Forgotten Heroes: The Legacy of Hawks Football

One of my guilty pleasures is watching the TV One documentary cable series Unsung and Unsung Hollywood. If you have never watched either series, they tell the stories of African-American singers and actors who experienced substantial success for a short period of time before their shining star abruptly faded away. If I could create a new series called Unsung Sports my pilot episode would focus on the Maryland State College football program, arguably the best sports program in American history. Don’t believe me, check the stats! The program saw 142 wins and just 38 losses between 1946 and 1970, seven undefeated seasons, multiple conference championships, four legendary coaches, 30 eventual professional players, five Super Bowl participants, collegiate and professional Hall of Famers, a rock star, a civil rights activist, and an aide to Bobby Kennedy. Maryland State College, now known as The University of Maryland Eastern Shore, has one of the greatest football programs most people have never heard of. The story of this tiny HBCU (historically black college and university) is a fascinating tale of race and collegiate sports.

Football and Race on Maryland’s Eastern Shore
Two hours from the nation’s capital sits Princess Anne, a tiny rural city on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. On September 13, 1886, the Delaware Conference Academy was opened. Within a year the coed student population rose from nine to 37 students. The school changed its name to The Industrial Branch of Morgan State College and then to Princess Anne Academy. In accordance with the Second Morrill Act, the state was required to open a Land-Grant college to accommodate the black students who were prohibited from attending the Maryland Agricultural College (which we know today as the University of Maryland, College Park). The school was renamed the Eastern Shore Branch of the Maryland Agricultural College; however, it was commonly referred to as Princess Anne College.

Football was introduced to Princess Anne College by the school’s new principal, Thomas H. Kiah. In 1922 Kiah hired World War I veteran Gideon Edward Smith to serve as the school’s first athletic coach. The Princess Anne Academy Trojans played their inaugural game a year later against Cambridge High School. Early games played between 1925 and 1930 pitted the Trojans against nearby black schools like Bowie Normal School (Bowie State University) and State College for Colored Students (Delaware State University). In 1931 the Trojans became founding members of the new Mid-Atlantic Athletic Association (M3A) and hired head coach Frank A. Arnold. Coach Arnold, however, lacked the winning prowess of his successors. Princess Anne College cancelled football for the first time during World War II to allow students to serve in the armed forces. In 1947 the school hired John T. Williams to serve as its new president. Williams, a 6’4” former All-American football player at Kentucky State University, oversaw the school’s growth academically and athletically for the next two decades. In 1948 the school was renamed Maryland State College. That same year Vernon “Skip” McCain was hired to coach the newly named football team: the Hawks.

Hawk Pride – Catch It!
Jim Crow was just as responsible for the rise of dominant black college football programs as integration was for their demise. Charles Martin’s 2010 book Benching Jim Crow documents the history of southern college football and basketball. Martin says “Football came to inspire such fanatical passion across Dixie that it constituted what Andrei S. Markovits termed a ‘hegemonic team sport,’ one that unites masses of citizens from a region or nation in a collective emotional embrace of triumph or defeat.” In the same decade of the Plessy decision northern and southern colleges and universities began competing in intersectional games. Southern schools viewed these games as an opportunity to avenge Dixie’s loss in the Civil War. These games were the first times the Confederate Flag was flown proudly in public since Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. By the 1920s most schools accepted a “gentleman’s agreement”, which was the understanding that integrated northern teams would leave their black players at home whenever they played segregated schools in the South.

Since blacks were prohibited from attending or playing for white schools, the best talent went to schools like Maryland State. Many of the Hawks’ players hailed from Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Indiana. Maryland State College joined the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) in 1954. The following year McCain led the Hawks to an undefeated season and its first CIAA championship. During that magical season the Hawks outscored the competition by a total of 198-19 led by Coach Skip McCain. Standing just 5’5”, McCain was a devout Christian who refrained from using profanity on and off the field. He may sound like a mild mannered man, but he was arguably the best college football coach in state history. McCain’s inning percentage of 82.9% over a 17-year period was better than several notable contemporaries. He retired in 1962 with 103 wins, 16 losses and 4 ties. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006, which is a considerably long time since inductees must only have ten years of head coaching experience, coached 100 games, and at least a .600 winning percentage.

