Before the passing of former Michigan State defensive end Bubba Smith in August 2011, Maya Washington didn’t know much about her own dad’s history.
Maya, the youngest of former MSU wide receiver Gene Washington’s three daughters, and the rest of her family attended a gathering at Smith’s house in Los Angeles the night before the memorial.
There, Maya learned through stories told by Gene and his teammates, such as former quarterback Jimmy Raye, running back Clinton Jones, linebacker George Webster and countless others, what her dad was like as an athlete and college student.
“I really started to see my dad in a different light, imagined him as a college student and found the interactions really endearing,” Maya said.
The stories touched her so much that it led her to write, direct and produce a documentary about it called “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar,” which had its local premiere Sept. 26 in Wells Hall at MSU.
“The thing that intrigues me most about this era is the ways that Michigan State changed my dad’s life, changed the life of other African-American athletes and students at Michigan State at the time,” Maya said.
The film shows how Gene and his teammates grew up in the segregated South, how then-coach Duffy Daugherty created a “pipeline” of black players from the South to Michigan State and how the university broke racial barriers. It also shows how a dad and daughter became closer.
“I think the biggest gift of working on this project, and the process having taken as long as it has, has been a way for us to really connect and appreciate each other,” Maya said. “In researching his history and talking to all of his teammates and family members and coaches, I have a better appreciation of what it took for him to be successful.”
The scholarship that inspired
Maya knew Gene’s scholarship to Michigan State was important to her dad.
But she didn’t know the backstory until Smith’s memorial.
“I always knew my dad grew up in segregation, I always knew how important that scholarship was to creating an opportunity for him to get an education. And the happy, wonderful surprise is that he ends up being on an awesome team and an NCAA title holder in track and goes into the NFL,” Maya said. “But, I never knew the details prior to 2011. He never talked about the process of how he got the scholarship.”
Because Daugherty was out of football scholarships, Gene received a track scholarship, and went on to win multiple NCAA titles.
The College Football Hall of Fame inductee finished his MSU career with 106 receptions, 1,938 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns.
“They had no idea about my track background, because they wanted Bubba,” Gene said. “They had no idea about my football background, because they wanted Bubba. So basically, I owe everything to Bubba Smith and his dad, for just giving me the opportunity. And once I got there, I wanted to make sure that I stayed there and I didn’t have to go back to the segregation down South. That was the most important thing to me.”
Maya said she was “touched in a profound way.”
From there, the six-and-a-half year process of making the film began. When Maya told Gene, he said he was “surprised” she wanted to pursue this.
“By being interested and going through all of those interviews with her and meeting all of my teammates, we had a lot to share,” Gene said. “All of us coming from completely segregated situations in school systems from different states, it was kind of a common story that she picked up on and developed.”
Discovering Gene’s playing days
Growing up, Maya said she never knew much about Gene’s time at MSU. He retired from football in 1974 after a seven-year NFL career with the Vikings and Broncos — before
Maya was born.
She only knew the businessman who worked at 3M, the Dayton-Hudson Corporation (now called Target) and MSU’s career counseling, helping recruit students of color for jobs and internships with major companies.
While growing up in Plymouth and the Minneapolis suburbs, people occasionally asked Gene about football or wanted an autograph.
“I never had a real appreciation for what an amazing athlete he was or fully understood why people were excited to meet him,” Maya said.
Maya said she grew up an artist, while Gene stuck to his “wheelhouse” of sports.
Both said it never really occurred to them before Maya decided to make this documentary.
“I think for a lot of people, and a lot of father-daughters, it’s relatable in the ways that your parents do or don’t include you in the things that they’re passionate about, and what the impact of that is,” Maya said.
Maya said the documentary has allowed her and Gene to develop an appreciation for one another.
“He’s seeing me work really hard on this film and has greater and deeper understanding of what it takes for me to do what I do,” Maya said. “In researching his history and talking to all of his teammates and family members and coaches, I have a better appreciation of what it took for him to be successful … There were just some really fundamental, important conversations that we took for granted or just never had before I made this film.”
One of those conversations was about how Gene and his teammates grew up in the segregated south, and their goal to try and break the racial barrier in college football.
“Growing up in that situation … you really don’t talk about your experiences and such,” Gene said. “And then you look back so many years and you’re like, ‘That was very important.’”
During Gene’s time in East Lansing, southern universities and colleges were still segregated. There was also a "gentleman’s agreement", where if a northern school played a southern school in the south, the northern school wouldn’t play its black players.
Because of this, it forced Gene and other black athletes to look elsewhere outside of their home states to continue their athletic careers.
And some found sanctuary in East Lansing.
“It was a huge difference because, elementary school on through high school and junior high school, (it's) in a completely segregated situation, so we had no prior experience of talking to white people,” Gene said. “So in that situation leaving segregation and going up to Michigan State, it was like night and day … it was a huge, huge change.”
At the time, Daugherty, Munn and then-President John Hannah — who in 1957 became the first-ever Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — turned MSU into a destination for black athletes and students.
