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The Magnificent 8
Photo Credit: Quentin Lueninghoener

The Magnificent 8

June 29, 2017

The photograph dates to the late summer of 1964, at the start of the Nebraska football team’s preseason practices. It appeared in the Omaha Star, a black weekly newspaper.

To the left of Coach Bob Devaney, standing, are Willie Paschall, Ted Vactor and Harry Wilson. In front of them, kneeling, also left to right, are Preston Love Jr., Tony Jeter, Jim Brown, Langston Coleman and Freeman White. All are black except Devaney. They are the Huskers’ “Magnificent Eight.”

Their nickname is a coincidental, no doubt unconscious, allusion to the 1960 movie “The Magnificent Seven,” directed by John Sturgis and starring, among others, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Eli Wallach. They are a rugged group. “The Magnificent Seven” was based on the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic “Seven Samurai” and was remade in 2016, starring, most notably, Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Chris Pratt.

“Magnificent” and a number are the nickname’s connections to the movie, though rugged would apply, too. Football is the subject here, at least marginally. Nebraska’s pre-fall depth chart in 1964 included 44 players – eight of them black. With the passing of more than 50 years, who first applied the nickname is uncertain. Most likely it began with Love. And it was special.

Racial differences seemed unavoidable at the time. “As I think back on it, we were a close-knit team. Everyone got along,” Paschall says of Devaney’s Cornhuskers. “But there was like a social divide. We didn’t party together or get invited to frat-house parties or anything like that.”

Langston Coleman and Rick Coleman connected, in part because of a shared last name, and Paschall recalls Vactor and Mike Kennedy being “very close.”

“But yet, you didn’t know a guy like the eight of us knew each other,” he said.

Vactor and Kennedy were in Devaney’s first recruiting class in 1962, as were White, Jeter, Brown and Rick Coleman. Paschall was already at Nebraska. Wilson, Love and Langston Coleman arrived in 1963, Wilson as a scholarship recruit, Love a junior college transfer and Coleman a walk-on who hitchhiked with a buddy from Washington, D.C., where his mom had worked for Nebraska-born Ted Sorensen, an adviser and speech writer for President John F. Kennedy.

The “Magnificent Eight” were racial pioneers of sorts, though certainly not the first black athletes at Nebraska. There were at least five prior to 1914, beginning with George Flippin in the 1890s and including William “Bill” Johnson, Robert Taylor, Wilbur Wood and Clint Ross. All except Wood were football letterwinners. He earned three basketball letters (1908-10).

Ross lettered in 1913. Nebraska didn’t have another black letterman until 1953, when Charles Bryant and Jon McWilliams earned letters in football. Bryant lettered three years in wrestling as well and was first-team All-Big Seven in football in 1954, McWilliams, also a track letterman, in 1955.

By the early 1960s, black athletes were fairly commonplace at Nebraska. Herschell Turner finished his basketball career in 1960 as the Cornhuskers’ all-time leading scorer. Bob Brown, whose No. 64 is retired, was Nebraska’s first black All-America football player, a unanimous selection in 1963, playing guard on offense and linebacker on defense. He was from Cleveland, a Coach Bill Jennings recruit whose preference was UCLA but who accepted Jennings’ scholarship offer because Jennings was also willing to give Brown’s brother Ulysses a scholarship.

Paschall was a freshman in 1961, Brown’s sophomore year. The official programs for Cornhusker games at Memorial Stadium that season included photos of 50 players, nine of whom were black.

Jennings recruited Paschall on the recommendation of a colonel at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Paschall’s family was military, and his dad was stationed there. Paschall attended Jefferson High School and drew the attention of the colonel, who called Jennings and said he’d send newspaper clippings and anything else it took to convince Jennings of Paschall’s ability.

Paschall’s senior year, Husker assistant Don Scarbrough traveled to San Antonio, watched some film and then met with him, asking if he’d be interested in visiting Nebraska. Paschall was and not long after talking with Scarbrough boarded a plane for the first time in his life.

