CHASING CITIZENSHIP looks at individuals whose words and actions challenged popular opinion, conventional wisdom, and political correctness in order to make America a more excellent union. The series celebrates the work of people who faced their most basic personal interests and willingly sacrificed them for the good of others. Background on the series can be found under the FEATURED SERIES menu item. This article focuses on the arena of sports. While we often overlook this aspect of society, numerous figures chased citizenship by taking actions on and off the field that challenged America’s consciousness, sent a message to nations around the world, and/or placed them in harm’s way of public reprisal, threats, and other sacrifices. The edition considers one such person – Cornelius Green.
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Cornelius Green, a native of Washington, DC, brought an immeasurable amount of pride to kids in my hometown of Cincinnati and throughout the State of Ohio.
For young black boys in Pop Warner Football and grade school football leagues, Green captured the imagination when #7 stepped on the field to lead the Ohio State Buckeyes football team. We wanted to throw like Green and run like him as well. And in the midst of a Black is Beautiful re-awakening, it did not hurt that when this Buckeye quarterback got up field, his Afro was seen filling the space of his helmet! Corny (as his teammates called him) was the real deal.
The Times: America In Transition
Green’s arrival at Ohio State was nothing short of God’s providence given the times. One cannot appreciate the enormity of his presence without placing the decision made by Head Coach Woody Hayes to start Green in a societal context.
Our nation was only five years removed from the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some 180 riots of the Summer of 1967 and those following Dr. King’s death had taken a toll on a number of cities. Images of burning cities and the rhetoric of black groups (e.g., Nation of Islam, The Black Panthers) left large segments of the white community in a state of suspicion towards African Americans. It was a period of heightened expressions of blackness in the clothing (e.g., the dashiki), hairstyles, arts, and athletics. In 1971, Muhammad Ali won a decisive victory against the United States in the Supreme Court, overturning his conviction that followed Ali’s decision to not fight in the Vietnam War.
In addition, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s provided the basis for legislative extensions and societal changes born in northern cities in the 1970s. In the decade that followed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, communities were slowly moving into an extended period of demographic shifts brought about by “white flight”. For white families that remained in changing communities, the transition to desegregation was tedious, and often explosive. My family arrived in the small community of Silverton in 1965, as the second black family on Elywnne Drive, three years before President Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
In a similar sense, America’s public schools were beginning to feel the pains of civil rights contractions that began with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954); a ruling that declared racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. De jure segregation in the south would be turned upside-down after the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) that permitted busing as a legal remedy. In 1974, the Supreme Court’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley permitted busing across multiple school districts to correct de facto segregation, commonly practiced in the north where neighborhoods tended to be segregated by race.
Backlash from these rulings surfaced in the form of violent clashes between white citizens and local authorities in Charlestown, Cleveland, and numerous other cities. In its 1971 report, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights [KCHR] found that Louisville Public Schools had retreated to segregation, concluding that 90% of its student body in schools across the district was of one race; a level of polarization worse than anytime since 1956. KCHR followed with a lawsuit to merge district schools in Louisville, Jefferson County, and Archorage. Bolstered by Miliken v. Bradley, Louisville schools took actions to desegregate in 1975; a move that led to civil protests energized by the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. In Boston, school busing ignited some of the nation’s most charged riots that not only continued over three years, but also left deep-seated wounds that remain today.
Ohio State: The State’s Quintessential Brand
The Buckeyes of The Ohio State University was arguably the state’s quintessential sporting brand. Woody Hayes and crew could bring together people across racial, social, political, and economic spectra in a way that cut through the chaos occurring in broader society. Yes, the Cincinnati Reds is etched in the annals of history, having been the first major league brand. Yes, the NFL’s first game took place just north of Cincinnati on October 03, 1920, when the Columbus Panhandles beat the Dayton Triangles by a score of 14-0. The state’s history, notwithstanding, nothing in the late-1960s through early-1970s could compare to Woody Hayes and the Buckeyes. Whether talking about classic match-ups with the Michigan Wolverines or New Year’s Day Rose Bowl appearances, some of my most cherished sports spectator memories involved Scarlet and Gray.
