Football Thursday: Redskins' forgotten racial pioneer lives with mystery of his short-lived career

WASHINGTON – The other first black Washington Redskin has spent the last 50 years hiding in the open. For three decades, Leroy Jackson opened doors on the city bus he drove, nodding hello to thousands of football fans who never knew about that September day in 1962 when he chased a kickoff in Dallas and helped break the NFL's last color barrier. They see him at the store, on the street, in the park, an old man smiling hello, oblivious to his place in history.

It's as if time has ignored the other first black Redskin. Ask most fans in this city to name the team's initial African-American player and they will say it is Hall of Fame running back Bobby Mitchell. They are right. Mitchell played that day at the Cotton Bowl, scoring three touchdowns in a 35-35 tie with the Cowboys. But long forgotten are the two men who were the first with him: Jackson and guard John Nisby.

And of those two, Jackson gets almost no credit for being there.

Last year the New York Times ran a story on the Redskins' first black players and replaced Jackson with fullback Ron Hatcher, who was cut days before the opening game. Thomas G. Smith's 277-page book on the integration of the team called "Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins" contains just three mentions of Jackson. And until he sat down for this story, the man who was one of three Jackie Robinsons on the Washington Redskins had never been interviewed.

It's as if he never existed.

"Only a few people know who I am and they know who I am through other people," he says.

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He should have been great. He should have rumbled through NFL defenses like he did as a star sprinter playing running back at Western Illinois. But he couldn't break into the Redskins' lineup and in October of 1963, barely more than a year after he helped integrate the team, he was cut. Football would never be the same for him. A few months later he retired, leaving almost no legacy and carrying with him for half a century the secret of his release.

"I wondered what happened to him," Mitchell says. "The day he walked off the field he disappeared. He'd crop up once in awhile but really that was it."

For many years the Redskins were the shame of the NFL. There had been black players in the league dating back to the 1920s, and by the 1950s most rosters were dotted with a handful of African-Americans. The lone holdout was Washington, whose owner, George Preston Marshall, refused to integrate the team. The city was the southern-most in the NFL for years and Marshall appeared to embrace a fan base that didn't want to see black Redskins players.

Perhaps the most famous line attached to him was: "We will start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."

Had the administration of President John F. Kennedy not threatened in 1961 to keep the Redskins from playing in the new D.C. Stadium if he didn't add black players, Marshall would have kept his team white. But in December of that year, Marshall picked Syracuse star Ernie Davis in the first round of the 1962 draft and traded him to Cleveland for Mitchell and Jackson, who was the Browns' first pick that year. He also traded for Nisby and drafted Hatcher.

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Jackson, who had been a star at Western Illinois, knew nothing about the draft or the trade or even much about the all-white Redskins. His first hint came when he returned to campus after a quarter break trip to his hometown of Chicago Heights, Ill., when a coach told him Redskins coach Bill McPeak wanted to talk to him.

And yet it wasn't until Marshall met Jackson at training camp with a strict list of rules that he understood the significance of his presence.

"It was quite an interesting speech, I guess, because of the way he lived his life it was a new experience too," Jackson remembers. "One thing he told me: I shouldn't get involved with the NAACP, that was first on his list. The other part was keep my nose clean and stay away from the bad guys. You can take that any way you want to – bad guys – but it can mean a lot of things."

Leroy pauses.

"I didn't like the comment about the bad guys, but the NAACP was all right with me because in this sport you have guys trying to get at you to do this and do that and it can get you in trouble. The best way to stay out of trouble is to stay away from them."

Other than that he says he never felt racism from his teammates. They never made comments. They didn't ignore him. Most he says, were like him, fighting to keep their jobs. A few were even friendly.

"I don't know if some of the guys liked me or not but I took a liking to some of them and some of them took a liking to me," he says.

In a way, Leroy has always been a mystery to the people who know him. Old friends find pulling information from him to be tedious. He is a warm man with a shy laugh who still plays regular matches of tennis at 73. He likes to tell stories from the past, but those stories come with a hint of distance. Attempts to get too deep are always rebuffed.

Questions about his life are met with a hasty "fine" and a change of the subject. He rarely entertains people at his own home in Southeast D.C., where he can look out the window and see the stadium where he once played. He says he has nothing left from his career, not a helmet or jersey or game program. He says everything was stolen or lost in moves.

His good friend Booker Edgerson, a teammate at Western Illinois who went on to a long career as a cornerback for the Buffalo Bills, still speaks to Leroy regularly. They meet once a year for a reunion for their college team. But even then there are topics that Leroy does not seem to want to address, among them his release from the Redskins and his wife, Dorothy, who died suddenly in 2009.

"The unspoken rule is that we don't talk about it," Edgerson says.

For years Mitchell has wondered about Jackson and Nisby's experience in those days. What was it like for them? Whenever he asked Jackson about 1962, he was met with the same shrug and evasive non-answer Jackson gave everyone. Everything had been fine, Leroy told him, no real problems, which never made much sense.

