More than a game: Nevada Wolf Pack football made stands against racism in 1940s
Before Colin Kaepernick there was Horace Gillom, Sherman Howard, Alva Tabor and Bill Bass.
The Nevada Wolf Pack football program has a long and proud history of taking a stand against racial injustice dating back to just after the end of World War II.
The blatant racism of the southern United States arrived in Reno in the middle of October 1946 in the form of a telegram.
Mississippi State, which was scheduled to host the Wolf Pack in a football game on Nov. 16, 1946, wrote Wolf Pack coach Jim Aiken a month and told him Nevada’s two black players, Horace Gillom and Bill Bass, could not play in the game in Starkville, Miss.
“It is not the custom of the south for members of the Negro race to compete in athletics against members of the white race,” the telegram from Mississippi State Athletic Director C.R. Noble stated. “I am sure that you understand this traditional custom which Mississippi State college cannot under any circumstances violate.”
The uneasy situation confronting the Wolf Pack athletic department quickly became national news. The overwhelming reaction in Nevada and across the country wanted the Wolf Pack to cancel the game if Gillom and Bass could not play. The Wolf Pack, facing a $3,000 penalty if it chose to cancel the game, took two weeks to decide what to do.
There is no evidence today suggesting that anyone in Northern Nevada wanted the Wolf Pack to play the game in Starkville without Bass and Gillom.
“We condemned and fought and licked (Adolph) Hitler and the Nazis for preaching and practicing racial superiority,” Reno Evening Gazette columnist Frank McCulloch wrote on Oct. 19, 1946. “But when it’s practiced in our own United States it’s (labeled) nothing worse than Jim Crowism. That’s faulty reasoning, friend. The fact that Horace Gillom and Bill Bass, two great football players and, more importantly, two nice guys, may not be able to play when Nevada faces Mississippi State in Mississippi next month, strongly illustrates one of the most bigoted, vicious and dangerous attitudes in this country today.”
George Ross, writing for the Evening Gazette on Nov. 1 offered, “Most Nevadans believe that Nevada is above the need for a caste system which demands hooded riders, peonage and two standards of opportunity. Most of the nation is as proud of the feats of one race as of those of another.”
Ross added that Nevada had three choices in the matter. “It could comply with the request of the Mississippi college and thereby disappoint citizens of a free-thinking state, it could play the game with the full University of Nevada team and thereby endangering the safety of at least two fine athletes or it could cancel the game and explain to the southern college the prevalent attitude in Nevada. This department believes that most Nevadans prefer the latter course.”
There was a small group, as Nevada State Journal sports editor Ty Cobb reported, that wondered why the Pack would schedule a game at Mississippi State in the first place, given the southern state’s well-known position of barring black athletes from its playing fields. The Pack, Cobb said, answered that criticism by explaining that the game was agreed to the previous February when the Pack did not have any black football players.
Cobb also told the San Francisco Chronicle, “If Mississippi State insists we leave our two colored stars at home the remainder of the boys will keep them company in Reno.”
The game in Mississippi was to be the Pack’s first in school history east of the Mississippi and certainly the first in the southeast corner of the country. The longest trip east the Pack had ever taken was Tulsa, Okla., in 1945.
“Naturally, it would be impossible to play the game if Nevada used the two Negro players,” Noble added. “It would cause an unfortunate commotion. We simply couldn’t go against southern tradition.”
The southern school’s inability to allow black athletes to compete in their state’s against white teams was almost always described simply as “southern tradition,” as if those schools were doing something noble by honoring their past.
“Southern School Won’t Violate Its Tradition,” said one Louisville Courier-Journal headline in November 1946, referring to the Pack-Mississippi State situation.
“Mississippi Grid Official Upholds Southern Code,” said a Nevada State Journal headline.
A Wolf Pack athletic board member told the Nevada State Journal, “The south has its tradition but we in the west have a different viewpoint.”
“It is outrageous that Negro veterans (Gillom, for example, fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II) would return from a fight against fascism and intolerance overseas only to find these shameful conditions at home,” an American Veterans Committee member in Sacramento told the Evening Gazette in late October 1946.
Fresno State just a month earlier was given the same warning from Oklahoma City University. Oklahoma City, which would drop football after the 1949 season, warned the California school that Fresno’s two black players, Jack Kelley and Millard Mitchell, could not play in its Oct. 12, 1946 game in Oklahoma. No black player, after all, had ever played in a game between two predominantly white schools in the state of Oklahoma.
Fresno State coach James “Rabbitt” Bradshaw, a former Wolf Pack star in the 1920s who was born in Missouri, decided to play the game (and avoid a $5,000 penalty) without his two black players. Kelley and Mitchell went to Oklahoma City and dressed for the game but never stepped on the field.
Mose Simms, the Oklahoma City athletic director said, “The university has nothing against Negroes playing but it would assume no responsibility for what might happen if they did.”
