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Category:  Sports History
Published:  December, 2000

Still Mutt!

On Thursday morning, Uniontown native Sanford Stephens will become the 64th person to enter the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in Pasadena, California. If you look back at the life of the man and those who followed him, perhaps you can better understand the significance of such an honor.

by Al Owens
January 31st, 1988. Super Bowl XXII at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. A one-time All American leads his team through one of the most spectacular achievements in American sports history. By the end of that day Doug Williams would be hailed as The Super Bowl MVP. And why not? In the second quarter alone he threw for four touchdowns. His Washington Redskins would destroy John Elway and his Denver Broncos by 32 points. As wide eyed sports fans across the world watched in awe.

African Americans everywhere stood and cheered. They realized one of sports' last great obstacles had finally and convincingly been overcome. Doug Williams had been the first quarterback of his race to start a Super Bowl game. In nearly 70 years of professional football in this country only a handful of black quarterbacks started in just a few NFL football games.}

When Williams finished his work that day he'd left no doubt about a black man's ability to get that particular job done.

One man, 2011 miles away, not only stood and cheered he exploded with joy. He had known in the first person the tremendous weight Doug Williams had carried onto the field that afternoon and he knew too the sense of triumph he carried from it.

Sanford Stephens Jr. of Uniontown, Pennsylvania had felt very much the same thing 26 years and 30 days before. The day he lead his Minnesota Golden Gophers to a 21-3 victory over UCLA. No wonder he has such respect and admiration for Doug Williams the quarterback and Doug Williams the man. "When I saw what he (Williams) did that day, I just threw back my head yelled. And that's something I only do for Willie Mays," Stephens proclaims. That may seem to be a simple proclamation. But if you carefully examine it, you'll find the true importance of Sandy Stephens. '

Doug Williams not only broke, he shattered an invisible color barrier. Something for which he'll long be remembered. But Willie Mays wasn't known for breaking through any barriers. He set standards. The standards by which all great baseball players, black or white, will forever be compared.

Sandy Stephens fits easily into both categories. Just ask the folks in Pasadena! I've got to have it today!!! The surroundings looked familiar to Sandy Stephens on January 1st, 1962. He'd been there the year before, but he'd lost. This time it was different. In late November, when fellow Uniontown native and childhood playmate, Ernie Davis became the first African American to win a Heisman trophy, Stephens finished fourth. And in early December he'd earned his very own milestone. He was the first black quarterback to be named All American.

On this day, against UCLA, Stephens had something to prove to the 98,214 fans in Pasadena and the millions of fans around the world. A loss a year earlier wouldn't mean much on this day. All Sanford Stephens had in his mind was, "Naw, not today. I've got to have it today". So the swaggering Pennsylvanian with the All American good looks, and the All American good headlines, went to work. To this day you can't convince him he'd done it on his own. He did have two other Pennsylvanians with him. Bill Munsey, who grew up a fly pattern or so away from him on Grant Street, was one halfback. Judge Dickson of Clairton was another one.
But the fact is, Stephens did more than was expected of him that day. He'd step up to the line, lift one heel off the Rose Bowl turf and suddenly a receiver would fly in motion. A nice bit of dramatics he'd taken with him to Minnesota. "Coach Bill Power had me doing that in high school", Stephens offers from his home in St Paul, Minnesota.

The dramatics may have been Power, the talent was all Stephens. By the end of the game he'd scored two of the teams three rushing touchdowns, was the Gophers' leading rusher, 46 yards, he passed for 75 yards, he played free safety on defense, he held for all three extra points, he was a kickoff returner, a punt returner and he also punted.

What's the big deal about Deion Sanders? Next to Sandy Stephens, "Neon Deion" would have looked like a night light!!! "I wanted to do everything (Hall of Famer) Paul Hornung did. He punted so I punted." But Hornung didn't play defense. And Horning never walked away with the honor of being the MVP of the Rose Bowl.

So memorable was Stephens' 1962 Rose Bowl performance, next week they're returning him to the scene of his greatest single triumph to place his name among some of the biggest in college football history in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.

