A Team United

UNT 1956 freshman football team
Gordon Salsman, Frank Klein, Abner Haynes and Raymond Clement (from left, back row) and Bob Way, Ken Bahnsen and Leon King (from left, front row), reunite at the University of North Texas' Fouts Field to remember their days with the university's 1956 freshman football team.
Tuesday, August 17, 2004

"Get them n*****s off the field" were the only words Leon King of Dallas could hear coming from the stands at Corsicana's Navarro Junior College in September 1956.

King was then a member of the North Texas State College (now University of North Texas) freshman football team, which was playing its second game of the 1956 season. Even today, almost 48 years later, King says it was the scariest moment of his life.

When King and Abner Haynes, both graduates of Dallas' Lincoln High School, joined the team that fall, they became the first African-American North Texas student athletes.

The North Texas freshman football became one of the first integrated college teams in Texas and in the Southwest. It would be another decade before Jerry LeVias integrated Southern Methodist University's football team and became the first African American to play in the Southwest Conference.

King's and Haynes' intention wasn't social change - they just wanted to play. But that day in Corsicana, they saw in the faces of the white spectators the depth of the opposition to the change they represented.

"The crowd was angry and the bleachers seemed so close that people could just reach over the fence and grab you," King says.

Haynes says the angry people weren't aware of the good they did for the team that day.

"If they'd have left us alone, we might have ended up fighting amongst ourselves," he says. "But by attacking and terrorizing us - that kind of adversity brought the whole team together, black and white."

Bob Way, today a UNT kinesiology instructor, was a linebacker on the team. He says every North Texas player resented what was happening.

"To me, Abner and Leon were just two more players on the team, and I didn't have any feelings at all beyond that," he says. "But things changed at Navarro College. I have a real respect for them."

Before the season, no one on the team knew what to expect or how to treat Haynes and King.

Varsity player Charlie Cole, a 1958 North Texas graduate, remembers helping his younger brother, Vernon - the freshman quarterback - through his uncertainty.

"I told him, ‘They're people just like we are - the only thing we need to worry about is if they can play football,'" Charlie says.

Ultimately, Vernon decided simplicity was the best approach. Following his example, team members greeted Haynes and King with handshakes the day they arrived for tryouts.

True friendship came only with time, as the two African-American players repeatedly proved themselves in practice and on the field. In Corsicana, the friendships deepened.

"I was scared that day, but it didn't bother us as much as it bothered our white teammates," King says. "The crowd just seemed to lump them in with us as n***** lovers. My teammates got angry, too. We were angry that people could be so cruel to any person."

The team played harder because of it.

Early in the game, Haynes butted heads with a Navarro College player. Haynes had a slight concussion, but the other player was carried off the field on a stretcher, which angered the fans more and increased the taunts from the stands.

Haynes remembers no one doing anything about the jeers from the crowd.

"Police grinned like it was funny, and the adults didn't care," he says.

For both him and King, the taunting was fuel for success. North Texas, down 0-14 at the half, defeated the favored Navarro team 39-14 as Haynes ran for four touchdowns and King caught a pass for a score.

King says North Texas tackle Joe Mack Pryor went out of his way to avenge any wrong done on the field.

"The more they'd pick on me, the madder Joe Pryor would get," King says. "We'd make up plays just to nail a guy who tried to do something to me or Abner."

Even before the game, teammates stood up for the dignity of Haynes and King. They refused food at the hotel unless the team could eat as a group, and they stuck together when local residents approached them to express their views that it was wrong for black and white players to be on the same field.

After hearing threats as his team arrived at the stadium, North Texas coach Ken Bahnsen told the bus driver to park close by. He told his players to run for the bus the moment the game ended.

"I said, ‘When that whistle blows I want to be the last one on the bus. Don't shake hands; don't do anything,'" Bahnsen says.

As soon as the game was over, the players made a tight formation around Haynes and King and headed for the bus.

"Me and Leon went to the back of the bus, and George Herring - he used to call me Butch - came back with me and said, ‘Butch, I didn't know y'all go through stuff like that,'" Haynes says. "‘I didn't know they could treat white people with black people like this.'"

They cried together, Haynes remembers.

King says all the players were affected by the events of that day.

"We became blood brothers," he says. "What affected one of us, affected all of us."

The team won its next three games, finishing the season with a perfect 5-0 record.
It was hailed as the first team at North Texas ever to go undefeated.

Haynes received his bachelor's degree from North Texas in 1962. He went on to play football professionally, becoming a star in the American Football League. He still holds franchise records with the Kansas City Chiefs.

King received his bachelor's degree from North Texas the same year as Haynes and returned to the university in the 1970s to earn a master's degree, graduating in 1972. He has had a long career in education as a teacher, coach and high school principal in Dallas.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108