McCain sent multiple players to the National Football League (NFL) and nurtured several players that went on to the pros. His most famous player was running back Emerson “Booz” Boozer (1962-1966), who I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Boozer for this article. Coach McCain began recruiting the Georgia native during his senior year of high school. “Pack an overnight bag and send him to me,” McCain told his parents. Of all of his experiences at Maryland State College what stands out the most to the 73-year-old Boozer was being tutored by President John T. Williams and the English Department Chair – three days a week – in two hour sessions. Both administrators took a “hands-on” approach in making sure he was successful off the field. Boozer graduated and was drafted by the New York Jets in 1966. He went on to win All-Pro honors, an American Football League (AFL) championship, and a Super Bowl. After a devastating knee injury forced him to switch positions from running back to blocker, Boozer was Joe Namath’s primary blocker in Super Bowl III, the most significant professional football game ever played. The New York Jets (champions of the AFL) defeated the Baltimore Colts (champions of the National Football League) 16-7 on January 12, 1969. The Jets’ victory was responsible for the merger of the two leagues into what we know today as the NFL. Boozer was one of five Maryland State alumni to play in that game, which still stands as a super bowl record. The other former Hawks included Johnny Sample (Jets), Earl Christy (Jets), Charlie Stukes (Colts), and James Duncan (Colts).

Coach Skip McCain’s success was aided by an amazing staff which included assistant coaches Earl C. Banks and Roosevelt “Sandy” Gilliam. Coach Banks worked at Maryland State College from 1950 until 1960. After spending ten years with the Hawks Earl Banks led Morgan State University in Baltimore to four straight CIAA championships, three undefeated seasons, and a 31-game winning streak as the head coach. Coach Gilliam succeeded Skip McCain as the head coach and athletic director in 1962. He led the Hawks to 24 wins, 11 losses, and 2 ties. His tenure at Maryland State, ending in 1968, was followed by a stint on the coaching staff of the Denver Broncos. Gilliam’s biggest contribution to the football program was recruiting future NFL stars like William “Billy” Thompson, Arthur Lee “Art” Shell, and Gerald Irons. Both Thompson and Shell hailed from Gilliam’s home state of South Carolina. Thompson came to Maryland State from Sterling High School in Greenville, SC in 1965. The Hawks were 20-9 with Thompson playing defensive back. He graduated in 1968 and was selected by the Denver Broncos in the third round of the 1969 draft. Thompson had perpetual success as a 13-year safety for the Broncos. He was selected to play in the prestigious Pro Bowl in 1977, 1978, and 1981. The Broncos inducted Thompson into their Ring of Honor in 1987.

After a standout performance at the collegiate level (1964-1968) Art Shell played offensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders from 1968-1982. The eight time Pro-Bowler helped the Raiders win Super Bowls XI and XV. Al Davis, the controversial owner of the Raiders, eventually moved the team to Los Angeles and hired Shell as his coach in 1989, making him the second black head coach in the history of professional football and the first hired since the NFL integrated in 1946. Shell coached the Raiders until 1994. During his tenure he was named the American Football Conference (AFC) Coach of the Year and led the Raiders to the AFC championship game. Shell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989 for his playing career.

In addition to Emerson Boozer and Billy Thompson, Art Shell’s years at Maryland State College overlapped with Clarence Clemons, Gerald Irons, and Curtis “Curt” Gentry. Clemons (1961-64) was a talented lineman who earned tryouts with the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns, but never played in the NFL due to a horrific car accident. UMES Golf head coach Marshall Cropper, a Hawk football alum who played wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Washington Redskins, remembers Clemons as an outstanding ball player who always had a love for music. “He was good enough to play pro ball, I know that. I think we all got pleasure out of seeing him be successful.” Clemons would go on to serve as the saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band from 1972 until his death in 2011. He recorded music with several stars including Aretha Franklin, Lady Gaga, and Ringo Starr. In 2014 he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Clemons also had a minor acting career consisting of cameos on popular television shows Different Strokes, The Simpsons, and The Wire.

