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A legend passes away: Duke Washington, a race pioneer and hall of fame athlete, called WSU 'my true north'

DUKE WASHINGTON, a race pioneer in two regions of the country and Hall of Fame running back at Washington State, passed away Thursday in Seattle following a three-week-long battle with pneumonia. The retired high school art teacher was the first person in his family to attend college and often referred to WSU as “my true North.”

“My road from Pasco to Pullman was indisputably the right one,” he told Cougfan.com founder Greg Witter over lunch three years ago. “I was not looking for any road out of the woods, but the right road. There are many roads in life. If you don’t like the road you’re on, take a new one. Washington State was the right road for me."

He starred for the Cougars from 1952-54, earning All-Coast and honorable mention All-American honors as a senior. In the last decade, he became a familiar face at the annual “Night with Cougar Football” dinners in Seattle. He is survived by a daughter, Ellen, and a granddaughter.

Washington, 84, called his 2011 induction into the WSU Hall of Fame “one of the greatest moments in my life.” At the induction ceremony he said, “All my roads go back to Pullman – world class, face to face.” He road-tripped to the event with six of his former teammates and said that reunion turned the festivities from wonderful to magical.

“Duke was one of the most learned and well-read people I have ever known – literature, philosophy, jazz, race, you had to come ready to hold your intellectual weight,” said Witter. “Even in the hospital in the last couple weeks, he could hardly open his eyes but his mind was as sharp as ever and he reiterated his love of WSU. He always talked about his love for WSU and how it was there that he learned how to learn … He was a very special guy in so many ways.”

Dick Fry, WSU’s legendary former news bureau and sports information director, echoed those comments. “Duke’s love for the old school was just unbounded. He had great regard for Washington State … He was some guy. We’re going to miss him.”

Washington once dubbed his four years in Pullman “a glorious time.”

“He was a man of great honor, charisma and dignity,” said long-time friend Skip Pixley. "I played football with Duke while at Washington State and can truly say he was an outstanding player on offense and defense. Duke brought great credit to Washington State and our society both on the field and off it. Duke was a class act.”

ATTENDING COLLEGE, LET ALONE playing big-time football, never occurred to him as a kid, Washington told CF.C in 2003. "It wasn't until after my junior year at Pasco High School that people in the community started telling me I was good enough to think about getting a scholarship.

“As a senior in high school our coach took some of us to Spokane to watch Washington and Washington State play. It was incomprehensible at the time to think I would be playing on the same field with them a year later."

When he was selected for the All-State game a short time later -- the first black athlete ever picked -- the notion became less remote. He received scholarship offers from WSU, Washington, Pacific and Willamette, but chose WSU because of the high regard he held for coach Forest Evashevski.

Washington was just the third African-American to suit up for the Cougars, joining Bill Holmes and Howard McCants who had arrived on campus in 1950, a year before. Holmes was mostly a backup in his Cougar career and McCants left school early. Washington, as a two-way star at running back and defensive back, effectively became known in later years as the Jackie Robinson of Cougar football.

His ground breaking didn’t stop in Pullman. It extended to the Jim Crow south, where as a Cougar senior and team captain, he put a stake in the heart of segregation at the University of Texas as the first black player ever allowed on the Longhorns' home field.

He literally brought people to their feet at Memorial Stadium in Austin on Oct. 2, 1954, turning a first-half draw play against the Longhorns into a 73-yard run to paydirt.

"It was the longest run given up by a Texas team since Doak Walker of SMU in the late '40s," Delano Womack, a Longhorn back at the time told CF.C in 2003. "Duke Washington was a very good player. He had a wonderful game against us."

So memorable was the historic touchdown -- which earned him a standing ovation from many Texas students -- that writer Willie Morris, a Texas student at the time, recounted it in his acclaimed autobiography North Toward Home.

Washington remembered it all well but often said his trip to Austin ranks down the list of indelible football memories behind the likes of three victories out of four against the Huskies; playing in the LA Coliseum as a freshman; traveling to Ohio State; and piling up 115 rushing yards in a big win over Oregon State.

History, however, will forever bind him with Austin, Texas.

Pixley, the Cougars' center who helped spring Washington loose on the draw play, said in a 2003 interview that the play remained vivid in his mind -- 93 degree heat with humidity to match, the unexpected cheering after Washington's "magnificent" run, and all the black people in the stands being seated in one section between the end zone and the 20-yard-line.

He also remembered the shock that greeted the team shortly after arriving in Austin.

