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‘Men of Sparta’ tells a story that transcended sports at MSU

Photo: Michigan State Sports Information Office

A decade ago Michigan State’s aging players — aka the ‘Men of Sparta’ — gathered in a lounge at Spartan Stadium for the 40th anniversary of their 1966 Game of the Century with Notre Dame.

George Webster, a College Football Hall of Fame linebacker/rover, motioned to Bob Apisa, a two-time All-American fullback, to come over to him. Webster was by then confined to a wheelchair, his right leg amputated above the knee due to circulation problems.

Webster, noting Apisa’s Hollywood background, implored him to document the Spartans’ 1965 and 1966 national championship teams on film. He recognized age was winning against players that once thought they were indestructible.

Recalled Apisa, Webster told him, “I’m not going to be around much longer. Dick Kenney is already gone. Charlie Wedemeyer won’t be with us much longer. Harold Lucas has left us. You’ve got to tell the story of these teams before everybody goes. The legacy needs to be told for our children and our children’s children.’ ”

Webster passed away seven months later at age 61 from a heart attack.

Apisa, who worked as a character actor, stunt man and producer, had agreed with his old teammate but life gets in the way. The idea for “Men of Sparta” remained on the back burner until the great Bubba Smith, another College Football Hall of Famer as a two-time All-American defensive end, died at age 66 in 2011. Following the funeral, the old Spartans again gathered, this time at Bubba’s Los Angeles home. Robert Viney, a 1965 honorable mention All-Big Ten defensive end, leaned over to Apisa.

“He said, ‘Bob, you better do it now,’ ” Apisa said. “Right then I was committed. I didn’t have the funds, but we scraped and scraped to raise money and worked hard the last five years to get it done.”

‘Men of Sparta’ comes to life for its public debut on July 31 at the Traverse City Film Festival. Oscar-winning director Michael Moore founded the event in 2005 in the northern Michigan city, where he has a nearby home.

“I got an email from them that said they really liked the film and it had been accepted,” Apisa said. “We now have the story of these two teams to tell.”

Michigan State’s 1965 and 1966 teams transcended sports, having led the integration of college football in the turbulent 1960s with the Civil Rights movement as background. The ‘Men Of Sparta’ won back-to-back national titles as well as unbeaten and untied Big Ten titles.

Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty, a College Football Hall of Famer, built his powerhouse teams recruiting the nation, including the segregated South with an early version of satellite camps. Webster was from Anderson, S.C., Smith from Beaumont, Texas., and two-time All-American wide receiver Gene Washington from La Porte, Texas. Quarterback Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C., was the South’s first black quarterback to win a national title.

Denied a chance to play for their home-state schools, they journeyed north and joined a mixed roster of black and white players, including Clinton Jones, a two-time All-American halfback from Cleveland, Ohio.

Washington and Jones are in the College Football Hall of Fame with Webster and Smith.

Michigan State lined up 20 black players with 11 starters. That may not sound like much today, but consider the times.

Minnesota had only five black players on its 1960 national championship team. Notre Dame had only one black player, Alan Page, on its 1966 roster that met the Spartans in the Game of the Century that ended in a controversial 10-10 tie. USC’s 1967 national championship team had only seven black players. By 1972, USC’s national champions numbered 23 black players.

The color-blind Daugherty’s 1965-66 Underground Railroad teams not only cracked open doors in the segregated South, they pushed open wider the doors in the rest of the nation.

Prior to Daugherty’s ground-breaking teams, coaches in the segregated South feared black players disrupting the locker room. Coaches of integrated teams feared the same of too many black players on the roster. They also doubted black players could play leadership roles.

That was before Michigan State dispelled such prejudices. In 1966, Webster and Jones were the first two black players elected team captains by a team-wide vote without a white player sharing the role. Raye was a rare black quarterback in the 1960s in major college football.

Daugherty also was ahead of his times recruiting Hawaii, where he found Apisa. He was college football’s first Samoan All-American player, launching the wave of Samoan and Polynesian football players that influence today’s college and NFL games.

“The film reflects all the team members, coaching staff and the administration,” Apisa said. “I also made sure the student body at that time was represented. We had unconditional support from them.

“We came from all over the country, but regardless of our background we were a tight team. We formed friendships that prevail 50 years later. When fans see the 1965 and 1966 numbers at Spartan Stadium, they’ll know what those teams were about.”

Apisa, his wife Arlena Hollarman-Apisa, and Raye combined as producers. Jared Milburn, a Michigan State film studies graduate, was brought aboard later in the project to finish work as a cinematographer and editor.

“It was difficult,” Apisa said of ‘Men Of Sparta’. “We left a lot of film on the cutting room floor. But it’s exhilarating, to say the least, to have this film seen at the Traverse City Film Festival.”

‘Men of Sparta’ tells a story that transcended sports at MSU

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