By NICK DERISO and DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports
(Grambling and Northwestern State’s football teams meet Saturday night in the Shreveport Classic at Independence Stadium, the sixth matchup in the series but the first in Shreveport since an historic night 48 years ago, remembered here and adapted from a 2009 story in The Deriso Report by former Monroe writer Nick Deriso.)
Fans sporting black and gold filled one side of State Fair Stadium, as purple and white clothes populated the other.
But there was something else that stood out as Grambling and Northwestern State’s football teams met in Shreveport on Sept. 14, 1974.
“What was unique was not just the color of the shirts. You had all white people on one side, and all black people on the other,” said Jack Brittain Jr., a true freshman NSU special teams player in the game. “That was not something I was used to seeing. None of us were. It was a different point of view, and we all realized it was something special.”
“We knew it was big, especially playing a school of a different race from Louisiana,” said Sammy White, then a junior wingback for Grambling College. “We knew the level of competition would be a step up for our program, and we wanted to give it everything we had to pull it out.”
The Tigers did, 14-13, in dramatic fashion as a crowd estimated as large as 30,000 watched.
It was unique – the first-ever football game in the Deep South pairing teams from what have since become known as HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and PWI (Predominantly White Institutions). It took place as desegregation in the state continued, less than a decade after the first black students enrolled at Northwestern. Melvin Howard, in 1969, became the Demons’ first black football player; he will be enshrined in the school’s N-Club Hall of Fame next month.
So the game was, undeniably, special. And everyone in the stadium knew it.
“It was actually a barrier-breaker, as far as those things go,” said Brittain. “As a freshman, it was my first college game, so my knees were literally shaking before we went out for the kickoff. Then, we were facing Grambling, who had such a great reputation for sending players to the professional leagues, and they were coached by Eddie Robinson. We figured it was going to be an epic battle.”
It was intense for every second of the 60 minutes. Both teams punted seven times. Grambling managed just four first downs, but outgained NSU by 74 yards. The Demons fumbled seven times, losing three – but intercepted four of the Tigers’ passes.
White and Bossier City native Gary “Big Hands” Johnson were future NFL stars playing key roles for Grambling, which had several other players who reached the pros. Doug Williams, the future Super Bowl MVP, was a freshman third-team quarterback to Joe Comeaux, but moved into a starting role three games later.
“Coach Rob” had billed “Big Hands” as the “best defensive lineman in college football,” and if anyone thought that was hype, those attending the game, and playing in it, left as believers.
“I was the upback protector on punts,” said Brittain, “and we punted a lot. I just remember ‘Big Hands’ exploding past our center, right behind the snap as it was coming back. He would come in low, about a foot off the ground. All I could do was dive at his shoelaces. He would just shove me to the ground and trample right over me.”
A 4-yard Comeaux scramble opened the scoring, not long after the second play of the game when he found White for a 43-yard pass to the NSU 7. But the Demons responded quickly, recovering a White fumble at the Grambling 13. The Tigers were rugged – posting a series of stuffs on off-tackle runs by NSU star Mario “The Rage” Cage, who could not get past “Big Hands” and his teammate Robert Barber. Demon quarterback Butch Ballard’s 8-yard toss to Gene Knecht finally put NSU on the board, but the extra point failed.
Cage did break loose on a long TD run – reported variously as 61, 57 or 52 yards – and with Danny Foret’s successful conversion kick, the Demons went up 13-7 at halftime.
“That game,” said White, “was tight, tight, tight.”
He made it a tie, hauling in a pass from backup QB Terry Brown on an 82-yard strike. Grambling defensive back Rodney Zeno kicked his second extra point for a 14-13 edge.
“They were blitzing us a lot, so we had a one-on-one matchup,” said White. “Terry threw a nice long ball.”
But the Demons had the Tigers dead to rights at game’s end. NSU’s last interception, by linebacker Dan Boddie, was returned to the Grambling 34 with 4:03 left. Ballard drove the Demons to the 3 inside the final minute. NSU coach George Doherty ordered a Foret field goal try with 39 seconds left – on third down, while his players wanted one more try for a TD before kicking.
Star defensive back James Hunter, and perhaps “Big Hands,” deflected the kick just enough to spoil it.
“One of the greatest thrills of my life came at the end of the game,” Ballard said years later, “when Coach Robinson found me on the field, shook my hand and congratulated me for playing a good game.”
Those memories have been rekindled in anticipation of Saturday’s contest.
“The perspective of that game is way beyond the football field, so many years later,” said Brittain. “In our lives, for players on both teams and I think for the fans, too, it had a big impact. What a great time to try something like that, to break through some of those unknowns. It took some courage by both coaches.”
Contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org