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Because Sandy Stephens ran, MarQueis Gray can throw

On the eve of the 2011 college football season, the College Football Hall of Fame inducted Sandy Stephens, while the Gophers have all but officially named MarQueis Gray this year’s starting quarterback. Here’s why both decisions were overdue.

MarQueis Gray, Golden Gophers, Spring Game

(Photo credit: Sam Abair Photography)

When Jerry Kill was hired a few months ago to lead the Gopher football program, he began taking an inventory of the rebuilding process.

When the subject came to junior quarterback MarQueis Gray, he heard faint whispers that Gray couldn’t hack it as a Division I quarterback. During the past two years, those same rumors that Gray couldn’t pick up the offense popped up occasionally on GopherHole.com message boards or during gameday chatter between fans. These critics pointed to his flagged ACT score as evidence, but the murmurs were never directly attributed to any coach or player close to the program. Meanwhile, quarterback Adam Weber kept fluttering passes into the turf during the past two years and Gray stayed on the bench, except for a few running downs. So the rumors continued. If you’re a Gopher fan, you heard it at some point: “If Gray is so good, why is he still on the bench? Why won’t they let him throw? He must not be able to pick up the offense.”

As Kill recently told a few hundred Gopher fans, the rumors were unfounded.

"When we walked in the door here, we were told he couldn’t do it," Kill told the Willmar crowd and the told the Star Tribune’s Phil Miller. "He flat surprised us during spring ball. … If he had played quarterback all along, he’d be as good as Terrelle Pryor. He just lacks experience.”

This spring, Gray gets his chance at quarterback. Last week, University of Minnesota legend Sandy Stephens was named to the College Football Hall of Fame. These two events are related. As the late Stephens would have told you, and as Gray would as well, this is not a story only about MarQueis Gray and Sandy Stephens.

* * * * *

Before Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington, Sandy Stephens paraded in Pasadena.”

- A Sports Illustrated Sandy Stephens obituary, June 19, 2000.

Most athletes can’t share a sentence with Martin Luther King Jr. without the sentiment sounding forced. Sandy Stephens was not most athletes.

Stephens’s achievements are varied, impressive and notable: He was Minnesota’s first black quarterback and also the first black quarterback from a major college to be named an All-American. In 1960, he led the Gophers to a National Championship and a season later, was the first person of color to be named Rose Bowl MVP. (Somewhat fittingly, that Rose Bowl was the first college football game to be broadcast nationally in color.) Stephens received the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award, given to the Big Ten’s MVP, in 1961. He also finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy that year.

Stephens got to campus in 1958 and Minnesota went 1-8. In 1959, he became the starting QB, but the team finished 2-7, again last in the Big Ten. A year later, the Gophers won the National Championship as Stephens emphatically showed his critics — and critics of all black quarterbacks — that a signal-caller of color could not only win, but also take a last place team and bring it to the top of college football.

Coming out of Uniontown, Pa., Stephens received dozens of scholarship offers from major schools, but there was an explicit, if unwritten, understanding included within many of them: A black person would not play quarterback. This was during the late 1950s, Jim Crow legislation was still in effect, there were separate restaurants, drinking fountains, the whole awful ordeal. In the South, people openly used the N-word or other similar slurs; we all know them so I don’t need to list them here. In the so-called “sophisticated” North, people claimed to be more racially enlightened, but in many cases, that only meant using slurs behind closed doors rather than directly to a person’s face. Pervasive thought was that blacks were not intelligent enough to be the on-field coach of the team. If Stephens was to attend many of the schools chasing him, it would be as a running back or defensive back.

But Minnesota, part of the Big Ten and the best football conference of the era, was recruiting him as a QB. So Stephens and Judge Dickson, high school rivals and friends, decided to take a recruiting visit up north. They stood in front of the Radisson Hotel in downtown Minneapolis for three hours and didn’t see one black face. But Stephens told Judge that they were still going to Minnesota and they were still going to the Rose Bowl.

"We knew the schools and knew them very specifically," Dickson, who would end up as Stephens’s roommate, recalled in 2008. “(Stephens) agreed to enroll at Minnesota because he knew that he would get the opportunity to play quarterback. At other universities he could have been on the team, but couldn’t play quarterback. That was a major reason why it was special to be at Minnesota. There were also black quarterbacks playing at Iowa and Wisconsin at the time. In this regard, the Big Ten was ahead of the curve.”

Stephens felt he was a quarterback. He was a leader. He deserved to be under center, regardless of his skin color. As Stephens said himself, proving that, at the highest level, became his mission. Minnesota would give him a chance to do so.

