Chances are, you never heard of Pascagoula native Calvin Huey, who died this past September at age 75 after a long, hard-fought battle with kidney disease.
Now, on the eve of the annual Army-Navy football game, seems an especially good time to remember this remarkable man who, against all odds, broke the color line in Navy football and in the Army-Navy football game.
That’s right, Army and Navy had been squaring off in football for 73 years before they played on Nov. 28, 1964, in Philadelphia. That day a tall, strapping, dark-skinned Mississippian, wearing jersey No. 49, took the field for Navy. Huey, who would catch passes from the legendary Roger Staubach, thus became the first African American to participate in perhaps America’s most classic sports rivalry.
“Oh man, everybody who saw him play remembers Calvin at Carver High School,” says Pascagoulan Jackie Ely, who watched Huey play as a child. “He played quarterback back then and he had the biggest hands you’ve ever seen in your life. I remember turning on the TV a few years later and there he was playing for Navy, making history. Man, we were so proud of Calvin Huey.”
It was no easy trip from Pascagoula, where ships are built, to Annapolis, where the best and brightest learn to sail them. Huey took a most circuitous route.
Huey was much more than a tremendous athlete – all sports – at Carver High. He was an excellent student, known for his intellect. He excelled in math and the sciences. His mother, a cook, sent him to summer science camps. An uncle, an Alcorn graduate, tutored him in math when he was young and piqued his interest in the sciences. He was the Carver Class of 1961 valedictorian, as well as captain of the football and basketball teams.
After graduation from high school, Huey followed a friend to Oakland (Calif.) City College, a two-year school, which they could attend for free. Huey played football, made all-state and honorable mention All-American. His academics were off the charts, as well. Through a Mississippi congressman, Huey applied for an appointment to the Naval Academy. He was refused. The rejection letter said that should Huey go to Navy and fail to graduate “he would be a stain on the state of Mississippi.” This was 1962, the same year it took 30,000 troops to enroll James Meredith into classes at Ole Miss.
Sister Linda Huey, who still lives in Jackson County, says she can’t say for certain which congressman it was. “Calvin threw that letter away and was more determined than ever,” Linda Huey says.
Huey sought an appointment to Navy from a California congressman. Jeffery Cohelan, a liberal Democrat representing the San Francisco area, went to bat for Huey when those in his home state would not. The appointment, which had nothing to do with athletics, was granted.
When Navy football practice began in the summer of 1964, Huey was one of 300 plebes (freshmen) to try out. That number included 14 quarterbacks. Huey, a smart guy, did the math and also took into consideration Navy already had a varsity quarterback named Staubach. He became a wide receiver. His size – 6 feet, 2 inches and 185 pounds – and his huge, strong hands made him a natural.
Dave Church was one of those 300 plebes and would become Navy’s punter and a friend of Huey’s for the rest of their lives.
“The first thing you noticed about Calvin were his hands,” says Church, who spoke at Huey’s funeral. “He had the largest, softest hands I’ve ever seen. He caught passes nobody else could have caught. He really was a gifted athlete, a great basketball player as well. He was a quiet leader, who always seemed to have a smile on his face. Academically, he was just brilliant.”
Staubach, in an autobiography, wrote: “Calvin Huey was just the kind of guy you liked. He had a great personality, worked hard in football and was an intelligent guy.”
If Huey was proud of being the first African American to play football at Navy or to participate in the Army-Navy game, you apparently would have never heard it from him.
Deborah Huey, Calvin’s wife of 34 years, says he never talked about being “the first” but that “he would smile when other people talked about it.”
“Calvin loved the Naval Academy, and I know he was proud,” Deborah Huey says. “But he was just such an humble man. He just never boasted. Never.”
Upon graduation, Huey served two tours of duty in Viet Nam, one as a gun operator and the second in Naval intelligence. Later, he earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Maryland, before returning to the Naval Academy as a chemistry professor and an assistant football coach. Later still, he went to work for IBM until kidney problems forced an early retirement.
In 2015, Pascagoula instituted a sports hall of fame. Huey, in the inaugural class, was chosen by his fellow inductees to give an acceptance speech for the group. Says Ely, who was there, “One of the most heartfelt speeches I’ve ever heard. He was proud to be from Pascagoula. He was proud of the progress that’s been made here. When he finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, including mine.”
“That meant so much to Calvin,” says Debbie Huey, who made history herself as the first black homecoming queen at Annapolis High School. “I may have enjoyed it more than him. I consider myself so fortunate to have had him as my soul mate for so long.
“He was just a beautiful human being, a wonderful husband. Calvin just floated through life with such grace and courage. He really did have the heart of a champion.”