John Dobbins - The Integration of Virginia Tech Football

When the focus of Black History Month turns to sports it usually means learning about or rehearing the story of Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball. What we sometimes lose sight of is that in many areas, and many sports, some much closer to home, integration came much later. Often, when it came, individuals were battling many of the same things Robinson did throughout his career. Even if they didn't play on a national stage, it doesn't lessen the harsh reality they were forced to endure, frequently alone.

This is probably a little out of the normal tone you're used to hearing from me, but after reading the story of Wally Triplett at Penn State and Syracuse's Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, I started digging into Virginia Tech's football past and when and how we integrated our football team. This is the story of John Dobbins, who broke the color barrier for Hokie football.

As you may expect, in much of Dixie, including Virginia, integration happened somewhat later, relatively speaking. In fact, when Penn State and Syracuse were dealing with discrimination against their players, Virginia Tech had yet to even admit their first black student. That did not occur until 1953, when Irving L. Peddrew III enrolled.

That is a bracing story itself; Peddrew was allowed to attend VPI only because his chosen major, electrical engineering, was not offered at the all-black state school, Virginia State. Peddrew was not allowed to live on campus and ended up leaving Blacksburg after his junior year. While he said he had no issue with most of the students and townspeople, he does a excellent job discussing some of the, perhaps, unconscious and institutional racism he encountered during his time at Tech which played a part in his leaving. His oral history of his time in Blacksburg is engrossing, eloquent, and thoughtful and I cannot encourage you enough to read it.

Charlie Yates arrived at Tech a year after Peddrew and was the first African American to graduate from Virginia Tech (1958). Peddrew and Yates, along with many others, who little by little brought acceptance and expanded normality and rights for black students at Tech, paved the way for John Dobbins to play football at Tech.

Dobbins grew up in nearby Radford and excelled at football (among other sports) at Radford High School in the 1960s. He grew up a Virginia Tech fan, and recalled watching games in Lane Stadium as a teenager. While I couldn't locate any footage of his playing days at Radford1 he was, as former Fort Chiswell player B.C. Mabry told the Roanoke Times, "a fast and powerful runner. Nobody could catch up with him." Allegedly, after Dobbins scored five touchdowns in a game against Chiswell, a player got so frustrated he left the bench to tackle Dobbins illegally2.

Interestingly enough, Radford had integrated its recreation programs around 1960, and Dobbins was part of the second class of black students at Radford High school. So he broke ground at Virginia Tech that had already been broken for him in rural Radford, Virginia.

Dobbins was recruited to Tech by Frank Beamer's head coach, Jerry Claiborne. Claiborne is also known for the famous (and rather cynical) quote he uttered after USC's Sam Cunningham eviscerated an all-white Alabama team in 1970, "Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes that night than Martin Luther King had accomplished in 20 years." And while integrating the football team wasn't an overt topic during his recruitment, Dobbins told the Roanoke Times, "No one ever mentioned it when they were recruiting me, but I knew I would be the first." Due to the significance of Dobbins joining the team, he and fellow Radford teammate Tommy Edwards had their signing ceremony televised on Claiborne's show. Dobbins enrolled at Tech in the fall of 1969, ineligible as a freshman to play varsity football.

John Dobbins on the Freshman football team

To step aside for a moment and put that in perspective, that means Frank Beamer, who had graduated that spring, played on an all-white team. I don't highlight that to disparage Coach Beamer in any way, merely to demonstrate that while we take many things for granted in society today, things were very different for many of us not that long ago. We pride ourselves on Coach Beamer being one of our own, being a tangible link to the history of our school and team. I think it's important to keep in mind that while the situation was none of Coach Beamer's doing, that was the reality of the time in which he played.

In 1970, as a sophomore, Dobbins played as a fullback for the Hokies, a position that, while certainly not as limited as it is in today's offense, meant he was generally more of a blocking back than a ball carrier. That season he rushed 74 times for 365 yards and 3 scores. He also chipped in some receptions and, somewhat surprisingly for his position, occasionally returned kicks as well. Dobbins was the third leading rushing on the team.

Dobbins in action against Oklahoma State in Lane Stadium, 1972

Jerry Claiborne left Blacksburg after the 1970 season, replaced by Charlie Coffey. Coffey, determined to take full advantage of the talent at his disposal, moved to a much more pass heavy offense, certainly to the detriment of Dobbins' statistics. Dobbins was in the same graduating class (1973) as legendary Hokie quarterback Don Strock, who would lead the nation in passing their senior year, as well as a familiar name at receiver, Mike Burnop.

