It might seem obvious now, but the full significance of the 1966 Tangerine Bowl was not so apparent to the terrific Morgan State team that traveled to Orlando, Fla., a half-century ago to make college football history.
"That was a turning point for black universities," said co-captain James Phillips, "but the thing about it was, we really didn't know. All we knew was it was a football game and that we were going there to win a football game."
Of course, it was so much more than that. The Bears were breaking a major racial barrier in central Florida, where the Tangerine Bowl had never before invited a historically black college team to participate and the city of Orlando had never before played host to an integrated high school or college football game.
The appearance also helped put Morgan State and the pre-MEAC Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) on the college football map after years of playing in the shadow of the more-respected Southwestern Athletic Conference.
When the Bears defeated the West Chester (Pa.) State Rams, 14-6, they also became the first historically black college team to win an integrated bowl game and do so on network television (ABC).
That's why 10 members of the team — including Phillips, former Dunbar High School and University of Maryland basketball coach Bob Wade and Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Lanier — are headed back to Orlando next week to be honored as part of the festivities surrounding the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.
Though the Tangerine Bowl appearance was representative of the social progress that was being made at the height of the civil rights movement, Wade said this week that the players were also on a mission to show the rest of the country the quality of the football program that legendary Hall of Fame coach Earl Banks had built in Baltimore.
The Bears were one of the winningest college programs in the country under Banks and were in the midst of a 31-game winning streak when they were invited to Orlando. The victory in the Tangerine Bowl was the 18th win in that streak, which would stretch into 1968.
"Some so-called writers or historians thought it was a weak conference," Wade said, "but they forget to realize all the NFL players who came out of the CIAA — the Roger Browns, the Emerson Boozers, the Johnny Samples of the world and Leroy Kelly."
According to Phillips, more than half of the players on the 54-man roster that Morgan State fielded in 1966 would go on to get drafted or invited to NFL or AFL camps.
Lanier, who played 11 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and gained induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986, was the most storied member of the team and was named MVP of the Tangerine Bowl, but Wade and Earl Mayo also were taken in 1967 pro drafts and 11 more Morgan players would be drafted over the next three years.
Wade can rattle off the names of dozens of pro players who would come out of the underrated conference, which was a tremendous source of African-American talent at a time when a large chunk of the major college landscape was still all white.
There also was a clear delineation between the major college and the small college divisions, which led to an effort during the mid-1960s to create a fair method of ranking the small college teams.
"Back in the early '60s, they had what they called the College Division, which was actually what is called Division II today," said Citrus Bowl historian David Freeman. "In 1964, these schools that were called small colleges and had 'Little All-Americans' and all that stuff, they got tired of not really having any democratic way of picking a national champion.
"So this college-division NCAA decided they would have four bowl games, four different regions in the country, and from those eight teams that played, writers could pick one of those teams to be the national champion that year."
The Tangerine Bowl was the East Regional and the Bears were chosen to play in it because of their long winning streak and the fact that they had trounced Florida A&M the year before in the annual Orange Blossom Classic, which was considered the unofficial black national championship game.
The Bears also were chosen, according to Freeman, because the bowl committee and Orlando Mayor Bob Carr felt that the time had come to shed the discriminatory rules that had limited participation to all-white teams.
The game and the festivities, according to Wade, were fully integrated. The two teams stayed in equivalent hotels and took part in all bowl week activities together.
"They even had events like cookouts, bull roasts, and both teams attended," Wade said. "We were not separated. We mingled."
Banks, who would compile a 71-16-1 record during the 1960s, let his players enjoy the moment, but he was all business when it came to preparing for the game. And there was one important obstacle that the Bears had to overcome.
"We had to do some extra running during the week and get in a little better shape because we played in a conference where our freshmen could play,'' Phillips said. "We got to the bowl game and our freshmen couldn't play. We were missing guys like Mark Washington, who played 12 years with the Cowboys, and Raymond Chester and Ara Person and numerous guys who fit into the equation. We played with, I think, 31 guys of our 54-man squad."
That might account for the relatively low-scoring contest, but the Bears prevailed and made their point.
Most of the players are now in their 70s and it's easy to look back and see why the Citrus Bowl organizers are making such a big deal about their contribution to Orlando's bowl history, but Wade and Phillips remember what it felt like to be talented — and wide-eyed — young athletes on a road trip.
"My interpretation was that it was another ballgame," Wade said. "We were extending our season by one game and we really wanted to finish the season undefeated ..."
Phillips, who remains a very close friend after all these years, couldn't help but finish his buddy's sentence.
"... and we had a chance to go to a bowl game and stay in a hotel."
Wade went on to play for three NFL teams, but is better known in Baltimore for his success at Dunbar and as the first African-American head coach of any sport at Maryland. Phillips starred in both football and wrestling and would come back to join Banks' coaching staff and spend 31 years teaching and coaching football and wrestling at Morgan State.
Phillips lives in Orlando, so he won't have to travel far for the reunion with his teammates. Wade can't wait to get there.
"I'm looking forward to seeing my old teammates who I have not seen in years, like Harvey Palmore, who went to play for the Cincinnati Bengals, and Daryl Johnson, who was our quarterback but ended up playing defensive back with the Boston Patriots," Wade said. "I'm just anxious to see and fraternize with my former teammates and, of course, represent Morgan State University on such a memorable night."