Tifton Gazette

Local Sports

March 13, 2013

Earl Anderson blazed a trail for Tift County football

TIFTON —  When Tift County Blue Devil Earl Anderson accepted a scholarship to Michigan State in 1967 to play football for the Spartans, it was perhaps a bit surprising. Not just the location of the deal, but the circumstances. In the era of Civil Rights and with the walls of segregation finally tumbling in southern school systems, Anderson was not just the first African-American from Tift County to sign a major college football scholarship, he was the first Devil, period.

Despite deciding to attend a college 750 miles from home, the path to Michigan State was not a totally blind one for Anderson. Head coach Duffy Daugherty annually filled out his roster with African-American players snagged from segregated southern high schools. One of his finds was Jack Pitts, who had played quarterback at Trinity High in Decatur. Anderson was not just familiar with familiar with Pitts, they had played against each other in the 1965 GIA finals. Pitts’ decision to go north figured into Anderson’s choice.

“That was one of the reasons I went there,” he said. “If he could go, I could go, too.”

Until Anderson’s senior year of high school, he was a Wilson High Tiger. Segregation was still a fact of life for nearly all African-American elementary and high school students. The first public school system to integrate was Atlanta city in 1961 and only two or three more did so prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With its passage, systems began the integration process by issuing “freedom of choice” forms, asking students of all races which school they preferred to attend.

Anderson signed that he wished to leave Wilson and attend Tift County High. “I made the choice,” he said. He admitted that football played a part in his decision.

“My junior year at Wilson, I had a great season. I thought my talents might be better seen (at Tift County High).” Athletes were recruited out of African-American high schools, but most, including Wilson, were barely on the radar. Anderson said he received attention while at Wilson, but it was not until he enrolled at Tift that the offers began to explode.

He recalled that a large number of schools, including several out of the Big Ten, offered him deals: “Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Kansas, Kansas State, North Carolina State,” not to mention Michigan State. He said he visited all campuses, except Michigan’s, though he was sent a plane ticket to go to Ann Arbor.

“Michigan played a trick on me,” he said. When the program asked who he liked, he said he thought highly of Michigan State, their arch-rival. “You might need to send that ticket on back,” Anderson said he was told. He said he also received letters from and visited the campuses of both Georgia, Georgia Tech and Tennessee.

In Tifton, he said he said the transition was easy. Whereas some other high schools in Georgia were hostile towards integration, Tift County was welcoming. “No problems at all, really,” he said. He said there was an incident on the field against another school, but chalked it up to being the heat of battle.

He said his new Blue Devils coaches treated him well. “Coach (Ray) Dalton was up front about everything,” he said and “Coach (Tom) Fiveash used to tease me a lot.” An added bonus, he said, was the new place to play. Wilson and Tift County had always shared playing fields and would continue to do so, but the year he arrived, Tift County Stadium, now known as Brodie Field, opened its doors.

His former head coach at Wilson, Arthur Mott, was also supportive. “He made a comment when I decided to go, ‘good luck’.” Anderson also credits Mott for shaping him as a player. “He was a great coach, really a disciplinarian.”

In Anderson’s last year at Wilson, the Tigers were 11-1, winners of their first 11 before dropping the Class A crown to Trinity and Pitts, 19-14.

The 1966 Blue Devils went 7-3 under head coach Tommy Guillebeau, but missed the playoffs because of region losses to Albany, Valdosta and Baker. Valdosta, who defeated them by 15 points, went on to win the state Class AAA championship.

At Michigan State, Anderson spent his time at halfback, lettering from 1968-70. Freshmen were still ineligible for varsity teams then. In 1968, he rushed for 172 yards on 41 carries, scoring two touchdowns. Statistics are currently unavailable for 1969, but in 1970, he added another score on 98 rushing yards. After his playing days ended, he decided to stay in Michigan.

“When I finished my, BA, I started in Lansing as a neighborhood youth corps coordinator. I came into Lansing schools and did the same thing. It was my niche, what I wanted to do.”

He would stay with the school system for 32 years. Since his initial degree, he has added two master’s degrees, one in K-12 Counseling Certification and another in Classroom Guidance and Learning, in addition to a bachelor’s degree in Health Education.

He has made infrequent trips to Tifton over the years, and said they have become even less since the death of his parents.

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