Former NFL Player speaks at PENTA for the National YWCA Take A Stand Against Racism event
WESTBOROUGH _ Former NFL cornerback George “Butch” Byrd knows what it’s like to experience racism first-hand. As the third draft pick of the Buffalo Bills and the 25th overall pick in the 1963 NFL draft, Byrd began his professional football career in 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act was signed.
On April 24, 2014 Byrd addressed the staff at PENTA Communications, Inc, during a Lunch and Learn event as part of the Company’s participation in the YWCA’s Stand Against Racism™ movement.
The YWCA’s Stand Against Racism™ is an initiative that works toward eliminating racism by raising awareness. Organizations across the nation are invited to become participants by hosting their own “Stand” and bringing people together to raise awareness regarding racism.
PENTA’s Founder and CEO, Deborah Penta felt the event was important as it brought awareness to the topic of racism that still exists in America. The Company is part of the United Nations Global Compact and participation in this event was in alignment with one of the Compact’s core principles of Human Rights. Penta and her team were pleased to have Byrd, a longtime Westborough resident, speak at the Agency’s Lunch and Learn program.
“Although we live in a world where people are becoming more at ease with diversity, racism unfortunately still exists, and events such as the ‘YWCA’s Stand Against Racism™’ are wonderful opportunities to bring the topic into a realm where intelligent discussions can occur,” said Penta. “Perhaps most importantly, it makes everyone stop and think.”
“Our Lunch and Learn series offers a wide diversification of topics to educate our team on a whole host of subjects for life enhancement and personal growth. We were so delighted that Butch was willing to share his journey with our team, and the struggles he encountered along his path to success,” Penta said.
Byrd discussed his experiences as both a college football player at Boston University in the early sixties, and as a professional football player.
Byrd told of one particular experience that made an indelible impression on him. In the early days, nearly half of the Buffalo Bills players came from the South.
According to Byrd, in the team’s locker room and on the field, differentiation between races was not felt. Byrd said he believes a lot of that was due to running back Cookie Gilchrist, a “massive black man,” who was a force both on and off the field.
“You have to remember this was the mid-sixties and we had players from all over the country who had their own ideas regarding race relationships. I do think the only reason there weren’t any racial issues vocalized on the field or in the locker room was because people would have had to deal with Cookie,” Byrd said.
However, Byrd said Jack Kemp, then the quarterback for the Bills and a future Republican Vice Presidential candidate, was a very influential person and a voice of reason regarding locker room emotional issues.
However, the stark reality was that racism did exist in the Bills organization.
Never was that more pronounced for Byrd than at a team Halloween party at a fellow teammate’s home. The party brought a level of fun and relief from the rigors of the grid iron and everyone was in a jovial mood, Byrd said.
“Then I asked the wife of one our offensive tackles, a man from the South, if she wanted to dance,” Byrd said. “In a flash, his hands were on me tossing me to the wall and saying, ‘you’re not dancing with her.’ I felt surprised, embarrassed and actually teared up. I never saw this coming. We were all having fun and then this.”
Byrd said teammate Ed Rutkowski and his wife tried to smooth things over, but the damage was already done. Several days later the Bills’ Vice President Jack Horrigan found out about the incident and brought Byrd into his office to discuss what had happened.
“I thought at first he was concerned about me; however, I found that he just wanted to make sure the team was all right, which took away some of what he said,” Byrd said. “It’s been over some forty-odd years since that party and I see him, the offensive tackle, occasionally at some Bills events. We’re both cordial to each other but we both remember the incident. I get the feeling that we both would like to forget about it and pretend it never happened, but I did.”
A turning point in history
Nowhere was racism more prevalent than the American Football league All-Star game that was to be played on January 16, 1965 at Tulane Stadium, in New Orleans. The format was that the AFL-All Stars from every team would play the 1965 champion Buffalo Bills.
Byrd, along with fellow African American teammates Cookie Gilchrist and Ernie Warlick, were on that championship team. At the time, New Orleans was vying for a professional football franchise, in either the AFL or the NFL. In all, 21 African American players went to play in New Orleans with the assurance that the City would respond in a positive manner to African American players. Players were even encouraged to bring their wives and children.
However, once players began to arrive in New Orleans, the true nature of what was in store for them set in. African American players were stranded for hours at the airport, denied cab rides, turned away at restaurants, verbally put down, and, in some cases, were even given rides and dropped off miles from their destinations.
In the end, all 21 players, including Byrd boycotted the All-Star game. Several white players also supported their African American teammates, and in the end AFL Commissioner Joe Foss moved the game to Jeppsen Stadium in Houston, Texas. This was a turning point in history and the unprecedented stand the African American players took brought about change in New Orleans. Ultimately, two years later the league granted New Orleans a team.
The repercussions of what had happened in New Orleans were felt in the Bills organization. Bills owner Ralph Wilson never said anything directly to Byrd, Gilchrist or Warlick on what had happened in New Orleans; however, Byrd and many others felt Wilson held that incident against them.
“We know the city of New Orleans lost a great deal of money. The supporters and sponsors of the game lost lots of money,” Byrd said. “This was to be the venue to show the AFL that the City of New Orleans was ready to host a professional football team and then the black players boycotted for reasons unsympathetic to the people in power.”
Today, Byrd looks back on an impressive legacy. He started every game during his tenure with the Bills; was on five All-Star teams in eight years; is still the Bills all-time interception leader with 40 interceptions; was selected as one of the best 22 players in the team’s then 25-year history in 1984; was inducted into the Boston University Hall of Fame in 1985; was named one of the best defensive cornerbacks in the Bills 42-year history; was inducted into the Albany Capital District Hall of Fame in 2003; was inducted into the Bills Hall of Fame in 2008;was selected to the Bills All-Time Team in its 50-year history, and was inducted into the Albany Region Hall of Fame in 2010.
“I believe the explosion over the years of black players in the NFL has helped to stem overt racism,” Byrd said. “However, I believe in ways it still goes on.”
For more information on Stand Against Racism™, visit www.standagainstracism.org.