But Dobbins' talent was certainly evident to others. According to Tonia Moxley of The Roanoke Times, "Duke University tried to recruit Dobbins away from Tech in his football days, sending a car to pick him up and bring him to North Carolina. But he and a friend hid out until the driver gave up and left."

In much the same way as Missouri standout defensive end Michael Sam's teammates were fully aware of his sexual orientation his senior year, the issues Dobbins encountered tended to come not from within the team but outside. He told the Hokie Huddler "I was well accepted at Tech. I was scared, too, at first. But after I got to know all the guys, we realized we were all from different places and different background. We seemed to blend pretty well." That was not necessarily the case with opposing fans. "There was mostly just a lot of name calling and stuff. Especially when we would visit schools down South."

Dobbins, looking for someone to lower his shoulder on

After Tech, Dobbins stayed in southwest Virginia, first working in Roanoke then at the White Motor Company production facility in Dublin (now Volvo of Dublin) as a supervisor. He also stayed active in the Radford community, coaching youth sports, playing an active role in his church and raising his two children. He was a Lane Stadium season ticket holder, and listened to his old teammate Mike Burnop do the color commentary for any game he wasn't able to attend.

Sadly, John Dobbins passed away on February 27, 2003 of congestive heart failure. His loss was mourned by the Radford community, who have since christened John Dobbins Park in his honor. Oddly, as far as I've been able to research, Virginia Tech has done little to nothing that I have found to remember Dobbins since his passing.

While change frequently moves very slowly3, occasionally the gears seem to slip into place and things push forward much faster than we realize. Twenty-nine years after Dobbins stepped onto the field for the first time, Michael Vick led a team including Shyrone Stith, Andre Davis, Ike Charlton, and Corey Moore to the national championship game. In 1981, only nine years after Dobbins graduated, Bruce Smith came to Blacksburg to begin his career as the most talented defensive player ever at Virginia Tech.

John Dobbins is a part of our Hokie family. He dealt with and overcame adversity. He lead the way for many of the players in maroon and orange we cheer on Saturdays.

1Sorry, French
2I'm sure that guy was later welcomed at UVA
3And in Virginia, often only at the behest of court orders

Photographs are courtesy of the University Archives of Virginia Tech.

Contact the editor about this post anytime by phone: (703) 646-1931 or mail: 3057 Nutley St Suite 633, Fairfax, Virginia 22031.

Comments

GREAT Article. I wish VT would do SOMETHING to honor Dobbins as a BIG part of our History. Thanks for Posting this

Pour some Beer on it

Thanks for posting, that's a great thing to know about VT's history, and I certainly didn't know it before.

#thingsiblamethemvsfor

Awesome write-up. Well done, sir.

@Fightin_Gobbler

Go Hokies

Go Falcons

Much Respect for this write-up.
Well done!

Tweedy can run like a dadgum antelope or whatever. I like to use scalded dog. Do antelopes lumber? Cheetah, OK. He runs like a cheetah. He's fast. - Bud Foster

For those interested, Jerry Gaines was the first black athlete for any sport at Virginia Tech and also has a cool story. As a history major ill see if I can get a write up him this week if people are interested in a broader context than football. This is a great write up though, thanks for doing this, I think its great to look at our history.

I shared the stage with Gaines at TEDxVirginiaTech in 2012. He's a brilliant and outstanding man; what he's done since graduating may be more impressive than all he accomplished during his time in Blacksburg.

That'd be awesome, he definitely deserves his own story as well.

Damn, everybody give this Hokie some legs! This was stellar work. I expect no less from a Fuller but am pleasantly surprised every time they surpass those expectations.

It's amazing - even when you think you know (mostly) everything about the Hokies and their history, an article like this is posted and you realize that you don't know everything. That's why I donate to TKP. Bravo, TheFifthFuller!

@seanhoganvt

Great article. Thanks for the research. I hate to admit that I was not familiar with Mr. Dobbbins.

Great write up. Like many others, I was not familiar with this part of VT history. I think Mr. Dobbins would be a great namesake for the new practice facility. Would be a good way to honor and bring the story to light (much like Peddrew-Yates).

Save a collar, pop a Wahoo

really like the idea of naming the practice facility, or something important, after him.

