The Jackie Robinson of football in the Texas panhandle
Junior Coffey stood in front of a room full of former football players and coaches and their friends and family, choking up, as he shared memories of being refused food at certain restaurants or barred from some fields as his Dimmitt High School football team worked its way through Texas on the way to the state championship.
The moment reminded me why, ever since I researched his life for a project in elementary school, Junior, my uncle, has been one of my heroes.
I may not be able to truly understand what he went through as the first black student in the Texas panhandle to integrate the all-white football and basketball teams. But, I know the humbleness, kindness and easy smile he came through it with. And, that was what was on display when he was inducted into the Pacific Northwest Football Hall of Fame April 28.
“Junior Coffee was, first and foremost, a groundbreaker,” said Steve Raible, the event’s emcee. “He was the Jackie Robinson of football in the panhandle of West Texas.”
After integrating his high school teams, Junior wanted to stay close to home for college, playing in the Southwest Conference. But, those teams were still half a decade away from integrating.
With scholarship offers from Oklahoma, Kansas, Washington, Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa, it was the people and how they treated him that convinced Junior to come to the UW and make his permanent home in Washington. He remembers being taken to the Olympic Hotel when first getting to the Northwest. He said he didn’t want to go, afraid he would be asked to leave, but he was assured by his hosts that he was their guest.
Though his career at UW wasn’t without turmoil – I’ve heard stories of the head coach designating certain assistant coaches to dealing with black players and benching my uncle for engaging in a mixed-race relationship with my aunt – Junior finished with three All-Pac 8 honors and 1,604 yards rushing.
He would go on with win an NFL Championship with the Green Bay Packers in 1965 under Vince Lombardi and lead the Atlanta Falcons in rushing in 1966 and 1967. He finished his pro career in 1971 with 2,037 rushing yards, 487 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns.
“You’re a damn legend,” former UW player Jerry Knoll told Junior before his induction. “It should have been done years ago.”
Watching the way old friends, teammates and acquaintances greeted my uncle – sharing stories about head butting people to get into the end zone or laughing about an undersized UW guard from Europe who nearly drowned Junior when he finally agreed to go waterskiing – I was proud of my uncle. But, more than that, I felt lucky to have such an amazing person in my life.