Gerald Irons graduated from Maryland State in 1970 with a degree in business administration. The 6’2” 225 pound Irons was a starting linebacker for the Oakland Raiders from 1970 until 1976. He played the next four years with the Cleveland Browns. Irons was named as an “Oakland Raiders Legend” and ranked among the 100 greatest players in the history of the Cleveland Browns. But his athletic accomplishments pale in comparison to what he did off the field. During his off seasons in Oakland he took classes at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business to earn a master of business administration degree and learned Japanese. During his time in Cleveland he attended the John Marshall Law School at night. President Jimmy Carter invited him to the White House to discuss ideas for job training and development for youth. Irons served as a liaison for United States senator John Glenn. Yes, the same astronaut, John Glenn, who orbited the Earth in 1962 and is featured prominently in the Oscar nominated film Hidden Figures (2016). Irons has served as the vice president of business development for 32 years with The Woodlands Development Company in Texas. In that role he has brought hundreds of commercial business, medical companies, and physicians to the Woodlands area. Irons is also a motivational speaker, a board member for the Texas Children’s Hospital, and the author of the 2014 book When Preparation Meets Opportunity.

One of the most fascinating former Hawks is Curt Gentry. I call him the Forrest Gump of Maryland State College history because his life story should be a movie. An all-state athlete in football, basketball, and baseball in Ohio, Gentry received a scholarship to play for the University of Miami in Ohio. But he dropped out of school in 1958 (after nearly three years) to run the streets back home. His fun on the street corners did not last long. In 1959 he signed a professional baseball contract with the Cincinnati Reds. Gentry attended the Reds’ training camp in Florida, but was cut from the roster. Next he signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers, earning a spot on their minor league team, the Decatur, Illinois Commodores. His baseball career overlapped with a two-week stint on the Harlem Globe Satellites semi-pro basketball team. This minor league basketball team was an affiliate of the famed Harlem Globetrotters. Gentry’s baseball and basketball career ended in 1960 after he was drafted into the army.

Now here is where Gentry’s story gets interesting. After serving 22 months in the army Gentry, now stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, began writing to HBCUs (North Carolina AT&T, North Carolina Central University, Tuskegee Institute, and Maryland State College) to inquire about receiving an athletic scholarship. Coach Skip McCain was the only coach to reply to his request. Soon McCain was on his way to enrolling as a 24-year-old freshman at Maryland State. Right now you might be asking how this could happen given that he had already gone to college, served in the army, and played professional ball. Well, Gentry admits to concealing all records of his professional contracts from the school. It is unclear to me how he was allowed to enroll as a freshman. Gentry says he wanted a clean slate and chose not to transfer any of his previous college credits. Gentry made the most of his second chance at a college education. “At Miami of Ohio segregation was supposed to be over, but I could not join any white fraternities. Black athletes did not date white girls. I knew that at Maryland State I could spend time with people who looked like me and have role models who looked like me.” Other noticeable differences between Miami of Ohio and Maryland State was the lack of basic amenities such as a locker room, teams showers, a weight room, clean laundry on a weekly basis, and a nice playing field. Gentry says the lack of these amenities did not have any impact on the team’s game time performances.

In addition to excelling on the football field Gentry was an active participant in the Student Government Association (SGA) and the Civil Rights Movement. John A. Wilson, an active member in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), served in the SGA with Gentry. Wilson inspired Gentry to get involved with the protests to fight local Jim Crow laws. In spite of the football team’s success segregation reigned. Whites did not attend their games nor dare step foot on campus. The Hawks had to travel to play white schools. Segregation kept most blacks in Princess Anne from earning little more than a high school diploma. Gentry and Wilson led fellow students in local marches. They stood up to police dogs and firehoses just like the college students further South. “I believed in the cause so much that I stationed my body under the wheels of a Greyhound bus. Believe it or not, the state patrolman told the bus driver to run over me,” says Gentry. In 1964 Gentry, along with John Wilson and another student named Warren Morgan, traveled to the state capital building in Annapolis to meet with Governor John Millard Tawes. Gentry believes that this meeting led to the governor’s efforts to make the state legislature enforce the accommodation laws that allowed blacks to eat, sleep, and work anywhere without facing discrimination.

Gentry was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1969 to play defensive end. He told the Bears he was only 24-years-old because he feared that the team would not take a chance on a 28-year-old black player. During his stint in Chicago Gentry played for Hall of Fame coach George “Papa Bear” Halas, Sr., and alongside legendary running back Gayle Sayers. Unfortunately, his professional career was less than stellar. After what Gentry believes was a racially motivated argument with a defensive coach during his third year with the Bears he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Gentry snapped a hamstring and was sent packing to the Philadelphia Eagles and then later to the Minnesota Vikings. Injuries cut his time in the NFL short, but he found success coaching at The College of Holy Cross, North Carolina A&T State University, Johnson C. Smith University, Lincoln University, and Northwestern University.

