For the past 3 years, something I have wanted to do is to write a column on the first Black American Players that donned the Blue and Gold of Lion Football. As I was researching the players and coaches that I felt would be the ones prominently featured, I was reminded of a quote that the great actor Morgan Freeman said; “Black History should not have it’s own month. It should be taught year round because Black history IS American History.”
I let that quote sink in and realized how right he is. The history of Black and African American players and coaches in Texas A&M-Commerce and East Texas State history is not just “Black History”, it is Texas A&M-Commerce history. In some ways, ETSU were trailblazers, in other ways, we were late to the show. But this is something I hope gives honor to the players who set the course and laid the foundation for all future Lions of all races and backgrounds. Like Dr. Martin Luther King said about the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964,; “This is not for just one people of one skin color, but for all people of all skin colors.” How right he was. Here are some of the most notable Black American Athletes to don the blue and gold.
Curtis Guyton may not be the most well known tailback in ET Lion football history, but he is certainly one of the most important. Playing in Commerce for two seasons from 1965-1966. He was the first true offensive star and playmaker for Coach Ernest Hawkins, and one of, if not the first, Black Players that Hawkins recruited. His performance in 1966 earned him NAIA All-American honors, the first Black Player in school history to ever gain All-American honors. He was also a key part of the Lions 1966 conference championship run. According to press clippings from the period, Guyton “did everything but drive the bus” for the Lions. He was voted team MVP in both of his seasons and was named an Honorable Mention All-American by the NAIA in both 1965 and 1966, and was first team All-Lone Star Conference in 1967.
As a running back, Guyton rushed 210 times for 1,089 yards and 11 touchdowns in his two seasons. As a defensive back, he had an interception. He also was a special teams ace, recording, coincidentally, 1,089 yards as both a punt and kick returner. He had one punt return touchdown. Guyton was also the team punter and field goal kicker. He punted 78 times, averaging 37.3 yards per punt. He also made seven field goals. In all, he had 2,365 all-purpose yards in his career. Guyton was a first in a lot of ways, and a very important part of ET Lion history.
Perhaps no other Man has the lore that Arthur James does. The only Lion to have his jersey retired, King Arthur played from 1966-1969 and is the program’s all-time leader in rushing yards (4,285), rushing attempts (884), yards per game (112.8) and all-purpose yards (6,317). He also holds the school’s season record for all-purpose yards (2,028 in 1969) and holds the record for most rushing yards in a single game (323 vs. Abilene Christian, 9/21/1968). During his career, James was a five-time All-America selection, including a two-time NAIA First Team All-America selection. He was named the 1968 Lone Star Conference Outstanding Back of the Year and was a three-time First Team All-LSC selection. James led the LSC in rushing yards in 1967, 1968 and 1969. He rushed for more than 200 yards in five different games. He finished his collegiate career as the all-time leading rusher in LSC history. When he first arrived at ETSU, the 5-foot-9-inch 170 pound back was feared to be too small to withstand the punishment. However, James proved everyone wrong and became one of the most beloved players in ETSU sports history. In fact, when he was announced as an All-American at an ETSU basketball game halftime ceremony, he received a five-minute standing ovation. He was elected into the Lion Athletic Hall of Fame in 1979 and was named to the 75th Anniversary All-LSC team. He was inducted into the Lone Star Conference Hall of Honor in 2008.
Perhaps the most well known Lion sans the late and great Wade Wilson, Harvey Martin was one of the best defenders in the history of Lion Football. A two time Conference Champion and National Champion, he took his talents just down the road to Dallas where he became a Super Bowl MVP and two time Champion. He was named First Team All-Conference as both a junior and a senior. He was selected to the LSC’s 75th Anniversary Football Team and was named the LSC Defensive Player of the Decade for the 1970’s. Martin went on to be drafted in the third round of the 1973 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He was a four-time All-Pro selection and a four-time Pro Bowl selection. In 1977, Martin was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was a major contributor in the Cowboys’ Super Bowl XII win, being named co-Super Bowl MVP. He was named to the NFL’s 1970’s All-Decade Team.
