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The forgotten story of former Cowboys safety Richmond Flowers Jr. and a brave stand for America | Mike Sielski

Flowers made a huge play against the Eagles a half-century ago. His greater achievement came in 1968, when he made a stand for equality.

Richmond Flowers Jr., who went on to play safety for the Dallas Cowboys, scored Tennessee's only touchdown in the Volunteers' 10-9 victory over Alabama in 1968.
Richmond Flowers Jr., who went on to play safety for the Dallas Cowboys, scored Tennessee's only touchdown in the Volunteers' 10-9 victory over Alabama in 1968.Read moreCourtesy of the University of Tennessee

Fifty years ago Sunday, the Eagles played the Dallas Cowboys at the Cotton Bowl, in a game whose details have since been consigned to microfilm spools, digital newspaper archives, and the waning light of old men’s memories.

The Cowboys won, 21-17, to improve their record to 5-2; they reached the Super Bowl that season, losing to the Baltimore Colts. The Eagles' loss was their seventh in seven games, though they had shown considerable fight against a superior opponent, scoring a touchdown with 50 seconds left in regulation to pull within four points, then attempting to recover an onside kick. But a Dallas player, on the field as part of the team’s kickoff-coverage unit, wrapped his hands around the bouncing, zigzagging football, and the Cowboys ran out the rest of the clock.

The player was Richmond Flowers Jr., whom Dallas had selected in the second round of the 1969 NFL draft. At the University of Tennessee, Flowers had been a receiver and tailback on the football team and an Olympic-caliber sprinter and hurdler on the track team, touting himself as “the fastest white boy alive.” The Cowboys had admired his athleticism and toughness – “I was a big Richmond Flowers fan,” Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' director of player personnel at the time, said – but his name carried an additional power and resonance that had nothing to do with sports.

When the Cowboys drafted Flowers, Brandt had been aware of that power and its source. He had not been aware until recently of an action that Flowers had taken, while still at Tennessee, that defined it.

‘Daddy taught me to love the country’

By the time Flowers joined the Cowboys, his father, Richmond Flowers Sr., the attorney general of Alabama, had established himself as a force in the civil-rights movement and the foil for the state’s segregationist governor, George Wallace. The elder Flowers prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan for the killings of two civil-rights workers in 1965, asserted that Wallace’s demagoguery “can bring nothing but disgrace to our state,” and ran against Wallace’s wife, Lurleen, in the 1966 Democratic primary for governor, earning a rare political endorsement from Martin Luther King Jr.

Because Wallace always made sure that the Confederate flag flew above the U.S. flag at the state capitol in Montgomery, Flowers promised, if he were elected, to “strike the colors of the Confederacy and make it a museum piece.”

“I always had a problem with the damn Confederate flag flying on top of the capitol,” the younger Flowers said in a phone interview. “It should be America’s flag. Daddy taught me to love the country. Respect the flag, and respect the country.”

Flowers had decided to go to Tennessee – and to turn down the chance to play for Bear Bryant at Alabama – after his father, while presenting an award to him at a high school track meet, had been booed. The incident was, for him, the final straw.

“They burned crosses in our yard, and they beat my daddy up at one of my football games,” Flowers Jr. said. “Somebody came up behind him and said, ‘Mr. Flowers,’ tapped him on the shoulder, and just cold-cocked him.”

A first-team All-America selection as a junior, Flowers indulged in a delicious helping of schadenfreude as a senior, scoring the Volunteers' only touchdown in their 10-9 victory over Alabama. But as terrific a football player as Flowers was, he was better on the track. His freshman year, he ran the 60-yard high hurdles in 6.9 seconds, coming within a tenth of a second of the world indoor record. His sophomore year, he was the Southeastern Conference’s most outstanding performer at its championship meet, then one month later set an NCAA record by finishing the 120-yard highs in 13.4 seconds.

In the spring of 1968, Flowers returned to his hometown, Montgomery, for the SEC indoor championship meet at Garrett Coliseum. There, he met the conference’s newest sensation: Kentucky freshman sprinter Jim Green, who, like Flowers, seemed assured of a place on the U.S. Olympic Team for that year’s Summer Games in Mexico City.

As the national anthem played before the meet, Green noticed something: A gigantic Confederate battle flag was hanging inside the coliseum, but there was no American flag anywhere. He pointed out the incongruity to Flowers. They stood together throughout the song, not knowing where to look.

