Football celebrates 50th anniversary of integration

The University of North Alabama will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the integration of college football Nov. 3. The ceremony will take place at 1:10 p.m. before kickoff against Shorter at 1:30 p.m.

The ceremony will honor the 1968 Lions football team, back when the school was known as Florence State University. This team was the first predominantly white college in the state of Alabama to play an African American player in an official game on Sept. 21, 1968.

At the time, head coach Hal Self selected freshman Leonard Thomas and Bobby Joe Pride to play in the season kickoff game against Central Arkansas, and by association break the college football color barrier.

Thomas and Pride continued to play in every game that season. Gene Stovall was another African American player in the class of 1968 but did not see time on the field.

According to Sports Information, Thomas was the school’s all-time leading rusher at the end of his football career with the school.

He ran for 2,271 yards with 21 touchdowns overall. Thomas and Pride were ranked No. 1 and two respectively in all-purpose yards, with Thomas having 3,938 yards and Pride rushing 3,655. Thomas was inducted into the UNA Athletic Hall of Fame in 1996 in the seventh class of inductees.

The University of Alabama had five African American students walk-on its football team in 1967 with none of them seeing time on the field. West Alabama, Jacksonville State and Samford all played their first African American football players in 1969. Auburn followed in 1970 with Alabama and Troy in 1971.

According to ESPN, Preston Eagleson was the first African American to play collegiate football at Indiana University in the 1890s. The first African American football player in the Southeastern Conference was Nathaniel Northington, who played for Kentucky in 1967.

Multiple players from the 1968 team are confirmed to attend the ceremony on Saturday, including Thomas and Pride.