By J. Henderson
[You’ll pick up pretty quickly that I mostly wrote this for an audience mostly unfamiliar with Auburn football. So forgive the explanation of the Iron Bowl, Punt, Bama, Punt, etc… and full disclosure, as they say – I helped Thom with some of the research for the book. Fuller disclosure: this is long, but worth it I hope, so click the ‘keep reading’ link.]
Thom Gossom is telling me a story over the phone. I saw him tell it once on TV. He killed. Still, it’s better this time. It goes like this:
It’s the spring of 2004, a weekday afternoon in Los Angeles, inside a waiting room. It’s an audition for the television show Boston Legal. There is a black guy, about 50, sitting there, waiting to read for a part. That’s Thom.
He’s flipping through Sports Illustrated. There’s some svelte hipster, white, probably about 25, sitting across from him. The kid is wearing a vintage thrift-store t-shirt. It catches Thom’s eye. He puts the magazine down.
“… and I go, ‘hey man, let me see that shirt.’ So he stretches it out for me.”
The shirt reads: “Happy Birthday Bo, From Van Tiffin’s Toe: 25-23 – November 30, 1985.”
“I said, ‘Oh, wow man, d’you go to Alabama?’ He says, ‘oh, no, it’s just one of those vintage things.’ I said, ‘oh, so you don’t know what it means?’ He laughs a little bit, shakes his head no. He’s kinda freaked out a little bit, but you know, he’s really paying attention. I say, ‘well let me tell ya’ man, the ‘Bo’ is Bo Jackson.”
“He says, ‘oh, Bo Jackson?’ I said, ‘yeah man, this guy, Van Tiffin for Alabama, he kicked a field goal at the end of the Auburn-Alabama game that year and won the game and everything.’”
Thom said he explained a little bit more. The game was played on Bo Jackson’s birthday. It was his senior year. Tiffin’s kick was voted by Alabama fans as the greatest play ever in Birmingham’s Legion Field. It was a big deal. It was a knife in the gut to Auburn fans.
The kid goes, “Oh, so Bo went to Alabama?”
“Naw, man, Bo went to Auburn.”
They kept going.
“He was like ‘man, they take that stuff real serious down there don’t they?’ And I’m like, ‘oh man, yeah, if you went into the wrong place with that t-shirt on, you’d be in trouble like hell.’”
Ha ha ha.
“And so he asks me, he says, ‘well how come you know so much about it?’”
Thom tells him.
“I played football for Auburn.”
The kid gets quiet, then he looks the black guy in the eye. The black guy, Thom, looks back and says:
“Yeah, man, you’re about to get your ass kicked.”
Ha haaaaaaaaa haaaaaaaaa!
Ok, I wanted to start off with that story. I think it sets the stage, so to speak. Now let’s talk Thom. You might not know Thom’s name, but you probably know his face. He’s an actor, a “that guy.” As in, “oh, that guy.” He’s a black that guy, a good one, well respected.
For me, it was In the Heat of the Night. I snapped my fingers and said “that’s it!” That’s why he looked so familiar. Officer Ted Marcus – 20 episodes, his big break.
“People will tell me they recognize me, but they don’t recognize me from role to role,” Gossom tells me in between conference calls with his publisher (he’s got a book coming out). “I take that as a compliment.”
He’s been a salesman here, a pharmacist there, a coach, a dude. The detective in Fight Club? That’s Thom. The judge on Boston Legal? Thom again. The CEO in the new Citibank commercial, holding up a box with that “we did it, team” look on his face? That guy, Thom Gossom. He’s been at it a while.
“They might be small roles, but I try to take them all seriously.”
“I guess you didn’t have to try very hard to take things seriously back then,” I say.
“No, back then it was pretty damn easy.”
Back then was the early 70s. If you rewind his career back to back then, back to college, back to Alabama, back to when national culture and especially southern culture was being completely recast, that guy, Thom Gossom, found himself as one of the leads in an action-drama of singular significance.