“I went to Minnesota because I thought I would get a chance to play quarterback and I wanted to play in the Big Ten,” Stephens recalled to the Fayette County Hall of Fame before his untimely death. “I wanted to go where I thought it was the toughest and roughest league because of the fact that they felt like I couldn’t play quarterback and I wanted to go where the toughest league was to disprove them.”

Stephens’s plight brought to mind parts of “The Uses of Haiti” by Paul Farmer. That isn’t a natural connection — Amazon.com isn’t going to suggest it if you’ve been looking at “The History of College Football” — but I happen to link two things when reading both at the same time. “The Uses of Haiti” is a brilliant, mind-blowing account of how U.S. foreign policy not only failed Haiti for more than a century, but also is largely to blame for Haiti’s widespread, abject poverty. The book covers many important things, one of which is that hundreds of years ago, many U.S. policymakers didn’t care to see a country run by those with black skin to succeed. The common, biased and prejudiced view was that “those people” were simply unfit to handle governance. Many decades later, athletic directors and football coaches would think that Sandy Stephens was unfit to quarterback their football teams.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu told a story at an event I was covering that has remained with me years later. Tutu was asked his definition of racism. He recalled the Apartheid days of South Africa, when blacks were thought to be not qualified enough to become airline pilots, among many other jobs that seemed “above their aptitude.” This was the common thought, which had been pretty much adopted by their society. Years later, after the end of Apartheid, Tutu boarded one of the first South African flights with black pilots. He was proud, he said, as he took his seat and awaited take off. The plane took off without incident, but hit some turbulence mid-flight. As the plane shook around, Tutu said his first thought was, “Ohhh! Don’t let these black guys crash this plane! Do they know what they are doing?!” The years of institutional racism were still ingrained in his mind.

As Tutu later explained, that what racism does. It mangles your mind to think people are automatically less qualified or less able. (It should be noted that the pilots handled the flight perfectly without incident.)

We’ve watched the same prejudiced thoughts permeate our culture: Blacks are not ready to be CEOs. They shouldn’t be brain surgeons and they certainly are not intelligent enough to be President of the United States. For years, minorities couldn’t even play sports with whites. Then when they finally could, they most certainly couldn’t coach those teams and they definitely, at all costs, could not play quarterback. A black player calling plays for white teammates? Not in those days.

But Stephens was one of the first black quarterbacks — if not the first — to run through, around and over those defensive barriers. While he wasn’t the first player to start at quarterback for a major school, he was certainly close behind. (A Sports Illustrated article from Jan. 9, 1961, described him as: “one of the very few Negroes ever to hold the quarterback’s job on a major college team.”)

"His mantra was always, just give me the opportunity. If I’m not the best, I shouldn’t lead the group. But if I’m the best, nothing else should matter," said Stephens’ sister, Barbara Stephens Foster. “There was a mantel on his shoulders, and he willingly accepted that.”

It was a responsibility he took seriously — Stephens realized he signified something bigger than just a quarterback on a surprisingly successful college football team. Of course, Stephens’s football story didn’t have a Hollywood ending. Although NFL and AFL teams drafted him, they refused to sign him as a quarterback, so he went north to the CFL for a bit. He later suffered a near-fatal car accident, but two years later, went on to play briefly for the Kansas City Chiefs as a running back. He would never reach his goal of quarterbacking in the NFL, a pain that never faded, he wrote in an unpublished book:

"As a pioneer in the field – First black Consensus All-American Quarterback. My experiences leave me feeling like the Moses of Black quarterbacks – able to see the Promised Land, but unable to enter it."

* * * * *

This spring, MarQueis Gray is a full-time, starting quarterback for the first time in nearly five years.

In the fall of 2006, MarQueis Gray was a high school junior, shooting up recruiting boards around not only in the Midwest, but the entire nation, dazzling onlookers with his ability to pass and also elude defenders.

As his profile rose though, Gray broke his non-throwing arm and had to sit out much of his senior year. Recruiting interest slowed a bit, although he still received offers from Oregon, Brian Kelly’s Cincinnati program and six Big Ten programs. Eventually, he decided on Minnesota and quickly became the jewel of Tim Brewster’s 2008 recruiting class. Playing among other high school all-stars at the Army All-American Game, Gray passed for 56 yards, while adding one rushing and passing touchdown each. Just as things seemed to fall into place, again he had another setback. The NCAA Clearinghouse flagged his ACT score; apparently because Gray’s score improved a suspicious amount from an earlier try. So, he took it again. He passed again, but ended up sitting out 2008 while things got sorted out. The following fall, he again joined his Gopher teammates.

