Coral Gables

How a black quarterback in a white school led his team to glory and racial harmony

His name was Craig Curry, but most people in Miami knew him as the Negro quarterback.

In 1965, when the entire country was wrestling with desegregation, Curry made what turned out to be a momentous decision. His beloved all-black George Washington Carver High School, which was central to life in the all-black half of Coconut Grove, was going to be closed due to court-ordered integration.

Curry could either transfer to all-black Mays High in South Dade with football coach Traz Powell and his powerhouse team or venture to all-white Coral Gables High, set in the neighborhood of historic homes and tree-canopied streets where his mother worked as a live-in housekeeper.

The railroad tracks that ran parallel to Dixie Highway served as a line separating the races. Curry decided to cross it. And that made all the difference.

“We were caught between two worlds, not accepted by the white community when we entered their territory and regarded as traitors by the black community when we left our territory,” said Curry, 66. “We had to prove ourselves on both sides of this divide, and the best place to do that was on the field. Football was the great equalizer.”

As the Negro quarterback, Curry found acceptance, respect, acclaim. As the leader of a state and national championship team, Curry forged the integration of Gables High through the unifying force of football.

“It could have been ugly but athletic success calmed the tension,” said Bertram Taylor, the first black running back at Gables. “Craig was our Jackie Robinson.”

Coached by Nick Kotys, the team dominated its mostly all-white opposition during the 1967 season, going 13-0, scoring 410 points and allowing only 26. Seven consecutive shutouts preceded the state title game, in which Gables beat Jacksonville Wolfson 21-7 in the heart of Ku Klux Klan country. Curry ran for three touchdowns.

Along the way, Gables defeated arch-rival Miami High in the Orange Bowl before a crowd of 40,000. Fifty years later, the “Team of the Century,” as declared by the Florida High School Activities Association, is planning a reunion. Before he died in 2005 at age 92, Kotys said it was the best team he ever coached.

“Football served a greater purpose,” said Walter Lightburn, Curry’s teammate. “Football bonded the students together. It’s hard to fight when you’re winning.”

It didn’t begin that way. When Kotys selected Curry to be starting quarterback, some parents were so offended they withdrew their boys from Gables.

“At first, the white players refused to block for Craig,” said Lightburn, who converted from running back to offensive guard to be Curry’s bodyguard on the field. “Once we got over the separatist mentality of color, we realized we could be really good if we worked together.”

Lightburn recalled how black students were refused entry to the school sock-hop at the gym until coaches showed up and got them in.

“We had to understand there was mistrust and prejudice on both sides and then find the humanity in each other,” he said.

Black athletes were the peacemakers.

“If there was a dispute in the hall, Walter or Craig broke it up,” said Dan Blackmon, white trainer for the football team who went on to a 39-year career as a Gables High AP and IB history teacher. “Maybe I was naïve, but I did not witness much overt racism at our school. It was the black students who set an example of harmony and tolerance. They were pioneers. And Craig was my hero.”

Kotys put his faith in Curry, who possessed a quiet but undeniable charisma.

“Coach Kotys faced pressure and criticism from people who wanted him to follow tradition, who couldn’t grasp the idea of a black quarterback,” said Harold Cole, who played for Gables’ championship teams of the mid-1960s and was later coach and athletic director at the school. “But he was a very fair man and he knew Curry deserved it. He used the weight of his authority and reputation to usher in this new era of integrated sports.”

Curry grew up at 3780 Florida Ave., the home of his grandparents, as the youngest of five kids. Curry’s grandfather ran Bentley’s Barbershop. His mother was a maid. His father was manager of Gil’s Spot, a bar at Grand and Douglas.

“My dad never saw me play because he was always working,” Curry said. “When we played Miami High my senior year, his boss gave him the night off.’’

The black Grove was a segregated but self-contained neighborhood along the spine of Grand Avenue, bounded by McDonald Street and Dixie Highway. The white Grove was “up in the village” where a prime hangout was Lum’s.

Curry remembers watching Otis Redding and James Brown perform. He rode his bike everywhere. Police once accused him of trespassing.

“I fit the description of a black youngster who was seen on a yacht at Dinner Key,” he said. “I was just a little kid. I started crying and they let me go. But I learned at an early age how easy it is to be accused of something that never happened.”

Most of the time, the two neighborhoods coexisted.

“We had everything we needed and wanted within those blocks and it was a very close-knit community,” Taylor recalled. “We had our own stores, our own doctors, our own theater. Our teachers were our neighbors.”

Curry dreamed of being a scientist.

“I wanted to be the next George Washington Carver,” he said. “I got a chemistry set for Christmas. I read a lot about Louis Pasteur; I performed experiments in our backyard.”

