Commentary

Edmonds was the first African-American to earn a monogram at Notre Dame

Updated: February 21, 2008, 5:37 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | Special to ESPN.com

Wayne Edmonds waited for the backlash, for the inevitable reminders of racism to kick in.

Maybe all those people back home were right. Maybe Notre Dame was no place for a black man.

There had been no incidents before this day, but Edmonds sensed what was coming when Fighting Irish coach Frank Leahy approached him during a practice in 1953. "I want you to run with the backs," Leahy told Edmonds.

Offensive line coach Bob McBride chimed in: "I want you to be first, too."

[+] EnlargeWayne Edmonds
Notre Dame AthleticsIn 1953, Wayne Edmonds became the first black player to win a monogram at Notre Dame.
Edmonds, who played offensive tackle and defensive end for the Irish, surveyed his competition for the sprint: quarterback Ralph Guglielmi, the future College Football Hall of Famer and No. 1 draft pick of the Washington Redskins; fullback Neil "Bull" Worden, a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1954; halfback John Lattner, the only two-time Maxwell Award winner who claimed the Heisman Trophy in 1953.

A talented group for sure, but Edmonds wasn't intimidated. That was the problem.

He won the sprint easily. "The coach did this for maybe a week and then he said, 'Forget about it,'" Edmonds said. "They weren't getting any better, and I wasn't going to slow down. These were the backs; they were supposed to be the fastest ones on the team. And I thought, 'Well, I'm going to hear something about this.' They were going to say, 'Don't make us look bad.'

"But no one said one word to me."

Edmonds soon realized that at Notre Dame, performance trumped prejudice, and he had no trouble measuring up.

As a sophomore in 1953, Edmonds became the first black player to win a monogram at Notre Dame (other black players had made the team but Edmonds and Dick Washington were the first to appear in a game). Edmonds helped the Irish to an unbeaten mark in 1953 and won three monograms.

The idea of a black player suiting up for Notre Dame seemed far-fetched when McBride and Leahy made their first recruiting overtures. Edmonds' parents were discouraged from sending their son to the school, which brought not only racial obstacles but religious ones (the Edmonds were devout Baptists). His mother, a part-time housekeeper, once was told by a client, "They're going to change him into being something that he doesn't want."

Edmonds had nearly committed to Pitt, which introduced its first black player in 1945, but warmed to Notre Dame after visiting campus with a high school teammate.

Growing up in rural Canonsburg, Pa., he was used to hostile treatment during games: slurs said across the line of scrimmage while referees pretended they didn't hear them. He wouldn't have been surprised if more of the same awaited him at Notre Dame. But it didn't. "I can't even imagine that going on," said former Irish fullback Don Schaefer, who had played against Edmonds in high school before joining him in South Bend. "I'm not aware of any problems at all. Wayne was a good teammate. Everybody accepted him."

Edmonds blended in with his new teammates, even after upstaging several of them at his first practice in 1952. A day before freshman registration took place, Edmonds, playing defensive end, repeatedly dropped Guglielmi and Lattner behind the line of scrimmage. "The thing with football at Notre Dame, everybody was so worried about their own back," said Edmonds, now 74 and living in Harrisburg, Pa. "You had to stand by yourself. You couldn't gang up on anybody. You were always out to prove that you were going to make it, that you were the best."

[+] EnlargeFrank Leahy
AP PhotoCoach Frank Leahy recruited Wayne Edmonds to Notre Dame.
Edmonds avoided ugly incidents on campus, but he wasn't immune from the division that defined the times. In 1955, after Notre Dame blanked Miami 14-0 at the Orange Bowl, a fan confronted Edmonds on his way off the field. "Some guy just walked up to me and said, 'Nice game, n-----,'" Edmonds said. "I just shoved him down and my teammates and I sort of just ran over him going into the stands."

When Notre Dame traveled to Oklahoma for the season opener in 1953, Edmonds and Washington weren't allowed to stay in the team hotel. But their teammates didn't leave them alone. "Five or six of us spent the afternoon in Wayne's and Dick's hotel, just chatting and hanging out," Schaefer said. "We spent the day with them."

A similar situation arose during a trip to North Carolina in 1955. The black players were prohibited from staying in the team hotel, so Edmonds and halfback Aubrey Lewis, along with two white players, ended up staying at a local diocese.

The next morning, as their teammates headed to eat breakfast at their hotel, Edmonds and Lewis joined the other players, many of whom had no idea they were gone. Later that day, they entered a stadium with segregated seating.

"When we came out, we had to go through the stands," Edmonds recalled. "We heard people hollering, and we looked up and it was all the black people. Aubrey and I looked at each other, and we were very proud. They were really behind us. They knew what was going on."

Edmonds' fourth game came against Georgia Tech, a 27-14 Irish win at Notre Dame Stadium. The game was originally set to be played in Atlanta, but Georgia Tech couldn't host an opponent with black players on its roster. Leahy told Tech the game would be called off unless Edmonds and Washington could play. So it was moved north.

The irony for Edmonds was that in high school, he had received a recruiting letter from Georgia Tech. "They wanted me to come to school, and they would give me a scholarship," Edmonds said. "My dad and my mother and I sort of laughed. One of their scouts must have seen me and thought I wasn't black."

Edmonds estimates there were only 8-10 black students at Notre Dame during his term, and at times, the division was unmistakable. The on-campus barbershop wouldn't serve African-Americans, so Edmonds always went to a black neighborhood in South Bend to get his hair cut.

But by and large, Edmonds didn't encounter problems. Politically active throughout college, Edmonds once convinced his white classmates to donate money to the NAACP after giving a speech about the Emmitt Till case.

The perception of Notre Dame being an unwelcome place for blacks was prevalent and somewhat substantiated, but Edmonds' reality was different. "The old guard was really anti bringing the two of us in," Edmonds said, referring to himself and Dick Washington. "They said it wasn't going to work. They had money coming in from the South; they would lose it. Then Father [Edmund] Joyce said, 'Things are going to have to change.'"

What didn't change was the way many of Edmonds' peers viewed Notre Dame.

He recalls a conversation in 2001 with his childhood friend, Marvin Lewis, and Lewis' wife. Their son, Marvin Jr., soon would leave his post as Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator and begin looking for a head-coaching position. "His mother said to me, 'I know Notre Dame was looking but they would never consider Marvin,'" Edmonds recalled. "And I thought, 'At least we could try.'"

Notre Dame ended up hiring its first black coach (Tyrone Willingham) in 2002, but didn't help its image by firing him just three years later. The claims of racism intensified last fall after Charlie Weis, who is white, kept his job despite coaching Notre Dame to a 3-9 record. "That stuff still comes up," Edmonds said, "but I don't see it as much as a lot of other people."

After finishing his career at Notre Dame, Edmonds was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ninth round of the 1956 NFL draft. He considered pro ball but ultimately opted for graduate school at Pitt, where he later served as dean of students at the School of Social Work.

More than 50 years have passed since Edmonds last played for the Irish, but the memories stay with him. So does the significance of what he did. "Everything was a first," he said. "You were the first black to be recruited, you were the first black letterman, the first black to play in a game. It was a big thing."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.