Because Thom wasn’t just a black guy back then, he was a black football player; “1970s Black Football Player in Alabama” is the most serious part he’s ever played.
photo by B. Ashmore
Thom was a wide receiver, arguably the most segregated position in today’s version of the game (Chris Shelling Jr. recently joked in an e-mail that “Auburn’s Next Top White Receiver” would make great reality TV. “Hicks Poor and Justin Fetsko could host.”).
He was a star on the one stage our mutual home state of Alabama continues to care about above all others, but at a time when the spotlight of that humid autumn sun really brought out the color in your skin. Thom Gossom was the second black football player at the first Division I school in Alabama to break the gridiron’s color barrier.
That school was not the University of Alabama.
Forget what you’ve heard about the magnanimous Bear Bryant as the real gate keeper to southern integration, both on the field and even off. If you start Googling around the subject, you’ll get the impression that Alabama was the first southern team to integrate… that it was because Bryant got embarrassed in a home game at Legion Field in 1970, the day after his 57th birthday, by 21 points by the very integrated USC Trojans, including a black player who had grown up right there in Birmingham longing to play for the Tide… that after the game the humbled but noble Bear, in his mind already harvesting the great negro heroes of the future, rolls out the Crimson carpet for the negro hero of the day, black Sam “Bam” Cunningham (Martin Luther King in cleats!!)… that Bear wraps his robe around him, escorts him into the stark white Bama locker room and bellows: “Gentlemen, this is what a football player looks like…looks like… looks like…looks like…”
And that as this holy – and completely made-up – sanction of the Black Footballer echoed across the mountains and valleys and deltas and forests of the Southeastern Conference, southern coaches rose from their knees and raced down from his throne on Mt. Olympus to recruit that other race, because, oh, thank you Bear, Bryant had given them the OK.
If it does, who could blame the director? The apocryphal quote at the heart of the scene would glow from a multiplex poster and send tingles down Chris Mathew’s leg. After all, as the title of a recent book on the subject tells us, that game literally changed the nation (The Orange County Register says it changed the world.)
But by merely – and incorrectly – tag lining what was arguably the most important development in college football since the integration of the forward pass, its powerful subplots are whittled down to footnotes and many complexities of the era dubbed over all together.
Take, for example, this synopsis by The Stanford Daily (which was until recently borrowed by several other websites):
“The very next season the Crimson Tide football team had three black players. And such was the stature of Bear Bryant that once he recruited black athletes, other coaches were quick to follow suit. Just like that, segregation in Southern college football was over.”
Just like that! Imagine!
Never mind that half the SEC was already playing football with integrated teams in 1970. Never mind that Alabama already had a black scholarship player on its freshman team who was in the stands when Southern Cal came to town and who would have suited up the next year regardless of whether that game was scheduled, played, or lost, a fact even The New York Times, it it’s Guide to Essential Knowledge, seems to overlook.
“That game didn’t change a damn thing,” says Gossom, who was himself already making plays as a freshman at the time.
And while the claim that the integration of college football, due to its virtually religious role in the culture, worked wonders for southern attitudes toward integration as a whole can’t help but be true, never mind that in the Heart of Dixie, the stared at and scrutinized and most scorned state in all the land (“call us backward all you want, but look at our football!”), it was in fact Auburn University, not the University of Alabama – that it was Ralph “Shug” Jordan, not Paul “Bear” Bryant – that first laced a black man named James Owens in varsity cleats, scholarshipped him in shoulder pads, and told him in 1969 that if he did his best at football, he too could go to school for free.
That’s the team Thom played for, by God – the Auburn Tigers, the quaint, eternal underdogs down the road.
As he once said to a group of slack jawed Alabama cheerleaders, including future homecoming queen and future actress Sela Ward, after crossing the goal line for what could’ve would’ve should’ve been the game deciding touchdown in the 1974 Iron Bowl:
I buckle up for another story.
