Feb. 16, 2011
By Larry Watts
Ohio State’s loss turned out to be Michigan’s gain.
After picking up All-State credentials at Defiance (Ohio) High School in 1943, Gene Derricotte and his high school coach paid a visit to Ohio State to see what the Buckeyes were willing to provide. The Buckeyes were interested, but not at that particular time.
“We ran into the freshman coach,’’ Derricotte recalls. “He told me since I would be turning 18 in June, I was going to be drafted soon and that I should come back and see them after I had served my duty in the war.
“That was all my high school coach wanted to hear. He was a Michigan graduate and all he ever talked about was Michigan, so he took me up to see (Wolverines assistant coach) Biggie Munn. They were very welcoming and told me they would be glad to have me as long as I was going to be around, so I went to Michigan.’’
One of three African-Americans on the Wolverines’ roster, Derricotte arrived at Michigan at the right time because freshmen were allowed to play immediately due to the war. He became the first African-American to start in the offensive backfield at Michigan, where he led the squad in rushing in 1944.
Growing up in a city of 9,000 where there were only two black families, Derricotte, who was the class valedictorian, never had to worry about any form of prejudice until he arrived in Ann Arbor.
“A friend of mine, who was an All-State center, and I had planned on rooming together,’’ he says. “He found a place to stay, but they wouldn’t let me in because I was the wrong color. I wasn’t on scholarship and the athletic department didn’t do much to help you out in those days, so I was on my own to find a place to live.
“Fortunately, I ran into a retired black couple who had an apartment set up in their basement and that’s where I wound up living during my undergrad time at Michigan. I stayed there for six months, June to December, and then I returned to live with them after the military.’’
Derricotte was actually surprised he was able to last as long as he did in his first year at Michigan. He completed his first semester before getting drafted on Dec. 4.
“I was made an artillery cannoneer in the Army and told to report to Fort Bragg, N.C.,’’ he says. “I traveled in a segregated train from Indiana to North Carolina. I was there eight weeks before I got a chance to get out.’’
That chance came with the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots who fought in World War II.
“The Army was looking for applicants and I wasn’t looking forward to field artillery,’’ Derricotte says. “I had been up in a plane a few times back in Defiance, so I applied and was accepted.’’
Reporting to Tuskegee, Ala., Derricotte had to go through primary, basic and advanced training. By the time he graduated as a lieutenant in May 1946, the war was over and he was discharged.
Although he was stationed south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Derricotte said he was able to avoid much of the prejudice by spending much of his free time at his aunt’s house in Tuskegee.
“I didn’t really go into town because I couldn’t eat or shop in the stores and, besides, I had too much studying to do,’’ he says. “When I did get away from the base, I usually took some friends over to my aunt’s house for dinner.’’
By the end of the summer, Derricotte was back at Michigan ready to perform as a triple threat at halfback, safety and punt returner. He set the school interception record and his 396 punt return yards in 1947 stood as a Michigan record until 1990. Both the 1947 team, head coach Fritz Crisler’s last team, and the 1948 team under Bennie Oosterbaan went undefeated and were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press polls.
Derricotte fondly remembers his time playing for Crisler, who was reluctant to change out of the single wing formation.
“He finally put in the T-formation to keep everyone happy,’’ he says. “We would come to the line of scrimmage and then shift to an unbalanced line to run the single wing. That was his compromise to bring us up-to-date.’’
Crisler also had to make a compromise in his handling of Derricotte, who was a pharmacy major.
“(Coach) Fritz never had anyone in pharmacy before,’’ he says with a laugh. “He started his practices at 2 p.m. and I didn’t get out of class until 4. I caught a break by taking a couple of labs over the summer, so I would usually get out there on the field by 3 p.m. I didn’t go to Michigan to play football; I went there to get a degree and I think Fritz actually appreciated that.’’
Crisler’s last team wound up playing USC in the 1948 Rose Bowl. It marked Derricotte’s first trip to California.
“It was a two-day train ride,’’ Derricotte says. “We stopped in Arizona and a local Indiana tribe put on a show for us.
“But once we got to California, Fritz was very strict in what we could do in our preparation because he was very concerned about USC. They were the toast of the West Coast at the time, but they couldn’t meet the challenge that day.’’
Michigan won, 49-0, in Crisler’s farewell.
The 1948 season, Derricotte’s last in a Michigan uniform, didn’t get off to a great start. Derricotte had been sidelined by a sprained ankle in practice but still managed to suit up for the opener against Michigan State.
“It was a hot day and I still wasn’t in shape,’’ he says. “I got hit out of bounds with my leg extended and tore up the ligaments in my left knee. I was supposed to be everything my last season and now they had to carry me off the field.’’
A few weeks later, Oosterbaan sent Derricotte back out with his leg all bandaged up to return a punt from the end zone. He fumbled the ball and Minnesota recovered for a touchdown.
“I couldn’t bend down to pick the ball up,’’ he says. “That was my lowest time at Michigan. You just didn’t give Minnesota points in those days.
“But Coach Oosterbaan and the boys rallied around me and said they weren’t going to let Minnesota win. We won the game, but that was my last play collegiately.’’
Although he knew he would never play football again, Derricotte was selected by the Cleveland Browns during the All-America Football Conference draft in 1949. However, he reinjured his knee during training camp and head coach Paul Brown placed him on waivers.
“I knew I wasn’t going to play, but I got a $2,000 bonus out of it,’’ Derricotte says. “I visited an orthopedic surgeon and he told me I should forget about football and get on with the rest of my life. And that’s what I did.’’
Derricotte returned to Michigan where he earned his pharmacy degree in 1950 and then went to work in a Detroit lab. But a few years later, he was back at Michigan hoping to enter medical school.
“I didn’t go to Michigan for four years to learn how to push pills,’’ he says. “I had been saving my money to go to medical school, but once they looked at my transcript, I was told it wasn’t balanced enough and I would need another year of classes. So I walked over to the dental school and they were very interested in all the chemistry classes I had taken and I got in to school that fall.’’
Receiving his dental degree in 1958, Derricotte returned to Detroit to work as a dentist until 1962. At the time, he was on inactive duty with the military, and he re-enlisted as a dentist with the rank of captain in the Air Force in 1962.
During the next 23 years, he was stationed in South Dakota, Massachusetts, Texas, Hawaii, Virginia and Illinois, and also served a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1965. He spent over five years at the Air Force Academy before retiring in 1985 as a full colonel at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois.
“I was going to stay in Illinois because I didn’t have a job, but then a friend of mine told me the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio was looking for someone in the oral surgery department,’’ he says.
Derricotte, who was inducted into Michigan’s Hall of Honor in 1987 and stayed with the health science center for 15 years before announcing his second retirement in 2000. At approximately the same time, he sold the last of his three planes and gave up his pilot’s license.
The wear and tear of his playing days also started taking its toll on his golf game. So in 1985, he had his hip replaced, and six years ago, his knee was replaced.
“They told me the hip would probably last me 15-20 years and it’s starting to bother me again,’’ the 84-year-old says. “The (San Antonio) Spurs physician had me out in 45 minutes when he worked on my knee. He told me it should last as long as I live, so I don’t think I will have to worry about that again, but my golf game has deteriorated because of my hip. With the pain and the weather getting so hot, I can only play nine holes.’’
In 2007, Derricotte was one of six surviving Tuskegee Airmen to receive the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony in Washington D.C.
“Life is good,’’ says Derricotte, who recently saw Michigan play in the Gator Bowl with his wife and son’s family. “We have a grandson, who is seven-and-a-half-years-old, and retirement is treating us well.’’