In 1970, three black players quit the Washington football team and vowed never to talk about why. Thirty-six years later, they reunited to tell their story — and heal old wounds.
A preacher, a lawyer and a foreman met in a downtown Seattle hotel lobby recently. Suits pressed. Shoes shined. Their second chance to make a first impression.
So much has changed since the last time they were all together. Thirty-six years gone by. They grew up, got married, got jobs, had kids and grandkids, savored success, survived cancer, preached and practiced and prayed for each other long after they lost contact.
Each kept a promise, never spoke publicly about what happened 36 years ago.
Calvin Jones, Mark Wheeler and Ira Hammon met in 1969. Three freshmen, best friends, all black, all football players at the University of Washington. They quit in 1970, holding a press conference, denouncing discrimination they believe existed.
They made a pact, moved on, tried to bury wounds or pretend they did not exist. Only recently did they start talking again. Wounds were reopened. And they decided to reunite, tell their story one last time, find closure they never knew they needed.
So here they are, reunited, smiling and telling stories after moving to a lounge on the 32nd floor. Downtown looms below, as different as their perspective all these years later.
“The life that you live, you are blessed if you can put your hand on one good friend,” Hammon says. “But I have two good friends. And even though we were out of touch for 36 years, there was a bond between us.”
The others nod. Jones whispers an “amen.” Wheeler puts both hands over his face.
Here they are, five minutes into a three-hour reunion, crying.
The Huskies recruited Jones from San Francisco, Hammon from Portland and kept Wheeler, a star from Seattle Prep, at home. A common theme emerged during the recruiting process.
The African-American players on the team told them not to come.
But there was something about coach Jim Owens, a presence, and something about walking into Husky Stadium. And something more important: belief in their own talent.
“I thought we could make a difference,” Wheeler says. “I thought we could change things.”
Jones broke all of O.J. Simpson’s high-school rushing records in San Francisco, graduated early and arrived in the spring of 1969, earlier than the others. He was only 5 feet 5, 155 pounds, and the Huskies moved him to cornerback.
His roommate, a tall, speedy receiver with hands that never dropped a football, came in the fall. Jones and Hammon settled into Terry Hall, room 1107. All they heard about was a local running back.
“The guy who gained 4 million yards,” Jones says, laughing.
Wheeler lived at home in the Central District, but he had a new Volkswagen that served as the vehicle for their friendship. They were always together, always riding around campus, always competing — racing down the hallways of the dorms, playing Scrabble and, of course, football.
Washington’s freshmen, then ineligible for varsity under NCAA rules, scrimmaged the varsity before the season started. Already, they held their own. All three recall the tension afterward, the sense that freshmen had potential to play immediately, to take a white upperclassman’s playing time.
Meanwhile, racial tension on the team thickened. It was one thing for the freshmen to hear the older black players talk about discrimination. It was something else to see it with their own eyes.
“We saw on the varsity what was happening,” Jones says. “I said, ‘Hmmm, this is different.’ It was an eye-opener, something I hadn’t really been exposed to. What I’m telling you is I couldn’t sit down and write this stuff if I had to make it up.”
During the 1969 season, Owens heard the grievances and asked each player on the team for 100 percent commitment to the program. When Harvy Blanks, Gregg Alex, Ralph Bayard and Lamar Mills would not, they were suspended.
The black players boycotted before the UCLA game, a 57-14 beating in Los Angeles. Everyone except Blanks was eventually reinstated. The Huskies finished 1-9. The freshmen figured they would change that.
A remarkable debut
The Huskies opened the 1970 season against Michigan State at home. The Spartans, fully aware of the Huskies’ record the year before, spent warm-ups talking trash.
Hammon caught two touchdowns passes. Wheeler rushed for 145 yards. Jones snagged an interception. The Huskies won 42-16.
“It was like there was this new wave,” Jones says.
But the next week, the sophomores remember odd things happening, and the older players’ complaints started to make sense.
Hammon looked at all the receivers on his side of the depth chart. Charles Evans, himself and Bayard — all black. Stacked, Hammon says, so white players could start at the other receiver position.
Against Michigan State, Wheeler reversed field for a 52-yard touchdown. His grade for that game? A double zero on a scale to 10. Coaches said he didn’t run through the correct hole. Another time a coach accused Wheeler of faking a back injury.
