Pressure’s On

The golden sun set over Scott Stadium at The University of Virginia as the football game against Florida State came to a close. 31-24, Virginia. Students stormed the field as screams of glee escaped their mouths in celebration of their Cavaliers. A team composed of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. In the thrill of the moment, fans ran right past four old friends, grinning at each other with admiration for their alma mater. Four friends who laid the groundwork for UVA football and UVA athletics as a whole. Four friends who integrated Virginia’s football team in 1970.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This meant the end of Jim Crow laws, “separate but equal”, and segregated public places and schools – such as the University of Virginia. The passage of this law did not effortlessly begin the process of integration across the United States; there was both resistance and backlash, particularly in Virginia. 

Massive resistance was a strategy declared by Virginia’s U.S. Senator Byrd to unite Virginia leaders and white politicians in a fight for new state policies to stop public school desegregation. Many schools, including the entirety of the Prince Edward County school system in Farmville, VA, were shut down in the late 1950s in an attempt to prevent integration. 

In Charlottesville specifically, the school board ordered to end segregation through forcefully sending twelve black students to all-white schools: the Jefferson School and Lane High School. These students became known as “The Charlottesville Twelve”, and were followed in suit by the next generation of students, including Kent Merritt. 

Merritt was one of the first four black scholarship athletes, along with Harrison Davis, John Rainey, and Stanley Land, who integrated the Cavaliers’ football team and Virginia athletics as a whole in 1970. Expectations for these players were sky high and encouragement was miniscule. “A lot of people don’t want you out there,” said Keith Weatherspoon, an African American football player at the same time as Merritt. This was published in an interview with Allen Irish in the Cavalier Daily on November 2, 1973. “If I make a mistake, I’m going to catch more hell for it than if a white guy makes one.”

If I make a mistake, I’m going to catch more hell for it than if a white guy makes one.

Merritt grew up just around the corner from the University of Virginia, as he was a part of the second class of black students at Lane High School. He was a superstar student, excelling academically and becoming the first African American class president. 

Outside of the classroom, Merritt was an exceptional athlete. Gracefully dodging, weaving, and hurdling through players on the football field and track seemed effortless. “Not only was I an All-American football player, but I was also an All-American track athlete,” said Merritt. “As a matter of fact, I was 100 yard dash champion for the state of Virginia four years in a row.” His talent on the football field earned him scholarship offers from schools all over the US, including just about every school in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southern Eastern Conference. 

The possible futures he could have at each different university swirled in Merritt’s head as he prepared to decide which college to attend. Local pressure to choose UVA weighed on him; his father was employed at the University at the time in the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, and his mother had worked as a nurse at the university. Virginia still did not have any black players as he was going through recruitment, and a desire burned in the athletic department recruitment chair to get players with both athletic ability and academic dedication. 

Merritt couldn’t leave Charlottesville. It was home. 

Merritt integrated the University of Virginia’s football team in 1970, along with three other African American players.

With UVA being the last school in the conference to sign athletes of color, the pressure was on for Merritt and these players to perform. Only pure perfection was expected from these athletes, otherwise their worth at the university was questioned. After a game well played, fans would make comments such as “That’s why they are here,” Merritt explained. “We brought them here to win us games.” After losing a game, the four African American players, Merritt, Davis, Rainey, and Land, would be questioned as to why any money was invested in them if they couldn’t even “get the job done”. 

Merritt said this was a constant internal battle he had to face through his undergraduate career. He was making huge catches and scoring big points for UVA, as he was simultaneously rejected off the field in the UVA community. He was ferociously fighting to win games, while discriminatory remarks were made on the sidelines.

Even within the team itself, there was not always an accepting racial dynamic. Merritt was not always welcomed by his own teammates. “Four years at the university have been rough,” said Harrison Davis, quarterback for the Wahoos and Merritt’s teammate, in an interview with Irish published in 1973. “Enjoyable at times – but very, very rough.”

“Four years at the university have been rough. Enjoyable at times – but very, very rough.”

It was game-day at Scott Stadium at the University of Virginia. The tradition of ‘guys in ties and girls in pearls’ was in full swing as students dress to impress for the big game. Faculty, classmates, and Charlottesville locals, including Merritt’s family, piled into the stadium ready to root for the Hoos. The smell of overpriced hotdogs and cheese-whiz cheese fries wafted through the stands. The drum of the marching band pounded across the field, setting the pace of the atmosphere, as the Hoos warmed up.  The stadium decorated in UVA’s colors of orange, blue, and a whole lot of white. 

Merritt was boiling with excitement as he prepared to take the field against a top competitor, the Clemson Tigers. “I always had good games against Clemson. Always a good game against them. I think I’m in their record books for great games against them,” Merritt said with a humble laugh. 

After an intense game with alternating leaders on the scoreboard, Merritt ran down the field, weaving in and out of Clemson defense as graceful as a ballerina. With time ticking down on the clock, he rushed into the endzone, lifting Virginia past the Tigers and sealing the deal for the Hoos. A winning touchdown to end his season as adrenaline and pride pumped through his veins. Nothing could stop the pride and joy that coursed through his body after this highlight-worthy play to bring home a win for his team. 

Except for his own fans.

“They played ‘Dixie’ after scoring the touchdown and waved the rebel flag in the stands,” said Merrit. “A big ole’ rebel flag.” 

This “celebration” from the fans was not uncommon to the star running back. They had done it before, and they would do it again – sing the national anthem of the Confederate States of America and wave their flag. Merritt eluded to it hitting him differently this time. A well-earned victory and a career-best touchdown being tainted by the racist atmosphere of his own university. 

Working through these challenges was not a simple task for the star running back. He turned to his family, the African American community of Charlottesville, and, especially, his teammates for support and a reminder to keep fighting. He chose UVA to strengthen his athletic and academic skills, and would continue to do so, despite opposition. A deep desire to play the game he loved and be victorious with his teammates ultimately carried him above the hardships he faced.

“The thing about athletics is that the same things that are important today for a team were important for us. The same commorodarity and playing together. Teamwork,” Merritt stated. “It’s important to take any issues you may have, like we did at the time, and put them on the back burner until the game is over. Because one thing is more important – going out and winning as a team. That’s the most important thing in the world.”

“Because one thing is more important – going out and winning as a team. That’s the most important thing in the world.”

Merritt persevered through hardships during his time at UVA by turning to his family, the African American community, and his teammates.

Each year, as autumn dresses herself in orange and gold, the Cavaliers’ football team prepares for yet another season. Students celebrate the game day weekends on the Corner, drinking cheap beer and wearing Virginia’s colors. While the football team annually brings new recruits and new coaches, and the students come and go, a tradition remains between the four retired players. Kent Merritt, Harrison Davis, Stanley Land, and John Rainey return to their stomping grounds to watch one game together, as old teammates. “Every year, like clockwork, we get back together to watch the Hoos,” Merritt stated.

In the Cavaliers’ most recent season in 2019, the four friends chose the Florida State game to reunite. A nail-biting, nerve-wracking game ended victoriously for Virginia with a score of 31-24. Virginia improved their record to 3-0 for the first time since 2005, and the stadium was a beehive, buzzing with contagious energy. 

Students stormed the field in a frenzy of adrenaline; the desire to celebrate their team so strong that they couldn’t slow down if they tried. In the thrill of the moment, fans ran right past four old friends, grinning at each other with admiration for their alma mater. Four friends who laid the groundwork for UVA football and UVA athletics as a whole.

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