Forty years ago, BYU and Wyoming met at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyo., for a football game that turned out to be much more than a game.
It was October, 1969 — a turbulent time in American history, with demonstrations and protests abounding around the country, sparked by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
So when 14 black Wyoming football players decided to wear black armbands for the game against BYU — to protest what they considered to be "racist practices" of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates BYU — and when then-Cowboys coach Lloyd Eaton decided to boot those 14 players, which included seven starters, from the team for that decision, it touched off a maelstrom of controversy and it immediately became a national story. The following week, reporters from media outlets like the New York Times and Sports Illustrated descended upon Laramie to chronicle the episode.
And the ramifications of the "Black 14" incident have since resonated for decades.
During the week of the 1969 BYU-Wyoming game, the Black Student Alliance at Wyoming announced it was planning to stage a demonstration outside the stadium against the LDS Church because it did not allow blacks to hold the priesthood (it wasn't until 1978 that blacks were granted that opportunity). The Black 14 insisted on being part of that protest by wearing black armbands as a symbolic gesture, but Eaton rejected that plan and meted out a severe punishment against those players for violating team rules prohibiting players' involvement in protests.
Marc Lyons, who was BYU's starting quarterback in 1969, remembers staying at the Holiday Inn in Laramie the night before the game and hearing people throw bottles at the hotel. On game day, the Cougars encountered protestors as they arrived at War Memorial Stadium.
"It was definitely a strange atmosphere," said Lyons, a longtime color analyst for KSL Radio who will be in Laramie when BYU visits Wyoming on Saturday (noon, The mtn.). "It was hard to understand. A lot of our players weren't LDS. It was odd that this was happening at a football game.
"We were the news. ... It was the first time we encountered protesters. People were holding signs as we got to the stadium to play. We walked through those people and they were badgering us a little bit.
"There was a girl who had a sign, something about the Mormons, and she misspelled the word 'Mormon.' It was a little bit unnerving, a little bit comical," Lyons said. "The strangest part was that it didn't seem at all like a game that day. There was a lot of other stuff going on. It was a different atmosphere, that's for sure."
At that time, Wyoming was a dominant team in the Western Athletic Conference while the Cougars were perennial also-rans. Yet going into that contest, BYU was confident about its chances for victory because it knew the Cowboys had lost seven starters.
"We were kind of excited. We thought, 'Man, we're going to beat those guys,' " Lyons recalled.
Instead, the incident, at least on that day, galvanized the rest of Wyoming's team.
"Once the game started, man, they got all over us," Lyons said. "I was surprised about that. They beat us pretty good."
Indeed, the Cowboys, who were unbeaten and ranked in the top 10, crushed the Cougars, 40-7.
From there, however, the two programs started courses in opposite directions and Wyoming football was never the same. From 1966-1968, the Cowboys had won 27 games, but over the next seven seasons, they won only 24 times and suffered six consecutive losing campaigns. After playing in the 1968 Sugar Bowl, Wyoming didn't play in another bowl game until 1987.
BYU, on the other hand, went on to become the WAC's dominant team from the late 1970s through the 1990s. Through the years, many Wyoming fans saw BYU as being responsible for the Cowboys' demise.
Kevin McKinney, a Cheyenne native and Wyoming graduate, is the senior associate athletic director at Wyoming. He's also the longtime color analyst for Cowboy radio broadcasts. McKinney, who was on the school's sports information staff in 1969, said the Black 14 incident had a long-lasting influence that went far beyond football.
"It had an incredible impact on the football program and it had an incredible impact on those kids (who were kicked off the team)," McKinney said. "They had a terrible time going to school anywhere. It was a tragic thing, really. It impacted a program, but it impacted a lot of young men, too. That was the sad thing. The wins and losses were the shallow part of it. The real crux of it was the impact it had on those kids and their teammates."
Like many Wyoming fans, McKinney had a difficult time coming to terms with the incident.
"I live and die Wyoming. I was born there, I was raised there, I went to school there," he said. "It's hard for me. It was amazingly bitter because Wyoming football was everything to the fans and the students."
It wasn't until years after the incident that McKinney met up with one of those Black 14 players and they talked about what happened in 1969 and its aftermath.
"He told me how he couldn't go to college anywhere because nobody would take him," McKinney said. "I got a real perspective on what courage it took to stand up for what he believed in. Those kids loved the game. They gave that all up. So I kind of changed my mind about it."
Just this week, a symposium was held on the Wyoming campus about the Black 14 incident. McKinney was among those on the panel. The auditorium was packed with students eager to learn about that painful time in the school's history.
"People need to know about it," McKinney said. "It was 40 years ago. That's a long time. But I was amazed at the turnout at this (symposium). It was very interesting to be part of that. I didn't know that, 40 years later, we'd still be talking about it. But it was as big as anything."
Cougars on the air
No. 25 BYU (6-2, 3-1 MWC)at Wyoming (4-4, 2-2)
War Memorial Stadium, Laramie, Wyo.
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