Breaking Barriers: The Legacy of College Football Hall of Famer Gene Washington

January, 29 2019

Breaking Barriers: The Legacy of College Football Hall of Famer Gene Washington

Gene Washington grew up in segregated, La Porte, TX and also attended a segregated high school, George Washington Carver. In the era before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was barred by law from participating in any athletic events against white players or schools. His team’s only competition came from other all African-American high schools.

When his high school playing days were finished, he had very few options to continue his athletic and academic career other than Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU), but that outlook was about to take a dramatic turn.

Michigan State football coach, Duffy Daugherty, came south to hold a coaching clinic and was one of very few college coaches at the time who welcomed African-American high school coaches to attend his clinics. One of the African-American coaches who attended was Willie Ray Smith, a head coach from Texas who had seen Washington play. Willie Ray told Daugherty about a speedy wide receiver he had coached against and just like that, Washington was added to the Michigan State 1963 recruiting class. In the fall of 1964, Washington led the team with 35 catches, setting the stage for his career trademark – gaining big yards on every catch. During his college career, he gained an average of 18.2 yards per reception.

With Washington leading the way, the Michigan State Spartans went on to one of their greatest seasons ever the following year.  They finished the regular season with a perfect 10-0 record, a Big Ten Title, a trip to the Rose Bowl and were recognized by the UPI coaches’ poll as National Champions. Washington earned First Team All-America recognition with 40 catches during the 1965 season.  

The Spartans began Washington’s senior season as the nation’s top team, but they fell to number two in the rankings behind Notre Dame, as the season progressed.  The nation’s top two teams ultimately met in the most anticipated contest in 20 years, dubbed the “Game of the Century”. Washington’s 42-yard reception set up a Spartan touchdown and a 10-0 lead. However, Notre Dame mounted a comeback and the game ended in a disappointing 10-10 tie.

After college, Washington was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, where he spent six seasons before finishing his professional career with the Denver Broncos. In 2011, he received the ultimate collegiate honor of being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and is widely recognized as a pioneer in collegiate and professional football today.

In recognition of Black History Month, we will host a special documentary screening and Q&A on Wednesday, February 6, featuring Gene Washington and his daughter Maya. Through the Banks of the Red Cedar tells the story of how Michigan State Head Coach Duffy Daugherty gave 23 African American young men the opportunity of a lifetime in 1963. The daughter of football legend Gene Washington uncovers how the first fully-integrated college football team in America changed the game forever. For more information, click here.

250 Marietta St. N.W. Atlanta, GA 30313 | (404) 880-4800