Husky Rose Bowl great made decades-long contributions beyond football and should be remembered for his early role in the fight for racial equality in the school’s sports program
– John Fox reprinted from April edition of City Living and other Pacific Publishing Newspapers
University of Washington Husky running back and legend, Ray Jackson, passed away recently at age 83. Star of the great Rose Bowl teams from the 1959 and 1960 seasons, he’s considered by many to be one of the best players from the “Coach Jim Owens era”.
But Jackson’s contributions to our community went beyond his football career extending over decades . He also must be remembered as a pioneer and an early symbol in the fight for racial equality in sports here in the Northwest. Jackson also was a coach of mine who left an indelible mark on my life.
As reported recently in the Seattle Times, after his career at running back Jackson became one of the first two African Americans to coach football at “Huskyville”. The other was Carver Gayton, another outstanding Husky football player from Coach Jim Owens Rose Bowl teams.
Jackson’s would leave football in the 70’s and go on to a successful career at Puget Power retiring in 1998 as its budget director. He also for many years was a boardmember and coach to Central Area youth, earlier a police officer, and always a community leader.
For kids like me, growing up in the suburbs north of Seattle in the early sixties during an era when Husky football was essentially the only game in town (along with the hydroplane races), Ray Jackson in particular was a legend as were some of the other greats from those teams including All American quarterback Bob Schloredt.
At that time, the town of Edmonds was uniformly white and middle class. I don’t think I ever met and got to know a black kid until I went to work in a lumber mill the summer before college. In my graduating class of over 400 at Meadowdale High School, there was one African American (who unfortunately I never really got to know until years later).
But in the early 60’s in Edmonds that didn’t stop us from admiring and trying to emulate the skills of Ray Jackson and other great African American athletes who played for the Huskies like George Flemming, Joe Jones, Charlie “he’s-still-first-downing” Browning, and Charlie Mitchell. First we played out our dreams in extremely rough sandlot full tackle (un-padded and un-helmeted) games with kids from other neighborhoods and then on the junior high and high school teams.
For one school year in 1968-1969 as a freshman at the University of Washington I donned a husky uniform with dreams of playing professionally. Like Jackson I was a fullback and linebacker. Both Ray Jackson and Carver Gayton were there on the coaching staff – the two lone black coaches and over a couple dozen white coaches and trainers. (The Times and other accounts say Jackson was hired by Coach Owens in 1971. But this was ’68 so Jackson likely was a graduate assistant at the time).
Several other players from the Rose Bowl era were on the coaching staff including Jim Lambright (later a head coach there) and Bob Schloredt. But the two coaches who stood out – who motivated and inspired me – were Ray Jackson and Carver Gayton.
While most of the coaches were ‘old school’, aggressive and authoritarian – Schloredt regularly grabbed players by their facemask violently shaking them senseless and favored only the few players he’d personally recruited – Jackson and Gayton were different. They believed in positive reinforcement and inspiring players to do their best on the field and in life. They were compassionate about football but also about the community and working with young people and offered counsel to all not just the favored few.
My direct experience with these two coaches lasted for only one school year – I got caught up in politics, disillusioned with football and left after freshman and spring ball. But what Jackson (and Gayton) offered, their role, lessons, and influence on me, I have carried with me all my life and through my career as a homeless and housing advocate and organizer for 40 plus years in Seattle. It was only later that I came to understand the larger role these two and the other black athletes were playing at that time in addressing inequality within the University’s sports programs.
Throughout the sixties and into the early 70s, there was a high level of dissatisfaction among black players over how they were being treated. Those concerns came to a head in the fall of ’69, the year after I left the program. In response Coach Owens called all 80 players into his office and demanded they pledge loyalty to his program.
Four of the black players took the courageous stand of saying NO and were immediately kicked off the team. Keep in mind, these were kids risking scholarships and careers beyond football. And Jim Owens stature at this time had reached mythical proportions; revered by the white corporate power-structure and establishment with influence rivaling the governor. While the school alumni and downtown crowd cheered Owens actions, all the remaining black players walked off and protests erupted in the Black community.
In the wake of the turmoil and national news coverage and intervention by Gayton, all but one of these players were eventually reinstated. Two years later in 1971 four other black players left the team. Following an investigation and recommendations by the Schools regents, Jim Owens hired Ray Jackson as a full-time assistant coach. It was these protests and the courageous stance of black players that paved the way for a long overdue change not just of the football program but the sports department in general. Coaches Gayton and Ray Jackson were instrumental in giving a voice to the black players and bringing about these changes.
(The four suspended players in 1969 included Greg Alex who I played with in ’68 went on to found the Matt Talbot Center in 1985 serving those on the streets fighting addiction. He’s still its Director. Lamar Hill became an highly regarded attorney and Public Defender. Ralph Bayard has been an Athletic Director to the University and worked for the Casey Foundation. Perhaps Harvey Blanks sacrificed the most in terms of a football career as an extremely talented running back who could have played professionally. He never returned to the team or football but instead became an accomplished actor, Director and playwright.)
In the early 70s Sonny Sixkiller came along to quarterback the Huskies and almost single-handedly elevated Husky football to national prominence again. Owens altered his run-first and run-some-more style to accommodate Sixkiller’s passing prowess. He and a few other talented players including All American Calvin Jones (another black player who later left the team in protest but then returned and who I also played with in ’68); it was their talent that gave Owens over the last three or four years of his tenure a level of success, allowing him to retire with his reputation largely in tact. (When wealthy Alumni dedicated a statute to Owens in 2003, a number of his former black players made sure Owen’s treatment of black players resurfaced – for more on this see links below)
Ray Jackson, Carver Gayton, Junior Coffey, George Flemming, Joe Jones, Charlie Mitchell, Charlie Browning, Harvy Blanks, Greg Alex, Lamar Mills, Ralph Bayard, Donny Moore, Calvin Jones, and others; these pioneering black ball players (and Jackson and Gayton as coaches) who stood up during the Coach Owens era played a critical role in reshaping the football program. Some of whom later would tell of being ‘platooned’ – required to share time on the field with white players of lesser caliber because they were black. Others told of being ‘stacked’ at the same position with other black players so whites could play more. Another tells of drug injections to cover his injuries so he could play. Apparently all this also was part of Owen’s ‘old school’ approach that was done away with thanks to these folks. (see links below for more on these accounts)
Unlike Coach Owens, not one of these ball players has a statue in front of Husky Stadium marking their contribution as early pioneers in the fight for racial equality on the field and in our community. They deserve it. Among these Husky legends, I am especially grateful for my direct experience with ‘Coach Jackson’. Thank you Ray. I’ll always remember you.