"I know what I went through and it was hell," Mitchell says. "Folks kicked my butt because they didn't want a black star."



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Racism was everywhere for Mitchell. He was denied tables at restaurants. An ice cream man refused to sell his young son an ice cream cone. A man once approached him on the street to say: "I don't like you being so high and mighty."

"I was getting it 100 percent, they [Jackson and Nisby] should get something," Mitchell says. "How many times did Leroy Jackson get refused a table in this town?

But they were living different lives. Leroy was single. Mitchell was married with children. At night he went home to a house, a wife and kids. When the Mitchells went out, they tried to go to nice restaurants where the staff didn't always appreciate African-American football stars. Jackson went to black nightclubs in black neighborhoods. He wasn't as famous as Mitchell. Nobody knew who he was.

As a first-round pick, Jackson was expected to excel. The Redskins' 1962 media guide describes him as "the fastest Redskin player of all time," pointing out that he ran the 100-yard dash "in 9.4 seconds and runs it consistently in 9.5 seconds" while at Western Illinois. But he didn't run through the NFL. Washington used him as a kick returner but he didn't have a significant impact. His best day came Oct. 8, when he caught an 85-yard touchdown pass and his photo ran big on the sports page of the next day's newspaper.

But mostly he was a disappointment.

"They expected him to play and play well," Mitchell says. "That's what I always felt happened to Leroy. I think it was the overall disappointment they had in him. He was a No. 1 and they expected him to be bigger and faster."

On Oct. 20, 1963, Leroy was returning a kick in Pittsburgh, when he was hit as he says, "high-low," meaning one Steeler hit him high on his body and another low. He crumpled to the ground as the ball rolled away. The next day, an assistant coach approached him and said he was being cut because of the fumble.

"I think that's the story they told," Jackson says one afternoon, while chatting in the food court of Union Station, a meeting place he picked over his home which is located less than two miles away.

Then he goes quiet. "That's all I'm going to say," he says.

But to Mitchell a fumble was enough to get Jackson cut. The same thing almost happened to him while he was with the Cleveland Browns. In those days, he says, African-American players were expected to show anger when they made a mistake, either by slamming the ball to the ground or kicking the turf, he says. To react stoically, as the white players were taught to do, was to show you were "nonchalant," as Mitchell puts it.

He learned this in 1958 during his first training camp with the Browns. Right before the team was to move its camp to California for a week of practice and exhibition games with the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, the Browns' legendary coach Paul Brown called him into his office.

"We don't know what to do with you, we don't know if you want to play football," he said.

Mitchell was stunned. At first he thought Brown was bothered by his blocking ability, but Brown shook his head. Neither he nor his coaches thought Mitchell was interested in the game. Finally the coach saw the dejected look on Mitchell's face and said he would take him to California to see how things went.

"I hadn't thought about [being] nonchalant," Mitchell says. "They wouldn't accept a black player who didn't show emotion. If I dropped a ball I had to show emotion for my mistake. You couldn't say, 'Coach, I'm sorry.' You have to understand where we came from."

Leroy never showed emotion. He never got angry. Not about anything. Even Mitchell and the other black players had trouble knowing what was inside. So when he fumbled against the Steelers it made sense he was gone the next day.

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Something died in Leroy when he was cut. Soon after the release Lou Saban, the coach of the AFL's Buffalo Bills called. He had coached Jackson in a college all-star game. He loved Jackson's speed and thought he could put him in a backfield with stars Jack Kemp and Cookie Gilchrist. But to Jackson's friend, Edgerson, who was on the team, something had changed in Leroy after Washington.

"I just think he didn't want to play the game anymore," Edgerson says. "He played the game because it was a paycheck coming in."

After Buffalo, Jackson tried out for two Canadian teams – Calgary and Montreal – but he didn't like the league with all of its strange rules. Edgerson was right, he didn't want to play football anymore.

"I didn't lose heart for the game but it was just something I couldn't pick up," Leroy says. "The system was easy to learn, no problem with that. But it was just motivating myself to play, to want to play, play as hard as I can. That cutting probably took a lot of my heart out of it."

He went back to Washington and married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy, who had been his next door neighbor in Chicago Heights. They had two children, a daughter, Mia, and a son, Leroy III, who was born a month early with a hole in his heart. Jackson got the job driving the bus and when he retired from that in 1994 he worked security jobs – something he continues to do to this day.

Dorothy died of a heart problem in 2009, Leroy III, never got over her death and died seven weeks later. It was a bad year, but like everything else, Leroy almost never brought up his wife and son. Friends learned not to ask.

"Leroy is a simple person," Edgerson says. "He doesn't demand a whole lot. He keeps things very simple. He was always a good soldier. Even in college he never complained to the coaches about anything."

"You know the real reason my uncle was cut, don't you?" asks David Irons, a workout specialist who trains NFL players.

