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Mizzou's Greatest, #106: Norris Stevenson and Mel West

From Jackie Robinson to Jason Collins, we've talked a lot about trail blazers recently. Now it's time to celebrate a pair of Mizzou trail blazers.

The Savitar

We don't tend to regard Frank Broyles very kindly at Missouri. A career opportunist, Broyles spent just a single season at Missouri before peeling out of town and heading to Arkansas. He inherited a job that was harder than he expected, and he didn't really leave it in much better shape.

Broyles did, however, recruit Norris Stevenson and Mel West to Mizzou. And for that, he deserves the utmost credit. Stevenson was the first African-American student to receive a football scholarship at Missouri, and West followed shortly behind him. They integrated Mizzou at a time when the SEC and other schools were still a decade or so away from doing the same. Breaking down barriers is impressive enough, of course, but these two also brought a level of success to Mizzou that the school really hadn't seen before. Both were featured in a backfield that powered Mizzou to No. 1 in the country in 1960, and both should be celebrated. Honestly, they probably deserve a ranking a lot higher than No. 99, but a) the rankings don't matter, and b) the higher up they were, the longer we'd have had to wait to talk about them.

From the Post-Dispatch, following Mizzou's victory over Oklahoma that sent them to No. 1 in the country in 1960 (via Bob Broeg's Ol' Mizzou: A story of Missouri Football):

The meek inherited the earth today. Mild-mannered Norris Stevenson, son of a St. Louis minister, ran 77 and 60 yards for touchdowns as unbeaten Missouri beat Oklahoma at Norman for the first time in 24 years."

From MizzouWire:

"The Mizzou family lost a great, great man in Norris Stevenson," MU football coach Gary Pinkel said in a release. "I had such a tremendous respect for everything he accomplished and how he carried himself. He was such a good man.

"He loved Mizzou — that was very clear to me — and we're all very sad to have lost Norris. He'll be remembered around here as a very important figure in our history."

The St. Louis native from Vashon High School came to MU in 1957. At that time in the university’s history, the marching band played "Dixie," and a fraternity waved a Confederate flag when touchdowns were scored. The atmosphere wasn’t welcoming.

Looking beyond the racism around him, Stevenson befriended Mel West, another of the first black students to play football for the Tigers.

"Mel West and Norris Stevenson were not only two of Missouri’s best on the field; they were two of the best off the field," teammate Russ Sloan told the Columbia Daily Tribune. "Everybody respected them."

Stevenson was inducted to the MU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001. A $25,000 scholarship and a plaza bearing his name have been established to honor his accomplishments at the university.

On the field, Norris was a bruising fullback in coach Dan Devine’s offense. He ended his career with 1,174 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, and he was on the receiving end of three more. His best game was an all-time classic for Mizzou, as he ran for 169 yards and two long touchdowns (77 and 60 yards) to beat Oklahoma 41-19 on the road. The performance vaulted the Tigers to No. 1 in the country for the first time in program history and was a step toward the 1960 Big Eight Championship, the university’s last outright football championship. Norris lettered in football from 1958 to 1960 and also competed in track.

From the Post-Dispatch:

Stevenson was at the center of an outreach effort led by Pinkel, athletics director Mike Alden and former Tiger Demetrious Johnson that aimed to hear out former players and move forward.

And that they did, in conversations Pinkel has often described as emotional but healing and instrumental to this day.

Shortly thereafter, a $25,000 scholarship was created in Stevenson's name, a display was built to honor him in the Mizzou football complex and he otherwise became part of the program again in ways he hadn't for four decades.

"I tend to get very emotional about it," Stevenson said in a 2001 interview with the Post-Dispatch. "But I hope what it really does is it means something to the African-American kids who were a part of all of it, all of Missouri's history. If this lifts them, then great. That's what it should be.

"It says ... we did leave something here."

From the Missourian:

West’s joviality was remarkable given the prevalence of racism. Most overt incidents were on the road, and everyone mentions in particular the trip to Texas A&M, when a hotel wouldn’t serve West and Stevenson in the dining room. (The entire team walked out.) But incidents happened in Columbia, too. Success on the football field didn’t always make a difference off it.

One Sunday morning he went to a diner for breakfast with Miles and some other teammates. A waitress came to their booth and said she wasn’t allowed to serve him, so they all got up to leave. As they walked out the door, a manager said, "That was a good game yesterday, Mel."

West never addressed racial issues to any white teammates except to tell them not to worry about others' remarks. They recognize now that there must have been some unspoken burden for him and Stevenson.

"You have to have a great level of courage and tenacity," [teammate Russ] Sloan says. "It’s really hard to know what was going through their minds at that time, but whatever it was, they handled it as well as they could have."

From The Trib:

Former assistant coach John Kadlec never thought of Norris Stevenson as a pioneer for Missouri football when Stevenson was blasting out of the Tigers' backfield, never more powerfully than during a thrilling day at Oklahoma.

"He ripped Oklahoma at Oklahoma," Kadlec said last night, recalling Stevenson's 169-yard day in Missouri's 41-19 win over the Sooners in 1960. "But of course he didn't think anything of that. That was what he was supposed to do."

"If they were all like Norris Stevenson," Kadlec added, "it would be paradise."

Stevenson, who died yesterday in St. Louis after suffering from colon cancer, is remembered as Missouri's first African-American player to receive a football scholarship, but when Kadlec recruited the running back out of St. Louis half a century ago, he never thought of Stevenson in those terms. In fact, he never thought to tell Stevenson about the barrier he was about to break.

"I guess I inadvertently never mentioned to him that he was going to be the first black player," Kadlec said. "Norris, years later he brought that up to me. He said, 'You know, Coach, you never mentioned that to me.' And I go, 'Well, you know, Norris, I guess I recruited you as a football player — not as the first black player. I considered you a football player.'"

Both Stevenson and West have passed away in recent years, but it goes without saying that their respective legacies are in tact. Both seemed to have had relatively favorable things to say about their turbulent time at Mizzou, and both were instrumental in kick-starting a decade of wonderful on-field success. That pride you feel in wearing the black-and-gold? These two are responsible for quite a bit of it.