When Wheeler scored against USC, he returned to the sidelines and a coach turned his back on him, without even a word of congratulations. He learned later that touchdown was supposed to go to a white running back.
By the third game of the season, Hammon was a backup. He went into a coach’s office to ask why. He was told he hadn’t had a good season.
“Well, you threw to me twice in one game,” he told the coach. “I scored both times. The only thing I didn’t do was kick the extra points, which I probably could have done.”
Hammon made his decision right there. Football was worsening his relationship with his new wife. He would quit after the season.
Wheeler, UW’s rushing leader after four games, made his decision three days after the fifth game. On Oct. 20, he put on his uniform for practice, then pulled it off, never to wear it again.
“It messed with my confidence,” Wheeler says. “A lot of it was subtle. We’re 18 or 19, walking in there, and being in front of 65,000 people, it’s like, ‘I’m alive. You can take me now.’
“And then these little subtleties come in, and it starts playing with your confidence. It starts playing with your dream. I said, ‘I’ve got to stop this or it will ruin me.’ “
After Wheeler quit, the other black players hatched a plan to quit after the season. They wanted to avoid the disruption caused by the midseason boycott a year earlier.
They started taping conversations with assistant coaches. They met several times — the older black players who were graduating, Blanks, the three sophomores and Evans, a junior.
The older players wanted Jones to stay, pleaded with him, didn’t want him to risk his NFL future. And while Jones hadn’t been individually targeted, he saw what was happening with the others and felt he needed to stick to his convictions.
Then he told his father. “All hell broke loose,” Jones remembers.
“Boy, what’s wrong with you?” his father asked. “You need to stay there. You need to help. You need to change it. And please, don’t call it racism.”
“Dad, I don’t call it that,” Jones replied. “But Daddy, it is racism.”
The three sophomores stood together at the press conference and read their statement: “The racial practices of the … coaching staff have forced us to the point where we can no longer tolerate the playing conditions … .” They refused to go into specifics.
The Board of Regents got involved. Seismic changes were in the works.
“I don’t want to pinpoint anyone,” Jones says. “I don’t know if they were doing it systematically or out of ignorance. But it gave credence to what the older guys were saying.”
A Husky once again
Jones and Hammon started getting death threats, calls at all hours of the night. Their wives grew concerned. So they left Seattle, for good — or so they thought.
Jones found that other Pac-8 schools weren’t interested and uses the word “blacklisted” to describe his attempts to transfer within the conference. He settled on Long Beach State.
Three weeks before the season started, the late Don Smith called. He was the new associate athletic director at Washington. And he was black.
Smith asked him to consider returning to Washington, and Jones could smell political undertones in the request. He knew why it made sense for Washington, recruiting and race relations, but not why it made sense for him. He called a Seattle lawyer for advice. Owens and Smith then flew to Long Beach and asked Jones to return.
“Come back?” Jones remembers saying. “Why? Nothing’s changed.”
Smith started listing changes: Two black assistant coaches hired, along with himself; a black baseball coach; and a black administrator named Gertrude Peoples.
“For an institution to hire that many black folks in six months,” Jones says, “hmmm, that seems like validation.”
Jones had conditions for his return, and he wanted them in writing. Washington would have to offer scholarships again to Hammon and to Wheeler, and apologize. Jones declines to make the other conditions in the legal document public, citing confidentiality, but revealed them to The Times. Each indicates that the university owned up to its mistakes.
Jones called Wheeler after making his decision.
“Mark, I’m coming back,” he said. “How do you feel about that?”
“CJ,” Wheeler told him, “you’ve got to do what you got to do.”
What surprised Jones most was who was angry about his return. Not white players or white coaches, but black students. They called him “Uncle Tom,” accused him of selling out. Because of the confidentiality agreement, he could not even explain himself.
Washington recruited more black players and won more games, and gradually the resistance subsided. Owens coached his final season in 1974. In came Don James. Out went an era that began with Rose Bowls and ended in racial tension.
Finding the answers
The three sophomores kept their pact, buried the past and moved on with their lives.
Wheeler went to Harvard to define himself as something besides a football player.
He now has an 18-year-old son, Jordan, who followed in his father’s steps at Seattle Prep. Jordan won a state basketball championship last season, and plays college basketball at California Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
His father started taking him to Huskies games at 6 months old, changing his diapers at halftime. And as Jordan got older, he started asking his father questions: “What happened? Why did you leave?”
