The capacity-crowd of more than 46,000 fans was evenly divided between black and white spectators who filled Tampa Stadium on November 29, 1969. News buzz surrounding the historic gridiron matchup between the Florida A&M University Rattlers and University of Tampa Spartans added to the intensity in the air. Potential riots were predicted. Racial hostility on the field and in the stands were certain, according to skeptical media pundints. 

 

For the first time in the segregated South, a black university team was taking on players at a white school in the deepest state of the former Confederacy. At stake for some — protecting the sanctity of white supremacy, for others — discrediting the notion of black inferiority. For Gaither, who had been working since 1967 to gain permission to play an integrated game, beating a white school would prove the athletic excellence of black collegiate teams. A win would also cap off his stellar career, proving that his coaching prowess could outmatch any coach, regardless of race. Gaither wanted to be recognized as a good coach, not a good “black coach,” a euphamism often used to indicate top rank among an inferior class.

Gaither found a willing collaborator in Fran Curci, a Northern recurit who did not subscribe to the segregationists ideals of the day. Curci took the job as head coach under the condition that he could integrate the football team. For Curci, playing a black school would pack the stadium and draw media attention, improving his efforts to desegregate the university’s squad. The game was a clincher that came down to the final play, with the Rattlers outpacing the Spartans, 34-28. According to Curci, his Tampa team had been “outplayed” and he had been “outcoached” by one of the country’s preeminent college coaches.

 

The social precedent set by the historic football game proved a black team could compete against and beat a white university’s team. The game, which ended without incident, also discredited media rhetoric and social ideology of the time that a racially mixed crowd could not co-mingle without hostility and racial violence ensuing. That day, Floridians demonstrated that civility existed among individuals of like-minds and consciousness even in one of the most emotionally charged environments of competitive sports.

© 2019 by Yanela G. McLeod