It was a warm, muggy evening at the Peterson Events Center where a buzz was beginning as the pre-reception for the main event, “Athletics at Pitt: The Forefront of a Century of Change” was about to commence. This was an occurrence that may have arguably been the most important recognition and celebratory experience in the history of Black athletics at the University of Pittsburgh.
This was a gathering of Pitt athletic greats for the ages that would be the envy of any organization or institution. All of the “griots of time” were there including Herb Douglas—Pitt’s oldest living African-American athlete (89); first African-American football walk-on; and Olympic Bronze Medalist in 1948 (London). To this day in the United States, he is one of just two athletes to score a touchdown against Notre Dame and win an Olympic Medal.
There were a few fireworks even before the main event was close to beginning. Former Pitt defensive line standout Hugh Green, the seventh overall pick in the first round of the 1981 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said a few things loud enough for everyone to hear.
“I always tell people when they narrate and tell the history of the Pitt football program that I did not play with Ricky Jackson (New Orleans Saints linebacker who was recently elected to the NFL Hall-of-Fame), Ricky Jackson played with me. We were a very unique class, a special class, a very talented class. I was one of fourteen players to start as a freshman. We filtered in sophomores, juniors and seniors to fill out the rest of the starting twenty-two. We had a level of competition and accomplishments and a legacy that was left to us by Tony [Dorsett] and the rest of the 1976 team that won the national championship.”
Green also explained that once he reached the NFL, the personnel around him was one of the factors that determined his notoriety, or maybe the lack of. “Well I went to one of the teams that needed some work and a new foundation. Over a period of time, our organization [Tampa Bay] made decisions like not keeping QB Doug Williams (after Williams left the Buccaneers he went on to lead the Redskins to a victory over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, Williams was also the game’s MVP). That was a poor decision by ownership that did not do anything to help the Buccaneers evolve into a winner.”
On the basketball side, ex-Pitt great Charles Smith explained why the United States had to settle for a bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics.
“Contrary to what a few people may have thought, the 1988 Olympic team was not over confident heading into the Olympic Games. I think that we were just outplayed by Russia in the semi-final game. They were very poised and had a great game plan and they beat us. What was interesting was that five or six of the Russian players had spent quite a bit of time in the United States being coached by American basketball coaches and players so they caught up to us. Teams have become better internationally because they are adapting to the United States style of play. You will continue to see 6’9” or 6’10” players handling the ball as part of the international style of play, but the international athletes are beginning to adapt to the physicality of the American game.”
Pittsburgh’s own Sam Clancy was a great basketball player at Pitt but continued on with his life’s work as a defensive lineman in the NFL. Clancy reminisced about his basketball and pro football days. “It’s hard to figure. I did all of that work, thinking that I would have a chance in the NBA and ended up playing in the NFL. I tell you what, it was just that I came up in a time when [NFL] teams would give you a chance if you had a certain amount of athleticism even if you played in another sport. I was more or less an experiment that worked out and turned into an eleven year career. I just thank God that he gave me the ability to go out there and be able to perform on a high level in both sports. It was definitely hard going from a sport that I had played for four years to a sport that I had not really played. The Seattle Seahawks had called [former Pitt Head Football Coach] Jackie Sherrill looking for a pretty good athlete and he recommended me.”
Pitt college and NFL Hall-of-Famer Tony Dorsett was his usual gracious and approachable self, always willing and able to stand up and profile the University that gave a small running back from Hopewell High school his first legitimate shot at greatness.
He said, “the University was good for me, I came here as a young boy and left here as a young man. I had a great experience here but it wasn’t just football. I think that they might have changed the rules because [in my freshman year] when I first came to the school it seemed as if it was 125 freshmen. We set our goal to win the national championship. I always say that it is a story made for Hollywood.”
“Let me tell you something. I was just a skinny little kid from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. I never had any dreams or aspirations of being an All-American, Heisman Trophy winner or a Hall-of-Famer. This has been just a fairy tale come true. It all started down the road a piece but I am glad that I was able to give a little bit of inspiration to the University of Pittsburgh with my athletic ability.”
Dave Garnett—a 1971 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and a three-year member of the football team-opened the dinner celebration. The national anthem was performed by Kara Henderson, daughter of Don Henderson, the only African American to serve as Provost at Pitt. Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg remarked on Pitt’s greatest accomplishments, both athletically and in fields such as research. Mr. Garnett then handed over the mic to the venerable master of ceremonies for the evening Bob Costas, the legendary NBC and MLB broadcaster.
Costas started out with a tongue-in-cheek piece of humor that had everyone in stitches. He said that, “He found it unique that a White guy that graduated from Syracuse was hosting this event for Pitt.” He was definitely worth the price of admission. Costas also narrated a portion of the evening’s highlight film along with CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield, who was also in attendance.
The affair gave homage to Hubbard Hollensworth and Harry Ray Wooten, who were the first African-American varsity student athletes enrolled at Pitt in 1911. The evening could have gone on a bit longer and no one would have probably objected. An occasion such as this took too long to happen and ended too soon.
All of Pitt’s athletic greats, big and small, forgotten and cherished, were saluted and honored. The affair concluded with Moet poured into special champagne glasses made to propose a mass and timeless toast to the University of Pittsburgh and its entire athletic and scholastic program.
For this night, this special and glorious night, if you weren’t careful it almost appeared as if time itself stood still. If you listened, really listened, to the history whisperers, time did stop if only for the length of the honorarium. Hail to Pitt.
(Aubrey Bruce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-583-6741.)