Dad-Daughter Story of the ‘Underground Railroad’ of College Football

Red Cedar at Michigan State University

by Ronald Saunders
President of the Dr. Edna B. McKenzie Pittsburgh Branch of ASALH
December 2020

A Moment in History:
Through the Banks of the Red Cedar

My friend, Goochie Stevens’ daughter, Kelli Stevens Kane, is a close friend of the producer of this excellent documentary, Through the Banks of the Red Cedar, by Maya Washington. Goochie,  Eugene Stevens, is the older brother of Tim Stevens, Chairman & CEO of The Black Political Empowerment Project, B-PEP. As I recall, the 1966 Michigan State University team was not only diverse but also had four Black number one draft choices in the 1967 NFL draft which is still quite impressive.  All four of these number one draft choices, Gene Washington, Bubba Smith, George Webster and Clint Jones are members of the prestigious College Football Hall of Fame.

Two of the greatest college teams in history

They also had a Black starting QB whose name was Jimmy Raye. Michigan State finished the 1966 season with a 9-0-1 record. They tied the Fighting Irish in the last game of the season 10-10.  The 1965 and 1966 Michigan State teams were two of the greatest college teams in history. That 1966 game between Michigan State and Notre Dame featured Butler, PA High School’s Terry Hanratty at QB and Rocky Bleier at halfback for the Irish. Both Hanratty and Bleier would play on Super Bowl teams with the Steelers. All World linebacker, George Webster also played with the Steelers in 1972 and 1973 but his serious health problem limited his performance on the field of play.

Webster was a beast at Michigan State and with the Houston Oilers. Webster made the AFL All Time Team and Michigan State retired his famous number 90. Brother Webster died on April 19, 2007. Webster would finish his career with the Patriots in 1974-76.Many believe that George Webster was the greatest Spartan Football Player in the history of Michigan State. 

deep historical connection from western Pennsylvania to Michigan State

I will be curious to watch how Webster is portrayed in this documentary. Out of the four brothers mentioned above, Clint Jones was the only one who hailed from the North, that being Cleveland, Ohio. Michigan State retired Clint Jones’ number 26 and Bubba Smith’s number 95 is also retired. There is also a deep historical connection from western Pennsylvania to Michigan State in Willie Thrower being one of the NFL’s first Black QB’s in the modern day era.  Willie Thrower played QB for Michigan State in the early 1950’s and helped the Spartans go undefeated in 1952.  Willie played in two games for the Chicago Bears in 1953 and was cut by the Bears before the start of the 1954 season.

Willie Thrower is from a small town located down the Allegheny river, with the name of New Kensington, PA which is in the backyard of Pittsburgh, PA. There is a statue of the great Willie Thrower shown in his Michigan State uniform at the entrance of Highland High School Stadium in New Kensington, PA.Pittsburgh’s (Carnegie, PA,) Ronnie Hatcher also had a great football career at Michigan State. Ronnie Hatcher was simply a beast on the gridiron.The Kennedy administration had to intervene to get Ronnie Hatcher on the infamous Washington Redskins who were the last team to integrate their squad with Negroes. The owner of the Redskins, the bombastic racist George Preston Marshall, cut Ronnie Hatcher from the team but it wasn’t because of his lack of talent.

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