Woody Hayes, Archie Griffin, Dick Butkus and Bob Griese are just a few the names of previous honorees. There aren't many. Just 64 players, coaches or Tournament of Roses officials stretched over 83 Rose Bowl Games. "This is beyond a dream come true", Stephens beams. It is a dream that would have never had a chance of coming true if it wasn't for a nudge he'd gotten from a close friend. One shove and the rest is history "I didn't want to become a quarterback, I wanted to be a halfback or a fullback," Stephens now confesses. But a quirk of fate sent him in a different direction. One that led to fame in two countries and the privilege being a first in one. For all of this he can thank Jimmy "Skates Mclee. "It was the first day of football practice in my seventh grade year at Lafayette Junior High School", says Stephens. "Skates kept trying to convince me to tryout for quarterback." For Skates it just made good sense. There were 18 guys in the line for halfback. There were 10 guys in line for fullback. There were only two who were trying out for quarterback.

Despite Stephens' wishes to the contrary, Skates gave him a shove and Sandy went flying into the quarterback line. For good!!! By the time Stephens reached his sophomore year at Uniontown Joint Senior High School, he'd learned enough about the position to start in the final game of the season. "There were just three seconds left in the game, I dropped back to pass and began began slipping. I landed on his back, but I still completed the pass for a touchdown. The first person to come back to check on me was "Skates" Mclee. "That pass taught me one thing", Stephens continues, "Never give up until the last second." That philosophy must have helped him throughout his brilliant high school career at Uniontown. He won 9 letters in all. Three each in track, basketball and football. And when he wasn't playing he was studying just as hard. He managed to stay on the honor roll until he graduated.

The Ultimate Coach On the Ultimate Catch
Stephens' athletic skills were not lost on college coaches across the country. Including the winningest college football coach of all time. A man who knew something about great black athletes. Grambling University's legendary Coach Eddie Robinson says, "We dreamed of having somebody like Sandy at Grambling. "He could run, he could throw, he could do everything."

Robinson's 405 victories since 1941, were won by many men who'd broken color barriers. Doug Williams had played for Eddie Robinson. Fullback Tank Younger , the first African American to play in the NFL, and. James Harris the first African American to start regularly at quarterback had both played for Eddie Robinson. So that's why when you mention Sandy Stephens to him, he regards him with such respect. "I remember him as being well thought of all over the country", Robinson adds from his office in Ruston, Louisiana. "He was just a great athlete." But Stephens had entertained offers to over 50 Division I colleges for football alone. He also had 6 basketball offers and a great deal of interest from the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies. Stephens chose Minnesota and football. "I thought, I can play baseball later. After I go to college." So Stephens and Uniontown's Bill Munsey went off to Minnesota, where they both made headlines and began winning games for the Golden Gophers. And back in Uniontown his old friends, who were always aware of Stephens' abilities, continued to root for him. Sandy Who? "We all knew he was special by the time he was four years old," remembers Earl "Ozzie" Minor who still maintains a close contact with Stephens. "We were bigger than he was, but he showed us no fear." "By the time I realized I really liked playing with the bigger kids, that's when I knew I enjoyed the challenges of competition.", says Stephens.

In fact it was the bigger kids, "Ozzie" Minor and Lawrence Curry who gave Stephens something he'll never be quite able to lose. His nickname.

"I used to ride bikes with Lawrence and Ozzie around the East End, and one day while riding near the corner of Miflin and Searight they had gotten tired of my little brown dog named "Skipper" nipping at their legs when they peddled. "They started saying, 'that mutt follows us everywhere. 'That's what we oughtta start calling you. Mutt!'

On the East End of Uniontown, all that's required is one whisper of one nickname and you're burdened with it for life. "Mutt" was the answer to one of the most asked questions in Uniontown back in the late 1950's. "Who's that Sandy Stephens guy in Minnesota everybody's talking about anyway?

While Mutt Stephens was carefully disguised as Sandy to the rest of the world, his legend began growing in Uniontown.

Ken Misiak has been Uniontown's Recreation Director for many years, and when you mention Sandy Stephens he sounds delighted to relate one unbelievable story about him.

"I remember the day he hit a homerun from the big field at Baily Park to the tennis courts!" As if hitting a baseball clear into another sport isn't enough, Misiak pauses and then concludes dramatically, "Left handed".
In fact, Mutt Stephens seems most at home relating his baseball exploits too. Especially when he talks about his midget league years.
"We had Ernie Davis, Charles "Snitch" Mclee, and Eddie "Spread" Gay. I batted 464. Eddie Gay batted 482", Sandy reveals as if it all took place last week. It must made Bensons Midget League very proud.

