Books
12:01 pm
Mon December 8, 2008

Walk-On: My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University, by Thom Gossom, Jr.

The author's face on the dust jacket of this memoir will be familiar to many. Thom Gossom has had a long and successful acting career in movies such as Fight Club and on television as city councilman Ted Marcus in In the Heat of the Night and as Judge Blake Winters in Boston Legal. He has had guest starring roles on CSI, Cold Case, Without a Trace, The West Wing, NYPD Blue, and ER.

The author's face on the dust jacket of this memoir will be familiar to many. Thom Gossom has had a long and successful acting career in movies such as Fight Club and on television as city councilman Ted Marcus in In the Heat of the Night and as Judge Blake Winters in Boston Legal. He has had guest starring roles on CSI, Cold Case, Without a Trace, The West Wing, NYPD Blue, and ER.

He may one day write a memoir of his years in Hollywood, but this volume is not about any of that. Thom Gossom was a young black man in Birmingham, in the Rosalind Heights neighborhood, who attended the all black Our Lady of Fatima elementary school, then the mostly white Catholic and private John Carroll High School, and then decided he wanted to play football for Auburn. He was a talented athlete, a good student, and had always been, inexplicably, an Auburn fan. He had listened to their games on the radio all his life and wanted to play football for Auburn. In the fall of 1970, Gossom, with a little loan and a small grant, arrived on the plains as a freshman.

Whether he meant to be or not, Gossom would be a trail blazer. At Auburn the Kappa Alphas still dressed up like Confederates on Old South Day and the Confederate flag waved for three quarters of every football game before it was ceremoniously lowered. The Phi Gams still had Jungle Day or Island parties, with all the white partiers in blackface. The student body wasn't ready for integration and the administration was paralyzed. Gossom writes: "The administration, both academic and athletic, saw their role as making sure no differences existed between the students. The problem was that we were different, in a state that had always treated us as different. We were left on our own to build bridges with a culture that did not want bridges. The dominant culture did not include us, and there were not enough of us?."

Being part of a tiny minority was a lonely life. In 1972 there were 211 black students out of 14,528. By 1974 it was only 200 out of 15,000.

There was a considerable amount of overt racism and name calling, on the practice field and off, but mostly it was silence and loneliness. A kind of separate but equal "benign neglect" was the rule of the day, when positive actions were required.

But Gossom did walk on, did make the team, did in the second year get an athletic scholarship and play often enough and well enough to be drafted by the New England Patriots.

In fact Gossom was a member of the hugely successful Auburn teams of '72, '73 and '74. He played on the team with Heisman winner Pat Sullivan, who wrote a Foreword for this book, and he played in the 1972 Iron Bowl game in which Alabama's punts were twice blocked and run back for touchdowns, ending in the infamous 17-16 Auburn win.

Gossom played for three seasons. The team amassed a record of 26-9 and went to three straight bowls. Gossom had forty catches, nine touchdowns, and a per-catch average of fifteen yards. The playing, at least, went well.

Gossom graduated in spring of 1975, the first African-American athlete to graduate from Auburn University.

Auburn was obviously not a warm and nurturing place for minorities in those years, and Gossom was often angry and bitter. Happily, the team union of 2002 helped to heal the last of those wounds and there is considerable good feeling now.

This is an important story and needed telling. Let the sensitive reader beware, however, that this volume has been badly edited, with comma, apostrophe, and pronoun errors. The editors did Gossom no favors with what was to me an irritatingly flawed text. Read it anyway.

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