It’s late in the 3rd quarter, Auburn is down 17-7. It’s 3rd and 6 at the Alabama 41. Thom breaks free of future pro cornerback Mike Washington, catches a long pass, and streaks into the end zone.
Six points go up on the scoreboard. Then they’re taken down. Without throwing a flag, an official questionably removed from the play says that Thom, bending backward to avoid a desperation lunge from Washington, barely stepped on the white line and was therefore ineligible to catch the ball. The game ended with Bama on top, 17-14. Auburn fans cursed and wrote letters. Today a receiver can come back in bounds to make a catch if he is forced out by a defender. The exception allowing for such a scenario was added to the rulebook in 1976. According to Thom, the “Gossom incident,” was a major reason why.
If you don’t know, the Iron Bowl is the nickname for the annual game between Auburn and Alabama, possibly the fiercest rivalry in American history (ESPN commentator Beano Cook once called it “Gettysburg South”), one fueled on deep, abiding hatred. Some have suggested that the early 70s was when things really started getting nasty because that’s when it began to mirror the racial dynamic that defined the state in the ‘50s and ’60s. It being psychologically messy to hate the black running back you’re worshipping across the goal line with all your might, that special sort of prejudice was, so the theory goes, rewired towards the color of a man’s jersey, rather than his skin. At least I’m not Auburn trash, Roll Tide. At least I’m not Bama trash, War Eagle. It makes sense.
There isn’t anything bigger in the state of Alabama than the Iron Bowl. And yet the first one any member of the Gossom family saw, Thom included, was the first one Thom played in.
The 1974 game, his last, was the closest Auburn came to beating the mighty Crimson Tide during a nine year stretch of defeats that defines the psychology of the rivalry to this day. The last win had been 1972’s miracle finish known as “Punt, Bama, Punt,” the most legendary game of the series. A decade later, Bo Jackson finally, literally, took Auburn over the top.
I grew up as an Auburn fan in the 1980s, arguably our most glorious glory days. There was no black, there was no white, there was only Bo. I was checked out of kindergarten just to sit in his lap and pose for a Polaroid (he was only a sophomore at the time). It was better than Santa Claus. Auburn football meant Bo Jackson and Bo Jackson was black. Thom and I laugh about this. Things changed. They changed quick.
Thom was only the third black athlete to play anything for Auburn, a school that was forced to integrate in 1964. Six years later – exactly forty years ago – Thom and a handful of other black athletes started plowing the real fields of the future, sowing the real seeds of change, more than a decade before Bo put his Heisman in the trophy case, before Charles Barkley was tall enough to even start on a basketball team, let alone terrorize the SEC.
“Our opportunity was also our burden,” Thom tells me. “We [Auburn’s first black athletes] were there to change things, we felt it was our responsibility to really integrate the university, to make it better for those kids, to make it better for the Charles Barkleys, the Bo Jacksons.”
And Thom was the first athlete – the very first! – to graduate from Auburn, one of the first black football players to graduate from any major state university in the Deep South, all the way back in…. 1975.
“I was tellin’ a guy about it and he’s just noddin’ along and then he goes, ‘wait, when?’” he laughs.
1975. It’s hard to believe. Curtain call to a time between times.
Gossom, now 56, has just completed his latest role, a part he wrote for himself with the life he led: author.
A candid memoir of his football days is being published by State Street Press, a new division of Borders Books, and will be released September 9th.
Entitled “Walk-On: My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University,” the book is actually a more meticulous adaptation of an earlier draft written as a work of fiction for Gossom’s master’s thesis at the University of Montevallo. But “Walk-On” is fleshier, flashier, more engaging, more provocative (“So what’s the juiciest part,” I ask. “Hmm… probably the Mexican prostitute.”). It is the Seinfeldian coffee table book about coffee table books among others in its niche in the sense that Gossom, as an author, is the first to integrate the literary cottage industry that has sprung up around the integration of southern football (there are at least three books written on Bear Bryant’s eventual integration of the Crimson Tide alone, including Don Yaeger’s “Turning of the Tide”, which, yes, is reportedly being optioned for a movie). “Walk-On” isn’t black history written by a white sports writer who watched it from the press-box or researched it in a library — it’s an inside the huddle, inside the quote memoir written by one of the actual living, breathing, under-the-microscope black statistics themselves.
