Sunday, October 04, 2009


Orange Fever

For many of us sports fans, this fine fall weather leads us to football, in many different directions.

The high school programs are now in full gear, and there has been a resurgence this year with new programs added to a couple of schools. Down the road a piece, the Queen’s Golden Gaels are experiencing another successful season.

The same cannot be said for the Canadian Football League west of us, as the Toronto Argonauts continue to flounder. They were not expected to contain the potent Montreal offence last weekend, and lost again. With the recent success experienced by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Argo playoff hopes are quickly fading.

A little further west, the Bills show promise, but need to be more consistent. They will find success once they get Terrell Owens untracked with a few touchdowns.

Within three hours driving distance of the Quinte area, there is a fine football venue just a little south of the border. The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, soon to be renamed the “Ernie Davis Stadium” has been a landmark high on the Onondagan Hills for almost thirty years.

Again this year, we made an early morning trip across the border to catch the action under the bubble roof. The Syracuse University Orangemen faced the University of South Florida Bulls in their fifth game of the season. The Bulls have yet to lose this year, and kept their undefeated streak alive with a 34-20 win over the Orange.

College football on the State Side is truly spectacular. There are more than one hundred members in the University marching band, called “The Pride of the Orange”, with plenty of brass and drums. Team mascot Otto the Orange leads the cheers. The stands are a sea of orange, as students and alumni assemble to support their boys.

During the weekend team, the 1959 team which won the National Championship was honoured in the Fiftieth Anniversary of their title. Members of the team gathered on the sidelines, and were introduced at half time. One of the members of that team was Ernie Davis, who was nicknamed “The Express”. Davis won the Heisman Trophy in 1961, leading the Orange to a Liberty Bowl victory over Miami. Tragically his football career ended at that time when it was discovered he had leukemia. He died two years later. There is a wonderful movie about his life, naturally called “The Express” now on the movie channels.

The great Jim Brown preceded Davis at S. U., and also wore number 44. He led the Orange to a berth in the Cotton Bowl, and is a member of both the Pro Bowl and the College Bowl. He set a single game record by scoring 43 points against Colgate. Number 44 was retired in 2005.

A stroll around the stadium concourse is always a prerequisite at any sporting event. There are trophy cases, photographs, memorabilia: plenty of reminders of the accomplishments of the home team.

One particular case caught my eye, and led me to a little research. It was entitled “The Syracuse Eight”. As Canadians, for the most part, we are somewhat removed from the great struggles faced by the American society during the Twentieth Century. The civil rights movement, and the challenges to the Vietnam War simply had little impact on Canadians; nonetheless as observers, we showed an interest in those struggles.

The “Syracuse Eight” was a group of football players involved in a civil rights struggle. One of those players was John Lobon, from Connecticut. The players noticed a trend of “institutional racism against African-American players by the Syracuse coaching staff involving everything from allotting time to medical care”. The quote comes from an article on the group by Don Rully, in the Bloomfield Connecticut Journal.

Lobon had played for the Orange in 1968 and 1969, but by the spring of 1970, he and his group decided changes had to be made. Legendary head coach Ben Schwartwalder believed in a military process, and showed little flexibity. He was offended by Lobon’s ‘Afro” haircut. The group also asked the coaches to call them by name, rather than “boy”. The black players then asked the school to hire a black coach.

Jim Brown offered to mediate the disagreement. The players reached an agreement and were told they could return to the team. Then only four players were told they could return. That is when the “Syracuse Eight” walked out.

Lobon reported that all of the members of the group were blackballed by the National Football League. Two of the members were cut by the Washington Redskins on the first day of practice.

In 2006, the efforts of the “Syracuse Eight” were recognized by the university. They were honoured with the Chancellor’s Medal for “extraordinary contributions to the university”. Greg Allen, Richard Bulls, Ronald Womack, Clarence McGill, A. Alif Muhammad (known as Al Newton at Syracuse), Dana Harrell, John Godbolt, and Duane Walker were the other members of “The Eight”. Only Allen and Lobon were allowed to play again for Syracuse.

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