Reflecting on the past, embracing the present

ADVANCES IN RACE relations in America over the last 60 years were illustrated poignantly earlier this month at the coach's dinner that Washington State holds each year in the Seattle area. At one table sat Duke Washington, a Cougar version of Jackie Robinson. Twenty-feet away sat Hamza Abdullah, a proud new father beaming at the world of possibilities that await his baby daughter.

The annual "Night with Cougar Football" was more than football. It was more than talking about the new class of recruits or the health of Marshall Lobbestael's left knee. Or chuckling at Paul Wulff's Apple Cup dancing skills.

It was about judging people by the content of their character and nothing else. It was a symbolic tribute to the strides the nation has made over the decades.

Duke Washington, Bill Holmes and Howard McCants were the first African-Americans to suit up for the Cougar football team. Duke became a two-way standout, as well as the centerpiece of an episode in the segregated south that offered hope for a better tomorrow.

A retired Seattle school teacher, he was at the dinner, sitting at the table. Unbeknownst to him or anyone else, the evening's emcee, KJR Radio host Ian Furness, was about to give the 300-plus attendees a stirring account of Duke's unique place in crimson history.

After introducing modern-day Cougar icons such as Marcus Trufant, Erik Coleman and Robbie Tobeck, Furness took us back in time. He gestured toward the fit, 79-year-old man with a gray beard.


Furness recounted how Talmadge "Duke" Washington grew up moving from town to town as his stepfather followed construction projects from Mississippi to California and, eventually, to Hanford. Furness explained how Duke starred for Pasco High and became the first African-American to play in the state's East-West All-Star game.

He talked about the first time Duke dared to dream about going to college.

Furness told how Duke would go on to be elected WSU's team captain. He talked about how Duke helped beat the Huskies three times in four years. And he talked about the days leading up to the WSU-Texas game in 1954 when the Texas athletic director called his Cougar counterpart to suggest that Duke, then the only black player on the Cougars, not make the trip south because no person of color had ever set foot on the turf at Austin's Memorial Stadium.

Duke did make the trip, but the locals wouldn't allow him to stay in the team hotel.

Furness talked about Duke's uneasiness in pre-game warm-ups, unsure of what might happen, once the game started, when the refs weren't looking.

"We have no idea the kind of challenges he had to face in that era, simply because of the color of his skin," Furness said.

Furness went on to recount how Duke brought the Texas student body to its feet for a standing ovation when he turned a draw play into a 73-yard run to paydirt.

So memorable was that historic touchdown run that it was recounted in the best-selling book North Toward Home. And for the record, Texas' players were model sportsmen that day.

Furness asked Duke to stand up and take a bow. Within moments, the sold-out ballroom of Cougs at Seattle's W Hotel was on its feet. Duke Washington was getting the second-most memorable standing ovation of his life.

"I didn't expect that," Duke said last week. "Unbelievable, really. I'm still elated. It was invigorating. It's hard to put into words what it meant to me."

HAMZA ABDULLAH as a Denver Bronco in 2007.

TWO TABLES AWAY sat Hamza Abdullah. The former Cougar defensive back now plays for the Cleveland Browns, but says his heart has grown only deeper crimson since wrapping up his WSU career. He hadn't heard of Duke Washington until that night. He shook his head at the thought of Duke being denied a room at the team hotel. He marveled at the courage of Duke and the countless others, on the field and on the streets, who helped pave the way.

And he smiled at the thought that his 18-month-old daughter Layla will grow up in a nation not only far different than the one Duke Washington grew up in, but one far different than the one her 25-year-old dad grew up in.

"Not in my lifetime did I think a black person would be elected president of the United States," Abdullah said. He called Barack Obama's election "one of the most fantastic things." Politics and policy debates aside, he said, Obama's presence at the top of our government presents a whole new world of possibility to every African-American child in the country.

"I stayed up till 3 in the morning watching the news coverage on election night," Abdullah said.

"My wife Alexa and I shed tears of joy watching the inauguration. It's really a culture shock for me. My daughter is going to see this -- a black person as the leader of the free world -- as the real world, the real America, as the way things are. That's very powerful."

Duke Washington said what's also heartening is the way Obama won. "He didn't run as a black man -- he ran on all the components of his cultural background. He was viewed foremost as a candidate, not a color. He reminds me of the quote by Socrates -- the unexamined life is not worth living. He saw his own potential. He believed. He dared to believe in himself."

You might say he took a page out of Duke Washington's life story.

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