MINNEAPOLIS -- Former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Gene Washington’s football career was over before his daughter, Maya, was born.
When she later discovered he was a member of the college football Hall of Fame and went to the Super Bowl with the Vikings in 1969, of course she was impressed. But what made her most proud was learning about how her father helped integrate the Big Ten in the 1960s.
Washington was one of several African-American football players who made the journey from the segregated South during that era, moving to East Lansing, Mich., to attend Michigan State. Also among that first wave were University of Minnesota All-Americans Bobby Bell and Carl Eller, Washington’s Vikings teammate.
Inspired by her father’s place in college football history, Maya Washington directed a documentary called “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar,” which got its name from the Spartans’ fight song.
“I thought people needed to know that Michigan State had a very important role ultimately in fully integrating college football,” she said. “Michigan State actively went down to the South and recruited black players when southern schools weren’t doing that.”
The documentary film will be finished in the fall and is hopeful for a 2016 release. That would coincide with the 50th anniversary of Michigan State’s 1966 national championship.
Washington, who played with the Vikings from 1967-72, was one of four Spartans players drafted in the top eight picks in 1967.
Defensive tackle Bubba Smith and running back Clinton Jones, another ex-Viking, went 1-2 in the draft, while linebacker George Webster and Washington were selected fifth and eighth overall in the first round, respectively.
“I learned a long time ago from my teachers when I was growing up in segregation that you have to work hard and apply yourself,” Washington said, “and you have to be nice to people regardless of the color of your skin. So from a cultural standpoint, I relied on my background. It was very helpful to me.”
Blacks weren’t allowed to attend most southern colleges and universities when Washington was growing up in Texas in the 1940s and ’50s. Michigan State, on the other hand, already had integrated, as had its residential housing, before he got there in 1964.
Spartans coach Duffy Daugherty, who won national championships in 1965 and 1966, was recruiting black players for nearly 20 years before Washington’s talented group.
“I’m so proud I had that experience,” Washington said. “So coming to Minnesota, and realizing the integration part of it made it easier for me to adapt.”
Eller helped Washington promote the documentary at an event at the YMCA in Ridgedale in May. They talked about how rare it was for current NFL players to acknowledge what players decades before them experienced during segregation.
“I think they play the game with the same intensity, enthusiasm and dedication that we did when we played, but they’re not required to do as much,” Eller said. “Part of my crusade now is (explaining that) athletics during the Civil Rights movement played a very important role during that time. I don’t think athletes in general have been respected for their contribution.”
Vikings rookie and former Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes, who will make his NFL training camp debut this weekend in Mankato, understands now what Washington and others went through.
As part of the documentary, Washington and his daughter spent time with the Spartans on the road to the team’s 2014 Rose Bowl appearance.
“He came up quite a bit, interacting with the team,” Waynes said. “He’s a Michigan State legend and someone a lot of us looked up to. It was real interesting to hear his story about being one of the first African American players to do the things he did.
“Everything he went though there was the same here (with the Vikings), so it was cool to see the success he had. It’s an inspiration. It says a lot about (Washington and his MSU teammates) as people, because a lot of people my age wouldn’t be able to do that. I know some people I grew up with would’ve reacted in a negative way. For them to keep a calm head and persevere through all that adversity says a lot about them.”
Washington, who still lives in the Twin Cities, reached out to the Vikings’ first-round pick at rookie minicamp in May. He wanted Waynes to know there was support nearby in Minnesota if he needed it - something Washington didn’t have when he first arrived nearly 50 years ago.
“I hope people come away (from seeing the documentary) with the idea that we’ve come very far, but we still have a ways to go,” Maya Washington said. “My dad and his teammates went through a lot so that players today can have the opportunity that they have.”
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