“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
– Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963
Cornelius Green had plenty of reasons to be thirsty.
He and classmate Archie Griffin would go on to become two of the most decorated players in Ohio State football history, but in autumn of 1972, they were just two of 18 freshmen in a campus dorm, fighting their way through fall camp, a crushing gauntlet of homesickness and grueling physical tests navigated by thousands of new college football players.
The phone rang.
It wasn’t one of Green’s coaches, or his mom back in D.C. telling him to keep his head up.
It was the Klu Klux Klan.
“N****r, you’re dead,” said the voice on the other end.
“It wasn’t a secret where we were staying in the dorms,” Green tells me from his office at St. Alban’s School in Washington, D.C., where he coaches multiple sports. “Pretty damn scary.”
There were other black players on the team. But they weren’t coming for Archie, or fullback Pete Johnson. They were gunning for Green, the flamboyant, long-legged, three-sport high school star who had the audacity to chase down a position traditionally reserved for a different type of football player. A white football player.
College football had already begun a slow march to increased racial integration in the early ’70s, but the man under center was still white man’s territory. So when Green, in his bright white sneakers, scarlet shoelaces, and proud Afro streaked into Ohio State history, it was seminal – catalyzing a cultural sea change that can be seen on national television every Saturday.
Today, there is no “black” quarterback, and far less coded differentiation between “natural athletes” and “traditional passers.” Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner was a black quarterback. Ohio State’s last Heisman Trophy winner was a black quarterback. The first player taken in the 2011 NFL Draft was a black quarterback.
Although he will miss this season, Braxton Miller’s first three years have been a mirror image of the quarterback profile Green pioneered, albeit in higher resolution: the impossibly swift strides to the corner, leaving twisted up defensive ends in their wake; the linebackers frozen stiff by a ball fake; the defensive backs whiffing on a be-right-back, cross-field cut…Green made yard markers seem as close together as kitchen tiles.
It’s been four decades since he laced up, but the memories of 31 victories (three Rose Bowls and four wins against Michigan among them) and his place in Buckeye history is as fresh as cut fall grass.
It’s impossible to overstate the relevance of Corny Green 40 years later. He arrived as an 18-year-old kid not only fighting for a spot in the best football program in the country, but fighting history – and a historically hard-to-please coach – all while the country adjusted to a racial revolution.
(614): When you talk to kids about your path, do they really understand the gravity of it all? CG: I think it’s a little shocking to them to hear it. But I always keep it real. I tell them about when I was nine years old, living in Washington D.C. August 28, 1963…that’s the day that changed my life.
Green (spelled Greene in his playing days) grew up a “stone’s throw away” from the U.S. Capitol Building, and on that day, he saw a large throng of people carrying protest signs. He decided to join in the procession, following it to the National Mall in front of the Washington Monument where he became a witness to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, an unwitting participant in history at the age of nine.
CG: That didn’t really click at the time. I knew what it meant, of course, but I didn’t realize that in 1972, I would have to face the same things he was talking about: death threats and nasty letters…I had to use a non-violent attitude and approach to being in that type of situation. I share that with [students], and although they get a little flabbergasted by it, they look at me much [differently]. It seems like it doesn’t faze me, but it was a big part of my life.
Sports was a big part of Green’s life, too, and it wasn’t just football. He received several scholarship offers for basketball, and turned down a pro contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. While plenty of football coaches wanted Green, many saw the lanky athlete as a receiver. Ohio State coach Woody Hayes simply promised him he would be given the chance to play quarterback, and he enrolled in 1972. His first roommate was Brian Baschnagel, a white running back out of Pittsburgh.
What was the culture like when you got here? I’d have to imagine it was a far cry from back home… CG: Back then, we were only half of one-percent. The African-American community at Ohio State…I think we only had 500 students out of 50,000 at the time. We didn’t have any representation. I was coming from the Chocolate City, D.C., ya know? And now it’s flipped. I was in that one percentile.
The thing that balanced me was my white teammates loved me. The way they embraced me, that was a great learning experience. [Baschnagel] never had a black roommate and I never had a white one. That was the great part about Woody: he made us adjust. He taught us to be comfortable when we were uncomfortable.
That changed me. It wasn’t about color; it was about finding out which people are good.
