By Sarah Bahr | @smbahr14
Sports Capital Journalism Program
PASADENA, Calif. — We don’t play against black players.
The Washington and Lee College coach, Jimmy DeHart, leader of an all-white football team from Lexington, Virginia, balked at letting his team square off against the black-quarterback-led Washington & Jefferson College squad from Washington, Pennsylvania.
The coach claimed it would be against the school’s tradition, according to Linda West Nickens, whose father, Charles “Pruner” West, was that W&J quarterback.
The W&J manager, Robert Murphy, was having none of it. W&L had already arrived in Washington. They knew West was on the team when they scheduled the game.
“W&J does not play without Pruner West,” Murphy wrote in a message to W&L.
W&J head coach John Heisman (yes, that Heisman) backed him up. West wasn’t sitting on the bench, and W&L could show up to play or not.
W&L went home with a 1-0 forfeit loss. West was nursing a sprained ankle and wouldn’t have played anyway, his daughter said, but Heisman refused to let W&L gain the upper hand.
According to multiple published reports, W&L demanded $1,000 from W&J for the forfeit, citing the “gentlemen’s agreement” common among Southern universities not to play black players.
For his contributions on and off the field to advance the lives of African-Americans, Dr. Charles West was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in a ceremony outside Rose Bowl Stadium.
He joins University of Michigan Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, UCLA quarterback Cade McNown and University of Texas head coach Mack Brown in the 2017 class.
“These four individuals epitomize what the Tournament of Roses and Rose Bowl Game stand for,” Tournament of Roses Football Committee Chair Brad Ratliff said. “This class has exhibited strength, passion, tradition and honor in relation to college football, but also in making a difference in their communities.”
West wasn’t just the Rose Bowl’s first black quarterback. The 1922 New Year’s Day game that pitted West’s W&J Presidents against the California Golden Bears, the last at Tournament Park before the move to a new stadium, was historic for another reason. It remains the only Rose Bowl to end in a scoreless tie. And though the W&J Presidents sent 17 players across the country (money was tight, and the W&J manager mortgaged his house so he could attend), the team played only 11, meaning every participating player played every down.
“Washington & Jefferson College is the smallest school ever to compete in the Rose Bowl,” W&J College president John Knapp said in an email. “It was no small feat to hold the heavily favored California Golden Bears to 49 yards of offense and just two first downs.”
West’s accomplishments at the helm of the Rose Bowl underdog are even more impressive when considering the context.
“He endured brutally racist behavior from opposing teams and their fans, but his coaches and teammates stood with him and were inspired by his leadership,” Knapp said.
During the annual Induction Ceremony, not far from the stadium, West’s daughter described the team’s train ride west. Linda West Nickens said he had to ride in the Colored Car, a sooty, smelly place directly behind the locomotive, but his teammates left another car to sit with him so he wouldn’t feel alone.
“That was just the W&J atmosphere,” she said.
Not everyone was so accommodating.
On another trip earlier that season, after arriving with the W&J team at the Wheeling, West Virginia train station to play the West Virginia Mountaineers on November 24, 1921, West, the sole black player on the W&J team, hardly expected a hero’s welcome from the frenzied crowd spouting slurs and sneers.
But this wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill riled-up mob, according to a description in the book “Playing Through The Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town” by S.L. Price.
They were ready to lynch him.
“Kill the nigger!” they shouted.
West was a light-skinned African-American. So close to white, in fact, that the crowd couldn’t single him out.
The last player off the train, West told the crowd: “We didn’t bring him with us.”
The mob relented. The hecklers dispersed.
West endured a bevy of insults through the years. A town pharmacy window display featuring a sambo-type doll bearing a “West” name tag being carted away in an ambulance. Racial slurs hurled at him on and off the field.
None of it stopped him.
West didn’t only excel in football. He was a three-sport athlete — football, baseball and track and field — who won the National Collegiate Pentathlon at the Penn Relays in 1922 and 1923. He made the 1924 U.S. Olympic team as an alternate. Though he paid his own way to Paris, his daughter said, he was not allowed to compete.
Though West was monumental on the gridiron, his greatest contributions were in the medical field.
West Nickens said at a 2012 W&J College ceremony honoring her father that West “confronted racial barriers not only in football but also in the medical field.”
Before her father’s induction this weekend, she elaborated.
“There were four black doctors in the town where he practiced,” she said. “He had no privileges at the hospital, so my mother had to travel to Washington D.C. for us to be born.
“But he never turned anyone away.”
Even if it meant patients paid him in chickens and tomatoes.
When West started his practice in 1929 in Alexandria, Va., the Stock Market had just crashed. So why did West take in patients for free when he needed to feed his own family?
“He was a kind man,” his daughter said. “He always made sure I was included growing up, whether that was taking me fishing or letting me drive a tractor on his lap.”
His selflessness extended to the gridiron. West Nickens said it was a coincidence that her father was the first black quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl.
“My father was a halfback,” she said. “He was a runner, but the [W&J] quarterback had been injured earlier in the season, so he agreed to play quarterback.”
Though West was offered a spot with the Akron Pros professional football team after graduation, he abandoned his athletic aspirations to attend Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C., becoming one of the few former collegiate quarterbacks of the era to add the “doctor” designation after his name. He served patients in Alexandria for more than 50 years before passing away at 80 on November 29, 1979, shortly after his retirement.
Nickens West will ride in Monday morning’s Tournament of Roses Parade and will join the other inductees when they are honored before the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual.
“I’m excited to be here with all these superstars,” she said. “It’s a real thrill for my family, and I’m happy I can represent my father.”