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George Flippin, Nebraska's first black athlete, wears the N proudly in an NU team photo.
Courtesy: NU Media Relations
          Release: 01/19/2014
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The Legends of George Flippin + Four More

Randy York’s N-Sider

Between 1955 and 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. helped change America. He brought to the world's attention how unfairly blacks were treated. He had the help of millions of Americans, but his strong leadership and unprecedented power of speech gave people the faith and courage to keep working peacefully even when others did not. This led to new laws that ended the practice of keeping people of different backgrounds apart, making life fairer for everyone.

America remembers and honors the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the third Monday in January. We celebrate his birthday with the first national holiday to honor an individual black American. By recognizing the life and legacy of Dr. King, the slain civil rights leader, we accept our responsibility to be the ones who promote, explain and invite others to live the American Dream. With that in mind, we open the curtain with a quick history lesson to recognize George Albert Flippin, the first black athlete in Nebraska football history. We also honor four more athletes who became trailblazers and deserve the attention and respect of Husker fans everywhere.

He Followed His Doctor/Dad’s Footsteps

George’s parents, Charles and Mahala Flippin, struggled through captivity and slavery for years. When Charles became a free man, he fought for the Union side in the Civil War with the 14th US Colored Troops Co. A. George’s mother died when he was 3-years-old, so his father moved the family to Kansas. George married Georgia Smith in 1895. Georgia, from Des Moines, Iowa, was a piano student at the Nebraska Conservatory of Music in Lincoln prior to their marriage. They had two children, Dorothy May (Jeffers) and Robert Browning Flippin.

In 1907 George moved to Stromsburg, Nebraska, where his father and stepmother had established a medical practice in 1900. He built the first hospital in Stromsburg which is now the local Bed and Breakfast. George was part of an early civil rights case in Nebraska when he was denied service at a York restaurant. Contrary to local legend, George did not own one of the first automobiles in Stromsburg. That honor belonged to his father, Charles. In 1910 George endured the scandal of a divorce and subsequent marriage to Mertina Larson.

This Physician, Surgeon Made House Calls

George was a respected physician and surgeon known across the county and state for his willingness to make house calls regardless of the distance or the ability of the family to pay. George Flippin died May 15, 1929 and is the only African-American buried in the Stromsburg Cemetery. At Nebraska, George was a football player, wrestler, track and field athlete and baseball player. Nebraska's official list of football letterwinners shows Flippin earning three in 1892, '93 and '94. He also played on Nebraska's 1891 team, a year when no letterwinners were historically documented. He was the fifth black athlete nationally at a predominantly white university.

Even though Nebraska would later ban blacks from athletic competition from 1917 until the late 1940s, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Flippin became a successful running back for the Huskers. Lincoln Star Sports Editor Cy Sherman described Flippin as a “charged bull, into which was bred the tenacity of the bulldog, the ferocity of a tiger and the gameness of the man who knows no fear.”

NU's First Black Athlete in Hall of Fame

Forty-five years after his death, Flippin became the first black player inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame. Today, his legend lives on as Husker fans across the country and around the world pause and reflect on his remarkable contributions to a football program that ranks first all-time in consecutive home football sellouts and  third all-time in terms of total wins and bowl game appearances. Perhaps Flippin’s best moment as an athlete happened in 1892 when Nebraska played its first “big-time” opponent. The Huskers prevailed, 6-0, over Illinois, thanks to Flippin’s 25-yard run and his scoring the game’s only touchdown after recovering an Illinois fumble.  

Flippin’s name and likeness still grace one Husker sentinel door that opens the Tunnel Walk path onto Memorial Stadium's Tom Osborne Field. We end this lesson as simply as we launched it. Here’s wishing everyone a Happy MLK Day in honor of Martin Luther King, plus the dream he had that lives on. Until next time, check out this N-Sider so you understand how Dr. Flippin once beat the University of Missouri all by himself. Five other legendary names are on the other sentinel doors. As promised, thanks to exhaustive research from Nebraska Historian Mike Babcock, here are four other pivotal student-athletes who became Cornhusker pathfinders from yesteryear and are therefore equally worthy of respect:

William Johnson, Football, End (1900-04-05-06)

He was known as “Bill” and was from Lincoln High, according to The Daily Nebraskan, and possessed speed and quickness. He was on the staff of the student yearbook in 1906 and wrote the entry on football. The entry is signed “Wm. N. Johnson,” but the official lettermen’s list has his name as “William M. Johnson.” He weighed about 153 pounds.

Robert Taylor, Football, Guard (1905)

Taylor was from York, Neb., and according to The Daily Nebraskan in November of 1905, his “fierce line plunges and tackling has made him one of the most promising candidates for the eleven that has entered Nebraska for some years.” The 208-pound Taylor was a freshman that season and wasn’t allowed to play in the final game against Iowa.

Wilbur Wood, Basketball (1908-09-10)

According to Arthur Ashe’s A Hard Road to Glory, Wood was among the first black basketball players at a predominately white university. Ashe documents only one who preceded him, in fact. According to university records, Wood received a degree in June of 1909 and played his final season as a graduate student in chemistry. He coached the freshman team in 1910-11.

Clinton Ross, Football, Guard (1913)

The 1913 team, coached by “Jumbo” Stiehm, was 8-0-0, including a 7-0 defeat of Minnesota in Nebraska’s Homecoming game. It was only the second time the Cornhuskers had defeated Minnesota. They were 1-1-10 against Minnesota going into the game. Stiehm rarely substituted, so Ross probably was a regular on that team.

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Voices from Husker Nation

When I was first asked to design Memorial Stadium’s Tunnel Walk gates, I did a lot of research on the history on Nebraska football. I was in search of a way to represent guardians of Nebraska football history. My idea was that every time the players ran on the field they were passing through history and making history. The idea I wanted was all Bugeaters, with George Flippin in the middle (as he is now). My final design had Husker legends drawn in an art deco style, so we could tie into the style of the State Capitol Building. Even though that idea didn’t get approved, I liked the design and story behind the Flippin-led Bugeaters. I love George Flippin’s story of hard work and perseverance. I thought it represented Nebraska football well. In my opinion, George Flippin should be as well known as any of our current stars, including Heisman Trophy winners Johnny Rodgers, Eric Crouch and Mike Rozier. I think George Flippin holds up as a role model. His place on the Tunnel Walk gates is a fitting tribute, but his story of fighting racisim and prejudice and succeeding against all odds is a story that every Husker fan, Husker player and Husker recruit should know. Joe Putjenter, Omaha, Nebraska

 

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