True to Oneself

Feb. 4, 2010

By Larry Watts

J.C. Caroline makes it very plain and simple about the way he has approached life.

“I’m going to be me and people will have to accept me the way I am,’’ says the former standout running back/defensive back for Illinois. “I’m not going to change me to pacify you. I have no problems adapting to rules and regulations in your environment, but I’m not going to change who I am. If I did, I would be a phony and not the true me. And I have learned to accept people the same way.’’

Caroline, now 78, returned to Champaign shortly after his 10-year career ended with the Chicago Bears in 1965. He was an assistant coach for the Fighting Illini for 10 years, taught physical education at Urbana High School, where he also served as head football coach for four seasons. In addition, he sold real estate.

His wife, Laverne, passed away two years ago, but he still lives in the same home he purchased as a real estate agent and his two daughters along with his grandchildren live nearby.

Caroline was never one to buck the system, tracing his ability to follow rules and regulations back to his days as a youngster in segregated Columbia. S.C.

“It really wasn’t very rough because we were brought up as law-abiding citizens,’’ he says. “When you rode the bus, you went in the front door and sat in the back. Even if the front of the bus wasn’t full, we (the African-Americans) had to sit in the back, which became pretty crowded at times. If it was too crowded, we were allowed to sit one seat in front of the back door.

“The restaurants we went to were either black-owned or black-operated. Many of the cooks and waiters were black at the white restaurants, but black people couldn’t go in there and sit down. We could pull up to a drive-up window if they had one, however.’’

When Caroline started high school, there was only one black high school, Booker T. Washington, in Columbia. Those who elected to pursue a college degree usually chose between Allen College and Benedict College, which were located across the street from each other.

“Some of the kids were coming from five miles away to attend school because they didn’t have a black school out in the country,’’ he says. “But it was up to the parents to find them a way to get to school. And we didn’t have a football field or track at our school, so we went to one of the college stadiums if there was an opening in their schedules.’’

Caroline played three sports — football, basketball and track — at Booker T. Washington. Although there was one bus for the football team, the other sports had to rely on two station wagons to get to events, often piling as many as 10 people into each vehicle.

He claims his best sport was track, where he did sprints, the long jump, high jump, discus and shot put. He was undefeated in the 440 meters during his prep career.

“You just did what the coach told you to do and if you weren’t familiar with the event, you learned through trial and error,’’ he says. “Discus wasn’t exactly my top priority, but I wound up winning an invitational in North Carolina one time.

“But the 440 was my specialty. Our coach (John McHugh) prepared us for endurance. There were many times when I was five or 10 yards behind the lead runners going into the final half of the race, but I was able to take them because I had that endurance and I knew how to make the adjustments.’’

Caroline was invited to run at the fabled Penn Relays. However, he told McHugh he wasn’t going up there by himself.

“I was this country boy and I didn’t know anything about anything,’’ he says. “The furthest from home I had ever been was North Carolina and I was not going up to the Penn Relays by myself.’’

So McHugh entered relay teams in both the 440 and mile. His squad easily won the 440 and also won the mile, but was disqualified in the latter event.

“I was changed from anchor to leadoff for the mile relay because my coach wanted us to get off to a good start,’’ Caroline says. “We won the race, but we didn’t have the baton. Someone had knocked it out of my hand and I couldn’t find it. I was 10 yards behind everyone, so I just took off and touched my teammate’s hand. At least we let people know we could run.’’

Word of Caroline’s exploits on both the football field and track soon traveled to a white man, who owned a grocery store in the neighborhood around Booker T. Washington. The grocery store owner had a couple of his customers bring Caroline in for a visit.

“From what he had heard, he told me he thought I could play football in the Big Ten,’’ Caroline says. “He told me about Buddy Young having a great career at the University of Illinois and how black players were finding a place in the Big Ten. I had always figured I would go play football at a black school in North Carolina, so I let him contact the people at Illinois.’’

With no game film at Booker T. Washington, Caroline had to borrow film from C.A. Johnson High School, which opened in Columbia during his junior year. Illinois coach Ray Eliot and his staff liked what they saw and Caroline headed up to Champaign for his freshman year in 1952.

“Most black people figured Champaign was just a suburb of Chicago, so I took the train ride up to Chicago,’’ he says. “Then I had to take a bus to Champaign, where someone met me in a station wagon. That was a real learning experience.

“I really didn’t know what to expect at this white university. Including myself, there were five black players on the team. All I knew was I was part of a changing era.’’