And you did feel like you were part of changing an overall culture within the team? CG: Oh, there is no doubt. We only had three black players my freshman year! It was almost like an unwritten rule [before that] that no more than three black players played at the same time. People told me I was crazy for coming here. They said, “They’ll never play a black quarterback.” I said, “No, Woody told me if I was good enough, I would play; if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t.” That came to be true.
Green and his classmates didn’t give Hayes much of a choice. The assistants at the time, which included Rudy Hubbard, the school’s first African-American coach, pressed Woody to play the sophomores sooner rather than later. Green (12 TDs) led his team to a Big Ten championship in his second year, he and Griffin’s all-black backfield racking up more than 3,000 total yards in 1973. Hayes, in his wisdom, was named conference Coach of the Year. Green credits the legendary coach with having the guts to play the right guys, and for his color-blindness.
Let’s talk about Woody. Did you and he ever discuss race? At the very least that you might face a different test than most quarterbacks? CG: No. I went to him with the letters, but I didn’t want them publicized. I thought it would just get even worse. You know, Coach had his foot in everybody’s ass (laughs) – he didn’t care what color you were! He only cared if you fumbled or made mistakes. When you were out there on that field, it didn’t matter.
I think some of the players had a color issue, because we were all All-Americans wherever we came from, and now, we were competing. I think some guys were calling color because they weren’t playing…but now I look back, and man, they didn’t play because they weren’t good enough (laughs). I praised Woody for the change he made, because we were young. Coaches were saying, “You can’t wait until they’re juniors.” I am so glad he listened to them.
Green spent the next two years handing off to a Heisman Trophy winner, notching another 2,500 total yards and 32 scores for Buckeye teams that held the Number One ranking for half of both seasons. While he wasn’t able to bring home a national title, he landed his own special place in Buckeye history for his style, both on and off the field. His high school nickname, “Flam,” followed him into his days with the Scarlet and Gray.
The first black quarterback at Ohio State got death threats, yet you never toned down your flamboyance. Why was that so important to you?
CG: I always thought, “If you look good, you play good!” (laughs). That was just me, in my head. I mean, yeah, if I had some white shoes, I wanted to make sure I had some red shoe strings…or put red tape on my shoes. I felt like I had to have “that look.” My uniform was my tuxedo! (laughs). Those are the little games I played in my own head, but it was successful. In high school, I put a piece of tape on my helmet that said “FLAMBOYANT” on it, so the linebackers could read it. These big guys hit me with every thing they had, but I always got up first and always helped them up. Man, that used to piss ’em off…I played little psych games, but I also played within myself and within the system. The two put together was a great formula for me.
When I think of Cornelius Green, I don’t just think about Troy Smith, or Terrelle Pryor, or Braxton Miller – I think of Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston. The black quarterback is no longer a novelty – it’s just quarterback. Did you ever think that day would come? CG: I knew it was coming – I just didn’t know when. It was just like Martin Luther King said. He said he may not get there with us, but he had seen the day when blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles…all races would transcend – like it is now. We have so many biracial kids today, ya know? We’re a part of a different culture. Music genres are the same thing. Black, white, Asian kids – everyone across the country has their pants saggin’! (laughs).
It’s a national thing now. I mean, I never thought I would see us get to the point where gays could get married. The country really has changed for the better…
Many people shy away from their place in history, but you seem to embrace it. Do you consider yourself a pioneer? CG: Yes, I do. We only had one assistant coach who was black, and only one African-American in the whole athletic department. Now, the athletic director is black. Archie is the president of the Alumni Association. We’ve had a black quarterback win the Heisman Trophy. We have three or four African-American quarterbacks on the team right now! No one is blowing my horn, but I think it had a major impact.
Plus, people won’t let me not think that. Fans, people on Facebook, people that are meeting me for the first time…they let me know the impact I made. They appreciate what I’ve done and give me the love…people that tell me I was the quarterback for the first game they saw. Not just African-Americans; they just say, “We loved you. You were our quarterback.”
Green, who dabbled in the NFL and CFL for a bit before returning home to D.C., will roam the sidelines this year again as an assistant coach for St. Albans. He treasures the ability to impact kids through football, and it all goes back to his days as a Buckeye.
A few years ago, former OSU quarterback and current ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit told Green that, as a white kid growing up in Dayton, it was Green he idolized and imitated.
CG: Ya know, I never took it that far. I know it was a big deal for African-American kids, but to hear people from all races say, “I was you…I wanted to be you.” That’s a helluva feeling. People love me like I just got off the field…