The 1962-63 Mississippi State basketball team famously defied state government officials and sneaked out of the state to play in the NCAA Basketball Tournament at East Lansing, Mich.
That game – known as “The Game of Change” against Loyola of Chicago – has been the subject of a book and a film documentary. It was played on March 15, 1963, and long has been widely believed to be the first time an all-white Mississippi college team competed against an integrated team.
It was not.
Nearly 17 years earlier (on Oct. 12, 1946), also in East Lansing, Mississippi State’s football team defeated an integrated Michigan State team 6-0.
Three of the surviving members of that State team, including Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Harper Davis, the long-time Millsaps College coach, have confirmed the Bulldogs played against a black Michigan State player, although there were no published reports about it at the time.
Apparently, there had been an unwritten agreement that Michigan State would not play Horace Smith, a black freshman lineman from Jackson, Mich., in the game. But Michigan State coach Charlie Bachman approached Mississippi State coach Allyn McKeen before the game and told him that because of injuries to two of his starting linemen, he intended to play Smith.
Davis, Jim Stuart and Johnny Grace all played in the game for State. Davis and Stuart were sophomores, Grace a junior. All three played in the backfield. Stuart, 89, is the youngest of the three. All live in the Jackson area.
“I remember very clearly that Coach McKeen came into the locker room right before we were supposed to take the field and told us about it,” Jim Stuart said. “Coach McKeen told us we didn’t have to play. He said, ‘I’ll forfeit the game and we’ll just turn around and go back home if that’s what y’all want to do.’ Well, nobody wanted to do that. We all said we wanted to play. We said we came here to play and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
Said Davis, “All we saw was the color of their uniforms. Heck, yeah, we wanted to play.”
Grace remembers it slightly differently.
“Coach McKeen said that if we didn’t want to play, he’d forfeit,” Grace said. “That’s when Eagle Matulich (another back, who died in 2002) stood up and said, ‘No, let him play. We want to play. We came a long way to play.’”
And play they did. State scored an early touchdown, missed the extra point and then held the Spartans scoreless through miserable weather that started with rain that turned into sleet.
None of the three remembers encountering Horace Smith, who wore jersey number 58 and would go on to letter for Michigan State that year and for three more. Michigan State sports publicists say Smith died in 2006.
That was a far different time seven decades ago – in more ways than one.
Mississippi State flew to the game and flying was a first for several of the State players.
Said Harper Davis, “We had three or four of our players who said, ‘We’re not gonna fly. They just weren’t going to get on an airplane. As I recall they left on Wednesday or Thursday, drove a car and met us in East Lansing.”
The 1946 Bulldogs, as with many of McKeen’s State teams, were really good. They finished the season with an 8-2 record, losing to only LSU and Alabama. Five of their victories were shutouts including the victory over Michigan State, a 33-0 trouncing of Auburn and a 20-0 conquest of Ole Miss.
Davis, Stuart, and Grace say they have never thought of themselves or that 1946 Bulldog team as having a special place in Mississippi sports history.
Said Davis, who later played with and against black players in pro football, “There was nothing special about it. We just wanted to play football.”
The 1946 game surely takes nothing away from Coach Babe McCarthy’s 1963 SEC champion basketball Bulldogs, who openly defied Mississippi authorities, flying out of the state under the cloak of darkness to play in the NCAA Tournament.
The 1963 episode was publicly debated beforehand and widely reported before and after. Nothing, until now, was ever written about the 1946 Bulldogs, who just wanted to play a game – and did.
Davis, Stuart and Grace say it has never dawned on them that both pieces of Mississippi history – the 1946 football game and the 1963 basketball game – took place in East Lansing, Mich.
“That’s amazing,” said Davis. “Sounds like something out of ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not!'”