Maryland State College won games because of both superstar players and supporting role players like Addison Wallace and Howard Brown. Addison Wallace, the younger brother of former Hampton, Virginia, Mayor George Wallace, was the Hawks starting quarterback in the 1963-64 season. Wallace was also involved in student government and civil rights demonstrations. Unfortunately, he had to quit the team after contracting cancer. He took time off from school, but returned to complete his degree. From there he attended Howard University Law School. After law school he worked briefly for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, before succumbing to cancer.

Howard Brown played with Wallace at Maryland State in 1963-64. Howard attended school from 1963-67; however, he dropped out his senior year to marry his pregnant girlfriend. He drove for Greyhound for a number of years and eventually drove the bus for Oakland Raiders head coach John Madden.

The Hawks’ biggest rival was the Morgan State College Bears. “You couldn’t find a student on Morgan’s campus when we came to town because they were at the stadium,” says Gentry. Maryland State had competitive games with HBCUs North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and North Carolina Central University, but those games paled in comparison to their matchups with Morgan. Gentry says prominent HBCUs Howard University and Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) never scheduled games with the Hawks out of fear of being embarrassed. Local predominantly white institutions (PWIs) Salisbury State College (now Salisbury University) and the University of Maryland, College Park also avoided playing the Hawks.

Legacy, Legacy, Legacy, Black Excellence
On January 8, 1980, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (formerly Maryland State College) permanently suspended its varsity football program. Why did UMES cancel football? The dominant theory is that the university cancelled the program to cut rising costs due to inflation and in order to meet the requirements of Title IX, , a portion of the 1972 Education Amendments calling for equality in women’s scholastic sports. Others point to the loss of coaches McCain, Banks, and Gillian and the passing of President Williams. Dr. David Alston, an Associate Professor of Sociology at UMES and former football player at Livingstone College (NC), says the school lost football because it was unable to afford the cost of leaving the CIAA to join the newly formed Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). Unlike in the past when the school’s games were against opponents no further away than South Carolina, the MEAC had schools as far as Florida. The cost for travel and hotel accommodations became too much of a burden for the tiny university. Dr. Bryant Mitchell, an Associate Professor of Management at UMES and proud former football player (1975-1977), believes that a conspiracy was at play. He believes that Maryland State football had to die in order for the newly integrated University of Maryland, College Park (UMD), two hours away, to become the state’s most attractive destination for the top football talent. Mitchell’s conspiracy theory lies in the 1979 hiring of Jim Kehoe as the new UMES athletic director (Mitchell, 2017). At the time Kehoe, a 61-year-old white man, was leaving a high profiled job at UMD where he had served as the athletic director of UMD for nine years. A year later football was permanently dismantled.

Dr. Mitchell has been at the forefront of an alumni driven movement to bring back varsity football. He has led fundraising drives, produced a documentary, and raised $40,000 with football alumni support to start a club football team. Mitchell used his own money to pay for the club’s uniforms and meals. Archie Manning, father of Super Bowl winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, wrote a letter on behalf of the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame (NFF) in support of Mitchell’s efforts to bring back varsity football. Unfortunately, in 2013 a university task force concluded that the cost of having varsity football on campus was too high. “We are not in the business of raising money for football right now,” said Bill Robinson, UMES director of public relations, during a 2013 interview with Denise Sawyer for WBOC 16 News. In speaking with UMES faculty and students there appears to be a lack of widespread support for the endeavor. In 2016 the premiere sports program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore was women’s bowling. The bowlers won NCAA national titles in 2008, 2011, and 2012. The majority of those student-athletes were white. UMES teams no longer compete in the CIAA; they belong in the MEAC. While football may be a thing of the past for current UMES students, it should never be forgotten. Maryland State College sent 27 players to the NFL, two to the Canadian Football League (CFL), and one to the United States Football League (USFL). It had three legendary coaches. The football program’s rise and fall is a glaring example of the impact of Jim Crow on college athletics in the 20th century. “Hawks football offered so many young black student-athletes the opportunity to continue their higher education and play the game they so loved,” says Emerson Boozer. “People were really afraid of us”, says Howard Brown. “They couldn’t believe that such a tiny college could have as much success as we did. We definitely should be ranked among the top programs in history.”

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.