It was 1969 in Laramie, Wyoming. The Wyoming Cowboys football team was undefeated, 4-0, and everything seemed well. Things quickly changed when coach Lloyd Eaton suddenly fired 14 African-American players from the team’s roster after noticing the armbands they were wearing in protest of the way other schools were treating them on the field.
Racially charged statements followed Eaton’s removal of the players — later named “the Black 14” — and the lives of these players changed forever. Former NFL player Tony McGee (Bears, Patriots, Redskins) was just one of the players who endured the incident that sparked national attention.
“The environment was the usual where we were all playing together and we hadn’t really discussed the Brigham Young situation because that game had not come up yet,” said McGee. “We were 4-0. We were kinda ranked pretty high in the country at that time, so the environment was very good and we hadn’t mentioned it to our players because we didn’t want to bring something into the team.”
“This was something that we felt, as African Americans, was something that was transpiring every time we played Brigham Young. So, our [other teammates] were not really involved with it.”
The Black 14 were tired of cheap shots and name calling on the field with no notice from officials. They wanted this acknowledged. The players had decided to have a conversation with Eaton concerning the armbands, but that conversation never happened.
“He had used that reaction in other situations towards us and teammates, but [we didn’t expect] for it to become as bad as it did,” said McGee. “Because when he started telling individuals that, ‘I took you off the street,’ ‘I picked you up off the street, like picking up cigarette butts,’ this was very strong, given that this was supposed to be our coach.”
Eaton “ruled with an iron hand.” He wanted things done his way and was “bent on sending us [the 14] a message.” The coach would blow off the meetings that followed the event and would never go back on what had happened. Though their coach faced them with animosity, the 14 found outside support.
“[The support] felt very good,” said McGee. “We expected some of it; most of the individuals that were involved with that were mostly black, and these were feelings that they were having also. But at least it was brought out, and more schools around the country were saying: ‘Oh, we were treated that way as well.’ So, we did get that support.”
San Jose State, a team that was on Wyoming’s schedule not too long after Eaton fired the 14, had decided to wear armbands for a reason of their own. In a movement of support, San Jose wore armbands identical to the 14’s in the teams’ matchup to protest Eaton’s behavior.
“I have met other players who said they were the ones who stood up for us [in the protest],” said McGee. “It did make us feel good, and it also brought more light to the situation.”
Even though the 14 were “blackballed” and “knew that most of the individuals in Wyoming were against [them], the school was against [them], and the coach was [also against them]”, the 14 were proud of their decision to stand up in their protest and their achievements.
“Not just my, but the 14 of us, this was was positive achievement. We need to look back on it and on history, and there is always an individual who takes a sacrifice to make things better for others. And I look at that, that’s the main achievement from this whole Wyoming thing,” said McGee. “It helped change that negative situation, of being harassed and cheap shot, being called names [even though] no one around you ever talked to you about it. That is over now, and we achieved that.”
The 14 don’t regret their actions, and McGee still stands firmly behind the belief that equality and unity are big factors “not only in the game but in the game of life.”
“Equality and unity are very important for success,” said McGee. “You saw that with the Super Bowl. A team was way down, and they came back, and they played hard. Whereas another team thought they had it in the bag, so the unity wasn’t there. I say equality plays strongly in every facet of life, because you aren’t asking for something you shouldn’t have. This should be a given, especially in a country like the United States. We are built on equality.”
McGee also offers advice for any athlete, or person, who wants to protest for one of their own beliefs: “Make sure that your message is clear and understood. When it started to be that he [Colin Kaepernick] was standing up against the Veterans or against the American flag, that’s when you need what you’re doing to be clearly stated.”
McGee believes that, had the school resolved or handled the situation properly, that he and the 14 would have played that weekend against Brigham Young, but that “[you] never know how life will go.” And now “the full story is getting out, and people can see it for what it was worth. What the Wyoming Black 14 did.”
“We did have a change [in our lives], but this is something that is a part of life and a part of history,” said McGee. “And I’m glad we did it. We could have done it in different ways. But it had to be done.”
See Tony McGee and the Black 14’s full story in CBS Sports Network’s documentary, The Black 14: Wyoming Football 1969 on Saturday, February 11 at 10:30 p.m. ET.