When Sandy Stephens became the first African-American starting quarterback at the University of Minnesota, his primary focus was to be a winning a quarterback who led his team to a Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
As the Golden Gophers quarterback from 1959-1961, Stephens fulfilled that promise and then some, leading Minnesota to a national championship, two Big Ten titles and two trips to the Rose Bowl. In the process, he became the first African-American player to garner All-American honors as a quarterback.
To this day, Stephens is the last quarterback in Minnesota history to lead a Golden Gophers squad to a Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl victory, and a national championship.
Stephens success as a DI quarterback paved the way for other successful African-American collegiate quarterbacks like Jimmy Raye (Michigan State), Condredge Holloway (Tennessee), Warren Moon (Washington), Chuck Ealy (Toledo), Andre Ware (Houston) as well as contemporary stars like Vince Young (Texas), Troy Smith (Ohio State), Russell Wilson (Wisconsin) and Jameis Winston (Florida State).
A native of Uniontown, Pa. in football-crazy Western Pennsylvania, Stephens was a four-sport star, excelling in football, baseball, basketball and track and field. He received 59 scholarship offers and was invited to tryouts with the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Judge Dickson, Stephens teammate at Minnesota, said Stephens was a natural born leader and competitor from the first time he met him while the two were in high school.
“He was a student of the game, loved people and was a tremendous competitor. He wanted nothing less but to be on the number one team in the country. That’s what attracted him to me because I felt the same way,” Dickson told BigTen.org back in 2008.
Dickson said himself, Stephens and running back Bill Munsey, all from Western Pennsylvania, agreed to attend Minnesota because they felt that Big Ten schools in the late 1950s and early 60s were ahead of the country in terms of allowing Black players to play on teams.
The decision to attend Minnesota was especially important to Stephens because the Gophers coaching staff would give him the opportunity to play quarterback at a time when other programs would not give an African-American player a chance to play a position that was normally reserved for white players.
“At other universities, he could have been on the team, but couldn’t play quarterback. That was a major reason why it was special to be at Minnesota,” Dickson said. “There were also black quarterbacks playing at Iowa and Wisconsin at the time. In this regard, the Big Ten was ahead of the curve.”
In the years prior to Stephens taking the quarterback reins at Minnesota, the Gophers went 1-8 in 1958 and were 2-7 in 1959.
But even though the school had never won the Big Ten title or been to a Rose Bowl, he had a poster of the Rose Bowl Game in his room and boldly told a teammate that the Gophers were going to spend a New Year’s Day in Pasadena during his time at the school. The teammate laughed at first because the Gophers had never been to the Rose Bowl, but Stephens convinced him after a lengthy conversation that Minnesota would play in the “Grandaddy” of all bowl games.
And of course, Stephens made good on his promise.
In 1961, Stephens was fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting behind legendary Syracuse running back Ernie Davis. He was the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player that season and the MVP of the 1962 Rose Bowl.
All of Stephens’ success as a collegiate quarterback didn’t have the pros knocking on his door to play quarterback, though. He was drafted in the second round by the Cleveland Browns and was the fifth overall pick of the fledgling American Football League.
Neither team wanted Stephens to play quarterback. In the early 1960s, the quarterback position was off limits to Black players. Stephens had some success in the CFL, leading the Montreal Alouettes to the Grey Cup Final in 1962.
Stephens got a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings in 1966, but a near fatal accident ruined those plans. Two years later, he had a tryout with the Chiefs where he said he would play any of the back positions, but Kansas City added a backup quarterback to Len Dawson.
Stephens quit football altogether in 1968.
For his exploits as a collegiate athlete and as a pioneer for Black athletes, Stephens has been enshrined in a number of sports halls of fame, including the College Football Hall of Fame in 2011 and the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1997.
He died in 2000 at the age of 59.