We all know about Jackie Robinson’s integration of big league baseball in the 1940’s, but College Football in the South was much slower to integrate.
College Football has been the king of sports in the deep south for the better part of the last century, and Georgia Tech has made more than the program’s fair share of contributions to that fact over the years.
A hundred years ago, John Heisman’s 1917 Golden Tornadoes won the South’s first football national title. It would be more than a half century later before an African-American player would suit up and start on the Flats.
In 1970, sophomore Eddie McAshan not only started for the Yellow Jackets, but he did so as Georgia Tech’s quarterback. Looking back today, a black quarterback leading the Jackets onto the field seems like a given, as names like Shawn Jones, Joe Hamilton, Josh Nesbitt and Justin Thomas Marshall. Nearly 50 years ago, however, an African-American had never started as field general at a major deep south institution.
It wouldn’t seem right not to mention that Freddie Summers started for Wake Forest at quarterback in 1967, and was an All-ACC pick at that. Taking nothing away from Summers, or the Demon Deacons, in 1970, Georgia Tech was on par with schools like Notre Dame, Alabama, Southern California and Penn State as a historic college football blue blood.. and Atlanta was the gut of the American civil rights movement.
Four years after the Braves brought Hank Aaron to Atlanta in the midst of his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, Georgia Tech’s Bud Carson handed the football to a young Gainesville, Florida native to start the 1970 season.
Eddie McAshan had been a standout player at Gainesville High School and still ranks among the top quarterbacks in the state’s rich amateur football history with 61 career touchdown throws. He is considered by some to be the first great duel-threat quarterback in Florida high school history and was named among the “100 Greatest Players of the First 100 Years” by the FHSAA in 2007.
Tech’s Bud Carson took notice and was impressed enough with his Florida recruit to start him at quarterback to begin McAshan’s sophomore season. Much like Hank Aaron a few miles down the road, talent on the athletic field can go a long way to soften hearts and help convert minds, even on the issue of race during a time of social and political turmoil. It should be noted that freshmen weren’t eligible to play in games until 1972.
In his first game for the Yellow Jackets, the young McAshan led his team to a season opening comeback victory over South Carolina. The 23-20 win at Grant Field earned Eddie the position as Tech’s No. 1 quarterback for the rest of the season and the next two years as well.
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The Jackets finished 9-3 in McAshan’s first years as starter, including a win over Georgia and a Sun Bowl victory over Texas Tech. In his next two seasons, his Jackets would go 6-6 with a Peach Bowl loss in 1971 and 7-4-1 with a Liberty Bowl win in 1972.
McAshan finished his career in Atlanta with 32 passing touchdowns and 4,080 passing yards. During his time on the Flats, McAshan would break 17 school records, setting a new standard for Georgia Tech quarterbacks.
His time at the Institute was not without controversy, however, as McAshan was suspended to end his senior campaign. After what had apparently been a tremulous career at Georgia Tech, at least behind the scenes, McAshan’s frustration came to a head prior to his final Clean, Old Fashioned Hate appearance.
According to McAshan, he asked for more than his standard allotment of four complementary tickets to the 1972 Georgia Game and his request was denied. He apparently took exception to this denial and protested by skipping the week of practice. Bill Fulcher, who had taken over as head coach to start the season, suspended McAshan for the game, and then also for the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
It should be noted that it was against NCAA rules to allot more than four tickets per player for starters and senior players. All other players only received two tickets at the time.
Georgia Tech lost their season finale to the Bulldogs 27-7 in Athens, and McAshan’s backup Jim Stevens was able to pull off a 31-30 win over Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl and was named the game’s MVP. The games would be the only two starts for Stevens in his Tech career.
During the Liberty Bowl, McAshan sat outside the Liberty Bowl in Memphis in a white stretch limousine with civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. The way his career ended at Tech would estrange the quarterback from Tech’s football program for decades.
Since the messy parting of way in 1972, Georgia Tech set up a scholarship fund in McAshan’s name. It was an announcement that came, very fittingly, on the field at Bobby Dodd Stadium as the Yellow Jackets took on South Carolina in 1990. Also fitting of the occasion that day, Georgia Tech’s starting quarterback was Shawn Jones, an African American who would eventually take down many of McAshan’s records.
The Jackets won their first national title since 1952 the season McAshan was honored, and did so with Jones at the helm. It wasn’t his first time back at Tech since his playing days, however. He had returned to complete his degree in Industrial Management in 1979.
If you check the records books for Georgia Tech quarterbacks, McAshan still ranks near the top of every notable category, and remains tied with 1999 Heisman runner-up Joe Hamilton with five passing touchdowns in a single game. He was inducted into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.
Now 66, Eddie McAshan has had his share of struggles since his departure from Georgia Tech, but there’s not question his massive impact for the sport of college football in the southeast, both on and off the football field.