Ex-Viking Gene Washington found fortune through 'Underground Railroad' of football

The four black players on Michigan State's team of 1966 brought the university unprecedented glory. Two went on to help the Vikings win their only NFL championship.

The four black players on Michigan State's team of 1966 brought the university unprecedented glory. Two went on to help the Vikings win their only NFL championship. Maya Washington

If it weren’t for football, Gene Washington might still live in Texas. He may never have gone to college, nor had a 22-year career at 3M. And he probably wouldn’t have been able to send all three of his daughters to Wayzata High School.

Black and white students couldn’t attend classes, much less share locker rooms, in the Texas where Gene grew up. In the early 1960s, the football powerhouses of the South – Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Houston University – remained whites only.

But one visionary college from the North predicted that black players would become champions on the field. Gene was offered a full scholarship to attend Michigan State University. At the time, MSU was led by John Hannah, a president who served on the first U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and insisted – despite much objection from certain alumni – on integrating dorms and hiring black professors.

Under coach Duffy Daugherty, Gene played on one of the first fully integrated teams in the history of college football, among giants recruited from segregated southern high schools, such as Bubba Smith, George Webster, and Clinton Jones. They went undefeated their final two years at MSU, and upon graduation comprised four of the first eight picks in the 1967 NFL draft.

No other school in the history has ever accomplished that. Daugherty’s pipeline was christened the “Underground Railroad” of football.      

Gene signed with the Minnesota Vikings, where he counted among his teammates Clinton Jones and "Purple People Eater" Alan Page, who helped the Vikings win the NFL Championship in the last year prior to its merger with the AFL.

Maya Washington, a Twin Cities filmmaker and Gene’s daughter, has spent the past four years uncovering the triumphs her father and his teammates brought to America’s first racially mixed football teams, and the success they repaid to him and subsequent generations of his family.

For Maya, the process has been full of revelations on historical perspective. Gene, who had known only segregation in his childhood, proudly remembers his time at MSU for the tremendous break that it was, a time when white teammates treated him like family and overt discrimination seemed suspended.

But there were times when they traveled South and hotels wouldn’t lodge the black athletes. Or when there were odd numbers of black and white players, and the odd guys out would each be given single rooms instead of being asked to room with a member of the opposite race.

When her parents first moved to Minnesota, they couldn’t get a house, Maya recalls. The first real estate firm they went to was so polite in telling them there was no more housing, they didn’t even realize they were being turned away because of their color. That was until they ran into an agent in the parking lot who recognized Gene as that promising Vikings rookie, and waved them back in.

“My dad’s generation and the extent of which they talk about discrimination and take for granted that’s how things were, to my generation it would be just outrageous,” Maya says. “To us, something like that goes down and people are on social media yelping.”

But for her father in that time, his was the best life one could hope for as a black man and an athlete of his caliber.

“This was an American dream come true, and it wasn’t an easy path,” Maya says. “It wasn’t a piece of cake.”

After his days at the NFL, Gene became a manager for diversity hiring at 3M, and got inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He counts among his highest achievements his three daughters, who are all college graduates with postgraduate degrees.

“I’m proud to mention all of this because it all started from having an opportunity to be recruited and leaving that completely segregated situation,” Gene says. “We have a whole lot of family members that never had that chance.”

Maya’s documentary, Through the Banks of the Red Cedar, is currently fundraising for finishing touches. It will be released in the spring.