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Leveling the Field

Pioneering journalist Russell Stockard Sr. reveals his "double-life."

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"I've lived a double-life," Russell L. Stockard, 78, says with quiet satisfaction.

As R.L. Stockard, one of the nation's pioneering African-American sportswriters during the 1950s and early '60s, he chronicled the achievements of black athletes, sparing them both the pain of obscurity wrought by segregation, and the sting of racial stereotypes.

As both the first sports information director for historically black Southern University at Baton Rouge and the first African-American staff sports writer for the Baton Rouge State-Times (1954-1960), Stockard helped persuade a sports editor to expand the paper's coverage of black sporting events.

As the first black sportswriter for the New Orleans States-Item (1960-1970), he assisted in convening the city's first integrated high school basketball contest in the city, which later became the basis for the 1999 television movie Passing Glory.

As the sports editor of two black-owned newspapers, the Baton Rouge News Leader (1958-1960) and The Louisiana Weekly (1976-1995) in New Orleans, Stockard recorded the early feats of NFL Hall of Famers such as Walter Payton and Jerry Rice, when they were stars at historically black universities.

One of the few media personalities inducted into the Nokia Sugar Bowl Sports Hall of Fame (2001), Stockard also served on the committee that first brought this week's Bayou Classic football game to the Louisiana Superdome more than three decades ago. And he has attended every clash between Southern and Grambling State since the Classic began in 1971. (As the "State Farm Bayou Classic," the event celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.)

Stockard's other life is academics. Since 1954, either as a full-time professor or a retired, part-time teacher of geography, he has taught hundreds of students at Southern and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) how to survey the globe beyond the world of sports. And when sportswriters and university public relations officials file into the Superdome press box Saturday afternoon for the nationally televised Bayou Classic, Stockard probably will be the only sports icon there who can say he literally taught a Hall of Fame athlete.

"I taught Lou Brock geography," Stockard says, recalling the baseball great who set records by stealing bases for the St. Louis Cardinals. "He was a mathematics major at Southern and a good student. He left (to play pro ball) and never returned to graduate."

Stockard himself never considered quitting school. Raised in the South when the lynching of blacks was still commonplace, the future sportswriter learned that education was the way to a better life. "There was never any doubt in my mind that I would finish college, never any doubt at all," Stockard says.

RUSSEL LEON STOCKARD was born Feb. 25, 1925 in Nashville, Tenn. He was the middle child of seven children and the youngest of three boys. His father was a railway clerk; his mother a former schoolteacher. Nashville was known then as "the Athens of the South." There were a dozen colleges and universities, albeit all segregated. Stockard's father attended Fisk College; his mother, Tennessee A&I, the forerunner of Tennessee State.

"In the 1920s and '30s," Stockard recalls, "my mother and father said, 'Things are going to change in the South.' Blacks were still being lynched, but my parents had faith. They told me, 'You go to school so that when the (segregation) law changes, you can take your place in society the same as anyone else .... And when I was living in Nashville, I didn't know anyone who hadn't finished college."

When World War II broke out, Stockard and his two brothers signed up to serve in the racially segregated armed forces. "Just because you were black, you didn't feel you were different -- the country was under attack," he says.

His oldest brother, Andrew, was serving with the Army in Europe, when he was wounded by machine gun fire, from his waist to his knee. "He volunteered to go back despite his wounds," Stockard recalls. "He never returned. He was killed in action. His body was never recovered." Stockard's younger brother Wilbur served with the Army in the Pacific, but was discharged with malaria. He died from complications from the disease 15 years later. "My Dad couldn't make the adjustment of having lost those two sons," Stockard says.

Stockard himself served in the North African and European war theaters as a military technician in the U.S. Army Air Corps, from 1943 until he "mustered out" -- discharged -- in 1946. He passed up a trip home and enrolled in the University of Florence in Italy, where he took courses in history and English. Several years later, he returned stateside and attended Tennessee State, where he earned a master's degree in geography and history. He married and started a family, and moved to Washington, D.C., to work in the U.S. State Department as a cartographical aide. His family remained in Nashville; they joined him in 1960 in Louisiana.

