Blue-Gray Classic was College Football’s Christmas Day Tradition

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The NBA staked claim to Christmas Day in recent years, much in the same manner the NFL uses Thanksgiving as a showcase date and MLB owns July 4.

College football once owned prime real estate on Dec. 25. From 1979 through 2001, with a one-year resurrection in 2003, the Blue-Gray Classic brought together players from across the nation, representing all levels of the game, in an All-Star exhibition.

Most Valuable Players included Howie Long (Villanova) and Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State) — small-school stars with a national stage to shine before their NFL careers took off.

Fittingly, one the last Blue-Gray Classic standouts was Derrick Ward of NAIA Ottawa University in Kansas. The game’s final MVP enjoyed an eight-year NFL career after catching for 59 yards and rushing for 38 on Christmas Day 2003.

Thirteen years now, Dec. 25 has been without college football despite the previous three decades. And the Blue-Gray Classic came together much earlier than that, kicking off 40 years before its TV-motivated move to Christmas.

The brainchild of Alabama fixture Champ Pickens, the college football All-Star game grew as an extension of the Civil War. Seriously. The blue jerseys the Northern team and the gray donned by the South were purposefully representative of the uniforms worn then.

From a 1952 Associated Press profile of Pickens and his game, then in its 13th year:

Meet Champ Pickens, the man who refuses to concede the South lost the Civil War. He has made his idea pay dividends for 16 years.

Put in modern context, the Civil War analogy of North vs. South isn’t all that outlandish. The regional battle lines are pretty clearly drawn any time one tunes into the Paul Finebaum Show.

No, the concept of Southern football dominance wasn’t born when a radio host started taking phone calls from I-Man and Phyllis in Mulga.

The Civil War theme also provides an unintended backdrop and reminder of the realities both college football, and society as a whole, faced in the 20th Century.

Before its one-year stint in Troy, Montgomery hosted every Blue-Gray Classic. Racism was a very real problem around the country in the first half of the 20th Century, and still today. However, Southern states observed Jim Crow laws, which extended to college campuses and athletic departments.

The common practice of Southern teams refusing to play integrated opponents is well-documented, and the some of the stories are the stuff of college football lore.

President Gerald Ford stood up for teammate Willis Ward in 1934 when Georgia Tech balked at playing a Michigan lineup with Ward. Michigan scored its only win of the season against the Ramblin’ Wreck.

In 1951, the University of San Francisco opted not to participate in the Orange Bowl rather than leave black teammates like legendary Ollie Matson home.

The stories of segregation surrounding the Blue-Gray Classic’s memories are less inspiring. In 1963, when George C. Wallace’s rhetoric was at a fever-pitch in Alabama, the segregated all-star game lost its national broadcast from NBC.

A ticket stub from the Classic three years later, found at this website, is stamped with an ugly reminder of the times: “FOR WHITE PEOPLE ONLY.”

But shortly after NBC pulling its coverage, the Blue-Gray Classic integrated — close to a decade before the SEC as a whole. Two years later, HBCU standout Johnny Lee Holmes used his invite from Florida A&M to get an opportunity with the AFL’s Miami Dolphins.

In 2000, one of the final Classics ended with the grandson of Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers, scoring the winning touchdown.

Flowers was a vehement opponent of Wallace’s pro-segregation invective — a stance that, in the 1960s, earned Flowers cross-burnings on his property and threats against his life.

However, the efforts of people like Flowers, unafraid to stand up against intimidation, helped end Jim Crow laws, integrate schools, and extend voting rights to the disenfranchised. Sports played its own role.

Some four decades later, Chattanooga Mocs wide receiver Richmond Flowers III caught a game-winning pass in the final minute of a game that once denied participation in and attendance to black people.

The Classic folding ostensibly ended college football on Christmas Day, with the Aloha and Oahu Bowls shutting down three years prior. Innovative ideas such as a Make It-Take It system for teams trailing by double digits failed to save the game — for those unfamiliar with pick-up basketball rules, that’s retaining possession after scoring.

Dec. 25 now belongs to the NBA. For a time, however, college football lived on this holiday.