On May 15, Arthur Bremer shot George Wallace as he was campaigning for president… One of our trainers came running out onto the stadium field as we were nearing the end of a scrimmage… The trainer headed straight to Coach Jordan. As they talked, Coach Jordan looked worried.
A teammate overheard their conversation and ran off the field, headed straight to me… “Gossom, the Governor’s been shot, and one of your people did it.”
After the game, Governor Wallace visited our locker room, where he was to present the game ball. He wheeled up to me at my locker and said, “Believe it or not, I’m on your side.”
Photo by L. Parker
But what really makes the particular scenes Gossom reveals so valuable for getting at the verbatim meat of this fascinating point in football history and pivotal juncture in southern culture is not only its unique, first person perspective but the extra dimensional insight achieved by virtue of Gossom not being some black prep-school ringer in the right place at the finally, “come on boy, things are changing, here’s some money” right time.
In fact, Gossom wasn’t even recruited. He applied to Auburn, got accepted, and showed up on campus for freshman orientation in 1970. Inside his wallet was a piece of paper on which he’d written the words “I will play football for Auburn University.” He found the athletic department. No one had ever heard of him. They soon wondered why they hadn’t.
He had been a good player at John Carroll, a private Catholic high school in Birmingham that had recently produced Pat Sullivan, Auburn’s best-ever quarterback and winner of the 1971 Heisman Trophy. Outside, Birmingham raged. Inside, John Carroll was an oasis of personal betterment with little in the way of racial tension. But there had been some issues with his coach his senior year and no offers had come, no football offers at least. Still, he had his goals and he knew what he could do. Just remember that script in your wallet, read your lines, play the part, make the team. He walked in and said “I want to play football.” Well, alright boy, be there for practice, let’s see what you got…
What Gossom had was what Auburn and every other SEC school wanted their new black kids to have – speed. He was the fastest person out there.
“And boy, when I hit that crease just right, baby, I was gone.”
And so it came to pass that Thom Gossom put on a #49 jersey in honor of Bobby Mitchell, the last first black to integrate an NFL team (the Washington Redskins), and became not just the second black to play football for Auburn, but the first ever with the audacity to simply show up and walk on the team. A year later, as the neighbors craned their necks from their front porches to size up the two big white men who’d rolled up in that blue Ford LTD, there was a knock on his parent’s front door, and then smiles on their faces as Thom became the first black player to earn a football scholarship for a major university in the state of Alabama.
Here’s how he describes the scene:
I couldn’t breathe… I looked at my mom. Her eyes were brimming as she nodded at me. I knew that this was beyond her wildest hopes for me. She had made it clear that school was supposed to be my main goal, but I also wanted to play ball for Auburn. I had written it down that New Year’s Eve. What Mom wanted for me was to get a great education, and this man was offering us both our dreams on one piece of paper.
I took the paper and signed it.
Four years later, he graduated. Mission accomplished. End scene.
But before that, there was all the crap you’d expect – the slurs, the “just be grateful you’re here, now please shut up” attitudes. And as the other players hi-fived each other and hitched rides together to the frat parties and the bars and the girls after administering a one-for-all ass whoopin’ to the Bulldogs or the Volunteers or the Yellow Jackets, there was that gut-sinking realization that whatever camaraderie he thought they’d all just achieved on the field was just sweat – you washed it off in the locker room. He and Owens and the rest that came soon after would be left to entertain themselves in a social vacuum (thankfully young Lionel “Skeet” Richie and the Commodores were just down road in Tuskegee). For example, he writes that, after Auburn’s blowout loss to Oklahoma in the 1971 Sugar Bowl, “the black players from Oklahoma rescued James and me by inviting us to go to a party with them.”