Anxious to return to graduate school, Stockard took a teaching position at Florida A&M in 1953. Teaching jobs alone did not support a family of five, and he supplemented his income as a staff writer for the Tallahassee Democrat from 1953-54. In 1954, he transferred to Louisiana State where he became the first black graduate student in both geography and history. At the time, he says, there were only a handful of black geographers -- and there aren't that many more today. "Don't ask me why -- I don't know," he says. "There are a lot of historians, but not geographers. The only other black person I saw (at LSU) as student was the janitor. And every time I saw him, we had a conversation."

When Southern's chairman of social sciences learned Stockard was at LSU, he invited him to teach part-time at the historically black college. "When I was in segregated situations, I was not there to integrate," Stockard says. "I had a job to do and that's what I did. I think I was friendly enough."

He says he probably avoided confrontation with any racists at LSU by simply showing up early. "I would go to class early and sit off (to one side). Now, if you didn't want to sit beside me, you didn't have to. But you see, I wasn't sitting beside you. ... So I never had any confrontations at all."

It was a tactic, he says, he later used successfully at the white-owned newspapers where he worked. At the State-Times, he convinced a sports editor to meet with Southern officials over the dearth of coverage the paper gave black athletics. "I had to drive him over to Southern's campus, because, at the time, you had to assure whites that they would not be physically harmed," he says, a reference to the stereotypes of blacks as violent.

After the meeting, the State-Times and its sister paper, the morning Advocate, began to slowly expand their coverage of black athletics. Both papers soon outpaced The Times-Picayune for that distinction.

As a Baton Rouge sportswriter, Stockard covered the domineering teams of Southern coach Arnett "Ace" Mumford, for whom the school's stadium is named. "I will go to my grave saying that LSU couldn't have beat Southern in 1959 -- the year LSU won the national championship," Stockard says. "(Tiger running back) Billy Cannon was a heck of a running back but he wasn't fast enough to play in the Southern backfield." Southern played Grambling that year, winning 12-6.

Covering historically black collegiate sports, Stockard often spotted rising stars long before they exploded on pro playing fields. Among them was Doug Williams, the first black NFL quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl, who is now head football coach of Grambling State. "I knew Doug Williams when he was at Zachary High School," Stockard says. "He used to ride a bicycle to Southern. He was always a quarterback and he was 6-foot-5, 220 pounds in high school."

As the first sports information director for the historically black colleges of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Stockard saw future Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, when Payton was a Heisman Trophy candidate at Jackson State in 1973. During 28 games in Payton's three years at Jackson State, Stockard wrote, Payton scored 331 points on 47 touchdowns, including four field goals and 43 extra points. In a 1980 column for The Louisiana Weekly, Stockard rated Payton as the best collegiate and professional football player he had ever seen -- from an elite group that included Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Steve van Buren, Marcus Allen and Tony Dorsett.

Stockard also saw future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, when he was a record-breaking receiver for Mississippi Valley State. Stockard recalls disputing a Dallas Cowboy scout who opined that Rice ran too slowly to be drafted in the first round. "When Jerry Rice was in college," Stockard says, warming up the old argument, "nobody ever caught Jerry Rice from behind."

Prior to integration, Stockard says, there were many other standouts who did not star at the black universities because there was too much competition for playing time. Take, for example, safety Roosevelt Taylor of the Chicago Bears. "He wasn't a star at Grambling because there were too many other stars there at the time," Stockard recalls.

SEATED BY HIMSELF AFTER joining the New Orleans States-Item as its first black staff sportswriter in 1960, only one white co-worker crossed the spacious room to welcome him, Stockard recalls -- Peter Finney Sr., now sports columnist for The Times-Picayune. More than three decades later, when Stockard was inducted into the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame, Stockard introduced his family to Finney, telling them, "This is the one guy who didn't let race stand in the way when it was not fashionable for a non-black to do (the job)."

