It began with a meeting in the office of Alabama head coach Paul W. Bryant sometime in February of 1967. The legendary coach peered over his desk at a young University of Alabama freshman named Dock Rone and listened as the former standout high-school guard announced his intention walk on to the Crimson Tide football team.
Bryant then warned Rone of the difficulties involved with making the squad but told the Montgomery native he was welcome to try out provided he passed the physical and was academically eligible.
"I admire your courage, young man," Bryant told Rone.
The incident, recounted in Keith Dunnavant's book The Missing Ring, is a crucial moment in the history of Alabama football. Rone was no ordinary UA freshman, he was African-American and would become the first black athlete to don the Crimson Tide uniform. His decision to try out for the squad marked the beginning of the end of segregation on the Alabama football team.
Rone would not be alone in his attempt. Four other black students joined him when he reported for the Tide's first spring practice on April 1, 1967; Arthur Dunning from Mobile, Melvin Leverett from Prichard, Andrew Pernell from Bessemer and Jerome Tucker from Birmingham.
Until now, the presence of these five African-American athletes on the Alabama practice field has been seen as an outlier in the story of the integration of the football team. The narrative instead focuses on the offering the scholarship to basketball player Wendell Hudson in 1969, football player Wilbur Jackson in 1970 and the 1971 Alabama vs USC game that saw John Mitchell take the field and, at long last, cross the Crimson Tide's varsity football color line.
Yet while the importance of these events cannot be overstated, neither can the contribution of the black walk-ons that preceded them. In a paper I delivered at the North American Society of Sports Historians' annual congress last week, I argue that there were a confluence of powerful factors in the Spring of 1967 that finally forced the University of Alabama to take action.
Thus the presence of the five walk-on players at spring training was more than just another milestone on the way toward integration -- it was the crossing of Rubicon.
Rone became the first African American to wear the Alabama uniform (even if it was only the practice uniform) when his four companions were not allowed to work out on the first day of spring practice. As their arrival was unexpected, they had not been cleared academically to participate. They joined Rone on the practice field the following week.
The Alabama coaching staff had told the team to expect the arrival of the black players before the start of the spring sessions, according to Dunnavant in The Missing Ring. One player, Tom Sommerville, said the instructions of the coaching staff were "that we shouldn’t make a big deal about it… just to treat ‘em like everybody else, which we did."
Former players and coaches say that was exactly how they handled the situation and Rone later admitted many "went out of their way" to make the walk-ons feel welcome. Still, there was a "distance" between the black players and the rest of the squad, Pernell recalled.
We didn’t have conversations with people. From the players and other coaches, it was just like, distance. It was like you didn’t exist for the most part.
That isolation was compounded by the limited number of blacks on the UA campus in that era. Out of a total student population of around 12,000 in 1967, only about 300 were black. As the walk-ons were not scholarship athletes, they did not reside in Bryant Hall with the other players.
On May 5, 1967 approximately 15,000 Alabama fans showed up at Denny Stadium to watch the annual A-Day intrasquad game. Three of the walk-ons were on the roster; Rone, Tucker and Pernell with the first two seeing playing time.
"I got a fair shot," Rone said at the conclusion of spring. "I expect to get a chance to play next season."
It would not come to pass. During the summer of 1967, Rone left school due to family problems and was subsequently called into military service. Bryant recalled later that he doubted if Rone would have ever started for the team but "I think he would have played one day."
Pernell returned to walk-on again in the spring of 1968. He dressed out for that year’s A-Day game and made it into the game for three plays. His career with the team ended when the athletics department learned he was attending school on an academic scholarship which was a violation of SEC rules for a student athlete.
"I figured that was about as far as I could go with this thing and I would never get to play," he said of his decision.
Yet, by that point, the die had been cast. According to Dunnavant, Bryant gave his coaches the green-light to recruit black football players at the start of 1968, accelerating the gains made possible by the five walk-ons a year prior.