“It was all downhill from there,” Paschall says. He would have preferred to go to New Mexico State because the Aggies ran an offense similar to the one his Jefferson High team had run. But he had already committed to Nebraska when New Mexico State Coach Warren Woodson contacted him. He had the Husker scholarship offer in-hand, and no way would his parents let him back out.

Nor would they let him leave once he got there. “My mother was a very strong presence, and if I had gotten homesick or flunked out or whatever, going back and facing Catherine Paschall would have been the worst thing in the world,” says Paschall. “Staying in Nebraska would’ve been fine.”

One of the first questions he had when visiting was whether Nebraska had a chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. His dad had been a Kappa Alpha Psi at Lemoyne College in Memphis, Tennessee. The black fraternity’s Nebraska chapter was established in 1916. Eta chapter celebrated its 100th anniversary on campus in 2016 and is now commemorated with a 2,000-pound granite stone near the student union. The fraternity didn’t have a house in 1964, nor was it acknowledged as other fraternities and sororities were in the Cornhusker student yearbooks of the mid-1960s, but Paschall became a legacy, following his father.

Gene Young and Tyrone Robertson, members of the fraternity, were among those Paschall met on his recruiting visit. Young and Robertson were from Ohio, Cleveland and Toledo respectively.

Paschall earned three letters as a halfback, playing both ways but primarily on defense in 1964, when the NCAA rules were changed to allow for more substitution and two-platoon play. He met his wife-to-be, Ellen, while at the university. She was from Humboldt, Nebraska.

Jefferson High had been integrated in the late 1950s but there were only a few blacks, including four on the football team when he was there, as Paschall remembers it. Nebraska’s enrollment was 11,500 in 1964 but the proportion of black students was similar. The “Magnificent Eight” were unique.

“We were still trying to come up from being second-class citizens . . . trying to get the other (white) population to understand that,” Paschall says.

“I think through football, we were able to accomplish some of that.”

Peony Park was an Omaha institution for 75 years. The 35-acre amusement park located at North 78th and Cass included a 4.5-acre pool, sand beaches and rides, offering a fun destination on a hot summer day – though in the early 1960s not for everyone.

“As far as I’m concerned, you could burn it down,” Jim Brown says.

Not that he was prevented from visiting the park. He attended Omaha Central High School, which held proms there. But such events were the only way “we were allowed in there,” says Brown, who was at Nebraska before blacks were finally allowed in the swimming pool at Peony Park.

“Times were different, even here in Omaha,” he says.

Brown was born in Kansas City, Kansas, but grew up in Omaha and attended integrated schools from elementary on, unlike those his friends in Kansas attended. Even so, “you looked around and most of the people you were dealing with were white,” he says.

He didn’t consider that a problem. “For the most part, I get along with people,” Brown says.

Part of the issue in Nebraska outside of Omaha, and to some extent Lincoln, was interaction between blacks and whites. Lincoln’s population was just under 130,000. It had one commercial television station, with a CBS affiliation; four radio stations; two daily newspapers and one weekly.

Lincoln’s 1964 city yearbook includes 276 pages devoted to business, recreation, politics and sports. On only four of those pages can photos be found with blacks. One features Mayor Dean Peterson and other city officials welcoming the Husker football team back from its 1964 Orange Bowl victory against Auburn. Others are of the Lincoln Northeast High football team and action from a Nebraska Wesleyan-Hastings College basketball game in which two unidentified Hastings players are black. The only non-sports photo is of a women’s service organization welcoming foreign visitors.

At state-basketball-tournament time in Lincoln, with championship games played at the NU Coliseum, “you’re standing on the corner, going someplace and here come some kids from ‘Podunk Junction,’ I’ll just say that for reference,” says Brown. “Some of these people had never seen a black person, maybe not even on TV. You’d see ‘em with their mouths wide-open, going around the corner. Basically, I should say, we were objects of fascination to a certain extent. It was a sign of the times.”

Television had three networks, with shows devoid of blacks, most popular among them: “Bonanza,” “Bewitched,” “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” “Gunsmoke,” and “The Andy Griffith Show.”