Bradshaw feared for the safety of his black players.
“There is no sense exposing them to what a radically prejudiced mob might do,” Bradshaw said.
The Wolf Pack, though, listened to its student body, community and public opinion and canceled its Nov. 16 game at Mississippi State on Nov. 4. The two schools also agreed that Nevada would not have to pay the $3,000 penalty.
“The agreement completely winds up the affair and with no further argument or hard feelings,” Noble said.
The Pack did not play a game in the state of Mississippi until it played at Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg in 1997. There were plenty of black players on both rosters. Nevada still has never played Mississippi State.
A day after the Wolf Pack canceled its game at Mississippi State, Penn State, which had two black players, canceled its game on Nov. 29, 1946 at the University of Miami, Fla., for the same reason.
The University of San Francisco played Mississippi State in Memphis, Tenn., on Oct. 20, 1946 without any incident because USF did not have any black players that season.
USF, though, was undefeated in 1951 and had two black stars, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler. The presence of Toler and Matson is the reason the Dons were not invited to any bowl game that season even though they were considered the best team in the nation. The Orange Bowl did tell USF it could play in its Miami game if they left Matson and Toler home. USF refused, surrendered a huge payday by not playing in the Orange Bowl, and ended up dropping the sport for financial reasons after the season. The first black player did not play in the Orange Bowl game until 1955.
The Wolf Pack’s decision to cancel its game with Mississippi State was met with nationwide approval, at least publicly. Fresno State, in light of Nevada’s decision, was also then criticized for playing its game at Oklahoma City without its black players.
Jim Schlemmer of the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal wrote on Nov. 6, 1946, “In the long run I predict the University of Nevada will gain more respect for canceling its game with Mississippi State than it possibly could have gained by playing without Jimmy Aiken’s two greatest gridders, Horace Gillom and William Bass.”
A dozen or so ministers in Northern Nevada all signed a statement that read, “We heartily commend the action taken by the University of Nevada to cancel the football game against Mississippi State because of (Mississippi State) honoring its traditional race discrimination in athletic contests. Such race discrimination is both un-American and un-Christian.”
Neither Gillom nor Bass, who both went on to standout professional careers (Bass in Canada and Gillom in the United States), ever commented on the situation at the time. The Reno newspapers, though, almost never quoted athletes in the 1940s anyway. “Persons with axes to grind, such as veteran’s organizations, ‘Americanism’ groups and exuberant citizens are knocking on the doors of the university, trying to contact the Nevada athletes involved and attempting to get local newspapers to carry their messages,” wrote George Ross of the Gazette. “The two athletes involved are not interested in becoming spearheads for anybody’s motives to plow under every third southerner.”
Another situation of racial injustice faced the Wolf Pack football team just two years later.
The Wolf Pack was told just four days before its Oct. 23, 1948 game at Tulsa that the presence of Nevada black players Sherman Howard and Alva Tabor in the game would create an issue.
Tulsa’s president C.I. Pontius said that the decision whether to bench or play Howard and Tabor would be “Nevada’s prerogative” and there was nothing in the game contract that would prevent the black players from playing. The message from Tulsa, though, was clear. Howard and Tabor were not welcome in the state of Oklahoma.
“We will listen to Tulsa’s advice on the matter,” Wolf Pack coach Joe Sheeketski said, two days day before taking his team to Tulsa.
The Wolf Pack played at Tulsa in 1945 (losing 40-0) without issue because the Wolf Pack did not have a black player on its roster. Marion Motley played for football the Wolf Pack from 1940-42 and played for Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago from 1943-45 before becoming a professional with the Cleveland Browns in 1946. Another Wolf Pack black player, Elmer Green, played football for the Pack in 1944 and 1947 and track in 1948 but was in the Army in 1945 and 1946.
On Oct. 21, 1948, the day the Pack left for Tulsa, Pontius added, “Nevada is aware of the traditional background of intercollegiate athletics in the state of Oklahoma.”
No black football player had ever played in a major college game in the state of Oklahoma although Langston University, a predominantly black college in Oklahoma, had won the Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ national title game in 1939 and 1941.
The Associated Press sent out a photo of Howard getting off the Pack’s airplane in Tulsa two days before the game.
Sheeketski said the day before the game that he had not decided whether or not to play Howard or Tabor. The two black players, however, did work out with their teammates on Tulsa’s field.
“I’m a practical man and we will want to play Tulsa in other years,” Sheeketski said the night before the game.
The Reno Evening Gazette reported the day before the game that “Pack Negroes Are Probably Out.” The story added that “it seems pretty definite that Sherman Howard and Alva Tabor, Nevada’s Negro players, won’t play.”
Sheeketski was quoted in the story, “I will use my discretion as to what is best. I won’t know until game time.”
