Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Husky Legend...Junior Coffey

This is an older article from 1999 I came upon by Chris Gove, an Amarillo Globe-News Sports Writer. Even 45 years later Junior is still a legend in his hometown of Dimmitt, Texas.

Junior Coffey was the first black to play for an all-white team in the Panhandle and among the first statewide - when he starred for Dimmitt from 1957 to 1961

Players from Dimmitt High School's athletic teams remember those days like yesterday, even though they were about 40 years ago. The lessons, though harsh, helped the members of the Bobcat football and basketball squads how tough it was sometimes just to be Junior Coffey.

Of course, Coffey is arguably the greatest athlete ever to come out of Dimmitt. He was an all-state performer for the school in both football and basketball,eventually playing football collegiately at the University of Washington - only after a nation-wide bidding war - and then for three teams in the National Football League.

Coffey will never be known in the Texas Panhandle merely for what he did as an athlete, though - nor should he. Instead, he should be justly known as a pioneer for all black athletes from the area.

His renowned career at Dimmitt from 1957-61 was the first for a black athlete in the Panhandle, and one of the first in the entire state. Coffey, the first black student in Dimmitt High School's history, also was the first black player ever at the UIL State Basketball Tournament, helping the Bobcats to consecutive finals in 1960 and '61.

Coffey's teammates learned more lessons about life during road trips than any time in the athletic arena, though.

"I think that we were probably exposed to things at a pretty early age that other kids weren't exposed to," said Hal Ratcliff, a teammate of Coffey's in both football and basketball who played college basketball at Texas Christian before eventually becoming superintendent of the Friona school system.

"It's pretty tough just because you're black you can't go into a cafe and sit down and eat or you have to stay at a dumpy motel. You realizethat life isn't always fair."

Life has been a tough thing for all blacks trying to make inroads throughout the 20th century, and many would argue there still need to be great strides made in the present day.

At the very least, however, the current issues aren't about integrating schools and allowing people of all races to eat in restaurants and stay in hotels. Those strides were made painfully in a period of time ranging from the late 1950s through the early 1970s both in the Amarillo area and throughout Texas.

Certainly, no black athlete was a superstar in the Panhandle until the days of Junior Coffey. "He was sort of like a Jackie Robinson of this area," Scott said. "There may have been (other black athletes) before, but he was the one that got the publicity.

It was very deserved for his exploits in both football and basketball, though it's certainly not the plan Coffey exactly had for his life.

He moved to Dimmitt to live with an aunt and uncle and work on a farm. By the time he was finished with eighth grade in Dimmitt's one-room school for black students, he expected to work for a living or join the armed forces.

"My teacher thought I should continue my education, so she approached the principal and that's how it was," said Coffey, who currently is a horse trainer in the Seattle area. "To me, it was a pretty smooth transition simply because the students and teachers were more or less willing to work forward that way."

Coffey, in fact, called Dimmitt his, "oasis," and it's easy to see why. In effect, Dimmitt's schools were integrated for him.

And though he had never played sports before, he was invited to participate in Dimmitt school sports and made instant friends with several of the Dimmitt students -in particular Kent Hance, who currently is a lawyer in Austin.

"I think the leadership within the community was very supportive and the school administrators were, too," Hance said. "It helped that was a very easy person to like. By our senior year, of course, he had a really become a huge star, but he had not changed. He was still just a very humble, nice person."

Hance, who played on the state qualifying basketball teams, also remembers good times of going hunting with Coffey or showing hogs for the Future Farmers of America.

He also remembers what he had to do every time the team took a road trip for basketball games, though. "I was the one that coach would say to, `Go see if they can handle the size of our group,' when we'd go to a restaurant," Hance said, explaining it was a sly disguise about asking restaurants if they would serve Coffey."

