Oct. 21, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist for msuspartans.com
Former Spartan All-American wide receiver Gene Washington was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame earlier this year and will be officially inducted in a ceremony at the NFF College Football Hall of Fame's 54th annual Awards Dinner Dec. 6 in New York City. As MSU's latest inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame, Washington's name will be unveiled on the Spartan Stadium Ring of Fame prior to Saturday's game against Wisconsin.
Growing up in Texas, all Gene Washington wanted was a chance to do something special with his life, which was deemed anything but by much of the society around him.
Oh, he could play sports. The segregation he experienced during the early 1960s stood in the way of many of the possibilities that are taken for granted today, but running fast and catching footballs weren't among them. He just couldn't do it with, or against, white kids. And he couldn't do it for the big in-state university.
"I think what really drove me was I felt I had something to prove," Washington said. "And I say that because when you're denied opportunities in a segregated situation, and with the way we were treated, I was driven to make a contribution."
For Washington, sports were a means to an end, first at George Washington Carver High School 15 miles from his home, and then across the country at Michigan State University, where he was a key contributor on one of the greatest college football teams ever assembled. After his stellar NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings came to an end, the former Academic All-American parlayed his education and high athletic profile into a mission.
During his 43 years with the 3M Co., Washington served as a conduit for minority engineering candidates making their way into corporate America.
Although retired as 3M's national diversity recruiting and higher education director, and living in the Twin Cities, it's as though Washington's MSU career will continue into perpetuity. Prior to Saturday's Homecoming game against Wisconsin, his name will be unveiled on the Spartan Stadium Ring of Fame alongside those of former teammates George Webster and Bubba Smith, and fellow Spartans greats Don Coleman, Brad Van Pelt, John Pingel and Dr. John Hannah.
Washington will also join Webster, Smith, Pingel, Coleman and Van Pelt in the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame when he's inducted on Dec. 6 in New York.
"The most important thing Michigan State gave to me," Washington said, "was an opportunity. Looking at my situation and where I came from, the university didn't have to do that. Dr. Hannah, who was the president at the time, (administrators) Jack Shingleton and Jack Breslin, (athletic director) Biggie Munn, (head coach) Duffy Daugherty - all of those guys stood up for us.
"Duffy was like a father-figure to me."
Washington's life is a vibrant quilt work of hardships and relationships stitched together by experiences and accomplishments. The pattern started to take shape at Carver High in Baytown, Texas. Although other schools were closer, Washington bused every day from his home in LaPorte to the all-black school.
"I have to look back to where I came from," Washington said. "Water fountains, theaters, everything was completely separate. You couldn't play with white athletes and there were even separate championships.
"I had a passion for sports and I think the drive in me goes back to those teachers and coaches I had when I was growing up in that segregated situation. My coach in football, Johnny Peoples, drove me home after practice and games because bus service wasn't available when we got through."
His basketball and track and field coaches did the same in the winter and spring.
"My teachers were very important to me," Washington said. "Because of the segregation, we were always pushed to excel in academics. We had to do our very best in all of our classes. And there was a level of excellence that was really pushed in athletics. That grounding is what really helped me when I went to Michigan State. I just kept that same attitude that was pushed early on, so it was very easy for me to adapt to the college environment.
"The only thing I had to become adjusted to was the integrated situation. That was very easy, too, because everybody was so much nicer in an integrated situation at Michigan State than in the segregated situation in Texas. I did not want to go back down South, and that pushed me even more."
Washington gives much of the credit for his recruitment by the legendary Daugherty to Smith, who hailed from Beaumont, Texas.
"We were close friends and played against each other in basketball and football," Washington said. "So Bubba told me he had put in a good word for me to Duffy and encouraged him to add me to the freshman class. That's how I got to Michigan State."
Freshmen weren't eligible to play for the varsity when Washington arrived on campus as a willowy, 6-foot-3 wide receiver in 1963, so he put everything he had into preparing for his second season.