Was Stephens miffed at being beaten out for the batting crown that year? It sure doesn't sound like it. In fact, in a two hour telephone conversation full of nostalgia, it was Eddie Gay who got the highest praise of all the Uniontown athletes he talked about.
As a Red Raider halfback, who played with Stephens he says, "Spread would hit the line and dance!!!. Just dance.
But that's "Mutt" er Sandy Stephens for you. He's more willing to talk about the good things that happened throughout his illustrious sports career, not the obvious downfalls. Just a Regular Guy "I look at guys like Kordell Stewart and 'Jefferson Street' Joe Gilliam when he was playing and I'm always rooting for them." Envy doesn't seem to be within 2012 miles of the man who lead their way.

He still keeps a running total of the half dozen or so black All American quarterbacks who came after him. And he knows by heart the dozen black quarterbacks who've since played at Minnesota. He is fully aware he blazed quite a trail in Uniontown too. After him, came Clyde "Ki Ki" Thomas, Alan Jackson, Mutt's younger brother Ray, Billy "Hammer Head" Emmett and Wilfred "Hawk" Minor whose story is remarkably similar to Stephens'. With one notable exception. In 1965 "Hawk" Minor led his Red Raider team to a WPIAL Championship.

"He taught us by example. We worked out all year. When the Rose Bowls came on television, we'd run to the Munsey's house and watch and cheer. "But when they came back to Uniontown they proved they were just like us. "Just regular people."

Minor eventually became the first black quarterback to start for the freshman team at the University of Nebraska. He's now the Principal of Fallis Elementary School in Denver. And it's safe to say he's now taking all those Uniontown skills to heart. Minor too is leading by example.

Ray Gillian scored Uniontown's winning touchdown in that 1965 WPIAL championship game. He also represents the very first link between Uniontown and The Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. If it had not been for a 16 yard touchdown pass Ohio State quarterback Rex Kern threw to Gillian in the 1969 game, there's a chance Kern wouldn't have been selected to the Hall of Fame a few years ago. "He taught us the importance of going to college and getting an education," Gillian says of Stephens. "The only thing I regret is I've never had an opportunity to come back in the summers to teach the younger kids like he used to!!" It's not like Gillian has forgotten kids altogether. He's currently the Assistant to the President of The University of Maryland. Thanks perhaps in part, to the efforts of Sandy Stephens who had come back to Uniontown to teach him and other youngsters. He too is leading by example. Who's That Guy With the Racquet?

The NFL in the early 1960's was as segregated as any lunch counter in the deep south. African Americans were welcome, except in the seat marked "Quarterback".

Stephens took his skills to Canada. He played there for two teams before returning to the U.S. to play for the Kansas City Chiefs. By then the country would be deprived of witnessing one of the great sports talents of the time in his prime. "He had god given talent", says "Ozzie" Minor. "Whether he played football, tennis or he swam, he went out there to beat you!!! Retirement followed a serious car accident and Stephens moved back to Minnesota where he completed his college education, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Metropolitan State University in 1994.

Despite some health problems, he's had open heart and back surgeries, Stephens still loves to lace on a pair of sneakers and compete. He's still a constant racquetball player. "Sports", was the main fabric for living," says the Youth Project Coordinator for the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity in St. Paul. "Uniontown was the best training in the world because of that".

He's still very much a sports fan. He, like the rest of American is a big Tiger Woods fan. He's more heartened by Woods' statements following the Masters when he credited those who preceded him, Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder for making his big day possible.

So it's natural he appreciates the honor being bestowed upon him next week. Ironically Warren Moon will join him on the same day. Moon followed Stephens into the CFL and won five straight Grey cups before returning to the United States to star here.

Both Stephens and Moon went to the CFL because somebody thought they didn't have skills to make it as quarterbacks in the NFL. Sadly time ran out on Stephens.

So it took young turks like Doug Williams and Warren Moon to prove everybody wrong.

Chances are Moon and Stephens will have a lot to talk about together in Pasadena. Chances are both will have each other to thank for making the day possible.