Whether from Cleveland or Cincinnati, Dayton or Akron, Toledo or Columbus, Ohioans could rally around Buckeye football like no other collegiate or professional enterprise. And yet, the storied program that dated back to 1890 had not produced a quarterback who looked like great African American athletes playing in the wealth of youth associations and high schools throughout the state. But that all changed one fall afternoon in 1973.
Woody Hayes’ Corny Decisions
For the first time, an African American would be under center, directing the Ohio State offensive attack. Woody Hayes’ decision to start Cornelius Green was to The Ohio State University community no less significant than Branch Rickey’s decision to sign Jackie Robinson to play Major League Baseball. And as with Rickey’s selection of Robinson, Hayes selected Green first and foremost to deliver victories to the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Cornelius Green (“Corny”) was unaware about starting in the Buckeyes’ 1973 season opener (Sept. 15) until the day of the game. Coach Woody Hayes had concealed this information until the day of the game. Green conveyed to me that he learned of his upcoming start through the Columbus Dispatch newspaper! Many speculated about Coach Hayes’ thinking behind delaying the surprising news. Whether it was to avoid placing pressure on Corny during the days leading up to the game, history hid this from fans. Some suspected a Hayes gameday strategy to confound the opponent’s defensive scheme. Perhaps, delaying the announcement quailed rhetoric that would certainly escalate in the Ohio State community among students, alumni, boosters, and the extended fan base. Yet another possible reason involved shielding the team from unnecessary media criticism.
The Many Sides of History…
Hayes’ decision illustrates that history is often made on the waves of turbulent waters. Further, that history makers, unlike their predecessors, choose to encounter the inevitable turbulence. Coming out of Dunbar High School in Washington, DC, the highly recruited Green could have opted for a path of lesser resistance at the college ranks. As quarterback and defensive back, Green could have chosen a Historically Black College and University [HBCU] program to play quarterback, given the success of HBCUs in placing NFL players. Or Green might have exercised a wider range of choices in a Division I program by settling on a defensive opportunity. His pre-selection meeting with Hayes ultimately centered on one question, “Would I have the opportunity to pursue the quarterback position at Ohio State?”
With a successful 1972 recruiting effort and season in the rear, Hayes and Green were charting a risky course in 1973 that would transform the Ohio State program. Fast forward to game day for the season opener, Hayes announced his decision to Green and the Buckeyes team. From the player’s perspective, it is safe to suspect that many might spend a lengthy private session with stomach churning over a toilet bowl, knowing that 90,000 screaming fans would for the first time see an African American taking snaps for a premier brand in all of sport. Ohio State players affectionately referred to Cornelius Green by the nickname “Corny”. But the star quarterback came to Ohio State with another nickname. What was it? And how did that nickname come into existence?
With a successful 1972 recruiting effort and season in the rear, Hayes and Green were charting a risky course in 1973 that would transform the Ohio State program. Fast forward to game day for the season opener, Hayes announced his decision to Green and the Buckeyes team. From the player’s perspective, it is safe to suspect that many might spend a lengthy private session with stomach churning over a toilet bowl, knowing that 90,000 screaming fans would for the first time see an African American taking snaps for a premier brand in all of sport.
Ohio State players affectionately referred to Cornelius Green by the nickname “Corny”. But the star quarterback came to Ohio State with another nickname.
What was it?
And how did that nickname come into existence?
Inside the Buckeye locker room, Green confronted enormous internal and team psychological tensions. Talent notwithstanding, Green’s start meant Greg Hare watching the 1973 season opener from the sidelines. This was no small matter. Hare was entering his senior year and final season as a Buckeye quarterback. He was team captain on one of the nation’s most storied programs. Hare had led the Buckeyes in the previous year to a victory over arch-rival Michigan. And under Hare, the previous year’s squad had taken the Big Ten title, earning a trip to The Rose Bowl.
Here again, necessity birthed history. Hayes concluded that Green was better-suited to manage the Buckeyes running game. And with [Hare’s] success in the rear view of the program, the Buckeyes Head Coach followed through with his commitment to Green.
