A trip back in time for descendants of WMU football legend Sam Dunlap

WMU 1st Black athlete

KALAMAZOO, MICH. - When one thinks about sports figures involved in breaking the "color barrier", names like Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and Althea Gibson likely come to mind.

A legendary football player at Western State Normal College (known today as Western Michigan University) was attempting to break it 30 years prior.

Sam Dunlap was his name and scoring touchdowns was his game. He was a halfback for Western's football team from 1915-17 and 1919 -- taking a year off to join the Army during World War I.

The Benton Harbor High School star was originally recruited by the University of Michigan, but then was rejected when the head coach there learned he was black. WMU's first president, Dwight Waldo, welcomed Dunlap to the WMU campus , and throughout Dunlap's playing career, Waldo and football coach William Spaulding worked with Dunlap and the WMU team to address such issues as teams and players who refused to take the field against Dunlap, and travel options and hotels that excluded the player.

When you peruse Western Michigan football records, Dunlap's name still can be found today. In fact, one of his records -- most touchdowns scored in a single season -- stood the test of time until 2014 when Jarvion Franklin blew past it with 24.

"I don't know how uncle Sam did it back in the time, considering all the social dynamic of race that was going on in this country at that time," said Moses Easley, Dunlap's nephew, who was among nearly a dozen of Dunlap's descendants in Kalamazoo Friday. "He was a very powerful person, and one man tackling him, that didn't work.

"Knute Rockne had quoted saying [Sam Dunlap] was the best he ever saw, and the South Bend Tribune said, [Uncle Sam] out-shown the Gipper."

Easley and the rest of the Dunlap descendants were specials guests of the WMU Athletic Department Friday. They were escorted by several members of the WMU staff during a three hour tour, with each stop showing something significant of Dunlap's career.

"He was a person because of his color who didn't get the opportunities that men of another color might have gotten, but that didn't deter him from being who he was," added Easley.

The tour included featured areas of Waldo Stadium, then a trip across the street to University Arena where Dunlap's Hall of Fame plaque hangs on the wall, then to the WMU Zhang Legacy Collections Center where the family got to see an actual uniform, pads and helmet that Sam Dunlap played in 100 years ago.

"This experience has been extremely emotional for my family," said Easley, who traveled from Nantucket, Massachusetts to be in Kalamazoo for the tour. "Uncle Sam was a great man, and she should never be forgotten for everything he did, both on and off the football field."

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