When 14 Black football players at the University of Wyoming approached their coach to tell him they were interested in protesting a race-based Church policy half a century ago, he kicked them off the team the day before their game with BYU, jeopardizing their educations and football careers.
This week, the 11 living players and the Church are working together to repair that breech by helping others.
Latter-day Saint Charities is delivering 180 tons of food, truckloads of food, to eight states near the homes of members of the Black 14.
“Families, little kids will have food in their bellies for Thanksgiving. I get a little emotional,” said one of the players, John Griffin, who was a wide receiver on that 1969 Wyoming team.
The deliveries are being made in the name of Black 14 Philanthropy and the Church.
“This is all about healing and really the Savior’s grace,” said Elder Gifford Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy who played quarterback at BYU a few years later and then spent six seasons in the NFL with the Houston Oilers.
One of the Black 14, Mel Hamilton, had cultivated relationships with Church members and local leaders in Wyoming that led to close connection with Elder Nielsen, who helped arrange the donations with approval of the First Presidency.
“Mel Hamilton spent over 15-plus years engaging with the Church and also gaining respect from the elders,” Griffin said. “The fact that they respected us and we’ve gained that respect for them made them interested in grabbing that olive branch with us and doing something for the greater good for us and for the greater good of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s where we are today. That helps with the healing process overall because it brought everything full circle.”
The Black 14 got their name in October 1969, when college athletes at multiple universities were protesting BYU over the Church’s policy restricting Blacks from holding the priesthood and entering the temple. That policy was removed by revelation in 1978.
The players set up a meeting with their coach the day before the BYU game to ask if they could wear black armbands during the contest. Wyoming was ranked in the top 20, but the coach, summarily dismissed them from team, saying they were insubordinate. The decision became a major national story. The players lost their scholarships. Several had trouble finding another school to play for or found that employers wouldn’t hire them. Still, they were irrepressible. Two became Super Bowl champions and 10 graduated from college.
“We were not going to be defined by that moment in time. We were not going to let him ruin our lives,” Griffin said.
Now in their early 70s, the players want to give back. They formed Black 14 Philanthropy, and when Hamilton continued to build bridges to the Church, it led to the donations.
“Never did I hate the people of the Latter-day Saint religion,” said Hamilton, who was a starting offensive lineman at Wyoming. “It was a mission of mine to … speak out wherever I went to clarify we don’t hate people. We just wanted that one policy changed. And thank God, there was a revelation that changed it.”
In fact, Hamilton’s wife is a distant relative of Brigham Young, and their son Malik joined the Church.
Last year, the University of Wyoming formally apologized to the Black 14, ending 50 years of strife between the players and school. Hamilton invited Laramie Wyoming Stake President Cory Allen, Laramie Institute of Religion Director John Williams and Elder Michael Jones, an Area Seventy, to the dinner honoring the players. There, he asked them if the Church could support Black 14 Philanthropy.
A few weeks later, Elder Nielsen hosted Hamilton and his son and their wives in Salt Lake City, where they attended general conference and visited Welfare Square. Last spring, when Griffin, Hamilton and another member of the Black 14, Tony McGee, were talking about the food insecurity caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Hamilton decided to call Elder Nielsen, who consulted with Church leaders and Latter-day Saint Charities.
Then he reported back to Hamilton.
“How about we provide 40,000 pounds of food delivered to each of nine locations related to you guys?” Elder Nielsen said.
Griffin said Hamilton called him and said, “You’re not going to believe this.”
“This is the largest donation that we’ve seen at least since I’ve been there, which has been a couple years,” said Andy Olson, food program manager for Cathedral Home for Children in Laramie, Wyoming. “To be part of the union of the Black 14 and Latter-day Saints working together to give back to the community makes us feel overwhelmed. We’re really excited and honored to be part of this.”
In another sign of reconciliation, the Black 14 is adding the BYU logo to T-shirts they sell to raise money to educate and feed children. They hope to add Wyoming’s logo, too, if legal issues can be surmounted. The Church is providing $10,000 to help manufacture the shirts.
The 11 living players are in their early 70s. In addition to Griffin, Hamilton and McGee, who won a Super Bowl with Washington, they are Jay Berry, Tony Gibson, Lionel Grimes, Ron Hill, Willie Hysaw, Ivie Moore, Joe Williams and Ted Williams. Joe Williams was a running back for the 1972 Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys.
Elder Jones, the Area Seventy who has worked with Hamilton and is himself a former BYU player, is grateful the Black 14 persisted in their goodness.
“The Black 14 are people we want to partner with and learn from and grow with, especially in light of what we just received from President Nelson and President Oaks,” Elder Jones said. “There’s an opportunity to do good and to work together.”
“I grieve that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice,” he said in general conference. “Today, I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.”
President Dallin H. Oaks added that Latter-day Saints “must do better to help root out racism,” especially in the United States. He followed that message with another at BYU, where he asked students to heed President Nelson’s call.
Elder Nielsen said the partnership with the Black 14 is a story of forgiveness.
“We can forgive and move forward,” he said. “It’s up to each one of us to make that decision. In this particular case, Mel has made that decision and those members of the Black 14 that are with him have made that decision, which puts us in a position where we can really help them. That’s why we have what we have here today.”
“Especially now,” Hamilton said, “in this climate that we have, this polarizing climate of love and hate, I don’t want to be on that hateful side, and I don’t want people to think that the Black 14 is on that hateful side. We certainly are not.”
Griffin, a devout Catholic who greeted a shipment of food Tuesday to Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Denver, said the joint food deliveries will become legacies of the Black 14 and the Church.
“It’s gratifying to us to have the ability to give back at our ages,” Griffin said. “Thank God I’m still here to be able to experience this. It’s a wonderful day.”