Only recently did Wheeler, now an attorney with his own practice in Seattle, figure out the answer.
“It’s a destiny thing,” he says. “I see that now. At UW, when we came there, we really thought we could control our destiny. And when we saw that someone else had control of our destiny, it just blew my mind. I had to set my own destiny.”
Jones found the same theme in his own life. He went on to play with the Denver Broncos and made the NFL all-rookie team. After four seasons, he found himself lying in bed one morning, sick of being defined as a football player.
He started praying: “Lord, can I do something else and make this kind of money?”
Like Wheeler, Jones went to Harvard, attending its Divinity School at age 30. Became a preacher, just like his dad, at Providence Baptist Church in San Francisco. He has two daughters.
Jones broadcast a UW game in 1977. Watched Warren Moon, a black quarterback, throw a touchdown pass to Spider Gaines, a black receiver. Tears started streaming down his face.
Hammon transferred to Pacific Lutheran, took a sociology class in which he became the unintended subject because of what happened at UW. He had tryouts in the NFL, but ended up playing two years in the World Football League before it folded.
He is a foreman for Freightliner, where he has worked for more than 20 years. He boasts about his large family, six children and 13 grandchildren. He understands why his old friends fled football.
“Because that’s exactly the mind-set I had,” Hammon says. “To distance myself from sports.”
Three men lost their faith 36 years ago. Then found it again at different points in life. A coincidence? Maybe. They just don’t see it that way.
Over the years, they also lost track of each other, but each never forgot the others.
They only tried to forget what happened.
In 2003, the university erected a statue of Owens, who earned UW’s first two Rose Bowl victories, in front of Husky Stadium. The men remained silent, pact intact.
About a year ago, they started talking regularly again. More important, they started talking about what happened, and they discovered wounds they carried into other relationships, buried deep inside. Every time they talked about it, they started bawling, grown men finally confronting their deepest feelings.
In order to have closure, they needed those conversations. They needed to forgive the coaching staff and Owens, who could not be reached for comment.
“I compare it to marinating meat,” Hammon says. “I had to, over the years, become a bit more seasoned in my thinking. I didn’t realize the damage that had been done until I started talking to these brothers.
“I learned to look at it differently. I forgave Jim Owens. And to be honest with you, it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
The three remain sensitive to the older black players that came before them. They realize their wounds may run deeper.
All three are 55 now and still consider themselves UW fans.
“I don’t blame Jim Owens,” Jones said. “It was the culture. He wasn’t a black kid. He wasn’t raised in a black environment. Why did it take so long? Because of our racism and our blindness, we can’t see our weaknesses.”
They think the timing of their phone conversations happened for a reason. Hammon was diagnosed with kidney cancer last year, shortly after they started talking. He had a massive, life-threatening tumor, which led to a 10-hour surgery, the removal of his left kidney and 43 lymph nodes. Two old friends helped him through it. Doctors say he needs no further treatments.
So here they are, in a downtown Seattle hotel lobby, 36 years later. They are proud of what they did.
“When I see Moon,” Jones said of the former Huskies quarterback now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, “I see success that happened because some brothers decided to do something.”
And they are proud of what they didn’t do. That they emerged, successful men, integrity intact.
UW coach Tyrone Willingham, one of the few African-American head coaches in college football, stopped to talk to the three men in the lobby. His words brought them to tears again.
“I know from whence you came,” Willingham told them. “And it’s not in vain. The price you guys paid has not been forgotten.”
Wheeler says: “I feel reinstated.”
Hammon says: “If Jim Owens were here right now, I would hug him. I would wrap my arms around him, and I would thank him for making me who I am today.
“Because we all were going down the road, and we had a decision. We’d come to a fork. Which way are we going to go? The right way? Or the wrong way? We could have slung dirt and been justified. But because we made a pact, we didn’t do it. And look what we’ve become.”
The foreman leaves for his home in Vancouver, Wash., shortly after the reunion. The preacher and the lawyer go to the game against Arizona State the next evening, where Jones is honored at the end of the third quarter as a Husky Legend.
They hear Owens is in the stands. At halftime, they make their way across the stadium to where they heard the old coach sits. They want to say hello and thank him for making them who they are. But Owens had left his seat. He won’t be back.
They walk away, smiling, satisfied. Two men who have made their peace.
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or email@example.com