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"Breaking The Line" Brings Black College Football History To Life

It’s hard to imagine major college football programs like LSU and Florida without any Black players today, but that was once a reality. As late as the 1960s, such institutions were closed to Black athletes. Those who wished to pursue an education or dream of playing in the NFL had to pursue those aspirations at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

A new book by Samuel Freedman explores the end of that era in his new book, Breaking The Line: The Season In Black College Football That Transformed The Sport And The Course Of Civil Rights. The book focuses specifically on two the 1967 season for two teams: Grambling State and Florida A&M. Led by legendary coaches Eddie Robinson and Jake Gaither, these two teams forged powerhouse squads as a result of their segregated status, ultimately meeting in the Orange Blossom Bowl for the mythical Black College Football National Championship.

In addition to documenting that single season, Behind The Lines also shows how Gaither tediously plotted to play an integrated game in Florida. Through politicking with several administrations of Florida governors, he eventually got his wish and played an integrated Tampa team in 1969.

The book will be released Tuesday, August 13. Check out the trailer below. 

The book also focuses on the star quarterbacks for both teams, Grambling’s James Harris and FAMU’s Ken Riley. Harris’ story is particularly riveting, we find that Harris and Robinson planned for Harris to become the first Black quarterback to star in the NFL. In fact, Harris chose Grambling over White colleges outside the South because he wanted to be an NFL quarterback. Unlike many who came before him, Harris refused to switch positions at the pros. It cost him in the NFL draft, he was selected in the eighth round by the Buffalo Bills, but it eventually happened for Harris, who led the Rams to the NFC Championship game in the 1970s and made the Pro Bowl.

Riley, meanwhile, switched positions after being drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the late ’60s. All he did was go on to have a spectacular career that included four All-Pro Selections and finished with a total of 65 interceptions, still good for fifth all-time 30 years after he retired. Despite that, though, he has yet to be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Breaking The Line is the kind of work black college football fans have been waiting for. It mixes in-depth on-field analysis of those games and a behind-the-scenes look at the coaches and players living in that shifting time in history. Freedman largely lets the story tell itself, rarely editorializing or interjecting opinions. As a result,  Breaking The Line  a must-read for not only black college football fans, but football fans in general, and those interested in the how sports and culture intersect in American history.

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