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The Black Red Grange: Black College Football’s Forgotten Legend

Jazz Byrd breaks off a long run against Howard in 1922. (Lincoln University)

The sports world of the 1920s was dominated by college football. The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange were among some of the mythical legends that dominated headlines then, and still live on nearly 100 years after they departed their alma maters.

Meanwhile, players like Lincoln University’s Alfred “Jazz” Byrd have been forgotten by time, even at their alma maters.

The Black National Past Time

Unlike today, where HBCUs are an after-thought athletically, black college sports were once-big ticket items. Ray Schmidt writes:

“During the 1920s black college football had served as a bonding influence for black society; one that provided a sense of belonging for black students and alumni who all too frequently were reminded of the racial inequalities that marked much of the mainstream culture. The black students and black community reveled in the parallel football world which their schools created— one which provided all the excitement, glamour, social, and prestige possibilities that were to be found in the mainstream brand of intercollegiate football.

This was the setting that Franz Alfred Byrd found himself walking into when he entered Lincoln University in the fall of 1921. Not much is known about how he landed there, as there was no 24-hour news media back then, and even if their had been, they would not have tracked “colored” student-athletes.

At the time, Lincoln was considered one of the elite schools for African-Americans, both academically and athletically. In those days, Lincoln, Howard and Hampton were seen as the black equivalent to The Big Three of Harvard, Yale and Princeton. In fact, no game was bigger at the time than Lincoln and Howard’s Thanksgiving Day matchup, often referred to as “The Classic.”

(Washington Afro cartoon)

It was in this setting that the legend of Jazz Byrd was born. This Pittsburgh Courier account waxes poetically about Byrd’s abilities as an open-field runner. 

“The story of the 1922 and the 1923 games is an account of the individual achievements of a boy from the hills of Pennsylvania, “Jazz'” Byrd. who by rising to superhuman heights snatched victory for his team from certain defeat by virtue of long runs at critical moments in the former, his 65-yard dash gave his teammates a lead which they held throughout the struggle. Lincoln won. 13 to 12. Again, in 1923, after the “Bisons” had thrown consternation into the ranks of the “Lions”by a march down the field to a touchdown, this human antelope received a kickoff and galloped 90 yards, to Howard’s five-yard line before being chased out of bounds.”

Byrd’s exploits came to a head in Washington D.C. at Griffin Field against Howard on Nov. 27, 1924. The game was to be Byrd’s last in a Lincoln uniform, and after two years of awe-stopping performances, fans were eager to see if he could do it again. The Pittsburgh Courier’s Bill Nunn wrote eloquently of the pomp-and-circumstance surrounding the game.”

 “air of enthusiasm and excitement pervading the very heart of things…the flash and flare of college enthusiasm is manifest in all quarters of the historic old city…. All is expectancy; all savors of the feverish pleasure of witnessing a fair struggle on the football grid…. The hotels are filled.”

When the dust settled, Lincoln came away with a 7-0 win over Howard, its third-straight in the biggest black college football game of the year. Afterward, Lincoln coach U.S. Young gave his star player the highest praise.

“Byrd came, Byrd saw, and Byrd conquered. He is the ideal open field runner. Until I see “Red” Grange, of Illinois in action, I shall rate Byrd as the best open field runner in the country, black or white,” Young wrote.

The two-time All-American went on to coach and serve as athletic director at FAMU before returning to New York and becoming one of the first Black IRS auditors. He pushed for Lincoln to return to football after it disbanded the program, which it eventually did, but not until after his death in 1994.

An Unrecognized Legacy

Despite universal high praise from all that watched him in person, time has not been kind to the legacy of Jazz Byrd. You won’t find him in the College Football Hall of Fame, the Black College Football Hall of Fame, the CIAA Hall of Fame, or even the Lincoln Hall of Fame.

Whose fault is that? No one in particular. There isn’t any video of Byrd playing. There aren’t many more pictures. And stats from that era are very shaky. (Depending on who you believe, Byrd either ran for a 65 yard score or caught an 80 yard pass in 1922).

 More than that though, Byrd and his contemporaries played in an era marked by discrimination most people alive today could not even comprehend. We all know that as late as the 60s and 70s, black players weren’t accepted at most colleges in The South, but in the 20s and 30s, even the NFL didn’t want black players.

Imagine how different pro football history would be if players like Walter Payton and Jerry Rice weren’t even allowed to play in the league? By all accounts, that’s the kind of talent we’re talking about with Jazz Byrd.

More than 20 years after his death, its time he got his due. Byrd should be inducted into the aforementioned halls of fame as soon as possible.

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