After playing quarterback and defensive back on the freshman team, Caroline was moved to running back at the start of his sophomore season. And he debuted in a big way as 1953 turned out to be a banner year for both him and the Fighting Illini.

With Caroline leading the nation with 1,256 yards rushing, the Illini posted a 7-1-1 record. He was named All-American and finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting. He rushed for 192 yards in a 41-20 victory over Ohio State, which featured Hall of Famer Hopalong Cassaday, and 205 yards against Minnesota.

“I lost at least another 40 yards that day against those big bad boys from Ohio State because of penalties,’’ he says. “But those penalties didn’t bother me because the players who were getting penalized were getting off the ground and trying to throw additional blocks, even if some of them were a little late.

“I probably wasn’t as impressed with what I had done as I should have been. But I was a two-way player and this was just a way of life for me.’’

Illinois, which was ranked No. 7 in the nation, and No. 3 Michigan State, never met on the football field that season, so they shared the Big Ten title at 5-1. After a long voting process on the final day of the season, the Spartans were sent to the Rose Bowl.

Four games into his junior season, Caroline, who became known as “Mr. Zoom,’’ was off to another blazing start, rushing for 440 yards. However, his season and Illinois career came to an end while making a tackle on defense.

“I hit a guy real hard, knocking him out of bounds, and I came down on my left elbow,’’ he says. “I tore the deltoid and it has since atrophied to the point I can no longer hold my left hand above my head. The nerves in my shoulder were so damaged that I had to learn how to sling my arm in order to get it above my head.’’

Upon returning to Columbia, that same grocery store owner told Caroline about opportunities for black football players in Canada. Rather than return to Illinois for his senior year and wait until he was eligible for the NFL draft in 1956, he could spend a year playing ball in Canada and earn money.

“The big problem at Illinois came when the season ended,’’ says Caroline, who lived with other black student-athletes in old Army barracks cross from the stadium. “We could get all the food we wanted at the stadium during the season. But once the season was over, the stadium was closed and we didn’t have a stove or refrigerator in the barracks.

“Some black cooks and waiters at a hotel in Champaign had adopted me when I first arrived there and I could go there to get food. But I often had to walk in the rain and snow. And if I wanted a ride back to the barracks, I had to wait for someone to get off work.

“Some of the players had joined black fraternities in order to get food, but when I visited the fraternities they talked about ‘whupping’ kids,’’ he added. “Now I’m a southern boy and you just don’t whup me. Only my mother and father can do that. People in high school could give me a detention, but nobody but my mother or father could hit me.’’

So Caroline was flown to Montreal on a private plane and he signed with the Alouettes.

“I had a pretty good year and actually thought about making a living up there because they were offering me $5,000-10,000 more than the Chicago Bears would eventually offer me,’’ he says. “The people treated me with dignity and respect and there wasn’t any segregation. I had learned some French in high school and got along very well, but I was very close to my family and needed to return to the States.’’

Caroline finished up his degree in physical education at Florida A&M because as a professional he was no longer eligible for a scholarship. In Florida, he could live with friends and it would take him only one semester to complete his studies rather than one year at Illinois.

Chicago selected Caroline, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980, in the sixth round in the 1956 NFL draft. He spent the next 10 years, the last seven as a defensive back only, with the Bears and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1957.

“I had a great experience with the Bears,’’ he says. “People always think of (owner/head coach) George Halas as being rough and tough, but he would always help you if you needed it financially. Now he was going to take that out of your contract, but he was always there for you in the offseason. All you had to do was call him and he would wire the money to you within a couple of hours. He didn’t care what color you were.’’

Caroline’s first pass interception as a pro was also the first pass rookie quarterback Johnny Unitas threw in his career for the Baltimore Colts. Unitas had just been put in the game due to an injury and Caroline returned the ball over 50 yards for a touchdown.

“Quarterbacks didn’t know if I was in man or zone coverage,’’ he says. “A receiver might look open, but I had quick reaction and speed to get to the same spot.’’ Caroline had six interceptions in his rookie year and 24 for his career.

Caroline still remembers fondly a Columbia homecoming parade held in his honor right before he went into the NFL.

“Here I was riding down Main Street in a convertible and the police escort was stopping traffic along the way,’’ he says. “People were standing there on the street looking at this black guy getting this treatment. A couple of white guys came up to get my autograph, but they got pushed away. I never had any great expectations, but I wound up getting a great education and I had the chance to play at some high levels of football along the way.’’