The same with movies, though Sidney Poitier, who was born in the Bahamas, became the first African-American to win the best-actor Academy Award for his performance in “Lilies of the Field” in 1964.

People would “see stuff on TV (news), Selma and the rest of it, but they didn’t see (black) people in person until the state basketball tournament, (or) wrestling tournament,” says Brown.

He was a multi-sport athlete at Central, competing against Husker teammate-to-be Mike Kennedy, who went to Omaha North, in football as well as in the shot put and discus during the track and field season. He wrestled. He was a two-time city and district champion and the state heavyweight champion as a junior. And in football he was a first-team all-state tackle as a senior.

Central was undefeated his junior season, a scoreless tie with Creighton Prep the lone blemish. Halfback Gale Sayers, Central’s star player, was a year older, and when Sayers went to Kansas, that’s where Brown wanted to play collegiately. After all, he had been born in Kansas.

“I don’t think too many people wanted to go there,” Brown says of Nebraska, where Jennings’ record through 1961 was 15-34-1 over five losing seasons.

Losing Sayers to Kansas was a reflection of Jennings’ .310 winning percentage, which led to his firing and the hiring of Devaney from Wyoming in 1962. Devaney retained assistant coach Clete Fischer, who had been a high school coach in Omaha before joining Jennings’ staff in 1959.

Fischer recruited Omaha and was Brown’s first connection with Nebraska. He also knew Charles Bryant, who had come from Omaha South High 10 years before, despite the misgivings of those in his neighborhood about how he would be treated because he was black.

Bryant “helped recruit me to Nebraska,” says Brown. Without the coaching change, however, he might have looked somewhere else. Now he takes pride in having become a Husker, earning two letters as an offensive tackle and playing on teams with a combined 29-4 record; three Big Eight championships, two outright; two Orange Bowls and a Cotton Bowl.

Brown, like Paschall, pledged Kappa Alpha Psi. The racial climate at Nebraska, as he remembers it, was much the same as that of the rest of the state. Blacks at the university “were basically noted as athletes; that’s what it came down to,” he says. “There just weren’t that many of us. Some African students went there, but if you were black, you were an athlete.”
And if you were a black football player, you weren’t a quarterback, safety, center or middle linebacker, Bob Brown being a notable exception.

Omaha’s Technical High School was regarded as the largest west of Chicago when it opened on the city’s north side in 1923. It was state-of-the-art. During its 60-year existence – it closed in 1984 – it graduated many prominent people, among them athletes Bob Boozer, Bob Gibson and Johnny Rodgers, as well as Tuskegee Airman Alfonza W. Davis, and Ernie Chambers, the longest-serving state senator in Nebraska history, whom some still consider the conscience of the unicameral legislature.

Love, also a Tech graduate, has known Sen. Chambers for about as long as he can remember. His mom took him to Goodwin’s Spencer St. Barbershop, where Chambers would later work. “I think they put me on a little board,” says Love. “I got my first haircut there on a board.”

Love’s father, also a friend of Chambers, was a noted jazz musician, who began playing the alto sax with Count Basie, and played and toured with such notables as Billie Holiday, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye, among many others.

“I adored my father, like most young men did,” says Love. “I benefitted from being in his presence because he was such an intellect, his vocabulary, his reading, all of that. I had residuals I didn’t know I was picking up. But I know now what was happening.”

What he didn’t pick up was his dad’s passion for music, at least not as a career. Plus, he was involved in athletics from an early age, youth football, so he didn’t have time for music.

Love, a multi-sport athlete at Tech, had a personal competition with Beatrice High’s Bob Hohn, whom the Omaha World-Herald named its Athlete of the Year in 1960. He and Hohn would later be football teammates at Nebraska, after Love decided Northwestern wasn’t the school for him.

Like Sayers, against whom he also competed in high school, Love wasn’t interested in the Cornhuskers. He “wanted to get as far away from home as possible,” he says.

Northwestern offered that, as well as an opportunity to play in the Big Ten for “a very charismatic guy,” Wildcats Coach Ara Parseghian. When he got to Evanston, however, “I had several shocks,” says Love, who “raced through high school with excellent, excellent grades.” When he got to Northwestern, “it was a rude awakening. I didn’t have the discipline and study skills, quite frankly.”