Or like a year later, after the legendary 1972 Auburn-Alabama game, referred to this day as “Punt, Bama, Punt,” the greatest football game ever.
Auburn came into it with one loss. Alabama had won every game and was ranked #2 in the nation. Auburn safety David Langner scored two touchdowns in the final minutes of the 4th quarter after Auburn linebacker Bill Newton blocked two Alabama punts. And by blocked, I mean made love to. Time opened wide. People started floating in the air. Bourbon started raining from the Birmingham sky. Lightning struck, it struck twice and the stadium thundered! Tongues of fire! Rebel yells! Trumpets toward Jericho, babies being made, children being born! A shot of cinematic adrenaline straight to the heart! War Damn Eagle! Punt, Bama Punt, you sonsabitches! Auburn won, 17-16. (Not one, but two restaurants in Auburn have been named after that one individual game.) In the locker room afterwards, Coach Jordan called the ’72 team, already then known as The Amazin’s, his all-time favorite. They ended the season 10-1. A screenplay is in the works.
Cut to Thom: while the other players either hit the streets of Birmingham as hard as they ever have with their arms around each other or race the two hours back to Auburn to ride the local wave of emotion, Gossom and Owens are quietly treated to a few drinks by his uncle, who has just won a lot of money on the game, at a shot house in the black part of town. End scene.
Photo courtesy AU Photo Services
For added effect, Gossom was viewed as somewhat of a trouble maker, not necessarily belligerent but the kind of kid who spoke before he was spoken to. He was part of a group of black students that marched on the president’s office his freshman year. He had his own column in the student newspaper his senior year, “First and 10 with Thomas Gossom” – occasionally he’d sign off with a “right on” or somethin’, like some damn hippie.
He was kicked off the team twice: once for dope, once for non-compliance with grooming regulations. On Tuesday, Feb. 12th, 1974 the second day of the first Black History Week, fourteen black athletes – all fourteen – staged a walk-out of the athletic dorms, threatened to not come back, quit their teams, all that. What was the problem? The three black football players wouldn’t shave.
“Bill Cosby doesn’t have a mustache.”
Auburn head coach Shug Jordan (pronounced Jur-den) was the southernest of southern gentleman, born and raised in Selma, a fact that those who knew him invoke with a wink in their voice as if it alone somehow explains something you just need to know about the man. “Well, Shug was from Selma…”
“I mean, the Bear was the Bear, and he won. He won with little crew cut white guys and he won with big black guys. I remember one game I walked by him standing at the goal post just so I could get a good look at him. But I mean, Shug had been there forever, he’d won a national championship, he’d had a Heisman Trophy winner. There was a story that came out in Sports Illustrated around that time about the best coaches in football and they had Ara Parasegian from Notre Dame, Darrell Royal, John McKay at USC, they had Bear but they had Shug, too. We thought we were playing for a legend, too,” Gossom tells me.
The blurb on Jordan concluded “Shug’s teams don’t quit.”
Jordan was hell bent on discipline. Football wasn’t about winning. Football was about discipline. Jordan said Gossom and Co. had to find a razor and use it because discipline was at stake.
“I don’t want to hear nothin’ about no black powuh or white powuh or yellow powuh, I just want to hear about Auburn powuh…”
“… but Coach, nobody’s talking about black pow…”
“… so just shave. I mean, Bill Cosby doesn’t have a mustache. OJ Simpson doesn’t have one. Why do you want one? Shave or leave.”
They said they wouldn’t. Shug kicked them off the team, yanked their scholarships.
Of course it was only the football players who had to abide by these sorts of rules, which were stricter than even the ROTC grooming requirements then in place. They came with Shug in 1951, the year before Thom was born, when just the thought of a black player would have seemed like a freakish communist nightmare to most Alabamians, had it even crossed their minds (it didn’t cross their minds). So it wasn’t a racial thing, it wasn’t selective.
“When we won, long hair was tolerated,” Gossom writes. “When we lost, we got haircuts.”