Irons' mother is Leroy's sister. He has known Uncle Leroy all his life but only in the last few years has he learned of Leroy's connection to NFL history. Irons has two sons who played football at Auburn and in the NFL, and he works daily with professional football players, yet Leroy never said a word about his Redskins career, never showed him scrapbooks or photograms, or talked about his place in NFL history. Nor did he talk about the release from which he never recovered as a player. The answer to that came from another of Irons' uncles, who let slip an incident from 50 years past.

"It wasn't about fumbles," Irons says.

He pauses for a moment, about to reveal a family secret.

"They cut him because they caught him in a hotel room with a white woman," Irons continues. "Can you believe that? They cut him for something that's so common today. It's unreal."

Over the phone from his home in Atlanta, Irons' voice rises with anger and then calms. Leroy was angry when he learned that Irons had been told the story behind his release. But suddenly everything made sense to Irons. His uncle's reticence, the hesitation to talk about his career, the distance he sometimes felt with Leroy. The secret behind his release had been holding him back.

"He needs to be free," Irons says.

So on a rainy late-summer morning, Leroy Jackson drives the mile from his home to RFK Stadium to do a video interview for this story. He talks of his childhood and his college career and his trade to the Redskins. He tells of that one meeting with Marshall and the first game in Dallas. He smiles as he remembers the day he caught the 85-yard pass against Baltimore. Then he gets to the release after the Pittsburgh game.

"They said I was fooling around with different people and stuff like that," he says. "But who doesn't fool around? I wasn't married at the time so whatever I did on my own time was my business."

Later he says, "Football was my job, what went on outside was outside."

He stops.

"What else do you want to know about that?" he asks.

Do you think it was about a woman?

"I think it probably was about a woman," he says.

What was the reason you were cut?

"Interracial things and not being able to hold onto the ball," he says.

He says he found this out after he was cut. He says he was told that two coaches voted against his release but were overruled. Marshall was already disabled by a stroke, meaning the decision came elsewhere in the organization. Leroy does not know who made the final call.

The trouble with Leroy's claim is that it's impossible to confirm or deny. Most everybody involved – Marshall, McPeak and most of the coaches are dead. Others memories are shaky. Even Leroy seems to have long put aside the incident that might have destroyed his career. A few weeks after the video interview he takes a call while sitting at home and is asked about what he had said.

"Nothing ever bothers me," he says. "What happened has happened in the past. Most people let things worry them – not me. Whatever it is, I drop it and move to the next thing."

With that he goes into another afternoon of a marvelous life. The world may not know Leroy Jackson. He might be a forgotten footnote in football history but he doesn't seem to mind. He simply disappears back into the bustle of a city that sees him every day but has no idea how important he really was.

Arizona Cardinals – Karlos Dansby had 12 tackles.

  Atlanta Falcons Osi Umenylora had two sacks and two forced fumbles.

  Baltimore Ravens – Daryl Smith leads a defense that has reinvented itself.

  Buffalo Bills – Fred Jackson averaged 10 yards a carry..

  Carolina Panthers – Greg Hardy had three sacks.

  Chicago Bears – Jay Cutler didn’t have lots of yards but led the Bears to a big win.

  Cincinnati Bengals – Terence Newman came up huge with several big plays late.

  Cleveland Browns – Brian Hoyer was phenomenal in his Browns debut.

  Dallas Cowboys – DeMarco Murray’s 175 yards was huge.

  Denver Broncos – It seems like a broken record to keep picking Peyton Manning but …

  Detroit Lions – Nate Burleson will be missed after proving to be a great complement to Megatron.

  Green Bay Packers – Despite a big fumble, Johnathan Franklin had 103 yards.

  Houston Texans – Rookie DeAndre Hopkins had six catches.

  Indianapolis Colts – Ahmad Bradshaw rumbled through the Niners' once vaunted defense.

  Jacksonville Jaguars – Vacant.

  Kansas City Chiefs – Justin Houston with 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble.

  Miami Dolphins – Ryan Tannehill is maturing quickly as an NFL QB.

  Minnesota Vikings – Christian Ponder had a chance to win Sunday’s game.

  New England Patriots – Aaron Dobson is establishing himself as a receiver.

  New Orleans Saints – Three TDs and 342 yards. How can it not be Drew Brees?

New York Giants – Steve Weatherford had a solid day punting.

New York Jets – Santonio Holmes averaged over 30 yards a catch.

Oakland Raiders – Was Monday night Denarius Moore’s big breakout game?

Philadelphia Eagles – LeSean McCoy needs to touch the ball even more.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Ben Roethlisberger kept Steelers in as long as he could.

St. Louis Rams – Isaiah Pead had seven catches.

San Diego Chargers – Reggie Walker had six solo tackles and a sack.

San Francisco 49ers – NaVorro Bowman with nine tackles on a gloomy day for Niners.

Seattle Seahawks – Marshawn Lynch had 69 yards on a day everything went right.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Doug Martin had a solid day running.

Tennessee Titans – Jake Locker, finally.

Washington Redskins – Robert Griffin III had his best day this year despite a fumble and INT.