Thanks to the author for illuminating this part of VT History. As a kid from South Korea, I was always curious as to how my reception would be in Blacksburg when I first attended the university for Graduate School back in 2003. Happy to report that the people were kind and southern hospitality is alive and well. I've always regretted leaving Blacksburg for a job when school was over for me in 2006. Go Hokies! And thank you Mr. Dobbins.

Go Hokies!

Excellent article, thanks for sharing. It's hard to imaging VT in these terms: "I've seen the enemy and it is us," but thankfully Claiborne - and more importantly, Mr. Dobbins - broke the mold. Proud to have him as a Hokie, and hope his children followed in his path.

ChicagoHokie

My bad, respect also to Irving Linwood Peddrew, III and Charlie Yates.

ChicagoHokie

Great Article. Thanks for shedding light on that part of VT history! BTW - Strock and Burnop graduated with the class of '73.

You are correct, I mixed up the year of senior football season with the graduation year. Oops, thanks for correction!

Your best effort to date. Thx for sharing.

Eat your vegetables.

BRAVO!! ...I am personally grateful for this write up. Well done.

Minority Report.

The Edwards Family had a lot influence in John Dobbins coming to VT. He was one fast Tailback for Radford High School , when he got to VT, Claiborne put the weight on him , which took a lot of speed from John. Being from Radford and playing a lot of ball against his older brother and knowing John since he was a young man , VT couldn't have gotten a better person and player for their first Black Athlete at VT...

Jack R.

Great article. I read a book that said a guy named Phil Rogers was the first black QB at VT not long after Mr. Dobbins played. He was more of a single-wing QB I believe.

It is OUT

Great article and very interesting! I'd support naming the Indoor Practice Facility after him!

I'm already going to Hell. At this point it's pretty much "Go big or go home."

Great write up, love learning more about the history of the school. Hats off to you, sir!
Hats off

Just another gut-wrenching, can't breathe, I lost my voice, not now, did that just happen, just gimme this one, Virginia Tech Saturday

From the linked article:

The early African American students at VPI all roomed at the William Hoge residence at 306 Clay Street. ... James Whitehurst and Robert Wells, in their turn, then came to Tech in 1959 and took up residence at 306 Lee Street, though for their second year they stayed at 3027 Harding Avenue.

Do any of these homes still exist? I tried looking on Google Maps, but it's hard to tell.

According to the Town GIS website:

Neither 306 Clay St SE or 306 Clay St SW exist. The former is part of the Old Blacksburg Middle School property, while the latter is now part of the Blacksburg PD building.

There is a property that may plausibly have been 306 Lee St at one point - it is now an empty lot.

3027 Harding Avenue doesn't appear to exist as a valid address anywhere. I'm not sure if this was a typo or not. Addresses in town only go up to the 700 block, and outside the town limits Harding Road is valid for up to the 2200 block. In town, 302 Harding Avenue does not exist (it may now be on the property of the Roanoke St Apartments), and 307 and 327 would now be on the Harding Avenue Elementary School property.

It is possible that addresses today are not the same as they were at that time. The house that I lived in during my early childhood years had a street address of 2202 for a while, before the entire neighborhood got renumbered. The new street address of that house was 52.

Very likely. Most of rural Virginia was renumbered in the late 80s and early 90s for enhanced 911 service.

This may be your best article yet, and that is saying something considering all the awesome ones you have wrote before. Thank you for sharing!

In Sam Rogers we trust.

Was not aware of any of this. Very nicely done sir.

21st century QBs Undefeated vs UVA:
MV7, MV5, LT3, Tyrod Taylor, Sean Glennon, and Grant Noel. That's right, UVA. You couldn't beat Grant Noel.

Excellent article and I really enjoyed it. I also liked the sly wit that you managed to integrate, as usual. Well done, sir, well done. What an amazing story.

Couple of corrections and some further comments on John....

John and I started Radford High in 8th grade....Yes, Radford High School started us in 8th grade. We were called Junior Freshmen..

John and Lena Saunders were the first two "Negro" students and they were the two best academically from the all black school system. In addition, John was a great athlete and Lean a talented singer.

I have always thought they were "test" students to quiet any concerns the white community might have had.

Truth is, I never remember any problems of any kind between the races in Radford. Our band was the Radford Rebels and many black students wore the uniform of the Old South.

