The Syracuse 8 Sacrificed Their Football Dreams for Equality
Would you give up your future to fight for what you believe? John Lobon, a college student, and his seven football teammates would confront this life-altering question head on, like a linebacker crashing into the offensive backfield.
Sacrifice is defined by Merriam-Webster as the act of giving up something that you want to keep, especially for something you consider more worthy or to help someone else. As a member of the Syracuse University football team in 1970, John Lobon, Gregory Allen, Richard Bulls, Dana Jon “D.J.” Harrell, John Willie Godbolt, Clarence “Bucky” McGill, Abdullah Alif Muhammad (then known as Al Newton Jr.), Duane “Spoon” Walker—all Black players—made a personal sacrifice that would change their lives, strengthen their bond, and line them up against their university. They would come to be known as the Syracuse 8. Ron Womack had been removed from the roster due to an injury, but he supported them through the whole boycott and is considered a ninth member .
Some people asked the question, ‘Do you think you were born at the right time?’ - John Lobon
John Lobon was born in 1950 in Hartford, Connecticut. His fraternal twin brother Ronald, older sister Josephine, and he were raised by their mother, Lucinda Lobon. They grew up in the Bellevue Square neighborhood in the North End of the city, in a 500-unit public housing complex.
The 1950s and 60s were turbulent times. There were the Korean and Vietnam wars, racial segregation, social unrest. President John F Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. were all assassinated.
John says, “Some people asked the question, ‘Do you think you were born at the right time?’ I believe that I was because I could now see a change from the past to what was going to come forward.”
In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States, in the landmark case Brown vs Board of Education, struck down the law that allowed segregation in public schools and other facilities. While in theory, segregation ended with this decision, it would be a long drawn-out fight similar to guerrilla warfare in school after school, county after county, state after state—in many places, that fight continues to this day.
Consider the fact that the Sheff vs O’Neill case in Connecticut began in 1989 to desegregate Hartford’s public schools. In January 2022, a Hartford Superior Court judge approved a plan to create spaces for Hartford students at magnet and suburban schools. The final agreement is still waiting for the Connecticut General Assembly approval.
America in the 1950s & 60s
In America, Jim Crow laws had legalized racial separation in local and state statutes throughout the country. Named after a Black Minstrel character, these laws began circa 1865, after the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery. These laws were designed to deny Blacks the right to vote, hold good-paying jobs, receive an education, and have other opportunities whites had taken for granted.
This forms the backdrop for the civil rights movement, which was most active from 1954 through 1969. This movement would come to a full boil in 1955, when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Parks’ arrest led to the Montgomery bus boycott, which ended when the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision, ruling that segregated bus seating was unconstitutional. The 381-day boycott was officially over.
In 1957, the Little Rock 9 integrated Central High School, with whites spitting on Black students, racist rants, and threats of physical violence. Things were so bad the United States military had to provide an escort for the Black students to enter the school.
When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called it “the second emancipation. ”Scholars consider the Civil Rights Act legislation to be the major achievement of the civil rights movement. The new law ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” and later, sexual orientation and gender identity. Later, other laws would be enacted to prevent discrimination against the disabled, elderly, and women in college sports.
Football Is a Way Out
During the 1960s, John became active in baseball, basketball, and football. He was a good athlete, but he excelled in football, starting in midget football. “I started playing football at 10- years old and fell in love with the game,” he said. I got to Weaver High School and realized this is where the competition is.”
John’s ability and love for the game of football were impressive. He was a starter on the freshman team in 1964. That year, a big thrill was dressing up—but not playing—for the Thanksgiving (“Turkey”) Day Game. In his sophomore year, he would start at center on offense and play linebacker on defense, finishing the season at 5-3.
I had an admiration for my mother that was so strong that when I saw how hard she was working, I felt that I needed to drop out and help with the household. -John Lobon
While things on the football field were good, financially, times were tough. John wanted to help his mother pay the bills. His mother, who grew up in Alabama, had a 7th grade education. “We couldn’t rub two nickels together as a family. My mother was a domestic [worker]. I had no father at that point in time. I was planning to quit school in my junior year.”
John adds, “I had an admiration for my mother that was so strong that when I saw how hard she was working, I felt that I needed to drop out and help with the household.” She replied, ‘No, no. You got to get through 12th grade.’”
From that moment on, John dedicated himself to focusing on school and sports. “I tried to succeed by doing and being the best that I could be.” His junior year, the team went 7-1. His senior year it all came together for the football team, when they were undefeated, culminating in the Connecticut state championship in 1967. During his three varsity seasons, he lost a total of three games.
He went to visit Syracuse University and met Gregory Allen, another football recruit, who played in New Jersey. “He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, but we clicked,” said John. “As soon as we met each other, it was like a magnet.” They made a pledge to attend Syracuse together on a football scholarship.
And it didn’t hurt that Jim Brown played at Syracuse. “I was in awe because at that point I was in love with the Cleveland Browns and Jim Brown. I’m thinking, wow, I can get a chance to go to the same school he went to.”