"Sometimes it was OK and sometimes Junior would have to eat in the kitchen. One time I didn't check at this little barbecue place and the owner pointed at him and said, `He's go to eat in the kitchen. Well, I said, `If he's got to eat in the kitchen, then I'm going to eat in the kitchen.' And he was just like, `Get yourself out of here.' I told him I bet his good wasn't good, anyway. That kind of stuff was just stupid."

Somehow, Hance remembers that Coffey always maintained a strong sense of dignity. "There were things he didn't like, but he didn't sit around feeling sorry for himself and he didn't consider himself a victim," Hance said "He made the most of every circumstance and that shows his success not only in sports, but in life."

Coffey's second dealing with integration came after he graduated from Dimmitt in 1961 and it was time to select a college to play at.

He said Texas Tech was interested, but that the Southwest Conference still hadn't integrated - the first black player in the SWC wouldn't come until 1967 - and that advice from basketball coach John Ethridge was to leave the area.

Coffey did that, accepting the offer from Washington - partially because former Phillips coach Chesty Walker was the Huskies assistant who was recruiting him.

"I sure wish he could've gone to school in the Southwest Conference,"Ratcliff said. "The only things I'm disappointed about is that he wasn't able to attend school in the SWC and he wasn't allowed to play in the Texas High School Coaches Association All-Star Game. It would have meant a lot if he could've gone to school in Texas.

"He was just an outstanding individual."

Coffey went on to carve out a solid career at Washington, playing in a Rose Bowl after his junior season. He still is the No. 10-ranked all-time rusher in Huskies history.

He was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1965 and played on a National Football League champion team that season before getting taken in theexpansion NFL draft by Atlanta.

Coffey helped lead the Falcons for a couple of seasons and also played for the New York Giants before retiring in the early 1970s because of recurring knee problems.

He had made his greatest mark years before as a youth in Dimmitt.

"Really, I never looked at it as opening avenues," Coffey said. "I realize now that after I was at Dimmitt High School that any other black kid who came after me definitely had an opportunity to prove the type of person he was."


Anonymous said...

I coached Junior in the 8th grade at Dimmitt.Even then he had an adult like maturity. I think this article captured the essence of Junior. I taught for over thirty and was privileged to work with some great individuals,but none like Junior. I only recently became aware of Juniors later success,I couldn't be more pleased.

John Berkowitz said...

I am glad you found the article!

Anonymous said...

Junior Coffey was my football hero as I grew up watching the Washington Huskies!

Anonymous said...

My husband played football with Junior Coffey at the University of Washington, then went on to play professional football for nine years. In 1967, his first year with the Dallas Cowboys, he was asked to speak at a high school football banquet northeast of Dallas. There was a black athlete on the high school team who came to the banquet to receive his letter and left immediately. We later heard horror stories of what he had to endure to be a part of the team. Thank God for coaches and others in the community who stood with Junior against the prejudice.

kamagra oral jelly said...

Junior Coffey was an incredible was an incredible player he is a hero for the Washington Huskies.

LanaNorthwestWA said...

Lana Ohara-WA
I was working in the Athletic Dept. as a secretary when Junior came to UW in 1961. Our state was not segregated in schools, nor when I was in HS (58-61) were black students treated any differently. I feel very priviliged to have been working at UW and see Junior's rise as a star football player. I also went to high school with Jim Giggans, one of the best reporters out in the field during the Vietnam War, he was in Bosnia, and covered many other fronts right in the middle of war zones for ABC. He goes down in history as the best war correspondent in the 'Nam war, and also adoptd a Vietnemese orphan and was instrumental in getting over 100 war orphans adopted to familes in America. I have followed his career, and he teaches journalism at UCLA now. Having known 2 people who excelled in their craft-- I feel very honored. By the way, Jim Giggans is also African-American, and was a pioneer in opening up his field for others.

john edwards said...

when i was a freshman in a small texas town we played dimmit in a practice game with him at either fullback or half back... i was playing middle linebacker ... i tried to tackle him and was knocked out...i live in the seattle now with my wife and meeting Junior Coffey is on my bucket list.