“Duke was at the hotel for all our meals and meetings but he had to stay overnight in the home of a black family,” held told CF.C in 2003. “We didn't know beforehand that he couldn't stay in the hotel. It gave us all a bad feeling. Duke was a great guy, a classy guy and he was being treated like a second-class citizen. We wanted to win the game for Ol' Wazzu, but we really wanted to make a great showing for Duke."

Washington shrugged off the hotel indignation whenever he was asked about it. That’s just the way it was, he would say. Besides, "I stayed with a wonderful family in a black neighborhood and went to some fun clubs after the game. It was a good experience."

Few people knew that the hotel compromise was actually the result of behind-the-scenes negotiations that almost derailed the whole game.

In his remarkable book, The Crimson and the Gray -- 100 Years with the WSU Cougars, Dick Fry chronicled how Cougar athletic director Stan Bates had received a call from the athletic director at Texas, sheepishly suggesting it would be best if Washington, then the only African American on the Cougar team, stayed home. The reply was terse: If Duke Washington couldn't play, the Cougars wouldn't come.

Washington recounted the situation matter-of-factly a dozen years ago:

“Al Kircher, our coach, told me beforehand that there was some discussion about me. I told him I didn't want him to go through too much hassle if he was getting resistance. But he said everything had been worked out. I was a little concerned for my physical well being and thought about the Bright incident a few years before. But once the game starts you just focus on your job. And the Texas players were extremely congenial. There wasn't even a wise crack of any kind."

The "Bright Incident" was at the center of a national uproar in 1951 when Drake played at Oklahoma A&M (now State). Drake was led by star quarterback Johnny Bright, who was black. In the game's first three plays, Bright was victimized by two blatantly dirty hits, one of which broke his jaw.

Womack, the old Texas player, said the run up to the WSU-Texas game was so low key that he didn’t realize a black man was playing until the game was underway.

"It just wasn't a big deal," Womack told CF.C. "It wasn't an issue for the players. We had respect for our opponents and Duke was no different. We were there to play a game and that's what we did."

CONSIDERING THE HUMBLE ROOTS from which he came, Washington said he found it remarkable that he wound up the center of a contest so many people remember.

He was born in Forest, Miss., in 1933 to Rosetta and Talmadge Washington and recalled the living conditions there for African Americans as “horrific."

His stepfather, indirectly, is responsible for putting Washington on the path to Pullman. As a laborer, Washington's stepfather followed construction projects from Mississippi to Arizona to California. It was in Stockton, Calif., as a middle schooler, that Washington -- who went by his middle name, Talmadge -- picked up the moniker Duke. A teacher started calling Washington and his best buddy, Henry Crump, The Duke and The Count.

By the time he landed in Pasco, when his stepfather went to work at Hanford in the late 1940s, "The Duke" had been shortened to Duke and the name was permanent.

“My sense was this when the Texas game approached: I had to take the challenge. You don’t make progress unless you take challenges,” he said in 2011. He noted that the indignity of the hotel situation didn’t bother him because “I didn’t go to Washington State to integrate hotels. I went to Washington State to integrate collegiate athletics.”

Ironically, he ended his college football career in the East-West Shrine Game, where he was teamed with a number of Texas players. And the coach of the West was Texas' Ed Price. Again, Washington was something of a trailblazer --- he was the only black athlete on the West side.

Washington was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles and released in training camp. He then spent two years in the Army, and later played one season for the B.C. Lions in the Canadian Football League before embarking on a long and distinguished career in public education in Seattle.

Memorial services have not yet been planned.

WSU
DUKE WASHINGTON WAS A TWO-WAY STANDOUT FOR THE COUGS AND RUSHED FOR MORE THAN 1,000 CAREER YARDS. IN 2011, HE WAS INDUCTED INTO THE WSU HALL OF FAME AND TWO DAYS BEFORE HIS DEATH HE WAS NOTIFIED HE WOULD BE INDUCTED INTO THE WIAA HIGH SCHOOL HALL OF FAME. AS A HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER, ONE OF HIS FAVORITE BITS OF ADVICE TO HIS STUDENTS WAS THIS: "IF YOU WANT TO KNOW, READ A BOOK TO GROW."

DUKE WITH STEVE BROUSSARD CIRCA 2006

DUKE WITH ALEX BRINK IN '13; 6 APPLE CUP WINS BETWEEN THEM (wsu photo)

AN HONORABLE MENTION ALL-AMERICAN IN 1954 (wsu photo):

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