The proximity to Chicago and its nightlife also proved to be a problem.

“It scared me to death because I thought I was a really smart guy,” Love says.

He played freshman football and was successful as a hurdler in track and field, a sport in which freshmen could compete, but didn’t do well academically and wanted to transfer. To get his grades in order, Nebraska arranged for him to attend Norfolk (Neb.) Junior College for a year. Love then joined the Huskers in 1963, earning one letter in track and two letters in football as an end.

As did Paschall and Brown, Love dealt with matters of race at Nebraska. “My perspective comes from a Midwesterner because I didn’t come from Chicago or New York or LA, where racial division was so graphic. It was true here, but it was not what I’d call graphic,” he says. “So a lot of these lessons, racial lessons, I learned at the University of Nebraska . . . they were tough lessons for me because I was somewhat, and I hate to admit it, but I was very naïve racially.”

Had he been in Nebraska when Tech closed its doors in 1984 “I probably would’ve been involved in some effort to fight that,” says Love, who was away running Jesse Jackson’s campaign for president.

Love was a football player at Nebraska, but that didn’t define him, nor did it define any of the “Magnificent Eight.” He rose to prominence in IBM as a marketing rep in the data-processing division, a pioneer because of his race. He moved to Atlanta and started a computer retail store, which was successful until he made a “very egregious, stupid mistake,” killing his operating capital by trying to start a franchise. “I was spending it as soon as I was making it,” he says.

He was a volunteer driver for Andrew Young, worked his way into “a very complex black community in Atlanta, a very closed set” that included Correta Scott King, “civil rights icons.” He worked on Harold Washington’s mayoral campaigns in Chicago and Jackson’s presidential campaign.

He has written a book. He has written two plays, performing one as Adam Clayton Powell. And he has returned as a north-Omaha community organizer as well as a lecturer and adjunct professor at Nebraska Omaha.

Love and Paschall roomed together at Nebraska. While Paschall, who had been in ROTC, was waiting to go into the military, planning to follow his father’s career path, and after Love returned to Lincoln following a tryout with the Detroit Lions to finish his degree, Love suggested they find an up-scale apartment. They couldn’t rent what they wanted because of race.

Paschall’s plan was to go into physical therapy after a mandatory two years in combat-arms but because the army only trained female physical therapists at the time, he requested a discharge and pursued a physical-therapist career, which brought him back to Omaha.

Brown, who majored in electrical engineering, followed his plan and became an electrician, a journeyman wireman in Omaha’s Local 22.

All of the “Magnificent Eight” have stories of success on the field and off. Paschall, Love and Brown, all of whom live in Omaha and occasionally meet for lunch to discuss old times and new, have been chosen to represent the group. Jeter was from Weirton, West Virginia; White from Detroit; Vactor from Washington, Pennsylvania; Wilson from Stuebenville, Ohio, and as mentioned earlier, Coleman from Washington D.C.

Nicknames were enough a part of the football culture back then that Nebraska’s media guides included listings. For example, in the 1964 guide Jeter was listed as “Jeet.” Coleman was “Trey.” And Wilson was “Light Horse.”

Paschall was “Frenchy,” a name given to him by offensive backs coach Mike (“Iron Mike”) Corgan early on to differentiate him from Willie Ross, also a halfback. Because his last name is French, Paschall says, Corgan told him “from now on, especially in practice, you are ‘Frenchy.’” Ross, a halfback from Helena, Arkansas, who finished in 1963, was called by name, “Willie.”

Eight black players “was a big number,” says Love, whose nickname, appropriately enough, was “Double-8,” his jersey number. “That was a very large number. It speaks to what was going on in big-time college ball. Man, eight on one team. That was hot stuff.”

Hot enough for a nickname, the “Magnificent Eight.”

“We were pioneers at the University of Nebraska because of race,” Love says.

This story originally appeared in the 2017 Hail Varsity Yearbook. Subscribe today to make sure you don’t miss another issue.

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