While at the States-Item, Stockard helped organize the "secret," historic basketball game between Jesuit and St. Augustine high schools, the first integrated prep game in the city and the basis for Passing Glory. "The movie did not do the game justice," says Stockard, who witnessed the match-up. Jesuit officials feared a race riot, he recalls. They would only agree to let the Blue Jays championship team play the Purple Knights champs if St. Aug agreed to a number of conditions -- including no spectators or media coverage.

St. Aug scored 15 points in the first five minutes and never trailed. "I think they beat Jesuit by 23 points," Stockard says. St. Aug head coach Nick Connor, who later was elected state representative, was the true hero of the game, which was played at Jesuit, says Stockard.

Prior to a 1967 meeting at Tulane Stadium between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams, Stockard got a scoop. It was also the only time during his recollections that Stockard intimates that he was concerned for his own physical safety.

Stockard reported that Deacon Jones, defensive end of the Rams' Fearsome Foursome, had reached a seven-year low of 260 pounds by eating one meal a day and drinking -- Jones' quote -- "a heck of a lot of beer." Stockard soon learned that Jones was furious with the story, which was picked up by other media.

"There was no etiquette in the locker rooms back then," Stockard says. After the game, the sportswriter entered the Rams locker room and found the angry Jones, who suddenly realized that the purveyor of his dubious diet was black like him. Stockard recalls, "He smiled at me and said, 'Why, hello, brother!' That was one time when I was glad to be black."

AS A SPORTSWRITER, Stockard's prose is perhaps more professorial than most. But years of covering the New Orleans Saints seem to have shown him the limits of scholarship. In a 1993 column for The Louisiana Weekly, he was at a loss to explain the Saints' lopsided loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the game's second half. Stockard began by writing "I don't know" 21 times. He then added an echo effect: "I, I, I, I, Don't, Don't, Don't, Don't, Don't, Know, Know, Know, Know."

For decades, Stockard says, his academic peers knew little of his passion for sports. "Most people in academe don't read the sports page," he says. "And most people at the [State-Times and States-Item] didn't know I was in academics."

His achievements as a sportswriter in the 1950s and '60s were borne more out of economic necessity -- not out of response to the emerging civil rights movement, he says. "I could only work for an afternoon paper because I was a full-time professor," he says. With two jobs and a family to feed, he had little time for fraternizing in either profession.

But Stockard's double-life enabled him and Helen Ballard Stockard, his late wife and a former schoolteacher, to achieve a goal that would be the envy of any parent. They raised an estimated $265,000 to pay for the college tuition of all three of their children. "That was long before affirmative action," Stockard emphasizes, proudly. Today, all three children hold doctorates. His oldest daughter, Sharon received a doctorate in writing and drama from the University of Southern California; Janice has a doctorate in anthropology and linguistics from Tulane University. And his only son, Russell Jr., earned a Ph.D. from Stanford in communications.

Today, R.L. Stockard enjoys retirement. He will be 79 in three months. He runs 1.5 miles three times a week and weighs just 4 pounds more than he did when he was a young man of 18. He is an adjunct professor of geography at SUNO and writes occasionally for the Black Collegian.

He also still pores over sports statistics and records -- and his passion for history and geography has not abated. Still, the pace is now more leisurely. "It was a good run; I enjoyed it," he says, standing over a collection of aging newspaper clippings and photos. "And I would do it the same way all over again."

From right to left: Russell Stockard Sr., legendary - Grambling head coach Eddie Robinson, Olympic - track star Audrey Patterson Tyler and her husband, - circa 1980s. - RUSSELL STOCKARD SR
  • Russell Stockard Sr
  • From right to left: Russell Stockard Sr., legendary Grambling head coach Eddie Robinson, Olympic track star Audrey Patterson Tyler and her husband, circa 1980s.

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