“We never got into that situation where we had to second guess ourselves or look in the mirror, or try to say, 'I wonder if Duffy really means what he's saying,'" Gene said. “It was genuine togetherness. And we all supported each other.”
Even with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court in 1954, which made segregation unconstitutional, southern schools continued to be segregated since the Supreme Court said schools could integrate at "with all deliberate speed." Which meant no black athletes were allowed on a college campus or sports team if the school chose not to desegregate.
This remained until 1969 in Alexander v. Holmes, in which the Supreme Court ruled "with all deliberate speed" as unconstitutional.
This led to coaches such as Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant to suggest black players to Daugherty that he should recruit.
In turn, Michigan State became a powerhouse in the 1950s and 60s, winning a national championship in 1952, and co-champions in 1965-66, although Gene said southern schools thought otherwise.
“The southern parts of the country are cheering for Alabama and Mississippi and all of these schools, and all of the northern part of the country is cheering for their schools,” Gene said. “So there was still some racism in regard to who picks the championship. So while we were named number one in the country and national champions my junior year, undefeated season, the south was saying Alabama, was undefeated, and they should have been national champions."
And in the "Game of the Century” in 1966, where the 2nd-ranked Spartans took on No. 1 Notre Dame in the final game of the regular season, the Irish lined up with one black player — defensive tackle Alan Page.
MSU played 20 black players that day, which caused pushback from boosters and the public.
But that didn’t stop any of them. In fact, four black players would be drafted in the top 10 in the 1967 NFL Draft — Smith at No. 1 overall to the Baltimore Colts, Jones No. 2 to the Minnesota Vikings, Webster No. 5 to the Houston Oilers and Gene No. 8 to the Vikings.
“The fact that these players were on TV, winning and changing what America was use to seeing on the field, had an impact to where southern schools were eventually forced to integrate their student bodies along with their athletics programs,” Maya said. “My dad and his teammates and Duffy Daugherty and John Hannah and Biggie Munn — that was the breaking point, that made it possible for a kid from Alabama or Mississippi or Texas, who’s African-American or even Pacific Islander, to be able to stay in their own state and play for their state school."
"I argue his team was that final bow that broke, that really shifted things and sort of turned us upside down in terms of where you’re going to see that African-American representation," she added.
Maya said she and Gene have faced different forms of discrimination.
While Maya said she’s experienced racial slurs and being looked at differently, she’s never faced legal discrimination like her dad.
“I always grew up when someone discriminates against you or harms you or does something to you, you have some kind of recourse,” Maya said. “Whether or not you’ll receive justice, you may or may not actually get justice, but at least you can go through steps to attempt to remedy what’s been done to you. But, in my parents' generation, African-Americans were murdered, lynched, harassed, their homes burned down, churches bombed — you name it. And those families never saw justice.”
Maya said when interviewing Gene and his teammates for “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar,” she found it interesting comparing how they reacted to microaggressions in the 1960s, to how she's handled them throughout her own life.
“Their tolerance for ignorance is much stronger than our generation, because we’ve grown up knowing that it’s wrong to mistreat people,” Maya said. “In their generation, it was legal for people to mistreat you. So if someone mispronounced your name in class or made a funny comment on your skin or your hair or something … it was in such stark contrast to what they had in the south, they were sort of able to put it in perspective in a way I think our generation is still trying to grapple with.”
But, by doing this research, Maya said her and father’s worlds collided — Maya as an artist and Gene as an athlete — due to having shared values in history, specifically black history, and diversity and inclusion in education and the workplace.
“That's a great feeling because it's a great family story, and the story of believing Texas segregation, where I was brought up in,” Gene said. “Of course Maya in these interviews learned a lot about that, and also having a chance to leave that situation in and then to go on to Michigan State and most importantly to get my education, a complete undergraduate education. So all of those things are very, very important to me and my family.”
A proud father
If there’s one word Gene would use to describe Maya’s dedication to “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar,” it’s “proud.”
“I'm so, so proud,” Gene said. “When you step back, and look at the perspective of what she's been able to put all of this together and still keep her sanity and doesn't quit through these years, I am so proud to be her dad.”
Gene isn’t wrong about Maya keeping her sanity. Maya said before this documentary, she thought she was “a pretty tough girl.”
Now, after completing the film after six and a half years, she said she’s tested her limits. But she’s gained an experience of a lifetime.
“I sort of tested the limits of my sanity, my strength, my courage, my resilience in every which way, shape or form, because I put everything on the line and this became my sole and immediate focus for almost seven years of my life,” Maya said. “But, as a result, I feel like I gained such an appreciation for who I am and where I came from, and also just what an incredible man my dad is — something I felt I already knew, but really getting to walk in his shoes and get to know his teammates and what incredible men they are."
“I feel like I’ve gained a handful of new uncles and godfathers in this process.”
Gene said Maya didn’t only bring him and teammates closer together, but she brought their entire family together as well.
“She's gotten a chance to meet a lot of her family (and) get closer to a lot of her family,” Gene said. “I think she's brought our whole family closer together … I’m very, very proud of her.”