When John visited Syracuse, he got the incorrect impression that there were many Black students on campus. But he would soon realize that there were roughly 150 Black students on a campus of over 6,000. “I didn’t get to feel it my freshman year because I was so focused on school and football,” John states. “I never got a chance to actually socialize within the cultural environment of the school.”
He felt that the large, predominantly white university, wasn’t prepared to help Black students fit in while celebrating their culture. To counteract this problem, John and Greg would spend time in the city, instead of on campus.
Injustice and inequality will reign unchallenged and unchecked only so long as there is no organized effort by the people to compel a different course. -Harry Edwards
There were only three Black players on the freshman team. John played center when he started his freshman year. Back then, John says, there was an unwritten rule that Blacks could not play three positions : center, middle linebacker and quarterback. There was a consensus that white players didn’t want to listen to Black players calling the plays.
He played his sophomore year on defense and was later benched for a player whom he felt was not better than him. Other issues also surfaced during this time, from racial isolation to unfair treatment by the coaches. In his junior year, more problems surfaced. Coaches were calling Black players “Boy” and referring to their hair as “fizz.”
In David Marc’s book, Leveling the Playing Field, Lobon says, “To the coaches, we were “blacks” or “black militants,” or some kind of “other,” but we were individuals and we were not treated with the respect that individuals expect to be shown. I wanted to say to them, ‘Look at me for what I am—a human being—and let’s go from there.’”
Harry Edwards, the author of the book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete, says, “Injustice and inequality will reign unchallenged and unchecked only so long as there is no organized effort by the people to compel a different course.”
This sense of brotherhood was evident in the relationships that we all discovered because making a commitment to a cause is making a commitment to the others involved in that cause. -Gregory Allen
Eight Black players (John Lobon, Gregory Allen, Richard Bulls, Dana Jon “D.J.” Harrell, John Willie Godbolt, Clarence “Bucky” McGill, Abdullah Alif Muhammad [then known as Al Newton Jr.], and Duane “Spoon” Walker) decided to boycott the 1970 football season at Syracuse University, if their demands were not met. In Leveling the Playing Field, Gregory Allen says, “This sense of brotherhood was evident in the relationships that we all discovered because making a commitment to a cause is making a commitment to the other involved in that cause.”
They had four demands: 1) Equal access to academic classes, tutors and advisors. Black players were often pushed toward easy classes, not relevant to their majors. 2) Better medical treatment for the players. This demand arose from the fact that the team doctor did not want to touch Black players and prescribed only rest and ice, regardless of the symptoms or severity of injury. 3) Equitable treatment and transparency in distributing playing time and clear criteria for when Black players would be allowed to travel to away games. During those days, there was an unwritten rule that white schools didn’t want too many Black players on the field at one time. 4) Diversify the coaching staff. There were no coaches of color in any sport sponsored by Syracuse University.
Syracuse University launched an investigation and released a 39-page report on December 9, 1970. The report stated that the “Athletic Department showed an unwarranted insensitivity to the attempts by black players to question (offensive) treatment,” and criticized the “long-standing authoritarian role of Head Coach Schwartzwalder.”
The report did not lead to changes on the field. In fact, only one of the players who were part of the boycott in 1970 would play again for the university. In 2006, Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor invited the Syracuse 8 back to receive the Chancellor’s Medal, the university’s most prestigious award, along with their letterman jackets. At this ceremony, the university formally apologized to the Syracuse 8.
In 2008, John Lobon was honored as a LetterWinner of Distinction, the highest honor given to former student-athletes at the university.
Change is Too Slow
John believes he and several of his teammates were “blackballed” from an opportunity to make it to the NFL or semi-pro football. According to John, the coach of the Hartford Knights, a semiprofessional team, said, “Look guys, I’m going to keep it real with you. You’ve been blackballed by the NFL. They considered you militants and troublemakers. They’re not going to allow you to come up and disrupt the NFL.”
Fast forward to 2022, and problems persist for the NFL. Recently fired Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores is suing the league for discrimination.
John Lobon says, “The thing is, how many Black coaches you got in the NFL?” As of February 5, 2022, Mike Tomlin is the only Black coach in the NFL, a league in which approximately 70% of the players are Black.
“We wanted to effect change within collegiate athletics,” states John. A lot of it has happened, but the overall landscape hasn’t changed because Division 1 schools have very few Black head coaches. In the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), there are only 12 Black head coaches at the 130 member schools; these are the schools that compete to win a national championship and attend the top visibility and money-producing bowl games.
The Syracuse 8 would go on to have successful careers off the football field and in the game of life. Their bond remains strong today, despite the passing of Richard Tyron Bulls (1951-2010); Duane “Spoon” Walker (1949-2010), and John Willie Godbolt (1949-2012).
In the book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete, author Harry Edwards says, “It cannot be overemphasized that freedom, justice, and equality must reside, in substantial part, in the hearts and minds of the people. It is The People who initiate and who lead change efforts, not the courts, or the legislators, or the governors, or the presidents, or other executive-branch office holders or appointees—on or beyond the campus.”
Each generation owes the previous one a debt of gratitude. Black activism has been a driving force to push America to be a better nation. The Syracuse 8 stood up for what they believe. It’s important that we honor their story and sacrifice by continuing the fight for justice.