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Football, racial issues — then understanding

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Mel Hamilton took his first step by crossing a street.

It was 1966, and Hamilton was on campus at the University of Wyoming. Coming in the opposite direction was a woman he passed every school day on his way to class. And just like every other time, the woman walked to the other side of the street when she saw him.

But this time, Hamilton crossed, too. Soon, they were face to face.

Hamilton asked the woman if she was trying to avoid him, and if so, why. She apologized, saying she had never talked to a black person.

"That boggled my mind," Hamilton said.

As they talked, Hamilton realized that the woman knew nothing about his race other than what she'd seen in the media, which was usually negative. He decided that at every opportunity, he would "talk about race and try to desensitize racial issues."

"That was the very first day that I realized that I had a job to do," Hamilton said.

So in 2005, when an invitation came from the LDS institute in Laramie to speak on a controversial racial issue, Hamilton accepted.

It was a seemingly volatile arrangement, considering that Hamilton was one of 14 Wyoming football players thrown off the team in 1969 for deciding to wear black armbands in a game against BYU to protest The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The "Black 14" was a story stoked by the often divisive issues of race, religion and sport — and Hamilton was in the middle of it. But when it comes to the LDS Church, Hamilton is also part of a story about understanding. He is adamant in his position but holds no animosity. He counts Mormons among his friends. His oldest son is now a member of the LDS Church.

And when he stood in front of a group of students — some LDS, some not — to discuss the Black 14, he encouraged them to "start the dialogue toward healing."

"You cannot always sit back and expect somebody else to bring up the issues of race and religion," Hamilton said. "You've got to sometimes take the first step.

"It would make things so much better. We would get to understand people so much more."

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Hamilton arrived at the University of Wyoming in 1965 with a football scholarship and optimism.

Raised in Wilmington, N.C., he spent four years in Boys Town, Neb., which he describes as a place for "wayward kids" and a utopia of good teachers, good books and good clothes.

"I only had what Boys Town had instilled with me, and that was brotherly love no matter where you came from, no matter who you were," Hamilton said. "Boys Town did not prepare me for the ugliness that I had forgotten existed in the world."

When he arrived in Laramie, there were few black students on campus. Hamilton experienced stares, threats and an unwelcome atmosphere. But reality hit the hardest when his coach, Lloyd Eaton, told Hamilton he would lose his scholarship money if he married his girlfriend, who was white.

"That was the first time that I saw ugliness from an authority figure," Hamilton said.

He left school and joined the military, during which time Wyoming won its third straight conference championship and qualified for the Sugar Bowl. Determined to earn his degree, Hamilton returned to school and the team in 1969 after receiving a letter from Eaton.

"I think it was eating on him as much as it was eating on me," he said.

Four months later, Willie S. Black, chancellor of the Black Student Alliance, sent out a letter in advance of the Cowboys' game against BYU addressing the church's priesthood restriction for blacks, which ended in 1978. The letter, according to T.A. Larson's "History of Wyoming," asked "that the university and other WAC schools not schedule games with Brigham Young University so long as the Mormon church continued its alleged racist policies."

Hamilton was one of 14 players who decided to wear a black armband in protest.

After seeing the letter, Eaton warned one of the players that the action violated a team rule prohibiting any type of demonstration. The following day, the 14 walked into the coach's office wearing armbands. Eaton immediately threw them off the team.

On Oct. 18, 1969, the university president, board of trustees and governor upheld the coach's decision. A civil case seeking restitution for the players was in court for three years before being denied.

Hamilton says the players wanted a resolution, but Eaton was "unwilling to talk."

"We did not want to not play," he said. "We wanted to play BYU because we always had in the past — and beat them, by the way. We wanted to play. We just wanted to symbolically protest by wearing the black armbands during that game. And he refused to let us do that."

Wyoming defeated BYU 40-7 while the 14 watched from the stands.

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Following the Black 14 incident, Wyoming's football program plummeted.

In the three seasons between 1966 and 1968, the Cowboys won 27 games. Over the next seven years, they had just 24 victories, including six straight losing seasons.

When Clark Anderson moved to Laramie, he sensed some anti-LDS sentiment that was rooted in the incident. Each time BYU came to town for a football game, the Black 14 story was revived.

So in November 2005, the Mormons took on the issue.

"We thought we would try to be proactive and try to not have such negativity towards BYU," said Anderson, director of the LDS institute near the Wyoming campus.

Anderson had heard about Hamilton, that he had spoken on campus before and was not negative toward the church. He called and extended an invitation for Hamilton to participate in a forum on the Black 14 as part of LDS Awareness Week.

