WSU back Duke Washington broke the barriers

WHEN CHARLIE BREWER heard the sportscaster announce that Texas would be playing Washington State in the Holiday Bowl back in 2003, the old Longhorn quarterback's mind flashed to October 2, 1954 and an opposing player he hadn't thought about in years. "Duke Washington," Brewer says. "His name just popped into my head."


A half-dozen calls to old Cougars and Longhorns who played in that 1954 game in Austin paint a quiet picture of a good first half that turned into a rout. But over 50 years after the fact, they are uniform -- and immediate -- when asked if there's anything particular they remember about the first-ever meeting between Texas and Washington State.

In chorus: It was the first time a black player had ever set foot inside Memorial Stadium.

And what a debut it was.

Talmadge "Duke" Washington, Washington State's team captain and a two-way starter at fullback and defensive back, brought people to their feet, turning a first-half draw play 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," remembers Delano Womack, a Longhorn halfback and defensive back on the 1954 team. "Duke Washington was a very good player. He had a wonderful game against us."

Washington, a retired high school art teacher in Seattle, remembers it all well but says his ground-breaking 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.

So memorable was Washington's historic touchdown run -- 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.

Skip Pixley, the Cougars' center who helped spring Washington loose on the draw play, says it's still vivid in his mind --- the 93 degree heat with humidity to match, the unexpected cheering that greeted 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 remembers 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. 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, who came to Pullman from Pasco High, shrugs off the hotel slight. It was just the way it was. Besides, he says, "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 hotel situation 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 chronicles how Cougar athletic director Stan Bates had received a call from D.X. Bible, the athletic director at Texas, sheepishly suggesting it would be best for all concerned 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.

"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.

Washington's debut in Austin had mostly passed under the radar until his touchdown run.

Brewer and Womack confirm that account. Brewer said he didn't realize Washington State had a black player until he saw Duke during warm ups. Womack didn't notice until the game was underway.

"It was very low key. Nobody said anything before the game," recalls Brewer.

"It just wasn't a big deal," says Womack. "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."

Brewer and Womack both cringe when they learn that Washington wasn't allowed to stay in the team hotel. And both are in disbelief that Bible, whom they both remember as a picture of fairness, would have suggested Washington stay home.

Today, though, people who were on both sides of the field point with pride to the fact they were there in 1954 for one notable step on the road to equal opportunity.

CONSIDERING THE HUMBLE roots from which he came, Washington finds it remarkable that he was at the center of a contest so many people remember, but not because of the 40-14 outcome.

He grew up moving from town to town as his stepfather, a laborer, followed construction projects from Mississippi to Arizona to California and, eventually, to Hanford and the Tri-Cities in the late 1940s.

Attending college, let alone playing big-time football, never occurred to him as a kid, Washington says. "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.

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 Washington.

Holmes and Washington both say they were treated royally from day one. In fact, Washington, who at 70 looks as fit and trim as ever, calls his four years in Pullman "a glorious time in my life."

Ironically, the football part of that equation would end in the East-West Shrine Game after the 1954 season, where Duke was teamed up 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 education.

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