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BYU to honor ‘Black 14’ football players kicked off Wyoming’s 1969 team

Former players will light the Y before the game, be honored on the field for working with Latter-day Saint leaders to feed the hungry in their hometowns.

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Black 14 member John Griffin talks about a food donation made with Latter-Day Saints to the Salvation Army in Colorado.

Black 14 member John Griffin, of Denver, shares his thoughts on a food donation partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at the Salvation Army’s Emergency Service Center in Aurora, Colo., on Tuesday Nov. 17, 2020. Food donated by the Church of Jesus Christ was unloaded and redistributed to a number of charities in Colorado.

Marc Piscotty, for the Deseret News

BYU is directly confronting its past history on race this weekend by honoring two members of the Black 14, the players kicked off the 1969 Wyoming football team because they considered wearing black armbands during a game with BYU to protest a past Latter-day Saint policy on race and priesthood.

John Griffin and Mel Hamilton will ceremoniously light the huge Y on the mountain towering above Cougar Stadium on Saturday night before No. 19 BYU hosts Wyoming in front of a national ESPN audience in Provo, Utah.

Lighting the Y before a football game — the largest of gatherings of the BYU community — is reserved for dignitaries the school wants to honor in a very public way. The pregame ceremony is conducted on the field in front of 60,000 fans.

The tribute is one of the first initiatives of BYU’s new Office of Belonging, said Carl Hernandez, the school’s new vice president for belonging. The Office of Belonging and the new vice president position were two of 26 recommendations to reduce prejudice made by a committee that conducted a major campus study on diversity, equity and belonging.

“We will have tens of thousands of our community who will be introduced to the Office of Belonging and the Black 14 on Saturday night,” Hernandez said.

Late Wyoming coach Lloyd Eaton kicked Griffin, Hamilton and the rest of the players who later became know as the Black 14 off the team the day before their 1969 game with BYU in Laramie, Wyoming, when they went to his office to ask if he thought they should wear black arm bands to protest a policy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that restricted Blacks from entering temples and receiving the priesthood.

That restriction was lifted by a 1978 revelation announced by church leaders.

Eaton dismissed the players before hearing their proposal. The players were speechless. When they finally tried to speak, he repeatedly silenced them by yelling at them to shut up, they said. Then he told them they should go on “Negro welfare.”

In the words of one of the players, the Black 14 were blackballed. Many Wyoming fans chose the coach over the players, wearing gold armbands with Eaton written on them. The group was ostracized.

“It took me 10 years to get over the anger,” Griffin told the Deseret News in 2020. “I finally realized it wasn’t healthy for me to harbor that anger any longer. It was a tragedy, but all I could do is get on with my life and do the best I could and not let that hamper me. That was my focus from the late ’70s till now.”

Griffin has called the painful events of 1969 “ancient history” that deserved reconciliation in the present. Over the past two years, the Black 14 and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have demonstrated good will by working together to distribute 800,000 pounds of food to the hungry.

“It is remarkable,” Griffin said in 2020, when the collaboration began. “This is an American story. Nobody could have written this 50 years ago, 10 years ago, two years ago. They can now. And it’s a heartwarming story. It’s not spin. It’s real. It’s in the hearts of all of us. If I passed away tomorrow, I have lived a full life. I have been a part of something that’s much bigger than me.”

Hamilton was part of the earliest moments of the reconciliation. Before a BYU-Wyoming game in 2005, he was invited by a Laramie church leader to speak at the same Latter-day Saint campus building that he had picketed in 1969. The Latter-day Saint institute students made black armbands for the game.

Connections built then led to the combined effort to relieve hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Hamilton called Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, a former BYU and NFL quarterback and current General Authority Seventy for the church, to ask for help. Truckloads of food soon began to roll to the hometowns of members of the Black 14 in eight states.

“The Black 14 always wanted to make something useful out of the incident in 1969,” Hamilton told the Deseret News in 2020. “We didn’t want to take on a bitter and negative connotation. We wanted our legacy to be more than a confrontation. We wanted to do something to improve the look of our legacy by helping other people.”

BYU President Kevin Worthen told the Deseret News this week that the Black 14 has created a positive “from what were difficult times for them and for us ....”

“It’s pretty powerful to say, we can get a lot done for our communities to help them but also help heal the wounds that have been felt in the past as we do service today,” Worthen said. “That’s a model of saying, let’s band together and work on something. Now that, in my mind, is one of the more powerful ways of dealing with the past, by making the present and future better, coming together to share those common goals that we can have and then I think you find more and more commonalities as you do that.”

BYU’s Office of Belonging is designed around Latter-day Saint leaders’ messages about the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people as children of a Heavenly Father.

Worthen said the Black 14 have personified that message.

“It’s a good example of when people, operating in a spirit of recognizing the inherent worth of other individuals and our capacity to do good, start focusing in on that as opposed to some other way of dealing with past instances,” he said.

Two weeks after Eaton dismissed the Black 14, some San Jose State players wore black armbands in a game with BYU. The next year, Ron Knight, a junior college defensive back, broke the BYU football team’s color barrier. The revelation on the priesthood followed in 1978.

The University of Wyoming formally apologized to the Black 14 in 2019. Hamilton’s son Malik became a Latter-day Saint years ago.

“Never did I hate the people of the Latter-day Saint religion,” Hamilton has said. “It was a mission of mine to ... speak out wherever I went to clarify we don’t hate people. We just wanted that one policy changed. And thank God, there was a revelation that changed it.”

Hamilton and Griffin are scheduled to participate in a question-and-answer session after a new short film documentary called “The Black 14: Healing Hearts and Feeding Souls” premieres Friday at 7 p.m. in the Wilkinson Student Center’s Varsity Theatre. The film was created by BYU journalism students.