Football players who broke color barrier talk about past

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The black-and-white photo of Dick Soergel popped onto the screen, a football raised above his blond head of hair, a pose struck for the high school yearbook six decades ago.

He chuckled at the image.

So did Russell Perry.

“Oh, Dick,” Perry said to his friend.

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But a few minutes later, it was Perry’s turn to see a high school version of himself on the screen. The photo captured him midair, a football cocked behind his black head of hair.

Now grey of hair and slow of step, both men smiled as they sat beside each other in a small room at Mid-America Christian University. They were there to talk about the history they helped make on a high school football field in 1955. Soergel quarterbacked all-white Capitol Hill and Perry quarterbacked all-black Douglass in what was the first integrated football game in our state’s history.

“It just broke a barrier,” Soergel told The Oklahoman ( ). “It was a great experience.”

Perry nodded in agreement.

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That game was a significant moment for many in our city and our state — but it has remained significant for Soergel and Perry.

It was the start of a lifelong friendship.

The men grew up in the same city but in different worlds. Soergel, whose family never owned a home, lived in different rental properties around the city, and while he went to school with kids who were Native American and Greek and Irish, he never went to school with any black kids. Perry, who spent his entire childhood in the northeast part of the city, went to school exclusively with other black kids.

One of the first times either of them crossed that racial divide was in high school during preseason football practice. Capitol Hill coach C.B. Speegle and Douglass coach Moses Miller became friends, and as early as the mid-1940s, they had their teams scrimmage before the season. That was acceptable at the time, with a few caveats.

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The white kids could be in the black part of town but not vice versa.

“We never went to Capitol Hill,” Perry remembered. “They always came to Douglass.”

Soergel said, “We’d load up in cars, get our football gear on, drive over to Douglass, and they’d just beat the tar out of us.”

The men laughed.

“It wasn’t much fun,” Soergel said.

But for nearly a decade, the preseason scrimmages between Douglass and Capitol Hill went off without a hitch. Truth be told, each was among the other’s toughest opponent any given season. Douglass went several years without a loss, despite going out of state to play the best teams that it could find. Capitol Hill played top-notch teams from other states, too, and was a state title contender nearly every year.

So it was that in 1955, Speegle and Miller decided it was time for their teams to play a real game. Even though it was a time of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson, the two coaches were as interested in facing the best competition as in breaking the color barrier.

“It was the game of the century here in the state,” Perry said.

And the teams delivered a gem. Capitol Hill scored late in the first quarter, but Douglass tied the score 6-6 with its own touchdown a couple minutes later. The score remained deadlocked until the game’s final minute when Capitol Hill scored on a goal-line dive to win 13-6.

Many of the players on the field that night went on to great successes later in life, including the quarterbacks. Soergel, a retired banker, became a three-sport athlete at what was then Oklahoma A&M and is still widely considered one of the greatest Cowboys of all time. Perry, who became the first black all-stater in Oklahoma, now owns Perry Publishing and Broadcasting Company, the largest black-owned media company in the country.

But even as the years passed since they helped make history, Soergel and Perry stayed in touch. They have lunch. They call each other.

“If I got one thing out of this,” Perry said, “I got a friend in Dick Soergel.”

He pursed his lips, then Soergel did the same as he patted Perry on the shoulder. Neither men spoke for a few moments. They couldn’t.

Soergel wiped his eyes.

When their lunchtime presentation concluded, the two men stood and embraced as those photos of their younger selves looked over them. So much about those days were like the pictures — black and white — but Soergel and Perry didn’t see skin.

They saw a friend.


Information from: The Oklahoman,