Lenny Lyles is not a bitter man. In fact, it pains him to tell this story. He hesitates, knowing how it will sound. He was a different man in 1960, frustrated and angry, and it was a very different time in America. But the guilt hasn't totally faded.
It almost doesn't matter to him that, in the end, nothing happened. For a moment, he wanted it to happen.
He wanted to break the leg of Baltimore Colts center Dick Szymanski, his former teammate on the 1958 NFL championship team.
"I was with San Francisco at the time, playing defense, and we were tangled up in a big pile," Lyles said, adding that it wasn't personal; he just wanted to hurt the franchise that he felt had never given him a fair shot. "His leg was caught underneath someone. I had a chance to break his leg, and I got up off it. I'm thankful and happy now I didn't do that. But I was angry. I couldn't forget [the year before] that they kept a guy with a broken arm and let me go."
Fifty years ago Sunday, the Colts and the New York Giants played what is widely considered to be the greatest game in NFL history. The iconic black-and-white footage of Colts fullback Alan Ameche stumbling across the goal line for the winning score - his head down, the football tucked tightly in his right arm - will be replayed hundreds of times in the coming days. It capped off a contest that has been celebrated by historians as the genesis of the modern NFL and the moment when pro football wedged itself permanently into our culture and our living rooms.
But 1958 was hardly an idyllic time in America if you were one of the six African-American players on the Colts. The country was only four years removed from the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation in schools, and Baltimore, like much of the South, was slow to adjust.
Most of the time, Lyles, Lenny Moore, Milt Davis, Jim Parker, Johnny Sample and Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb weren't allowed to stay in the same hotels as their white teammates on road trips. They rarely, if ever, socialized with the white players, in part because they couldn't enter the same restaurants, bars and movie theaters. In Westminster, where the team held its annual training camp, the African-American players encountered so much blatant racism on a daily basis, they decided one year to boycott the welcome banquet being thrown for the Colts by the city.
Lyles, 72, and Moore, 75, are the only black players still alive from that team, and Lyles was just an anonymous rookie in 1958. He was drafted that same year out of Louisville, where he went from being the first African-American scholarship player in school history to the Cardinals' all-time leading rusher. He rarely played in Baltimore, though, despite being one of the fastest men in the country and an electric kickoff returner.
It was widely suspected at the time that teams had an unspoken agreement to keep no more than seven African-American players on their roster at one time. Lyles acknowledged that he didn't handle it well and was frustrated that the coaching staff didn't seem particularly interested in working with him to help him improve. He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers after one season, and was so angry about the way he was let go, he tried to take it out on the Colts the next season. He returned a kickoff 97yards for a touchdown in a 34-10 victory, harassed the Colts' wide receivers relentlessly and contemplated breaking Szymanski's leg.
"I hate saying these things, but it's what happened," Lyles says.
The Colts brought him back in 1961, and Lyles started at defensive back for the final seven seasons of his career, which ended after 1969.
"It was tough in Baltimore," Lyles said of his first stint with the Colts. "It was almost like they didn't want me to make the team. Back then, blacks always had to compete against other blacks. I think after drafting Jim Parker, Lenny Moore and myself consecutive years in the first round that three blacks in a row was just too much for some people."
Moore, a future Hall of Famer, was one of the undisputed stars of the 1958 championship team, a versatile athlete who broke the mold as one of the few players of that era equally adept at running the ball or lining up at wide receiver. He scored 14touchdowns that year, was second in the league in total yards from scrimmage with 1,536, and was named first-team All-Pro.
But in many respects, he was still treated like a second-class citizen in Baltimore.
In his autobiography, All Things Being Equal, Moore describes an incident that happened shortly after the 1958 championship game. He was invited to a banquet at an all-white Baltimore country club for a dinner honoring boxer and war hero Barney Ross, but when he arrived, he was told he had to use the back entrance, by the kitchen.
"Being naive and still riding high on fan adulation after the championship game, I thought, 'Maybe the VIPs use a special entrance,'" Moore writes. "Then it dawned on me that white people probably expected a black person at the country club to be a server from the kitchen, not a guest."
When Moore finally got inside, the bartender refused to serve him a drink. No one seemed interested in speaking to him, Moore recalls, including two of his teammates, Art Donovan and Jim Mutscheller. He left the club immediately, incensed. Incidents like that helped him decide he was going to spend his free time where he felt comfortable, which was usually with Lipscomb in jazz clubs in African-American parts of the city.
"I know when I first arrived in Baltimore, it was like two different sections: one white and one black," Moore said. "Even after the championship game, it was pretty evident. We couldn't really get together. There was not a team any closer than we were when we hit that football field. We were a tight-knit family. Unfortunately, society didn't give us that same kind of welcome when that same game was over."
Friendships between teammates of different races were complicated by the era. Journalist Mark Bowden writes in his book, The Best Game Ever, that Davis and Ameche once tried to watch a movie together in Westminster during Davis' rookie year. When the theater owner wouldn't let Davis in the door, Ameche complained: "Is this the land of the free and home of the brave or are you some a - -?"
But, years later, Bowden writes, Ameche approached Parker, the team's Hall of Fame offensive tackle, in his restaurant in Reisterstown and apologetically asked him to leave.
"Ameche, ashamed and embarrassed, explained to his teammate that if a black man were seen eating in his establishment in that part of Baltimore, it would kill his business," Bowden writes.
"There was always a feeling of 'I'm not inferior in any way,'" Moore said. "So why am I being treated like an inferior?"
There were occasionally light moments, though. Andy Nelson, who grew up in Alabama, had a playful friendship with Lipscomb.
"He told me once, 'Andy, when I make a lot of money, I'm going to go down to your hometown in Alabama and I'm going to buy me one of those plantations. And I'm going to have all white cotton-pickers,'" Nelson recalled, laughing. "I told him, 'If you do, man, I'll be your slave driver.' But we got along real good."
By most accounts, John Unitas was friendly with the African-American players but didn't socialize with them. Unitas and Lyles had been teammates at Louisville, and Lyles had even invited Unitas to his mother's house several times for dinner when the two were in college. Lyles and Unitas gratefully wolfed down collard greens together, but by the time Lyles got to Baltimore, Unitas already had his clique of friends.
"I'm sure whatever the character of the team, John felt he had to fit it," Lyles said.
If there was one white player who was truly colorblind, it was wide receiver Raymond Berry. Berry went out of his way to try to help Lyles, driving to his apartment in West Baltimore on the Colts' days off. For hours at a local park, Berry would show Lyles how to run routes and catch passes.
"He was a Christian and a real straightforward guy," Lyles said. "He was the only person on the whole team who went out of his way to try and help me."
"Thank God for Raymond Berry, because he showed us we were a team," Moore said. "He showed us we were in it together. It was a thing you could hold on to, and we held on to it."
Lyles still has his championship ring and looks at it often, even though he watched nearly the entire 1958 game from the sideline. And he'll be in Baltimore this weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the victory. He even has a picture of the team he plans to bring along.
"I don't know if I'll make it to the 75th anniversary," Lyles joked. "Whatever happened back then, life turned out pretty good for me. I spent 23 years in the corporate world and was able to retire as a vice president. It was meant to go the way it did. I certainly needed to learn how to forgive back then, and didn't know how. I had to understand that it takes more strength to forgive than it does to be angry."
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