"I wanted to be the starting end my sophomore year and you had to win your position," Washington said. "I thought if I could make that happen, then all of the other things would fall into place."
Washington's trademark precision came to the fore in '64 when he set a pair of MSU single-season records with 35 receptions and 542 yards in addition to scoring five touchdowns. He also established new single-game standards for catches, with nine, and receiving yards, with 150, against Notre Dame.
Washington made an even bigger impact as a junior when he caught 40 passes for 638 yards and four touchdowns, and Michigan State went through the regular season undefeated to capture Big Ten and national championships and a Rose Bowl berth.
With Washington, Webster, Smith, halfback Clint Jones, fullback Bob Apisa, quarterback Jimmy Raye and linebacker Charlie "Mad Dog" Thornill, the Spartans were a national sensation in '66 even without social networking and round-the-clock cable television sports reporting.
Despite Daugherty's heavy emphasis on running the ball, Washington still had 27 receptions for a then school-record 677 yards and seven touchdowns when he wasn't excelling as a blocker. His remarkable 25.1 yards per catch that season continue to hold up as the school standard 45 years later.
Michigan State finished the season with a 9-0-1 record. The only blemish came by way of the infamous 10-10 tie against Notre Dame in what was billed as "The Game of the Century" between the No. 1-ranked Fighting Irish and the second-ranked Spartans.
"My dad was at the game, and that was the first game, and the last game, he saw me play," Washington said of his father, Henry. "A lot of the business people in our small community pooled some money together to send him up to see me play."
Washington earned All-America honors for the second straight season and MSU defended its Big Ten title while also earning national champion status. However, even though Washington and his teammates were immortalized by that game, the memories from that season remain bittersweet.
The Spartans couldn't play in a postseason game because of the Big Ten's no-repeat rule, and Washington harbors a hint of regret only a true competitor never quite gets over.
"It was very disappointing for us," Washington said of the game against Notre Dame. "We had an opportunity to win, but it didn't happen. We couldn't play in the Rose Bowl again, which I felt was very unfair. That really was our last game as seniors and we wanted to go out as winners, but went out a partial winner. We didn't have any national championship games back then."
Washington fell to the ground after making a sensational leaping catch against the Irish to set up a field goal, and still contemplates what might have been.
"I wish I would have kept my balance and kept running and scored a touchdown," he said. "Maybe that might have been the difference."
And most probably, the game would never have become an integral part of American sporting folklore.
Washington also was a world-class hurdler and national track and field champion. He won the NCAA indoor 60-yard high hurdles in '65 and was a six-time Big Ten champ with three indoor and three outdoor hurdles crowns.
Washington can't tell you his time in the 40 because he never ran it, but he was chosen eighth overall in the NFL draft and was one of four Spartans taken in the first round by the NFL or AFL. He was a first-team All-Pro selection for the Vikings after catching 39 passes for 821 yards and nine touchdowns in '69 and played in two Pro Bowls.
While at 3M, Washington led the company's effort to recruit job candidates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities along with major universities around the nation, including many which closed their doors to him when he was a college-bound high school student.
Washington savors the irony of being inducted into the College Football Hall Fame, where he'll be featured alongside players from his era he was prohibited from competing with and against, and takes satisfaction in knowing he helped open many of the doors today's black athletes go through freely.
"Here it is, I'm being inducted into the Hall of Fame for all of collegiate football, but when I was in high school and I was at Michigan State, black players didn't even have the opportunity to play for southern teams like Texas, Alabama and Georgia," Washington said. "I think about Michigan State taking me and Bubba and George Webster, who came from a completely segregated situation in Anderson, S.C. It means a whole lot to me that the three of us are in there together."
The 1965 and 1966 Michigan State National Championship and Big Ten Championship teams are holding their 45th reunion this weekend in East Lansing. Former teammates and coaches will gather at the Kellogg Center for a banquet Friday evening and will be in attendance for Saturday's game against Wisconsin.