On June 19, 1865, a proclamation of freedom finally reached Galveston, Texas and the Aston Villa — a year after U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the national Emancipation Proclamation edict. While Texas was late to the table of black freedom, it was early on the path of justice and desegregation. One hundred and two years later, the city of Denton and its Broncos and Dragons football teams, with a little help from a Waxahachie boy, seamlessly bridged the gap between two races and created a brotherhood that proved stronger than the hate which surrounded them.
“In ten years and some tough situations on the sideline, we never had a cross word. That’s unheard of,” said Jerry Hutchins, an offensive lineman for the 1961 Indians and the backfield coach for Denton High School from 1970 to 1977. “I don’t know how to explain it because you don’t see that every day. I learned from some of the best. You want to talk about role models? I had Coach (C.H.) Collins, Bill Carrico and Billy Ryan.”
His hand shook slightly as he grasped for a worn picture preserved in protective plastic cover, smiling slightly as if he, his friends and his boys were all back on Bronco Field and it was 1972 all over again.
He and coaches C.H. Collins, Billy Ryan, Bill Carrico, Bill Peteet, Sam James and Dwayne Bean weren’t just game changers at a time when the national perspective of whites viewed blacks as intellectually and genetically inferior. Hutchins said the coaches were 'leaders of men' who helped pave the way for Shawn Robinson, DeSoto High School’s current starting quarterback that earned an ESPN 300 No. 10 rating at Denton Guyer High School, and Jett Duffey, a former Mansfield Lake Ridge High School quarterback turned highly-prized-Texas-Tech-University recruit.
Before the impact of the Broncos camaraderie, it was Denton ISD that struck the first blow in the war of desegregation.
In 1963, a year before the ratification of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and three years before Fred Moore High School, the city’s all-black school, closed it’s doors, Denton’s school board voted to desegregate its institutions. The city supported the school board’s decision and a week later, declared all of the city’s public facilities open to all citizens, regardless of color or race.
“There was a lot of integration going on at that time, but I didn’t really notice it,” said David Washington, a former sophomore-of-the-year wing back for the Broncos. “We all gelled together and became brothers. We didn’t look at black, white or Hispanic. We looked at teammates. The coaches didn’t treat us no different. I think that’s why we were so successful. We didn’t see black or white. I’m 60 years old and I’m still colorblind.”
The mixed-race Broncos team Washington played for that year was so successful that in the fall of 1972, they became the district’s first team to reach the state playoffs in 43 years, back to when an all-white team went undefeated in 1929.
Fifty years ago, players like Robinson, Duffey, Waxahachie High School’s Jalen Reagor, Kenedy Snell and Caleb High and Midlothian High School’s Keion Sutton Jabrelan Esparza and Jarreth Sterns, would have been segregated away from whites in places like Waxahachie’s Turner High School and Denton’s Fred Moore High School. Blacks in Denton in the 1950s and 1960s lived on the southeast side of the city, commonly known as the “poor side” and played for the Dragons instead of the Broncos.
Blacks endured racial slurs and forced relocation from their home in the Quakertown neighborhood to a deserted cow pasture downwind from the city’s sewer system. They were segregation in nearly every aspect of their lives.
While the integration went smoothly on the football field, not every heart had changed, said Malinda Potynski, who graduated from Denton High School in 1973.
“My friend, her younger sister, their family and I were all sitting around at the dinner table and her father out-of-the-blue said, ‘Malinda, I hear you’re friends with a little — he used the N-word — girl,” Potynski said. “I was shocked and horrified. I was in the fourth grade. I’m a kid. An adult said that to me. I didn’t know how to respond, all I knew is that I had to tell the truth because I was at somebody else’s house.”
Her friend’s father told her that if she remained friends with the black girl, she wouldn’t be welcome in their house, she said.
Although cities around Denton were entrenched in the era of segregation, many Broncos’ coaches, players and fans, attributed the smooth transition of football’s desegregation to Collins, its lynchpin.
Collins was a legend in the all-black Prarieview League and the head coach of a Fred Moore High School Dragons team that had reached the state championship game three times during his tenure. He took the position of defensive coordinator and assistant coach rather than retire or move to another state or school who wanted his vast array of experience and coaching ability.
“He was full of humility, but he was tough. There was a time when I wore an afro and I was black and proud. My father sat me down and said there’s no black power or white power, there’s only human power,” said Carolyn Collins-Gray, the daughter of C.H. Collins. “He always thought that way. He was going to follow his boys to DHS. Texas is a football state and the Fred Moore Dragons were winning and the Denton High Broncos weren’t.
“I remember telling my mother, ‘Daddy defined a real man. He’s the winning coach that has put Denton on the map along with North Texas State University and Texas Woman’s University, but they’re going to take away his title.’ I never heard him complain because he cherished his boys. It worked because Daddy took it in stride because that’s how he was and coach Ryan was a class act.”
She said that the relationships of the coaching staff — especially between Collins and Carrico — was so important to the players they nicknamed the two “King Kong” and “Mighty Joe Young” for their fierceness on the football battlefield.
“Let me tell you, those two black and white coaches, got the respect of all,” Collins-Gray said. “It didn’t matter if they were white, black or Hispanic, they respected those two the most.”
Hutchins said one of the greatest lessons Collins taught him about equality was a moment when the realization of the struggle of the high school black athlete dropped on him like a proverbial ton of bricks.
“I got mad at this black kid one time and I was chewing him out pretty good and coach says, ‘Come ride with me after practice,’” Hutchins added. “I asked where we were going and he said, ‘Just come ride with me.’ We go over cross the tracks where the black community was and he pointed at a house that was dang-near close to falling over. He said that’s where he lived and where there were dirt floors and they ate out of hubcaps. He told me he was having a tough time and just didn’t have any energy.
“Here I am 26 or 27 years old and I didn’t know that was occurring. I realized that I was wrong, Coach didn’t have to say a thing to me. All he said was he only wanted to show me where he lived.”
For many of those players, the field house and the environment the coaches created wasn’t just a second home for the athletes, it was their first, Hutchins said. Players would practice longer, many not wanting to go home until afternoon had shifted into dusk into night.
The Herculean efforts of men like Abner Haynes, Don Woods, James McDonald and Leslie Varner buoyed the histories of Texas, collegiate and professional football rather than sunk them.
Without men like Collins or Haynes — a 1960 AFL rookie of the year and arguably the undisputed godfather of black superstars in integrated football — coaches like Houston's Romeo Crennel and running backs like Ezekiel Elliott, Adrian Peterson and Emmit Smith may not have had the opportunity to be NFL Hall of Famers.
Sans the sacrifices of McDonald, Varner and Woods — the Broncos three black quarterbacks between 1967 and 1971 — Dak Prescott and Jameis Winston's road to the NFL stage may have been considerably bumpier.
The film’s director, David Barrow, was a 160-pound offensive lineman for the Broncos. He said the team members were products of the time they lived in and oddities in a culture where mixed teams were unusual, much less one led by a black quarterback.
“The harder people were on us, the more it brought us together. Race didn’t divide us — it unified us,” Barrow said. “It put a collective chip on our shoulders. It was clear we had something to prove. One thing I hope players carry away from our story is that you love your teammates, first and foremost. It’s more than just being good or being athletic. You play and win for each other. Don’t take for granted those who’ve gone before you. Everybody stands on somebody else’s shoulders. You treasure them and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to run with them for the rest of your life like we have.”
---- Marcus S. Marion is the sports editor of the Waxahachie Daily Light and Midlothian Mirror. He can be reached by phone at (469) 517-1456 or across social media platforms @MarcusSMarion.