Howard and Tabor both played in the game and played extremely well. The Wolf Pack destroyed Tulsa 65-14 as quarterback Stan Heath passed for four touchdowns and 335 yards. Howard caught six passes for 63 yards and scored two touchdowns and Tabor, who came into the game late in relief of Heath, was 3-for-7 through the air with one touchdown, a 55-yard strike to Bob Collet.
The Wolf Pack did not return to the state of Oklahoma to play a game until it played at Tulsa again in 2000 when both schools were in the Western Athletic Conference.
The concerns by Tulsa in 1946 of Tabor and Howard playing on their field were unwarranted. The Tulsa crowd in 1946 of 12,000 cheered Howard and Tabor, according to newspaper reports.
“There was no incident,” Sheeketski said.
The only bit of controversy was the Daily Oklahoma newspaper reporting that “Nevada ran up the score with two touchdowns in the last two and a half minutes.”
The Wolf Pack was once again applauded nationally for taking yet another stand against racial injustice.
The Reno Evening Gazette, though, questioned the true motive of the Wolf Pack’s decision to cancel the Mississippi State game and play at Tulsa with Howard and Tabor.
“It has been amusing in a way to watch the national press associations (though their Reno representatives haven’t taken part) attempt to blow up an incident over the question of whether Nevada will play its Negroes in the Tulsa game,” the Gazette’s Bill Friel wrote. “In the back of everyone’s mind, of course, was the famous Mississippi State incident of a few years ago during Jimmy Aiken’s regime when Nevada withdrew in a huff from the game over the same problem.”
Friel went on to write, “Western and northern schools expect to play with their Negro players on the bench when they play in the south and, conversely, southern schools generally operate without complaint or incident when they play against Negroes in the west or north.
“People without a southern background may not like the prejudice — we don’t ourselves — but those involved, in order to avoid trouble, know they have to follow the practice. Joe Sheeketski is no exception. He never did believe he’d be able to use Sherman Howard or Alva Tabor in Tulsa and only the fact that he went to the game with several backs on the injured list caused him to even consider playing Howard and Tabor.
“The odd thing is that there are those who believe that the Mississippi State beef was not so much an instance of Nevada championing a minority, which is the way the publicity read, as it was an instance of Jim Aiken, who was enjoying a good season against lesser opponents at the time, simply didn’t want to play the powerful southern team. If that was the case, Jim Aiken found a good out. But it also left Nevada open to continual involvement in the Negro question every time the Pack plays a southern school on its grounds.”
There was some speculation in late October 1948 that the Wolf Pack, which had the most explosive offense in the nation that season, was being considered to play in the Sugar Bowl after the season.
At the time no black player had ever played in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans and wouldn’t until Bobby Grier of Pittsburgh in January 1956 against Georgia Tech, just a month after Rosa Parks, a black woman during the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, refused to give up her seat in the “colored section” to a white passenger after the white’s-only section was filled.
The Wolf Pack never did get a Sugar Bowl invite and ended up playing in the Harbor Bowl in San Diego after the season against Villanova.
The week following the Tulsa game, the Pack played Oklahoma City, the same school that told Fresno State to keep its black players off the field in 1946, at Mackay Field in Reno.
The Wolf Pack trounced Oklahoma City 79-13 as Heath passed for 327 yards and five touchdowns, breaking the NCAA single-season record for passing yards (1,457 yards) set by TCU’s Davey O’Brien in 1939.
Howard ran the ball four times for 40 yards against Oklahoma City and Tabor was 4-for-4 in relief of Heath for 115 yards and two touchdowns.
Howard, Bass, Tabor and Gillom all went on to distinguished and successful careers in the sport of football and education after leaving Nevada.
Howard, who was a month shy of his 24th birthday when the Pack played Tulsa in 1948, played five seasons in the NFL and later became a high school coach and educator in Chicago. Tabor had just turned 23 when the Pack played Tulsa in 1948 and would go on to coach for three decades in college football and the NFL.
Bill Bass was already 25 when the Pack canceled its game at Mississippi State in 1946 and would go on to play professionally for nine years, one in the All America Football Conference with the Chicago Rockets in 1947 and eight in the Canadian Football League. He was also one of the first black players in the CFL’s history.
Horace Gillom, one of the greatest and most overlooked players in Wolf Pack history, played just one season at Nevada (1946) when he was 25 years old. He would then go on to the Cleveland Browns, winning three championships in the AAFC and three more in the NFL as one of the best punters in the history of the sport.
Bass died in 1967 at the age of 45 while Gillom passed away in 1985 at 64. Tabor died in 2002 at the age of 76 while Howard lived to be 95 years old in 2019.
In 2018, just a year before he passed away, Howard told John Trent of Nevada Today, a University of Nevada publication, “I had been through a war. I had seen devastation. I had fought for our country. Those threats from the Tulsa game? That hadn’t bothered me. There wasn’t any fear.”
Howard added, “You can’t live in fear. You just can’t. You can’t give in.”
Just like the Wolf Pack in 1946 and 1948.