Martin was college roommates with fellow Lion Hall of Fame player Dwight White. Martin credited White with helping him learn the game of football. White also went on to be drafted in the NFL, by the Pittsburg Steelers. White and Martin, both defensive players, faced each other in Super Bowl X.
Martin was inducted into A&M-Commerce’s Hall of Fame in 1987 and was inducted into the LSC Hall of Honor in 2010.
I first heard James Thrower speak when he delivered the commencement address to the class of 2017 in Commerce. I had not really known a lot about him. Then I found out what a great athlete he was. He was a three-sport athlete at East Texas State, where he participated on the Lions’ football, basketball and track and field teams, and majored in English and physical education. He came to Commerce on a basketball scholarship but found most of his success on the football field. As a three-year starter on the football team, he intercepted 12 passes for 135 yards. He also earned a varsity letter in basketball and two in track and field as a high jumper and member of the 440-yard relay team.
Following his playing days and graduation in 1970, Thrower went on to a six-year career in the NFL. He spent three seasons as a defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles and an additional three seasons with the Detroit Lions.
Thrower and his wife Marla are proud to have provided the leadership gift to the Thrower Student-Athlete Success Center, which is the premier academic and success support center for student-athletes in all of Division II. He was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus at A&M-Commerce in 2012, and was inducted into the Lion Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010. He was inducted into the Lone Star Conference Hall of Honor in 2017. He is now a very successful businessman who has franchised multiple businesses and the academic student athlete center is named in his honor.
Dwight White was one of those players that comes along only once in a generation. He was a tremendous player on both the college and professional level. During his time in Commerce, he helped the Lions to a share of the Lone Star Conference title in 1969. He was a two-time All-LSC selection at defensive tackle and as a senior was twice named an Honorable Mention All-American. Following his career with the Lions, White was drafted in the fourth round of the 1971 NFL Draft by the Pittsburg Steelers and played for 10 seasons as part of the famous “Steel Curtain” defense. White was a two-time Pro Bowl selection and was named Second Team All-Pro in 1975. He was a member of four Super Bowl Championship teams (Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV). White recorded the first points in Pittsburg Steeler Super Bowl history, sacking Minnesota Viking quarterback Frank Tarkenton in the end zone for a safety in Super Bowl IX. He finished his career with 46 career sacks and was named to the Steelers All-Time Team in both 1982 and 2007. White was college roommates with fellow Lion Hall of Fame player Harvey Martin. Martin credited White with helping him learn the game of football. Martin also went on to be drafted in the NFL by the Dallas Cowboys. White and Martin, both defensive players, faced each other in Super Bowl X. White was inducted into the Lion Hall of Fame in 1984 and into the LSC Hall of Honor in 2011.
Autry Beamon holds the distinction of being not only the youngest player in the country when he was playing (only 16), he also is the only Lion to be named to the Lone Star Conference First Team all Four years. A member and important part of the Blue Gang defense of the 1972 National Championship team, Beamon’s success did not stop in Commerce. He went on to a seven-year NFL career, being drafted in the 12th round of the 1975 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings. He went on to play in 100 games over his career with the Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Cleveland Browns. He totaled 13 career interceptions, including a career-best six interceptions for the Seahawks in 1977. Beamon was inducted into the Lone Star Conference Hall of Honor in 2012.