“However, Minnesota didn’t want to do the right thing (financially),’’ Bell says. “Then Lamar Hunt selected me in the seventh round of the American Football League draft.’’

Hunt owned the Dallas Texans and had started the American Football League, considered by many to be inferior to the NFL. Bell surprised everyone by signing with Hunt.

“Best thing that ever happened to me,’’ Bell says. “I never made it to Dallas because they moved the franchise to Kansas City (in 1963). I think if it hadn’t been for Lamar starting the AFL, the NFL wouldn’t be what it is today. He gave the opportunity for blacks to play football when the NFL wouldn’t give many of us a chance to play. There weren’t any black middle linebackers in the NFL like Willie Lanier and they said a black quarterback couldn’t win the big game, yet Sandy Stephens led us to the national championship, won the Rose Bowl and was the game’s MVP.

“Lamar didn’t care and reached out to the black schools like Grambling, Prairie View and Morgan State. On the Chiefs, we had guys like Lanier (Morgan State), Buck Buchanan (Grambling) and Emmitt Thomas (Bishop College), and they all made it to the NFL Hall of Fame.’’

In Kansas City, Bell would play for the late Hank Stram, who introduced Bell during the 1983 Hall of Fame ceremonies and would later be inducted himself in 2003. Bell’s versatility again came into play as Stram placed him at left linebacker in his “stack’’ defense. Because he lined up over the tight end, he rarely blitzed yet still ended up with 40 career quarterback sacks to go along with 26 interceptions and nine touchdowns, six coming off interceptions and two on fumble recoveries.

Like he had done in college, Bell didn’t give it a second thought when he was told to switch positions.

“I just wanted to play; I didn’t care where they put me,’’ he says. “It went back to the same old thing — I’m coachable.’’

Stram would say of Bell, “He could play all 22 positions on the field, and play them well.’’

“Stram was a lot like coach Warmath,’’ Bell says. “He loved to win and didn’t care if you were white, black or green. He just cared if you could play football and he wanted his best players on the field.
“To the day he passed away, he would always call his players. Whenever he came to an event, we would eat together and I would look out for him. I still call his wife and kids. That’s the kind of relationship I had with him and coach Warmath. I would play for either of them in a heartbeat and enjoy every moment.’’

In 1966, Kansas City lost to Green Bay in the first AFL-NFL Championship, now known as Super Bowl I. Three years later, the Chiefs defeated Minnesota in Super Bowl IV.

“Just think, if I had gone there (to Minnesota) I would never have won a Super Bowl,’’ Bell says with a laugh. “There aren’t many players, maybe 64, who can say they played in the first Super Bowl. Who would have thought it was going to grow into what it is now today?

“I’m sitting there in the stadium at that first Super Bowl thinking, ‘Who’s going to pay $7.50 to $12 for a ticket to this thing. That first game wasn’t even a sellout. The tickets went for $15 to Super Bowl IV and it was a sellout. Now you can’t get a ticket for less than a thousand bucks. Our first press conference was held at a swimming pool and everyone was sitting around wearing shorts. Now the press conferences are some of the big events leading up to the Super Bowl.’’

After his retirement in 1974, Bell opened three Bobby Bell’s Bar-b-ques in Kansas City. He went back to Red Bridges for some recipe advice. The restaurants turned into a big success and Steve Sabol of NFL Films even did a feature on Bell while he was working at one of the restaurants.

“They showed that clip during halftime of the Super Bowl,’’ Bell says. “It would have cost me $300,000 to get that kind of advertisement. All of a sudden, I would be walking through an airport in Chicago and people wanted to talk to me about my rib place and they didn’t want to know anything about football.’’

Bell, now 69 and the father of three children and five grandchildren, held onto the restaurants until he was 50 or 51. That was when he decided there was more to life than working 80-90 hours a week.

“Buck Buchanan died at 51 and (defensive lineman) Jerry Mays died at 54,’’ he says. “That’s too young. I said I needed to enjoy life a little, so I sold the restaurants and am now playing golf and doing speaking engagements.’’

Bell, who has been the grand marshal at two homecomings for his alma mater, tries to return to Minnesota two or three times a year for home football games. He and Warmath, now 96, were the honorary captains for the coin flip at the inaugural game of TCF Bank Stadium this past fall.
“I talk to coach Warmath all the time and I see him every time I go back to Minnesota,’’ Bell says. “I would go to war with that guy. He stuck with us (black players).

“I saw his daughter at a recent book signing. I hadn’t seen her since she was a little girl. We must have hugged four or five times. That’s how much that family means to me.’’