Ray Bellamy sat in a holding cell waiting for help to arrive. His crime: Riding in a car driven by a white female, who was giving him a tour of the University of Miami campus.
When Bellamy signed with Miami in 1966 to become the first African-American to play college football in the Southeast, the Lincoln High School graduate knew things would happen that would defy his sense of logic and justice.
But he had the resolve to respond without anger. He understood breaking barriers would not come without encountering obstacles meant to crush his spirit.
It’s why Miami chose Bellamy when school president Dr. Henry King Stanford decided it was time for his university to give an athletic scholarship to its first African-American.
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School officials put out the word they were looking for someone similar to Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Robinson was articulate, a college graduate and a person who had the strength to handle harassment without striking back. At the time, this last point was crucial. Bellamy and Robinson shared some traits.
The son of illiterate migrant workers, Bellamy was a three-sport standout, an excellent student, the student council president at Lincoln High School in Palmetto. His classmates in the Class of 1967 voted him most likely succeed.
As a 6-foot-5, 215-pound receiver with blazing speed and soft hands that caught every ball within reach, Bellamy was heavily recruited, including by Florida State, Nebraska and Indiana. He signed with Miami in December 1966, though it was by no means an easy ride.
Ed Dick, a Bradenton resident who owned an insurance agency, was a part of the volunteer scouting network Miami had across the state. He visited Lincoln during the fall and told Miami coaches that Bellamy was perfect because of his demeanor, athletic skills and excellence in the classroom.
Lincoln was overflowing with football players good enough to play at the highest level in college, but none had been given the opportunity.
The top three seniors on the 1966 team were Bellamy, running back Eugene Hart, who went on to play at Texan Southern, and Neil ‘Chip’ Nelson, who went on to play at the University of Tampa. That team also had junior linebacker Willie Lee Jones and a freshman named Henry Lawrence, who would go on to win three Super Bowls.
Bellamy also was the choice of Lincoln head football coach Eddie Shannon because he believed his top player would excel on the field and in the classroom and had the personality to win over many of those who opposed him.
“I knew right away he was the one, someone so big and so fast with great hands,” Dick said. “He was 6-5 and ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and had hands as big as a catcher’s mitt.”
When Bellamy signed his letter of intent in December 1966, it was national news. Jet Magazine covered it along with publications from across the country.
“Mr. Dick gave me an opportunity, and I will always been grateful,” Bellamy said. “I don’t know why. My parents picked tomatoes and cucumbers. Miami took a gamble on me because they didn’t know if I would rob a bank or kill somebody, and I am so grateful. I tell that to people all the time.”
Bellamy turned out to be an exemplary student and became the first African-American to be named student body president at Miami.
When he first got to Miami, Bellamy was targeted with slurs by some teammates who didn’t want him there. Shannon related a story about a phone call he received from Bellamy during that time.
“I said to him you are coming home because someone called you a nigger? You been hearing that all your life,” Shannon said with a chuckle. “Tomorrow you get in front of him, you light him up and tell him ‘I am the meanest …nigger you’ve ever seen.’ He called me back a few days later and said they stopped calling me that.”
Bellamy said he was not aware of the magnitude of his presence or actions at the time and didn’t compare his signing to that of Robinson.
“I never thought about stuff like that and didn’t have time to talk about it. I didn’t see myself as a pioneer. This wasn’t a Ray Bellamy thing. This was a people thing,” Bellamy said. “What I tried to be was an exemplary human being for others. I knew who Jackie Robinson was and wanted to patronize his journey, but probably more important to me was Calvin Patterson, the first black athlete at FSU.”
If Bellamy didn’t see himself as a pioneer, nearly everyone else did, especially the teachers, coaches and his classmates at Lincoln.
“His signing and going to Miami was one of the greatest things that ever happened to Manatee County,” Shannon said. “It gave every black athlete here a big boost and let them understand if you take care of your school work and play good on the field you could go anywhere. They knew it opened more doors for them.”
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Bellamy sat in the holding cell as Stanford entered the police station. The then- 18-year-old heard a conversation he would never forget.
“The only reason they stopped me is because I was a black man with a white female. They didn’t give me any reason and just took me down there (to the police station),” Bellamy said. “Dr. King shouted ‘this sh...t has to stop. What is he (Bellamy) here for?’
Police: “I don’t know.”
King: Where is the arresting officer? He needs to be here.”
Police: He is on another call. You can sign something and take him (Bellamy).
King: “I am not going to sign anything and I am going to take him and you get the arresting officer.”
“Dr. King took me back to my residence in his chauffeur-driven limousine. He dropped me off and just said, ‘Hey, Ray, go back to doing whatever you were doing. You weren’t doing anything wrong.”
Bellamy never saw the woman again, and to this day has always wondered what happened to her.
“She was a student from California. I think this was her first time in the South, and she was appalled and shocked the way I was being treated. I don’t remember her name.”
