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Courtesy: MorganStateBears.com

Fifty years ago the Morgan State University "Golden Bears" were one of the premiere college football programs in America.  They were in the midst of a historic streak after winning the 18th of 31 consecutive games and second of four CIAA championships before truly making history as the first Historically Black College to win a postseason bowl game.

Life came full circle at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium on Jan. 1.msufb1966

Morgan State fielded one of the most talented teams in college football history for that Tangerine Bowl in 1966.  Fourteen players on their roster were drafted into the NFL including Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Lanier.  Lanier (Chiefs) was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame along with their legendary coach Earl Banks.  Super Bowl champions: Raymond Chester (Raiders) and John "Frenchy" Fuqua (Steelers) were also on that team.  Cornerback Mark Washington also played with the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl 10.

"It's hard to recall the whole experience because Coach [Earl] Banks treated it as just another game," said running back Earl Mayo.  "There wasn't a whole lot of pressure but you know that other [HBCU] coaches like [Eddie] Robinson (Grambling), [Jake] Gaither [FAMU], and [John] Merritt [Tennessee State] put in a phone call to coach to wish us luck". Banks died in 1993.

On the field they were at a disadvantage though.  As an NAIA school the Bears were allowed to dress only 32 players for the game. During the regular season they dressed 53.  The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics was the first to sanction sports events at Black Colleges but this was Morgan's first NCAA sanctioned contest so players like Chester were spectators and Lanier had to play double duty.

 "If we had all of our players we could we would have won by 50," said Mayo.  "Some of my teammates feel that with all the big plays that were called back against us that we were fighting uphill."

The impact of their legacy goes beyond a championship season as the Bears played in the first integrated college football game in Orlando's history.  That stadium, which was fully renovated in 2014, now hosts two HBCU classics: The Florida Classic (Bethune-Cookman vs. Florida A&M) every November and the MEAC/SWAC Challenge featuring representatives of the Mid-Eastern Athletic and Southwestern Athletic Conferences each September.

"What this team did in 1966 was lay the foundation for African American student athletes to participate in those classics on that field today," said Morgan State President Dr. David Wilson.  "Morgan shattered the belief that HBCU players couldn't play with white players."

Morgan State beat the Westchester Golden Rams 14-6 in a stadium that was still coming to grips with integration.  The "Golden Bears" – featuring a White offensive tackle John Bowers – had already broken down barriers in their locker room.  They set the tone for full integration of the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando by comporting themselves as gentlemen off the field and dominating on it.

Ten members of the "Golden Bears" went back to central Florida and watched as Michigan dismantled Florida 41-7 in the Buffalo Wild Wings Florida Citrus Bowl. They were honored on the field during the first quarter to resounding applause.  In the 50 years since the Bears took the field against Westchester the demographics of what was known then as the Tangerine Bowl has changed.  The Wolverines and Gators fielded teams of mostly Black athletes who were revered in the buildup to the game.

"We didn't know at the time that it would have this kind of impact," said Mayo.  "Looking back it was worth it".

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