“We just started talking, and I said, ‘You know, I’m getting tired of all this stuff in the SEC with the Rebel flag,’” Green said. “There were so many Black athletes coming into the SEC then, guys who played football, and it was tough. Those guys played in big stadiums where they got booed and called names, and I ran in stadiums where I got booed and called names. And we just came up with the idea that this had to change.”

They spent the next two months carrying out their plan, then unveiled it at the SEC outdoor championships, in Tuscaloosa. After Green won the 220-yard dash, in a conference-record time of 21.1 seconds, he and Flowers went to the officials' tent and presented a petition – signed by 120 male track-and-field athletes, with all 10 SEC schools represented among the signatories – to Tonto Coleman, the conference’s commissioner. If the American flag was not flown at any and all future SEC meets, the petition read, “we consider it our duty and responsibility as conscientious American athletes to request our respective universities not to participate.”

The athletes had threatened a boycott.

Coleman publicly acceded to the athletes’ demand. “I don’t foresee any problems at all,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “in getting the flag displayed.” But Flowers was of no mind or mood to celebrate. The federal government had launched a criminal investigation of his father, eventually convicting him of conspiracy to extort money from savings-and-loan and life-insurance companies – charges that Flowers Sr. maintained were trumped up by his political enemies. (After serving 18 months in prison, he was released on parole, and President Jimmy Carter pardoned him in 1978.) Then, during an early June workout in Knoxville, Flowers Jr. tore his right hamstring, ending his Olympic hopes. Green missed the Games, too, with his own hamstring injury.

And so, as the world watched, John Carlos and Tommie Smith lifted their gloved fists to the sky that October night in Mexico City, and there was little mention or memory of what Flowers and Green had done five months earlier, of a similar, courageous gesture on American soil.

It’s strange sometimes, the history that we forget.

“Somebody had to break those barriers,” said Green, the first Black athlete to graduate from Kentucky. “We took the challenge and won the challenge. It was a very tough situation, but it was OK. We were bigger people to fight the battle.”

The SEC’s indoor championships were held in Montgomery again in March 1969. In its coverage of the meet, the Associated Press reported, “The Stars and Stripes, whose absence a year ago touched off complaints from two of the SEC’s top track men, were displayed in the middle of the coliseum.”

Somebody else’s shoes

When Green was reached by phone and asked if he’d be willing to speak about the boycott and his relationship with Flowers, his first words were, “How is my friend Richmond?” The two see each other from time to time, at SEC functions and reunions.

“Richmond,” Green said, “was one of those guys who stood fast with me and said, ‘This can no longer be warranted. We’ve got athletes of color now running in the SEC. We’ve got to change some things because of that.’ I give him all of my gratitude for helping me do this.”

The Cowboys – to their credit, given the context, the racial-political tenor of the late 1960s – had no reservations about drafting Flowers. “I wasn’t worried about what Richmond Sr. did against George Wallace,” said Brandt, who went to Montgomery to attend some of Flowers’ trial. “It didn’t at all affect us.”

Because Flowers’s torn hamstring had robbed him of some of his speed and agility, the team moved him to defensive back, but his onside-kick recovery against the Eagles was arguably his most significant contribution to the Cowboys during his brief time with them. He appeared in just 25 games over two-and-a-half seasons before they traded him to the New York Giants.

He is 73 now, and he has retained some of the same bluntness and brashness that he flashed as a young man.

“There were rednecks out there, and there were Black leaders and Black people who paid a dear price,” Flowers said. “But there were also some white people who did the right thing. History has proven us right. Until you walk in somebody else’s shoes, how could you really know what it’s like?”

On Sunday night, the Eagles will play the Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field, in an era when what happens just before a sporting event has become as noteworthy and meaningful as what happens during it. In these recent years, as athletes have knelt, raised their fists, refused to stand, or remained in their locker rooms during pregame renditions of the national anthem, every note has been transformed into a temporary referendum on patriotism and protest, on race and racism, on respect and disrespect for the American flag, and on the idea and ideals of the United States.

We might think of these as new and unprecedented developments, intrinsic to our age. They are not. They are the kinds of choices and actions that have always propelled us forward, as a country and as individuals, and the examples even from our deep past can be models for today. We can look back 52 years and see the grace, the goodness, and the brave and proud tremble of two hands, one black, one white, grasping each other in friendship and reaffirming that honor has no half-life.