The 1965-1966 Michigan State football team is one of the most heralded in the program’s history, as it helped break segregation in college football and played in the infamous “Game of the Century” against Notre Dame in 1966.
The documentary film “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar” will have its MSU premiere at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday at Wells Hall, chronicling the 1965-66 Spartans and their impact on college football.
The film is 70 minutes long and will be followed by a 45-minute Q&A session.
It’ll also show how a daughter and father grew closer. The daughter being Maya Washington, who spent six and half years directing, writing and producing the film, and the father being Gene Washington, former MSU wide receiver and All-American track star.
“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. “But, also the impact it's had on future generations. I’m so grateful that my dad had that opportunity, my mom was also able to graduate Michigan State University after they married. There’s so much that in one generation shifted, because of the events that occurred at Michigan State: that 1965-66 team, but also the African-American players that were there before my dad, who sort of set the foundation for Duffy’s kind of all-in experiment to work.”
However, Maya didn’t know of her father’s athletic past or how former MSU defensive end Bubba Smith and his dad got Gene his scholarship to play football at Michigan State. Gene was growing up in La Porte, Texas, while Smith and his dad were 75 miles away in Beaumont, Texas.
So when Gene, Maya and the rest of the Washington family attended Smith’s memorial in August 2011, Maya started listening to stories of Gene and his teammates’ past. And when Gene was added to MSU’s Ring of Honor two months later, Maya shared those stories with "anybody who would listen.”
“Learning the specifics, and learning that it was Bubba Smith’s family that really made all the difference from my dad and connecting him with Michigan State, just really touched me in a profound way,” Maya said. “And so I was just interested in that point of connection that as I spent more time on the campus in the fall (of 2011) and had a chance to go to the College Football Hall of Fame induction with him, I just felt ‘Wow, this is just an incredible story, especially the Michigan State integration story.’ I just said, ‘This has to be a movie’ and started that process from there.”
When Maya, who earned her undergraduate degree in theatre from the University of Southern California, approached Gene about making the film, he said he was “surprised.”
“I was surprised because I never thought about doing something like that,” Gene said. “But, she wanted to do it and got to know all of my teammates, and the rest is history.”
Maya even reached out to Mark Dantonio, who said he was humbled to be a part of the film.
"For me to be a part of that, it was very humbling," Dantonio said. "Our players are going to watch that, because I think it sends a strong message. For me, growing up, and understanding very little about Michigan State, but knowing enough about just college football and how dominant the Michigan State team was in the 1960s ... So you get to know a little bit about it just being a college football fan, but to come here and be here and be involved in that story to some small way was very humbling."
Gene said once Maya started talking to him and his teammates, including former quarterback Jimmy Raye and running back Clinton Jones, who grew up in the segregated south, she noticed a common theme: all of them shared similar experiences dealing with segregation.
And at the time, southern coaches couldn’t recruit black athletes since schools weren’t integrated at the time. This led coaches like Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant to recommend these players to former MSU head coach Duffy Daugherty.
“I think Maya, 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. “And then on campus at Michigan State, we shared a lot of things together as teammates and also as students at Michigan State. So having a lot of our teammates, that Duffy had personally recruited from all of those southern towns and cities, and it just developed into a great story.”
A story which Maya hopes will inspire people to find out more about their history within their own families.
“It takes asking those questions to sort of find out what amazing things people in your own family have accomplished,” Maya said. “But I hope people will also consider the impact that my dad’s team and teammates and Michigan State University had, in the terms of the impact on culture that we are still feeling today.”
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