On October 2, 1954, a day shy of his 21st birthday, fullback Carl Talmadge “Duke” Washington ’59 and his fellow Cougars played the University of Texas on a sweltering day at Memorial Stadium.
The result was a 40-14 Texas victory, a forgettable day in the annals of Cougar football; however, the day reaches far beyond the athletics history of Washington State and Texas.
Washington, the starting fullback for the Cougars, became the first African-American to play at Memorial Stadium. To the Texas players, however, Washington was not a player making history, but a player to be reckoned with.
“I’m sure it did make a difference in political circles, but it did not make a difference to us on the football team,” Del Womack, a running back on the ’54 Texas team, said in a recent phone interview. “We just thought he was a good football player.”
“I don’t think there was any controversy whatsoever,” Charley Brewer, the Texas quarterback that day, recollected. “It may have been a sportswriter’s nightmare because there was nothing interesting going on. It was a non-event really.”
While it may have been a non-event for the players, it was eventful for the administrations at each school.
In a September 16 letter to Texas President Logan Wilson, Washington State College President C. Clement French summarized a phone conversation the two had earlier that day.
Following a conference with members of the Texas Board of Regents, Wilson reported to French that the Regents’ position whether Washington State plays or does not play any member of its team is its own responsibility and is without approval or disapproval by the Regents. However, under state law, Texas could not be responsible for the common housing of different races.
In a follow-up letter to Wilson dated September 22, French remarked on the Cougars’ September 17 game against USC (a 39-0 loss) and if the Austin papers carried an account of the game.
“If they did,” French wrote, “you know that we not only got walloped but that the outstanding bright spot for our team was the young man who has been the center of our discussion. Therefore, unless he is injured and unable to travel, there is no question but that he will be in our traveling squad and will play.”
In his concluding paragraphs, French wrote, “This is a ticklish one for both of us, and we are both equally anxious to get it behind us smoothly.”
Washington made the trip and did not stay with the team at the hotel, but rather stayed with an African-American family in Austin.
“Although there were modifications to the living arrangement, I was not fazed by that for the simple reason that there was no devaluation by the institution of accommodations for me,” Washington says. “I never missed a meal, never missed a meeting, I surely didn’t miss the game.
“We went there to integrate a football game; we did not go to Texas to integrate a hotel.”
Drawing from his experiences at Pasco High School, integrating a football game was nothing new for Washington.
“In reflection, what I took from the Texas game was what I brought to the game,” Washington says. “I was the only black player at Pasco High School and all the teams we played were all-white teams. How am I going to play high school ball and say that I’m going to be uncomfortable playing against a team that doesn’t have any black players?”
There was no sign of being uncomfortable in his performance in Austin. Washington gained 94 yards on just eight carries, one a 73-yard touchdown run. According to accounts from the game, a thunderous ovation from the 28,000 in attendance ensued after the run.
The Austin-Statesman newspaper account describes Washington as having “slipped through a groove in the middle, out to his left, and soon outdistanced baffled Texas defenders.”
“Anybody who makes a long run, he had to dodge someone,” Womack says of the run. “I know there wasn’t a hole four miles wide on that play.”
A passage from the Statesman story reads, “The biggest ovation of the day went to him when he romped for the score. The next biggest ovation went to him when he left the game.”
“What was the satisfaction for me was that there was no trash talking in the game, no extracurricular activities, no unsportsmanlike conduct in the game from the Texas players,” Washington says.
“I don’t think there was the normal trash talk between players and it was a very clean game,” Brewer recalls.
Washington finished his senior season with a team-leading 616 yards and was invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game at San Francisco on New Year’s Day. Washington was a standout in the game, running for 85 yards and a touchdown.
In a letter dated December 3, 1954, French congratulated Washington on his selection to the East-West game and stated: “I have watched with more interest than you may have realized your participation in football this year and the way you have handled yourself in some potentially difficult situations. I think you have given a fine account of yourself and merit to an unusual extent the recognition which has now come to you.”
This September, recognition will come Washington’s way again when he returns to Pullman to be inducted into the Washington State University Athletic Hall of Fame.
It will be a meaningful stop for Washington, 75, who after his professional football career (in Philadelphia and British Columbia) ended, returned to Washington State and earned his degree in interior design in 1959.
“When I decided to take the road from Pasco to Pullman,” says Washington, “I played on the Cougar field, went up on the academic hill and completed my degree, and then left Washington State to do my life’s work. I came to the realization that all of my roads go back to Pullman.”