VCU rich with Syracuse 8 history

Bryant Drayton
Contributing Writer

In our lives, there comes a time to reflect on a moment, when all was risked for the betterment of another individual or group. Few can relish such moments or events, where the prosperity of their successors was more important than that of their own. For the Syracuse 8, this opposition confronted them at an early age and would impact the rest of their lives.    

In response to racial oppression, the “Syracuse 8” was formed, as nine African-American members of the 1970 University of Syracuse football team boycotted the upcoming season.

The nine players, who were mistakenly known as the Syracuse 8, were: Gregory Allen, Richard Bulls, John Godbolt, Dana Harrell, John Lobon, Clarence “Bucky” McGill, A. Alif Muhammad who was known as Al Newton, Duane L. Walker and Ronald Womack.

The 1969-70 football season for Syracuse was at the epicenter of a society moving forward from racial oppression. As the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was coming to an end, so was the position of African-Americans harboring a lesser role in society.

McGill, now a Richmond resident, was one of the nine with NFL aspirations that was inevitably cut short based on the repercussions from the boycott. McGill entered the 1970 season with hope that soon turned into despair, as he witnessed the injustices plaguing the Syracuse football program.

“During that time, the late ’60s, there was a pulpary of events happening such as Kent State, Woodstock, Civil Rights and the Vietnam War,” McGill said.  “Once we discovered the issues we stuck together.”

In coming to Syracuse, both black and white athletes received minimal academic support from the coaching staff, as coaches acted as advisors for players.

With academics in the hindsight for the athletes, life after football was in the minds of the nine.   

“The NFL was cognizant in what we were doing and who we were, there was no way we were going to play NFL football,” McGill said. “Our education was not hindered because we outsmarted them as all of us graduated, and now we have a couple attorneys and very successful college graduates.” 

The Syracuse 8 started, as fellow teammate John Godbolt shared similar talents with a long line of former great Syracuse running backs, among them Ernie Davis and Jim Brown.

The team, led by head coach Ben Schwartzwalder, was not ready for another athlete with the boldness of Brown. Schwartzwalder made it clear the extent of what Godbolt could say and do, diminishing the potential talent he had to display.

“He was really disliked by the coaching staff, and was told he reminded them of Jim Brown,” McGill said. “Fortunately for us, we had a group that could support each other.”

Both Davis and Brown faced opposition during their time at Syracuse, but reflected on their goals and aspirations more so than the social injustices presented to them. Brown went on to be one of the top running backs in the NFL and Davis became the first black Heisman Trophy winner.  John Godbolt was never given the chance to excel at Syracuse which led to the decision for the nine to boycott spring practice and the season. 

Leading up to the first game of the 1970 season, a riot was started before the first home game against the University of Kansas. Publicity about the Syracuse 8 exploded after the riots, as the student body was also fed up with the athletic department. 

Jim Brown grew fond of the story, and offered his advice to the nine, supporting the movement that was starting.

“Jim Brown made sure we understand what we stood for was honorable, but on the other hand our NFL football careers would be over,” McGill said. “After some deep discussion as a group, we voted we didn’t want to see any other black players go through what we had to go through.”

The boycott began with the optimism of sitting out that season  and being allowed to play the following. Claims were made that Schwartzwalder sent letters asking the nine to rejoin the team, but those letters were never received. 

The 67 white players all came to their decision: It would be better off for them if the nine were not a part of the team, claiming the distractions from the boycott would interfere with the team comarderie. The football careers of the Syracuse 8 were over.

McGill, who recently retired from being general manager of the Juvenile Enterprise Program, worked with delinquent youth in the city of Richmond. VCU men’s basketball player Treveon Graham recently took part in an internship where McGill was his mentor.

“I took Treveon from September to December this past year, and he took part in shadowing judges, visiting parole officers and speaking to the youth, basically involving him in all aspects of criminal justice,” McGill said.

Robyn McDougle, an associate professor at VCU who primarily deals with the impact of violent crime on youth and community development, set up the internship with McGill and the Freight Train. 

“Clarence took success, to turn into passion to help young men and change their lives,” McDougle said. “Treveon really made a connection with the youth, as they loved how he treated them like they were humans.”

VCU men’s basketball players Melvin Johnson, Mo Alie-Cox, as well as Graham have all worked with the criminal justice program and visited the youth, developing a relationship with them.

In 2006 the Syracuse 8 were recognized for their boycott as they were exonerated and given the Chancellor’s Medal of Extraordinary Courage. The Syracuse 8 Scholarship Fund is now given to an African-American or Latino first-year student who exhibit leadership skills and community service duties. This year, their book “Leveling The Playing Field:The Story of the Syracuse 8” will be published and sold everywhere. 

“Our legacy of courage, leadership, and our unification of humanity will forever be our bond,” the Syracuse 8.   

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