By 2009, starting quarterback Adam Weber was firmly entrenched as the starter. Although Gray wasn’t talked about as a candidate to overtake Weber, he shined during another brief chance, this time at the Gophers’ spring game. Although little more than a glorified scrimmage, Gray completed eight of 10 passes that day, totaling 141 yards and two TDs.

When the season began, Weber played well enough himself, connecting often with Eric Decker. But by midseason, the offense started to unravel. In the seventh game, Penn State shut out the Gophers, 20-0. A week later, Ohio State shut out the Gophers through three quarters, 28-0, and Eric Decker suffered a season-ending injury. Weber struggled, completing 10 of 23 passes with two interceptions. Losing by 38 points, Brewster decided to turn Gray loose. The freshman stepped in and completed five of six passes for 51 yards, capping off his drive with a touchdown to Troy Stoudermire. Gray added 81 yards on the ground, finishing the day as Minnesota’s leading rusher.

The following week, Weber returned to the starting lineup and the Gophers picked up a surprise victory at Michigan State. Leaving his struggles behind, Weber had a splendid day, passing for five touchdowns and 416 yards, thereby cementing his status as starter for the remainder of the season.

However, he never matched those numbers in the following three regular season games. Against Illinois, small-school South Dakota St. and Iowa, Weber totaled 468 yards — an average of 156 yards per game — along with an average completion percentage of 42 percent. Gray, meanwhile, attempted four passes combined in those contests, and most came out of running formations and absolutely predictable, ready-made-disaster situations.

Take for example, Gray’s day at Kinnick Stadium near the end of 2009. I sat in the stands, watching an otherwise slow-moving game, but perked up late in the first half when Gray checked into the contest, albeit as a receiver. As he moved in motion, I said, loud enough for everyone in my section to hear, “Watch — Gray is going to come back on an end around, get the ball and throw a bomb downfield.” Of course, the “surprise” trick play unfolded just as I had yelled. The Iowa defense seemed about as surprised; linebacker A.J. Edds picked off the throw. The Iowa fans sitting next to me thought the entire process was hilarious.

I took a couple of swigs from my flask and whined, Just let the man play quarterback, to my Crown Royal.

(During the game’s fourth quarter, an infamous third and goal jump ball attempt to Troy Stoudermire occurred, which made some argue that offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch might be to blame for the offense’s sputtering production.)

The Gophers capped off 2009 in the Insight Bowl against Iowa State. Weber passed for a touchdown to tight end Nick Tow-Arnett, the team’s first offensive touchdown in 10 quarters, but he also threw an interception in the Iowa State endzone. Gray also had a costly turnover, fumbling in Iowa State territory on what could have been the game’s winning drive, ending a frustrating year for Gophers fans and players alike.

The following year, Brewster announced that both quarterbacks would compete for the job, but he called off the contest fairly early into camp and stuck with Weber, who was entering his fourth-consecutive year as a starter. While Weber turned a few heads with surprising play during his freshman year — the team still went 1-11 — Weber’s play had clearly regressed in the two following years. His yardage total and passing touchdowns had decreased in both years since his freshman campaign, his completion percentage had fallen below his freshman year figure and he threw 15 interceptions his junior year, seven more than his sophomore year.

Meanwhile, Gray, arguably the best athlete inside the Gibson Nagurski Football Complex, was moved to receiver.

Of course, 2010 was a dumpster fire. The Gophers lost to small-school division South Dakota. Then, they lost to USC. Then they lost to Northern Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue, Penn State and Ohio State. It serves mention that the team’s biggest problem wasn’t Weber, it was the defense as a whole, specifically concerning run prevention. Mired in a eight-game losing streak, Gray finally took a snap at quarterback against Michigan State. He went two of six with 24 yards, and added 31 yards rushing. Gray found spot duty in the remaining games, playing in a road win against Illinois and converting a game-saving, third-down run against Iowa late in the fourth quarter.

Now, I retold all of 2009 and some of 2010 to bring home this point: The Gophers were going nowhere with Adam Weber at quarterback, his fault or not. In Weber’s four years of starting at quarterback, the Gophers were ranked in the top 25 one week. Weber’s record as a quarterback was 17-33, for a winning percentage of 34 percent. Going into the last game of his senior year, the Gophers lost all 11 of their trophy games when he started at quarterback. Again, this is not all Weber’s fault — inserting Gray into the lineup wouldn’t have transformed the 2010 Gophers into the Auburn Tigers — but the 2010 team wasn’t going to even a fringe bowl. It’s one thing to give a person a second chance, or at least a chance to be successful. But Weber had received several chances. Why not let MarQueis Gray play quarterback when the season was all but lost?

