The Golden Leader

Feb. 18, 2008

As a freshman on the campus of the University of Minnesota, Sandy Stephens pinned up a picture of the Rose Bowl on his dorm room wall, a room that he shared with friend Judge Dickson.  Fellow teammate Bob Deegan stopped into their room one day and noticed the picture on the wall and asked what it was. Stephens informed him that it was a picture of a crowd during the Rose Bowl, where the Golden Gophers were going to play during his career. 

Deegan began to laugh at the notion, knowing that Minnesota had never made it to the coveted bowl game. After the laughter subsided, he asked Stephens to explain why he thought the Gophers would make it to Pasadena. The freshman quarterback explained his plan and when he finished, Deegan looked at the two teammates sitting next to him and said, "I believe you." 

Word spread to the rest of the team and Stephens' vision became a reality during the 1960 and 1961 seasons as the Gophers went to two Rose Bowls and were crowned national champions following the 1960 campaign.

Stephens had a leadership quality that was unmatched by many and it showed even long before he set foot on the Minnesota campus. Sanford Emory Stephens II was raised in Uniontown, Pa.  He was brought up in an athletic family, as his father and mother, Sanford Sr. and Helen Pryor Stephens, met on a tennis court. Sandy and his younger brother Raymond were both very gifted in sports. Stephens lettered three years in football, basketball, track and field and was an excellent baseball player during high school.

Dickson, who grew up about 30 miles from Uniontown in Clairton, Pa., became friends with Stephens during football scrimmages in the summer.

"Sandy and I were in the same class and it was routine in the late 1950s where high school football teams would go up into the mountains for summer camp and have scrimmages against other teams," Dickson said. "Sandy and I had a practice game against each other and were both impressed with the other's play. 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."

During those summer trips, Stephens and Dickson along with halfback Bill Munsey promised each other that they would go to the same college to play football. Each standout was recruited by over 50 schools. At a time when racial issues were at the forefront of American life, these three African-Americans vowed to stick together to do what was best for their future in terms of education, athletics and living in a racially divided country.

The trio chose to attend Minnesota where Stephens would suit up as the first African-American quarterback in the history of the Gopher program. He and Dickson were recruited heavily by a number of Big Ten programs and they both knew that the conference was ahead of its time in terms of race relations.

"It was the late 1950s. The effects of all the Jim Crow legislation was still in full force. There were colleges where we couldn't go to because of our race," Dickson said. "We knew the schools and knew them very specifically. (Stephens) agreed to enroll at Minnesota because he knew that he would get the opportunity to play quarterback. 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. There were also black quarterbacks playing at Iowa and Wisconsin at the time. In this regard, the Big Ten was ahead of the curve."

Minnesota's Sandy Stephens passed away in 2000, but his legacy continues to this day with the Sandy Stephens Endowed Scholarship.

The Golden Gophers had a couple of tough years when Stephens arrived on campus. The 1958 team went 1-8 and finished ninth in the Big Ten standings. The following year was not much better as Minnesota was 2-7 overall and placed last in the conference. Although the 1959 record was less than glamorous, Stephens and his teammates were optimistic. A majority of the results that season were close and the team knew it was just a step away from being a good football team. 

In 1960, that optimism became a reality as Stephens lined up behind center to lead Minnesota to an 8-2 record and a share of the Big Ten Championship. The Gophers' lone regular season loss came to Purdue, and their second loss came at the hands of Washington in Minnesota's first trip to the Rose Bowl. Even with the postseason loss, the Gophers were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Poll and were crowned national champions.

In 1961, the Gophers finished the regular season 8-2 and found themselves once again in the Rose Bowl against Pac-10 foe UCLA. Stephens ran for two scores in the game to lead his team past the Bruins, 21-3. Minnesota finished the year 9-2 and the Rose Bowl win marks the program's lone victory in Pasadena, Calif. It was a special time to be a Golden Gopher.

"It was very exciting and very challenging," Dickson said. "Neither Sandy nor I had been accustomed to losing. In 1959, we had close games for the most part, there were tremendous positives in each of those losses. We brought our talents to Minnesota and they really wanted a winner. Being at a location where you go from last to first, it was something we wanted and the excitement was just incredible." 

Stephens passed away on June 6, 2000 at the age of 59, but his legacy continues to this day with the Sandy Stephens Endowed Scholarship. It is given each year to a deserving African-American student-athlete in the university's football program who has demonstrated leadership, courage and a commitment to civic and community responsibilities. Dickson is one of the chairs who initiated the endowment and is backed by a large committee of Stephens' former teammates and friends that oversee the selection process.

"I, as well as others, mentor the individuals who have received this scholarship," Dickson said. "Each of them are tremendous young men. They conduct themselves as gentlemen, and those are the things that Sandy represented and the success in those areas keeps the essence of Sandy alive."

At the end of his collegiate career, Stephens had cemented himself into Minnesota football history. He was the first African American quarterback in school history. He led the Gophers to their sixth national championship, and their first since 1941. He was instrumental in taking Minnesota to back-to-back Rose Bowl trips and is still the only quarterback in Gopher history to lead a team to the Tournament of Roses. These are glimpses of what was remembered about Stephens' career, but most important in the eyes of former teammates and friends, he will be remembered as simply a leader.

"Sandy could look at someone like me or my teammates and help us realize our strengths and weaknesses," Dickson said. "He knew how to talk to each one of us to get us to see the strengths in the other one and to understand the other one, and to get us to work together. He could explain to anyone why people were the way they were and get them to understand those that surround them. He was a leader because he was a communicator and very strategic. He was able to get each one of us to understand our strengths and work in the areas we were weak. In my opinion, that is a leader."