New book details early African Americans in NFL

Bijan C. Bayne | 10/21/2009, 6:21 a.m.
The cover image of author Andy Piascik’s new book,...
The cover image of author Andy Piascik’s new book, “Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football, in Their Own Words.” (Image courtesy of Taylor Trade Publishing)

“Gridiron Gauntlet” is a worthy addition to the scholarship on race in American sport. Because every word comes from the participants, the work, while serious, has the informality of a living room conversation with an accomplished and gregarious family member. Massachusetts readers should note the inclusion of mid-1950’s Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals halfback Bobby Watkins, who hails from New Bedford. He was recruited by the University of Massachusetts, Brandeis University and the University of Connecticut, but those schools didn’t have the kind of major college football program he felt he belonged in — ultimately, he chose to attend Ohio State.

Though race remains an issue in the coverage and fanfare surrounding pro football, “Gridiron Gauntlet” sheds light and perspective on a time when Sunday’s heroes were high-topped and crew-cut products of a largely Jim Crow society. Not long after Robinson made the grade in Major League Baseball, ballplayers who’d previously had little or no experience with interracial socialization began competing for the same positions and smashing each other in practices and games. Because these black and white warriors learned to get along in those all-important days, generations of fans have been the beneficiaries of the intelligence, power and speed of a more level playing field.