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The Right Kind of Virtue

Posted May 21, 2014

Teammates live it to prove it

Whenever the cynical realities of race relations collided with the shiny ideals of the American dream of freedom for all, few were willing to recognize it or, if they did, ignored it.

It was the beginning of the 1960s.

On those occasions when it did happen, however, it often took place in, of all places, the sports arena.

It became largely a case of color be damned and merit be praised.

Sounds simple enough and while plenty of people espouse the idea today, back at the dawn of a new decade it took a special person to man-up and live it.

The struggle is typified in what New York Times columnist David Brooks likes to call the battle in each of us between Resume virtues and eulogy virtues.

More on that in a bit.

Today, the thought of all-white teams in any sport seems ridiculous. But at the start of the 1960s there were only a few pockets where progress it could be said was being made.

Chris Burford, a white end out of Stanford University, and Abner Haynes, a black man from the University of North Texas, both found themselves members of the Dallas Texans football team in 1960.

A look at the 1960 Texans team photo would show two black players which, believe it or not, was quite a statement for the time and this was the South, after all. But even in the North, It wasn’t until 1962 that the NFL’s Washington Redskins even had a black player on its team. Meanwhile, the American Football League was taking a different route appealing to young men from the traditional black colleges and universities of the segregated South.

Burford took the unusual step – unusual for that time, anyway – of taking Haynes up on a dinner invitation at his teammate’s home in Dallas. In a recent article in the Stanford Magazine, Burford talked about the invitation. The author of the piece, Paige Ricks, described the invite as a “casual gesture,” adding that it “was much more” to Haynes.

Just how unique it was to simply come to dinner at the home of a member of another race is hard to fathom today. In 1960, it was unknown and, to a large extent, unthinkable. Haynes remarked that up until that time his parents had never had dinner with a white person before…anywhere.

More than 50 years later, Burford received recognition for his stance that day and throughout his career with induction into the African-American Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame. To no surprise, he was nominated by his host for that dinner long ago in Dallas, Abner Haynes.

“We went through so much together,” Haynes says of his teammate, “and Chris showed me the dignity side of man.” 

There were bound to be some difficult times for any white person who held the views that Burford did, and he would be called upon many times to stand up to racism, even from his elevated position as a star professional football player.

On Burford’s first visit to Kansas City prior to the team’s arrival in 1963, with an entourage that included two black players, he had occasion to stop by a bar downtown. There, the two black players were denied service. Burford complained of the slight and H. Roe Bartle, Kansas City’s mayor, who was along took care of the insult quickly and, as Burford recalled, the men were promptly served and what had been accepted for so long represented a small step toward what equality was supposed to mean in this country. Perhaps more importantly, some Kansas Citians got a taste of what a football “team” is all about, and what Chris Burford is all about.

There were other incidents, to be sure, and black players were constantly faced with inferior hotel options compared to their white teammates when teams traveled anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Burford held out against the snubs and encouraged his black teammates to do the same, but his feelings went well above and beyond the idea that his was a “cause,” as Civil Rights leaders called it then. Still, “it changed things in Kansas City,” Burford believes. 

David Brooks identifies Resume virtues as the ones you put on your Resume, which are the skills you bring to the marketplace. They are what drive most people. Eulogy virtues are deeper. They speak to who you are and what is your nature, whether you are kind, honest, brave - the essential qualities that speak to your true being.

Burford was the product of another time in American life. It would have been far easier to set himself apart from his black teammates and congregate only with the white ones. 

I know Chis Burford, but not to the extent that I know him to have conquered the battle Brooks says is within all of us, of Eulogy over Resume. To him, he said matter-of-factly to Ricks, “I’m no perfect person. Skin color wasn’t the issue – just the person.”

But by accepting that invitation in 1960, and by standing up to the prevailing norms of those days, by being brave, I can say Burford was well on his way. That’s more than you can say for most of us had we found ourselves in his shoes at that time and place.  The road to racial equality was still a crooked path, strewn with many obstacles.
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