The situation reminds me of the University of Texas in 2001. Senior Major Applewhite had marked up the Longhorn record books and had led team to a 9-3 record the previous year. Still, he was benched in the spring of his senior year for the highly touted Chris Simms. Applewhite was a fan favorite, the Longhorns were tabbed in the preseason as National Championship contenders and Applewhite was still benched. (A decision that hindsight eventually found to be an incorrect one.) Texas coach Mack Brown benched the leader of his team prior to a run at a National Championship because another player had more promise. Compare that to Minnesota. Tim Brewster couldn’t bench a senior quarterback, who wasn’t a fan favorite —  at best polarizing among the Gopher faithful — on a team that had no shot of sniffing even the Weedwhacker Bowl, let alone the National Championship. Why do I bring up this one example? Well, Brewster was part of the Texas staff in 2001.

To be clear: I don’t believe Gray was moved to receiver last year and failed to take many snaps at quarterback because a few people in the Gophers program themselves are biased against quarterbacks of color. The Brewster regime likely didn’t want to unseat an established, if unsuccessful, quarterback. But I do believe that groupthink occurs in college football and that black quarterbacks are still not thought of as passers. Institutional racism exists to some degree in all sports, let alone college football. We’ve all heard the coded language before: A white player is less athletic, but more intelligent. A black player, who must be more athletic, must also be less intelligent.  

This narrative describes what happened with Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray quite well. While Weber was decidedly less athletic, he was thought to be more “cerebral” than Gray. When Gray didn’t play, people didn’t say it was because he was inaccurate or because he couldn’t handle a pass rush. People figured it was because Gray couldn’t grasp the offensive playbook.

* * * * *

As much as Gopher fans wanted to see Adam Weber succeed and while many of the problems can be linked to the musical chairs at offensive coordinator in his four-year career, can you ever remember someone saying, “Wow, Weber really showed me something there”? Most times, people were grumbling about a screen pass that bounced into the shins of a running back or a missed timing route pass that sailed off into the distance. Even when Weber struggled in 2010, people chalked that up to having to learn his fourth offense in five years, which again, would be an incredibly daunting task. When Weber struggled in 2009, people blamed Jedd Fisch for his complicated playbook, which again, could have been a problem. Still, no one ever suggested that it was Weber’s fault that he couldn’t grasp the playbook, as some suggested about Gray.

Why is that? Will Gray receive the same amount of leeway as Weber?

Gray will get a chance to start this year and if he falters, he likely won’t get another shot. If the Gophers say, go 1-11 in Jerry Kill’s first year, it would be easy to see the coach move Gray back to wide receiver and bring in Max Shortell or Moses Alipate. I don’t think many people would blame him. To be fair, I’m confident that Gray will surprise many and the team will perform better than 1-11. But Weber went 1-11 in his first season and wasn’t benched the next year. He started every game for the next three years.

I don’t want to belittle Stephens’ acknowledgement by the Hall of Fame and turn it into an issue about only black and white. It isn’t. I also don’t want to make the recent Gophers coaching staff seem like racist patsies. They aren’t. Stephens, uncharacteristic for the era, received a shot even after his teams sputtered and Minnesota is a program that has remained largely progressive in terms of playing black quarterbacks.

The issue is that MarQueis Gray’s starting job has been years in the making. Why? If I showed you the Rivals reports of Weber and Gray, with names and faces scrubbed out, and had you guess which player started four years straight and which player hadn’t started one game five years later, who would you guess as the longtime starter? Although Weber is by all accounts a good person and is a positive young man, I still feel as though the Gophers wasted a large part of last year by not playing Gray at quarterback for longer stretches of time.

Adam Weber walked on campus and didn’t need to prove himself as someone who could handle a playbook. Yes, he worked hard to make himself a Division I passer, but no one judged his mental capacity to hold the job from the start. Meanwhile, MarQueis Gray is still working overtime to prove his worth. Even so, at least thanks to Sandy Stephens, Gray will get his chance. For many years, black quarterbacks didn’t receive nearly the same opportunities as their white peers. That’s beginning to change in today’s game, collegiate and professional, thanks to trailblazers like Stephens.

Because Sandy Stephens ran, MarQueis Gray gets his chance to throw. As a Gopher fan excited to see Gray take the reins to TCF Bank Stadium, thanks, Sandy.

Filed under Minnesota Golden Gophers Minnesota Golden Gophers Football MarQueis Gray Sandy Stephens Rose Bowl College Football Hall of Fame NCAA Football

  1. elliotmann posted this