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Andrew Soukup | Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Wayne Edmonds doesn’t have much trouble remembering his first football practice in an Irish uniform, even though that day was more than a half-century ago.Edmonds, who is black, was lined up at defensive end on a play when the team’s quarterback, Ralph Guglielmi, tried to sprint away from a ferocious pass rush. But Edmonds chased down Guglielmi and delivered a punishing hit to the white quarterback.”Everything,” said Edmonds, “got real quiet.”The next play, three blockers flattened Edmonds. But Frank Leahy, then the Irish coach, chewed out his team. In that moment, Edmonds knew that if he never set foot on the playing field in a game, it wouldn’t be because he was black.”I felt protected. I knew the rules,” he said. “I knew that as long as I did my job right, I was going to be taken care of.”Edmonds must have done his job well enough. In 1953, he helped Notre Dame win a national title and became the first black football player to earn a monogram at Notre Dame.But that didn’t mean that he didn’t endure his fair share of abuse both at Notre Dame and on the road.Edmonds likes to tell the story of a time that he got caught by a priest while he was off-campus. The priest asked Edmonds, “What are you doing out here? You’re not allowed out here.” The young football player replied, “I went to get a haircut. I can’t get a haircut at Notre Dame” – because the on-campus barbershop allowed only whites.On the football field, however, Edmonds’ teammates largely supported his play – something Edmonds now attributes to the intense pressure placed upon all the players. “The big thing was that everyone was so put under the telescope, you had to do well for yourself,” he said. “With all the pressure on you, you didn’t have time for any of that other stuff.” While a handful of other blacks had played before Edmonds arrived, none had seen enough playing time to earn a monogram. Even Edmonds’ family in western Pennsylvania was wary of sending him to South Bend because they believed he would be taken advantage of. But Leahy and the rest of the coaching staff promised Edmonds, the most talented black player to wear an Irish uniform to date, that they would look after him. That was enough to convince him to go to Notre Dame.”I liked the possibilities of being first,” he said. “It was important that if I did that, and I was successful at Notre Dame, which was a white institution, it would be important in my life later on.”The coaches weren’t the only ones watching after him. On a flight to an away game, a dozing Edmonds was roused from his slumber by a tug on his arm. Next to him was Father Theodore Hesburgh, wondering how Notre Dame was treating Edmonds.”From an administrative point of view, they wanted to make sure things were OK,” Edmonds said. “But from a football point of view, they promised that other people couldn’t harm me.”That didn’t stop people from trying, though. On away games in Southern states, hostile fans hurled racial epithets at Edmonds. Hotels and restaurants refused to host the Irish as long as Edmonds was a member of the traveling party, and teams routinely threatened not to play the Irish if Notre Dame brought its black players.Still Edmonds persevered. Having endured racial slurs and segregation as a high school football player, he claimed he wasn’t bothered by the comments and taunts made by fans. Although many restaurants balked at serving Edmonds and the other black players, white teammates walked side-by-side with their black teammates to discourage discrimination. And when teams threatened not to play Notre Dame, Edmonds frequently heard Leahy say, “If they can’t play, then we can’t play.”Edmonds rarely returns to his alma mater and hasn’t seen a Notre Dame game in more than four years. But that didn’t stop him from feeling a strong sense of pride when the Irish hired their first black coach in Tyrone Willingham.Today, Edmonds looks out on a college athletics landscape far different from the one he endured as an undergraduate in the 1950s. Now, white and black players challenge for starting position and rarely is race an issue – an attitude Edmonds is thrilled he helped foster through his actions.”All these other teams we beat, people said they were supposed to be leaders. But Notre Dame was a real leader,” Edmonds said. “Notre Dame just made those little kinds of moves like having blacks on its teams, and they were winning.”Finally, those other teams realized that if they wanted to win, you had to take whoever was going to be the best for you. And I take real pride in being a part of that.”