John Carlos is perhaps the original sports civil rights icon. Though he did not play football, he has to be mentioned because of what he has done with human and civil rights for the better part of half a century. He spent one season at East Texas State but made an immediate impact. He set five school records during the 1967 season and was the Lone Star Conference champion in four different events, helping lead the Lions to the LSC Championship. His school records in the 100-meters (10.2) and 200-meters (20.4) still hold after more than 50 years. After leaving ETSU, Carlos gained worldwide fame by winning the bronze medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Carlos joined fellow American and gold medal winner Tommie Smith in a silent protest on the medal stand during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, raising his fist in what was called by Smith a “human rights salute”, protesting racial inequality. The photograph of the protest is one of the most iconic images in the history of sports. Carlos went on to tie the world record in the 100-yard dash in 1969 before turning to football. He briefly played in the Canadian Football League before an injury ended his career. He was part of the United States Olympic Committee during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2003. He continues to be an active voice for human rights across the world.
I knew of Derek McKenzie watching East Texas high school football growing up. He was a standout at Gilmer High School, leading them to unprecedented success at the Quarterback position. He does hold one important part in Lion Football history, he was the first ever Black player to start a game at quarterback for the Lions. Hard to believe it took our program that long, but “D-Mac” as he was called, stepped in and performed well despite his circumstances. I met him on campus and played Basketball at the recreation center with him, and he was such a humble guy. I let him know that, but he just shrugged it off and smiled and said “I just want us to win.” He ended up playing other positions, but being the first ever Black signal caller shows that while we were late to the show, we did get there as he paved the way for other signal callers, like the final guys we will go over.
While Derek McKenzie became the first QB to start, Terry Mayo became the first Black QB to win the starting job outright and was the first Black All-LSC QB in school history. His two seasons in Commerce helped boost an offense that had been stagnant and also added a huge playmaking ability to the position. In 2007, he led the Lions to a Lone Star Conference North Division Championship. He played in the Arena Leagues and then played Semi-Pro ball later on.
A guy from just down the road in Sulphur Springs, Tyrik Rollison came to Commerce after a bumpy college football journey, but became the first Lion African-American QB in school history to break passing records, and win a Lone Star Conference Title outright, and also win a Bowl MVP, as he did in 2014 during the CHAMPS Heart of Texas Bowl. Rollison is one of the best Lion QB’s of all time, and he has set precedent for future dual threat QB’s for years to come.
Finally, I want to say this. The reason I decided to list the names of these great Lions is because of what they did, but let us not forget this, all of them had to overcome the fact they had a different skin color in some form or fashion. Curtis Guyton was loved in Commerce, but on road trips was treated harshly. Arthur James was invited to an All-American Banquet, but was forced to sit outside in a segregated area. He refused and left the banquet, and it very well could have cost him a pro career. John Carlos brought up that while young Black Men were dying the Jungles of Vietnam, they were fighting to give the Vietnamese rights that they did not even back home in America and was hated for it. Harvey Martin was intentionally overlooked by just about every college scout because most money programs did not want Black players. James Thrower was told he would not be served in an Arkansas diner with his white teammates. Autry Beamon and Dwight White faced the same taunts from racist fans whenever they played a road game in certain towns. They shut them up by winning.
And yet, to quote the great British Statesmen Winston Churchill, “So much we have done, so much we have yet to do.”
The 3 final mentions are all recent Black quarterbacks. For years, the prevailing thought was that “Black QB’s cannot pass or operate a passing offense. They can run and that is it.” Some of that is based in old fashioned bigotry, some of it based in sheer ignorance, and some of it in both. I hate to say, but I have heard things said about these men as recently as when they played. While we have come very far as a society, we still have work to do.
Things however have changed in this great country of ours. Very few of the things that your Black Student Athlete in the 1960’s and 1970’s had to face are common today, and that is a good thing. It shows that a nation can change it’s soul and the way it looks at people based on things like skin color. As a Christian, I believe that God created all of us unique for his glory. The world would be boring if we all had the same skin color, culture, background, and life experiences. These Men, especially the ones who played in the early days, left their homes, their families, to don the blue and gold, to make history, to show the college football world they belonged, and they did so in the faces of threats, taunts, and their very safety being threatened.
This month, we celebrate their strength, their courage, their accomplishments, and their mark on history, but most importantly, we celebrate their humanity and the additions they made to our alma mater dear.