But once he got to Gables High, a counselor told him to forget about a career in science. He hadn’t taken enough math classes.

“I then invested all my energy into football, to the point that it stunted my academic growth,” he said. “It haunts me to this day.”

So much so that Curry made a career out of advising athletes. He now runs a college prep consulting business and wrote the book “Raising the Bar.”

Curry spent much of his spare time at Grand Avenue Park, playing football, basketball, baseball, table tennis and horseshoes or at the Virrick Park pool. His Troop 55 Boy Scout comrades included Winston Scott, a Gables High alum who grew up to be an astronaut.

Curry aimed to become quarterback because of his admiration for Carver’s Ernest✔ Hart. The school won nine state championships.

“I constantly heard statements or read articles that said ‘Negroes are not equipped to be quarterbacks,’ not qualified to be the field general,” he said. “I buried in my heart the determination that I would never, ever give up the position.”

After he and his friends enrolled at Gables, they were challenged to a football game by Carver graduates. “We won and passed that test from our neighborhood.”

Curry and his dozen Carver teammates walked every day to Gables High. Kotys, a taskmaster like Vince Lombardi or Bear Bryant, ran a meritocracy. Curry thrived.

“There’s a certain justice on the field because the best man wins the job,” he said. “At the same time I felt if I made a mistake, I would screw it up for the entire race. I was on stage for my people. So many believed the stereotypes. I heard that I couldn’t think on my feet. Black players were targeted and jeered. I think it helped us focus.”

Gables finished 7-3 in Curry’s junior year but he said he almost quit after Kotys chewed him out for fumbling late in the Cavs’ 7-6 win over Southwest.

“I had to sit next to him on the bus and he let me have it,” Curry said. “But in the end he put his arm around me. He was a great motivator and teacher.”

Kotys told the Herald in 1967: “Craig does all the thinking. I only nod OK.’’

That summer, blacks and whites practiced together and watched game films at each others’ homes. Then came the triumphs of 1967: Beating Columbus 39-0; beating Southwest in the Turkey Bowl, 40-0; beating MacArthur 39-0.

One of the highlights was beating Miami High 16-0 at the Orange Bowl on Nov. 9, 1967. Curry hit receiver Bill Colson for a touchdown. Curry scored on an 11-yard run when he called an audible on a Miami High blitz and got a key block from Al Williams. Miami High was held to about 100 yards.

“Craig was such a commanding presence in the huddle, so smart, so confident,” Taylor said. “He made that team hum.”

In the playoffs, Gables beat Tampa Robinson and John Reeves, touted as the best quarterback in Florida, 55-0.

“It was another taste of reality for the black man considered inferior to his white counterpart,” Curry said. “I felt that silent rage to prove myself, which is not the way anyone should live.”

After Gables beat Wolfson for the state title, the Wolfson coach was asked what it was like to lose to a Negro quarterback.

In the spring of 1968, as race riots exploded after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Curry wanted to play at the University of Miami. He had befriended Ray Bellamy, UM’s first black scholarship player. But he and his family received threatening phone calls: “If Curry goes to UM, we will kill him.”

“I knew it was ignorance, but I also knew I had to go where I’d get a fair shot,” Curry said. He chose Minnesota, which offered him its Martin Luther King scholarship. He twice led the Big Ten in total offense and was a scholar athlete.

After graduating with a psychology degree, he was an eighth-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins in 1972. He was cut at the end of preseason by Coach Don Shula, who chose to keep Bob Griese, Earl Morrall and Jim Del Gaizo as his three quarterbacks. The Dolphins went on to complete the NFL’s only “Perfect Season.”

At that time, there were no starting black quarterbacks in the NFL. James Harris of the Rams and Joe Gilliam of the Steelers became the first in 1973. Last year, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was named MVP.

“It was unhealthy to put all my dreams in one basket,” Curry said. “When I got cut I thought my life was over. I stayed alone in a hotel room for a few days.”

He then embarked on a career that included 16 years at IBM. He worked as an academic adviser for athletes at the University of Michigan and athletic director and director of the Center for the African-American Male at Albany (Ga.) State, among other schools. Today, he runs his own college prep consulting business.

He and wife Josephine have two sons, Craig II and Christopher, and daughter Andrea Monique, and seven grandchildren.

Curry reflected on his accomplishments as he stood recently in the Gables locker room.

“I’m proud when people say I made history,” he said. “But the work is never done. I thought it was hard back then because we were breaking molds. Today, we’re reverting to old ways. Hatred is on the rise.

“I hope what happened at Gables High can be an example of how unity can make us all color blind.”