The 1973 opener between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Minnesota Golden Golfers drew 86,005 attendees to Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes beat the Golden Golfers 56-7. The starting QBs pitted Ohio State’s Cornelius Green against Minnesota’s Tony Dungy.
As far as I know, this is the first 50,000+ attendees football game ever played that featured two African American starting quarterbacks.
If you have information that indicates differently, let us know. Use Contact Us. We’ll publish your findings and credit you.
Team support and outstanding performances, however, did not shield Green from the persistent racism that plagued the nation, at-large. The Buckeyes rising star endured racist slurs and harassing phone calls. Hate mail, including letters from the Ku Klux Klan. Letters not written to a civil rights worker, but to a young man who simply loved the game and desired to display his talents. Letters that his Caucasian peer quarterbacks at Division I colleges would never read or emotionally handle during their game preparation. Letters that would add to the challenge of balancing studies and performing in a highly visible position.
Amid the hostilities, Greed continued to perform and perform well. Green explained to ESPN:
“You know, I knew the significance of it. But there was so much to learn and so much to do that I tried to block that side of it out even though it was very significant. You know, I got a lot of racial letters and taunts and phone calls and things like that, but I was able to kind of block that out.”
Green’s Legacy and the Legacy of Hayes’ Corny Decision
The impact Green had on youth athletes in Ohio cannot be overstated. Communications then were not as they are today where youth are now more able to follow athletes at college programs across the country. For instance, many around the country did not closely follow Marlin Briscoe’s successful career at Nebraska Omaha during the mid-1960s (64-67). I knew little of Tennessee State University’s Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam until he reached the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972. For black youth in the mid-70s, Cornelius Green became the face of college possibilities in the Buckeye state.
Cornelius Green, The Buckeye
Rose Bowl MVP, 1974
Ohio State Football MVP, 1975
Big Ten Football MVP, 1975
OSU QB Record 146 Yards Rushing vs. Wisc. (1974)
First Buckeyes QB to Pass for 2000+ Yards
Ohio State’s Varsity “O” Hall of Fame, 1998
31-3-1 is 2nd highest QB winning pct. (.900)
(next to Rex Kern at .926)
Today, the most decorated and elite NCAA Football programs that have had one, two, or several black quarterbacks in recent years: Texas, Michigan, Auburn, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, Penn State, Florida State, and my Ohio State Buckeyes. A number of black quarterbacks have won National Championships and Heisman Awards. Several went on to successful pro careers, and two to win The Super Bowl. And for Buckeye Nation, Hayes’ decisions and Green’s performance under intense scrutiny in the 1970s is the legacy through which Heisman Award winner Troy Smith would lead the 2002 Ohio State squad to the BCS Championship.
At a time when discouraging voices expressed doubt that blacks could manage complex football programs, Cornelius Green stepped into that history and conventional wisdom. Adding to it a footnote of outstanding collegiate achievements. Ultimately, the Hayes-Green partnership illustrates that historic moments are made, particularly where race is involved, when one partner is prepared and the other is willing to make the right decisions.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE:
Woody Hayes’ decision might not have been important for some who never dealt with American life as a person of color. But for African American young athletes living through the turbulent changes taking place in society, Cornelius Green had enormous appeal. Watching Green come onto the field was a blow to racial undercurrent at the basis of ideas that African Americans were ill-equipped to quarterback top-tier collegiate teams. And to be clear, in 1973, I was in my second year at Ohio’s top high school that required three years of Latin. If a 13-year-old child could understand Greek mythology and foreign languages, that child was fully aware of the subtle messages conveyed by the absence of black quarterbacks at the nation’s top colleges.
1. Writer Lloyd Vance published an extensive article entitled “The Complete History of the African American Quarterbacks in the National Football League (NFL) – Part 1″ in THE COFFIN CORNER: Vol. 27, No. 6 (2005). Vance is the editor of editor of BQB_Site (http://www.geocities.com/bqb_site), a website dedicated to the history, news, and accomplishments of African American Quarterbacks. To read the article, click http://www.profootballresearchers.org/Coffin_Corner/27-06-1102.pdf.
2. Cornelius Green and Dennis Franklin. A featured segment on The Big Ten Network discusses the historic match-up of the first African American quarterbacks at the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines.
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