Civil rights football icon Jimmy Raye speaks to WNHS history classes

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Westerville North High School students got a glimpse of life during the racial segregation era after a recent virtual Q&A with Jimmy Raye, the first Black quarterback from the South to win a National Championship when he played for Michigan State in 1966.

Students in Ben Hartnell’s history classes gathered in WNHS’ auditorium to hear Raye share his life experiences, from growing up in segregated Fayetteville, North Carolina to off-field antics caused by teammate Bubba Smith. They were stunned when Raye talked about his recruiting trip to East Lansing that began on a segregated train and how he had been reluctant to enter the dining hall on campus, waiting to be tapped on the shoulder and told he wasn't allowed to be in there. Though it didn’t happen, he was still nervous as he had never ordered from a menu before, further explaining how restaurants were very different in the South at that time. 

Raye talked about the pressures of being a Black quarterback being so far from home and the usual stresses that come with college itself. He said his white teammates and white students on campus welcomed him on both the field and in the classroom at Michigan State. He praised Coach Duffy Daugherty for shielding him from outside negativity so he could focus on being a student and an athlete. 

"When I played quarterback at Michigan State, I was the only starting quarterback in the Division I schools in the U.S., and I had been told constantly that I would never play quarterback because that was a position that was considered off basis for a black athlete," Raye said.

Raye was part of Coach Duffy Daugherty’s “Underground Railroad,” which recruited Black players from the South who were unable to play due to segregation. Michigan State’s 1965 and 1966 teams were the first integrated teams in college football. Raye and the Spartans helped change the landscape of college football, including playing in the fabled "Game of the Century," a 10-10 tie with Notre Dame. 

The concept for the April 26 virtual Q&A began earlier this year during the school’s Black History Month Door Contest, when Hartnell used the door and entrance of his classroom to honor Raye. 

Veteran sports broadcaster Jack Ebling invited Hartnell to talk about his Black History Month display during Ebling’s radio show, The Drive with Jack, which focuses on Michigan sports. During the segment, Raye joined the conversation to surprise Hartnell. (Listen to the interview here.)

Hartnell introduced his students to sportswriter Tom Shanahan’s book about Raye, “Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the Integration of College Football and the 1965–66 Michigan State Spartans.” Using the book, Hartnell wove Raye's story into his classroom discussions on Civil Rights and the role played by sports in helping further integration and foster change in American society - both then and today.

Following the radio segment, Shanahan contacted Hartnell about setting up the virtual Q&A with Raye and Hartnell had his history classes compile questions to send to Raye. Shanahan joined Raye for the Zoom chat.

"I learned about Jimmy Raye, Duffy, and the integration of college football from my father, who went to Michigan State and was on campus at the same time as these players," Hartnell said. "Dad had so many great stories and spoke highly of what the school was doing to help change society. He was really proud of his Alma Mater for that. Michigan State's legacy and heavy involvement in the Civil Rights Movement is one of the reasons I wanted to go there myself."

During the discussion, Raye touched on a variety of topics such as social media and what he thinks might have happened if Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook had been around when he was playing. He discussed the impact of NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) has had — and will continue to have — on sports and how such a program might have played out in the 1960s. He talked about his favorite player growing up (Oscar Robertson) and currently (Patrick Mahomes), his favorite game in college (an 11-8 victory over Ohio State in a monsoon in Columbus) and the importance of minority hiring across all sports, especially in the NFL. Raye served as the offensive coordinator for 10 teams over a 40-year career in the NFL.

Following the chat, Hartnell’s students composed thank cards that were mailed to Raye.

"This was such a wonderful opportunity to bring history to life for my students by having the words on a page appear before their eyes," Hartnell said. "To be able to interact with a Civil Rights icon and to hear his stories first-hand makes it that much more real. These are real people who lived through real history. It's also how we preserve history. I talk all year long with my students about history being one big story. I have a story. They have a story. Mr. Raye has a story. When you put these stories together, we create the story that is America. This was something they'll remember long after they leave my classroom."