John and I graduated Radford in the spring of 1969 and graduated from Tech in 1973 not '72 along with Don Strock and Alan Bristow.

I went on to med school and lost track of most of the guys from Radford.

Great reading this article and hope I shed some further light on those times.....

GO HOKIES

Thank you for this. You're absolutely right, I definitely mixed up the calendar year of his senior season of football with the year he graduated. Thanks for all the additional info, as well! I know there are limitations in what I was able to research.

NO problem...enjoyed the write up....

remember CFB' s first job out of Tech was an assistant ar Radford High working for VHSL Hall of Fame Coach Norn Linenberg....

I was a DB on that team and Frank coached me....He was a bad coach cause I never got to the NFL....

Oh yea ....When we ran that toss sweep in practice....guess who got to tackle Dobbins...My plan was to get in front of him and hope he would trip over me...

He was a bad coach cause I never got to the NFL

this guy. hilarious

Ah Norm Lineburg is such a great guy. My grandparents have lived next to him for years and my dad played for him in high school. All of his kids have been so successful too.

In Sam Rogers we trust.

Having grown up in that area, I got to witness Dobbins and the Bobcats in those days. Be certain that his name arrived in town before he did. I also remember watching him and the Strock Air Attack. I cannot recall any mention of him being a first at Tech. To all of us local kids, black and white, who followed the team, he was simply a Hokie.

Phil Rogers probably was recruited out of Gate City by Coffey, but I don't think he started until 1975 one year after Jimmy Sharp came to town with his wishbone. By this time, there was a significant percentage of black players on the team.

'80 Grad, beer was cheaper then, so was gas.

Bravo, sir. Excellent write up, very informative.

It's crazy to think of how things were NOT that long ago...

It's good to know that Tech was pretty much inclusive of Dobbins (minus those fans).

True Hokies STICK IT IN!!!

STICK IT IN Army of Virginia Tech

Fosterball

Damn you TheFifthFuller!

I've been researching this topic over the past couple weeks for a paper in my Historical Methods class, but of course, a Fuller intercepted it.

You killed it, though.

Mary Poppins

I'm already going to Hell. At this point it's pretty much "Go big or go home."

Thank you sir. I think black history month shouldn't just be for black folks, but instead should be for all Americans to learn something about the struggle blacks endured and/or gain perspective on how black history helped shape the American present. I think you've done both of those things with this article, bravo.

I don't highlight that to disparage Coach Beamer in any way, merely to demonstrate that while we take many things for granted in society today, things were very different for many of us not that long ago.

I loved that part because it is kind of fascinating to think about. The Rosa Parks incident happened in 1955, only 59 years ago. The first public school to get integrated was in 1957, just 57 years ago. And the civil rights act banning segregation was signed in 1964, only 50 years ago. 50 years, that's 25 years before I was born and around the time my parents were born (personally, that gave me great perspective yesterday as I was researching this stuff). For some reason, those things feel like they took place forever ago but it really wasn't that long ago at all. We have a long ways to go as a country but we've come A LONG WAY in just 60 years.

Kendall Fuller - future Thorpe winner
(STOP CRYING ABOUT DOWNVOTES)

I think black history month [is] for all Americans to learn something about the struggle blacks endured and/or gain perspective on how black history helped shape the American present.

This.

And the civil rights act banning segregation was signed in 1964, only 50 years ago. 50 years, that's 25 years before I was born and around the time my parents were born (personally, that gave me great perspective yesterday as I was researching this stuff).

I work in local government. I will turn 50 in two weeks. Every time I have the opportunity to serve an
African-American who appears to be my age or older who grew up in the south, I think about the treatment that person received from government in their early life.

The thing I love about the linked oral history article was the understatement. Time and again he said, "I never experienced any real problems." As if to say, if you have not resisted to the point of shedding blood, you have nothing to complain about. Makes you think.

PS. It's good to know that, even in Arizona, black and white can sit next to each other at the lunch counter ... as long as they're not gay.

Great piece. I grew up with stories like this from my dad, who graduated and played football as part of the first integrated class at Graham High School and then played football with the first football player to integrate Emory & Henry (Scrapper Broady.) His stories about playing Grundy in the face of essentially a lynch mob of a crowd still frighten me. I can't imagine how those young men handled that kind of ominous threat, but SWVA is a much better place thanks to their bravery to want the right to be treated equally.

Viva El Guapo