He knew it was a bold move. Some church members weren't happy about it, and Anderson himself was nervous. But they "went forward with faith," he said.

After warning Anderson that he would speak his mind, Hamilton accepted the invitation.

On the day of the event, Anderson met Hamilton and his wife at the institute building before walking over to campus. He remembers Hamilton reflecting on coming "full circle" — from picketing the institute building in 1969 to being welcomed with an olive branch in 2005.

Hamilton remembers the room being "packed." He was direct in his remarks, saying, "I thought I was right then, and I still think I'm right now." He told the students he was very offended when he heard Mormons say he was a son of Cain.

But he also assured them that it was not the religion or the people he was fighting, but the policy.

Hamilton tried to "bury the sword that night" and encouraged the students to look ahead — not back.

"It's time to forgive and move ahead," he told them.

The question-and-answer session became somewhat contentious when some non-LDS audience members disagreed with Hamilton. One in particular denounced the church, calling it a cult and saying it was oppressive.

Hamilton's response was: "Who will take the first step?"

"Sir, who is going to be the first to start the dialogue toward healing?" he asked the man. "And if it's not you, who? If we keep dwelling on the past, we'll never get to solve anything."

For Anderson, it was a step in the right direction.

"I think it was a really, really positive evening," he said. "I felt like it kind of helped heal things."

According to Anderson, some older church members had been skeptical about the arrangement and were afraid Hamilton would bash the church. After the event, some stopped by his office to say it was "fantastic."

"They thought that he handled himself very well, and his perspective on it was nice and refreshing," Anderson said. "It wasn't what they expected."

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Hamilton is now considered a friend of the Laramie institute, but his interactions, relationships and understandings with Mormons don't end there.

Conceding that it sounds cliche, Hamilton says he has many friends who are LDS. He's also made an impression on Latter-day Saints who are familiar with the Black 14 incident.

Darius Gray had traveled to Laramie in 1969 with church spokesman Heber Wolsey to present the church's point of view. While he was the recipient of some resentment for being a black member of the church, Gray commends the Black 14 for their nonviolent and respectful approach.

"Forty years ago and today, I respect the fact that these young men took a stand for what they felt needed to be corrected," Gray said. "They acted upon their convictions, and I think they did it in a wholly appropriate manner.

"I think that should be respected. They did it the right way."

Another Latter-day Saint was instrumental in getting a statue honoring the Black 14 placed on the Laramie campus. Dominic F. Martinez, a former Wyoming student and founding member of the school's multicultural council, says he was energized by the Black 14 not because of the protest itself, but because it symbolized student activism.

Martinez describes Hamilton as having a hard shell but welcoming heart.

"He's one of the most open-minded people I know, but he wants people to be aware of the history," Martinez said.

Then there is Hamilton's oldest son, who found his father to be supportive when he decided to join the LDS Church. Malik Hamilton was baptized while attending Utah State University. A husband and father of four, Malik now lives in Orem, Utah, and works as a banquet chef at BYU.

He remembers always being aware of the Black 14 incident, but his father's involvement never left a negative impression of the religion.

"Growing up, my dad never spoke ill of the Mormons in my presence," Malik said. "And so I didn't have any different views of the Mormon church than I think anybody who has a passing understanding of what the church is would have."

He was naturally concerned about how his father would react to his conversion, not wanting to "openly defy" him or "offend him in any way."

Hamilton says any angst his son felt was unnecessary.

"If they have changed their policy and if you believe that this is the religion for you, then I support that 100 percent," he told his son. "But I never wanted you to agonize about telling me. That just shows me that I hadn't explained it well to you what we were doing."

Hamilton says that while it may be hard for some to understand, there was no hatred toward Mormons in his protest. It was about the policy, not the people or the religion, he says. Hamilton believes it's possible to have a "fierce dialogue" about religion and still like each other.

"People think that when you disagree with people you have to be angry," he said. "There was no animosity in my fight with that policy."

Hamilton, who lives in Casper, Wyo., and works as associate director of safe schools and diversity administrator for the Natrona County School District No. 1, is often asked to speak about the Black 14. When he tells others that his son is LDS, there is often a "shock factor," as Malik calls it. Hamilton says some people even laugh.

"They think it's very ironic that that happened," he said. "And I say, 'No, you don't understand that, either.' "

Gray had the opportunity to speak with Hamilton by phone when he visited the Laramie institute last year. Hamilton planned to attend, but was unable to make it.

Gray said the two enjoyed an amiable conversation reflecting on 39 years prior, when they were on opposite sides of the divide.

"I would look forward to seeing him again and being able to sit down as a couple of old guys talking about the old times," Gray said. "We do grow. We do move on. We learn and come to respect each other's positions more as we go on."