we actually finished 7–1–1 overall my junior year, but we lost to Iowa, and they went to the Rose Bowl. The other highlight would've been the challenge of coming back the next year in that we had a great opportunity and we won an undisputed Big Ten championship and went to the Rose Bowl.
The 1959 championship team was a strong group of seniors who were really determined to make their mark, having felt as though we basically cheated ourselves the year before. There were a lot of characters on the team. I think everybody really dedicated themselves that year. When you look back at that Big Ten season and the teams in the Big Ten, there weren't any pushovers whatsoever. It was a real battle to go through a full season, especially our senior year, and have to really battle to win every game. And I just think the guys on the team, including the juniors and sophomores who took the lead of the seniors, were all pretty persistent about winning the Big Ten and winning the Rose Bowl.
Excerpted from What it means to be a Badger by Justin Doherty. Copyright © 2011 Justin Doherty. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.