A film about Gene Washington's fortuitous journey through the "underground railroad" of college football recruiting at the height of the Civil Rights Movement will be presented by someone near and dear to the former Vikings receiver during this month's 37th annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.
"Through the Banks of the Red Cedar," a 69-minute documentary that will air at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Uptown Theatre, is the product of a seven-year "labor of love" for Maya Washington, a Minnesota filmmaker, the youngest of Gene's three daughters and a child of the 1980s who is awakened in the film by details of her father's path from the segregated South to what became an integrated Michigan State University powerhouse in the 1960s.
"For people of my generation, it's eye-opening," Maya said. "A lot of our experiences, we take for granted. I'm very humbled and proud that my dad and his teammates were really a part of shaping history and creating opportunities for the next generation."
Gene Washington's story is about more than a groundbreaking opportunity for a black student-athlete coming out of La Porte, Texas, in 1963. It's about Duffy Daugherty, the pioneering white coach who wasn't afraid to be scorned as a beacon of light for Southern blacks. It's about John Hannah, the Michigan State president who served on the first U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and insisted that his school be integrated. It's about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who befriended Hannah and counted on Michigan State students to help with the black voter registration movement in the '60s.
"My story really is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s story," Washington said. "The sacrifice he made for me and other students of the '60s like me was incredible. Segregation wasn't pretty. You're upset. You're angry. But that's the society you're brought up in, and the law enforcement officers are there. I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to leave there and do all the things I was able to accomplish at Michigan State."
Washington got a degree in education and a master's in higher education. As a hurdler on the track team, he won an NCAA indoor title and six Big Ten championships. As a receiver, he set several school records as a two-time All-America on a team that went undefeated and won back-to-back national titles in 1965 and 1966.
During the 1967 NFL draft, four Spartans were selected in the first eight picks. Defensive end Bubba Smith and running back Clinton Jones went first and second overall to Baltimore and the Vikings, respectively. Linebacker George Webster went fifth overall to Houston, while Washington went eighth to the Vikings, where he played six of his seven NFL seasons.
All are in the College Football Hall of Fame. And three of them — Smith, Webster and Washington — were recruited from the South.
"Not only were we not allowed to play football at the big schools in the South," Washington said, "we couldn't step foot on those campuses."
Washington probably would have gone to Texas Southern, a small all-black school, if not for Smith, who was the best player in Texas in 1963.
"Everybody wanted Bubba, but the big schools in Texas couldn't recruit him," Washington said. "Bubba played for his dad over in Beaumont. His dad was a highly-regarded coach, and had a good relationship with Duffy, who went into the South and held coaching clinics for the black coaches.
"I knew Bubba, and he said, 'I'll put in a good word for you with Michigan State.' Duffy didn't know anything about me. But he wanted Bubba, so they took me, too."
Smith died in August of 2011. Washington went to Los Angeles for the services. Maya came with him and listened as her father and his former teammates told their stories.
"It was the first time I had heard a lot of these stories," Maya said. "Something just really shifted in me while we were there. It hasn't been easy. Funding has been the biggest challenge. But I just had to tell their story."