Pigskins and Leather Helmets
In 1892, Black college football plodded its way into history on a snow-covered field in North Carolina when Biddle Memorial Institute (Johnson C. Smith) out-scuffled Livingstone College. 5-0.
It began with gridiron lore that has produced some of the greatest legacies in all of college sports.
From this debut, black colleges around the country began to adapt to the masculine competition, but due of the climate of the day, they were obliged to form their own unions.
The first association started with the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1912. This was quickly followed by the Southeastern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SEIAC now SIAC) and the Midwest Conference (now the Southwestern Athletic Conference-SWAC).
This is the first series recap that will chronicle the early editions of Black college conferences and the outstanding performers and classics of the era.
Lions vs. Tigers: Big Ben vs. Jazz Byrd
“Big Ben” Stevenson stood 6-2, 210 lbs., a combination of speed (9.8 100-yard dash), raw power, and durability, which enabled him to over-power, elude tacklers or simply outrun everyone else on the field.
He was discovered one day while working on a Kansas farm by the Tigers head football coach Cleve Abbott who persuaded Stevenson to come to Tuskegee. He spent his first four years in a prep-schooler, which allowed him to play eight seasons for the Golden Tigers. During that time, they suffered only two defeats with him on the field.
In his first season (1923) he scored on a combination of long runs and dropkicks.
A two-way player, he played defensive back, earning a reputation as one of the top pass interceptors in the conference. The Tigers went 9-0 and claimed the first of six national championships.
They followed that up with another undefeated season.
Over his eight-year career, he scored 42 touchdowns on runs of 50 yards or more and was named to seven consecutive Black College All-America teams.
He made everyone’s Negro All-time All-America teams and earned the title as the game’s greatest all-around player of his era.
Franz A. “Jazz” Byrd was one of the premier open field runners of his time and drew comparisons to the great Red Grange for his spectacular performances on the gridiron.
A two-time All-American halfback and quarterback, Byrd earned ten varsity letters in three sports – football, basketball, and track and field.
He was an all-American guard on the basketball team and held the 100-yard dash record in the old Colored Inter-Collegiate Athletic Association.
In his varsity debut game in 1922, Byrd broke an 80-yard run against a strong Howard University defense the first time he carried the ball.
Byrd was the catalyst of the 1924 Lincoln football team that won their only CIAA championship with a record of 8-0-1 while outscoring their opponents 306-3.
Over the course of the 1924 season, Byrd scored at least one rushing touchdown, one receiving touchdown, and touchdowns from both a punt return and a kick return. Some of Byrd’s biggest moments came against Lincoln’s biggest rival, Howard University, where he scored at least one touchdown in each of the three Thanksgiving classics against the Bison and produced several runs of 40 or more yards.
1926: The Game of the Year
In a 1926 showdown, Franz Byrd got the Lincoln Blue Lions off to a roaring start in the conference title game. Big Ben Stevenson was knocked out of the game in the first half with a thigh injury and the Lions looked like they would shut out the high-scoring Golden Tigers. But Stevenson was not through yet. He came back in the game and scored all his team’s points in a thrilling second-half comeback and nailed down a 20-16 victory over Byrd and the Lions.