HAVERHILL — Memories from 42 years ago are etched in Daryl Johnson's mind as if the events had just taken place.
"It was a different time in our country," said the former Boston Patriot, who will be inducted into Morgan State's Hall of Fame on Sept. 19.
Johnson, a former quarterback, led the 1966 team, which had not lost a game in three years, into the Tangerine Bowl (now the Citrus Bowl) against West Chester (Pa.) State.
Looking back in the record books, the words describe just an ordinary bowl game on an ordinary December day. But, with the United States in the midst of the civil rights movement, Morgan State, a historically black university located in Baltimore, on the same field as West Chester State, a white college, gave the game far more meaning.
And when Morgan State beat West Chester 14-6, it signified more than just another ordinary undefeated season for the Bears. Johnson said it represented a defining moment, a giant leap towards racial equality in the United States.
"We weren't just playing that game for our school," recalls Johnson, a longtime resident of Groveland and Haverhill. "That game was bigger than just a football game. It was for our grandparents, our parents; we were playing for something that was bigger than ourselves, and at the time, I'm not sure we knew it.
"Looking back on it now, at 62 years old, and seeing where our country was at that time and where we are, I am really only appreciating that game now. And, it wasn't even about us winning, it was about the two teams being on the field together, and what that meant.
"The funny thing is, I can honestly say that it was the cleanest of games. This was a group of white kids, playing football against a group of black kids, and it was at the same time in our country that there were riots going on over racial issues, and I mean people were getting killed. I expected slurs and remarks from both sides, maybe some cheap shots, but it never happened. It was just the game, and very respectful on both sides."
For Johnson, who was just 19 at the time, it put things in perspective.
"It almost is forgotten, but you can imagine the controversy that game created," he said. "But, if we could play football on the same field, why couldn't we coexist in society? At that age, I thought I knew everything, as we all do. I found it funny that a group of kids could play a very physical game against each other, smashing into each other on the lines, and have no incidents. Yet a group of adults couldn't seem to get along just because of the color of someone's skin."
After watching President John F. Kennedy get assassinated in Dallas just a year before, the Bears had no idea what to expect when they took the field in Orlando.
"If they killed the President of the United States, a white man and leader of our country, what were they going to do to us," Johnson remembers thinking. "There were people that were isolating the West Chester kids because they were going to be on the same field as us. And, we didn't know what was going to happen. Our safety could have been in jeopardy, and their safety could have been in jeopardy just for playing on the same field. We had no idea. But, that was how the times were. You couldn't imagine that today, but that's how it was."
As Johnson was reflecting on his days at Morgan, he can't help but realize how different his school was from the rest of society. That fact was never more prevalent than when in 1966, John Bowser, a white offensive lineman from New Jersey, made the team.
"The school was 99.9999 percent black, we were all black except Bowser," chuckled the father of two. "He was a lineman, too, and when you're on the line, you're getting beat up every single play. But to me, as a quarterback, he was one of the guys whose job it was to protect me.
"At a time when a white person could be chastised for talking on the phone with a black person, imagine the abuse that Bowser took from some of our opponents, who were white, or the media, for playing on a team full of black kids. He didn't care, it didn't matter to him. We were all just playing football."
Johnson, grew up in Richmond, Va. After attending Maggie L. Walker High School, he didn't have anywhere near the collegiate choices that white players had.
"It's amazing, in 42 years, how far we've come," said Johnson, who played at Morgan with great players like Frenchy Fuqua, Hall of Famer Willie Lanier and Raymond Chester. "When I was going to college, there were places I simply couldn't go and play football, and that was that. If you were black, you just didn't go to Maryland, Virginia Tech, Georgia, or programs like that and play football. It wasn't allowed."
The NFL years
After Johnson was drafted by the Patriots, he reported to his first training camp, where he won a starting cornerback job his rookie season. Though he played just three seasons, Johnson was voted by the fans as one of the two cornerbacks on the Patriots' All-Decade team for the 1960s.
"Those fans were pretty darn smart," joked Johnson, who intercepted five passes in his NFL career.
While with the Patriots, Johnson was competing with and against football legends.
"It fulfilled a dream," he said. "I can tell my kids, and my grandkids, that I held for Gino Cappelletti. I can tell them that I intercepted a pass from Joe Namath, and I tackled O.J. Simpson. You don't appreciate things like that right away, and even if you think you do, you really appreciate them when you get older."
Johnson's pro career ended in 1971, after he suffered a broken leg. These days, the former Saugus High track coach helps his wife, Helen, with her home design business, but football still holds a large piece of his heart.
Johnson's honor roll
1966 — Black College national championship, All-Maryland second team selection; 1967 — NCAA Small College Player of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh Courier Black All-American First Team, All-Maryland first team selection; 1968 — Drafted by the Boston Patriots (8th round, 197th pick); 1970 — Named as a cornerback on the Patriots' All-Decade team for the 1960s; 2008 — To be inducted into the Morgan State Athletics Hall of Fame on Sept. 19