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That incident was one of many Bellamy had to endure at Miami. Death threats were common and the situation evolved to the point where he had to have the FBI sitting outside his room at night on road trips. Opponents from other teams threatened him and tried to hurt him. There was some harassment from his teammates in the beginning, though that waned as time went on and they got to know Bellamy.
One of the worst incidents came when Miami traveled to play Auburn. Bellamy received death-threat letters, calling him all kinds of names. Walking onto the field for pregame warmups, Bellamy was hit in the head with a rock. The injury caused him to urinate blood, but he played.
“During the game, guys were pulling at my private parts when they tackled me and I had a big knot on my head from getting hit there with the rock,” Bellamy recalled.
The Auburn game turned out to be one of Bellamy’s finest performances. He caught eight passes for 121 yards, which were big numbers in the days when the running game was dominant.
One of Bellamy’s more serious injuries occurred in practice when he was a freshman going up against the varsity. Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity then, but the freshman team with Bellamy was running all over the varsity.
“They never played against someone as strong and fast as me, and we kept beating them with the same play. Finally, the coaches asked us to walk through the play and a teammate ran into my leg from behind. I tore my meniscus and I think ACL, but in those days they were not diagnosing ACLs,” Bellamy said. “I believe I played with a torn ACL my whole career and had my knee drained after every game. The other guys didn’t understand how strong I was. I didn’t lift weights, but I spent all that time lifting tomato baskets and that made you strong.”
Bellamy didn’t have the time or desire to do the things that normal college freshmen did, and he moved out of the football dorms.
“They were being silly and doing stuff like shaving cream fights. I couldn’t afford to do that because if I got in trouble my behind was coming home,” Bellamy said. “When the girls came by the dorms, they would say things to females and I couldn’t afford to do that. I didn’t want anyone to say a black man did this. There were some great guys in that dorm and some became lifelong friends, but some people were doing things that were not applicable to me and what I wanted to accomplish. I just made a decision I can’t live with that and moved out of the football dorm.”
Bellamy was on course to have a stellar career and set himself up to be a high NFL draft. That journey was derailed when he was in a car accident in January 1970 that put him in the hospital for four months. Among his injuries was a broken femur. When Bellamy recovered, he had lost the speed that made him special.
Bellamy played in the Canadian Football League with Montreal in 1973, and he had a tryout with the New York Jets in 1974 but failed to make the team, ending his pro career. Despite never making an NFL team’s regular-season roster, what he did in breaking barriers for African-American football players had a ripple effect.
“What he did meant everything to us,” said Robert Hamilton, Lincoln’s starting quarterback when Bellamy as a freshman. “Bello opened the doors for so many of the guys that followed, guys like Tommie Frazier. The colleges started to see that they had to come to Manatee County to get the great players because we had so many at Lincoln.”
James Green, a wide receiver at Lincoln in the early ’60s, echoed those sentiments: “I knew it would pave the way for black athletes to be able to achieve what he achieved. Some of us didn’t have that chance, but we were able to smile and look back affectionately on what he accomplished in leading the way for other black athletes who didn’t have that chance.”
Steve Lewis, who used to teach at Lincoln Memorial Elementary School and announced the Lincoln games for years, had Bellamy in his class as a sixth-grader and is not surprised at how he handled things.
“He was a perfect gentleman. I was his first male teacher, and it was new for him then because they didn’t have male teachers in elementary school,” Lewis said.
Bellamy said he couldn’t have made it through Miami without the support of the people back home and often refers to Patterson, who signed with Florida State in 1968, but never played in a game and died in 1972 in what authorities said was a suicide.
“I talked to Calvin a lot on the phone. People don’t understand how important it is to feel that you are welcome and are supported,” Bellamy said. “Calvin didn’t get the support he needed, and he probably needed it more than I did. He will never be forgotten in my mind. My classmates meant so much to me. They believed in me until this day and gave me the fuel I needed to go on.”
Bellamy had faced his share of obstacles growing up on a farm his family worked down on Cortez Road on the Gulf of Mexico. He was one of nine children that included six boys.
His younger sister died when he was 6 because his family was poor and couldn’t afford to feed her properly.
“My dad cried so many nights after that,” Bellamy said. “I never thought about integration then, I just thought about people and knew things were happening that weren’t nice. They had double standards the way they treated black folks, but that hasn’t changed that much.
“We’ve gotten better, but we still have a long way to go,” he said. “The biggest problem we have is that we have to lay down our bigotry and pick up love. Some people have hatred in their heart, and that’s the thing that is going to kill us.”
About this series
This fall marks the 50th anniversary of Ray Bellamy’s recruitment by and signing with the University of Miami, breaking the color barrier for African-American athletes in the Southeast.
To commemorate the anniversary, the Bradenton Herald is publishing “Lincoln’s Legends & Legacy,” a recurring series of articles throughout July on some of the top athletes from Lincoln High School, the pre-integration era high school for African-American students in Manatee County. Upcoming subjects include:
Willie Lee Jones