As we celebrate the remarkable life of Martin Luther King today, we also take a minute to reflect on two trailblazers for racial equality in Abner Haynes and Leon King. Nine years before Jerry Levias integrated the Southwest Conference, Haynes and King integrated college football in the state. Before their inclusion on the North Texas State College football team, Texas colleges had never allowed players of color to represent their universities, going so far as to prohibit teams from the North and East who had African American players on their rosters from dressing those players against Texas teams.
The Sun Bowl famously extended an invitation to Lafayette to participate in the 1948 contest, conditional on the exclusion of African American player David Showell. Lafayette refused to participate if Showell was not allowed to play. The Sun Bowl invited a non-integrated West Virginia instead. When Penn State brought African American players to the 1948 Cotton Bowl, the team was forced to stay at the Naval Air Station, and organizers held the Cotton Bowl banquette on the SMU campus due to the city of Dallas' segregation laws.
Even when African American players played, the different treatment didn't end. Iowa State tackle Jack Trice died of injuries sustained in a game against Minnesota in 1923, injuries that his teammates claimed were part of a coordinated attack due to Trice's skin color. Iowa State honored Trice by naming its stadium after Trice in 1997.
That's the world that Abner Haynes and Leon King grew up in. Haynes grew up the son of a minister and attended Dallas Lincoln, a segregated high school, where he became friends with teammate Leon King. At that time an African American athlete with dreams of play collegiate football's only hope was to get a scholarship offer from a school up north or on the west coast. King and Haynes weren't looking to exact social change by challenging the Jim Crow system; they just wanted a chance to play.
North Texas, then known as North Texas State College would change that. North Texas State's Coach Odus Mitchell's policy was that any African American students who showed interest in the football team be given a fair chance. Haynes and King were given a tryout and awarded a partial scholarship to North Texas to play on the freshman football team.
The duo debuted for the Eagles in 1956. The rest of the football landscape in Texas wasn't quite as progressive. King and Haynes were spat on, kicked, harassed and mocked during a freshman game at Navarro Junior College that year. The abuse was so profound that their teammate formed a human shield around their two teammates as they ran for the bus afterward. That game served to galvanize the team.
In spite of this, progress on the Denton campus was slow, Haynes and King were not allowed to live on campus, or eat in the dining halls for the first two years they were at North Texas as African American males were not allowed to live on campus or eat in campus dining halls. Female African American students were not subject to the restriction.
On road trips, the Eagles had to make special accommodations for King and Haynes for meals and other necessities due to the State's integration policies. When restaurants or hotels refused to serve King or Haynes, the rest of the Eagles would refuse to eat in support of their teammates.
On the field, Haynes and King were part of a golden era in North Texas football. The duo would be part of two Missouri Valley Champions and play in the 1959 Sun Bowl. Haynes is still ranked in the Top 10 in North Texas history in rushing yards, one of only two players from pre-1997 to make the list. He ranks seventh in total yards from scrimmage. Haynes would go on to a stellar AFL career with the Dallas Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, and the Denver Broncos. King would graduate from North Texas and eventually go back to receive his Masters. He went on to a long career as an educator, coach, and ultimately a high school administrator.
Haynes' and King's contributions off the field, to the integration of the collegiate game in Texas, were more significant.