But when the rest of them – the black basketball players and track guys – packed their bags, to show a solid front against perceived injustice, it certainly started looking racial and it was starting to make national headlines. Sports Illustrated. Jet Magazine. The Chicago Tribune. The New York Times. The Associated Press ranked it one of the top five national stories the day it broke and the office phone at The Plainsman, the student newspaper, was ringing off the hook with calls from NBC News.
“Coach Jordan, he was in charge, man. There was no compromise in him,” Gossom says. “He tried to handle as if it were only three football players, but when all the black athletes left, at least momentarily, it became a major crisis.”
It hit the fan, according to Gossom, when basketball star Eddie Johnson was quoted – he later said misquoted – in the Montgomery Advertiser as saying black athletes shouldn’t come to Auburn.
But reality hit the revolution fast and hard. Gossom and the other (clean-shaven) black football players returned to campus and were allowed to reclaim their scholarships and eventually rejoin the team. But the damage had been done.
“The whole thing hurt Auburn,” Gossom says. “They took a lot of bad press and it slowed down their efforts in recruiting black athletes.”
Meanwhile the University of Alabama couldn’t get enough of them.
The Empire Strikes Black
The energy behind Alabama’s early efforts to recruit blacks was driven by a fear of being left behind in the in-state space race for black players, which began in earnest in 1969 upon Auburn’s signing of running back James Owens. That Auburn, unlike Alabama, appeared actually somewhat serious about recruiting black players not only pissed off Alabama’s Afro-American Student Association and fueled a lawsuit against Bryant, it scared Alabama’s coaches for what it could mean on the field. Like it would in the USC game, black speed at Auburn might translate into Bama defeats, a possibility likely underscored by Auburn breaking a five game losing streak to Alabama in November of that year by hammering the Tide 49-26, the most points ever scored on Bear Bryant. (The times, they were a changin’.) Though Owens was not then on the varsity team, the Tigers would go on to make it two in a row in 1970 when he was, and some speedy freshman walk on from John Carroll was waiting in the wings, some understudy, somebody Gossom…
But by 1974, the black gap had been more than bridged. Before there were limits on the number you could give, Bryant was reaching into his deep pockets and handing out scholarships to players, including black players, like candy; whether they played or not, they were his. More importantly, they weren’t Auburn’s.
“If we’d sign one black guy, Alabama would sign half a dozen,” laughs Gossom.
Ten years after George Wallace famously, literally stood in the way of integration on its campus, the University of Alabama had become the place for black football players in the state; Bama had far more black athletes, more black students in general, a better black social scene – the headlines coming from Auburn were nothing but free advertising to that effect. The Crimson Tide had at least fourteen black players going into 1974, Gossom’s senior season, including Sylvester Croom, who in 2003 became the SEC’s first black coach.
The Auburn Tigers had three.
Today there’s no mustache. No afro. He goes to the reunions with the troublemaker veneer long gone and he even tears up a little. He sits on boards and committees. Forty years after the initial integration of Auburn athletics, Thom Gossom, that guy, is a big name they wave around and link to because his is a success story.
He says that by writing his book, “I told it the way I wanted to tell it.”
He came to Auburn and did what he’d set his mind on, what no one else had – he was the first black kid to walk on to a Division I football team in the state of Alabama, make the team, and earn a scholarship. Nobody can take those points off the board.
He survived the grinding labor by which the paradigm once existing only in the ink of federal legislation was born into workaday southern reality. He made history and he’d do it all over again. And if he did do it over again, the rules of the game would be different. And that means that last game against Alabama would have been a hell of a lot different. Play that ’74 Iron Bowl today, right now, and that touchdown counts. Auburn wins. End scene.
“It was the last of what I call the crew-cut, all-white mentality in football. I think the culture, started to change after that,” Gossom says, looking back. “It wasn’t just on the football field, though, it was one culture emerging into another and no one really knew what that other was going to be. The university, the athletic department, the old customs and traditions… we were all getting dragged along, whether we wanted to go or not.”