Lightning Lou: Breaking Tackles And Breaking Barriers
Shedding Light On The Struggles Faced By Montgomery, BC's First Black Athlete
Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
His name is not one of the first that comes to mind when you think of Boston College football lore, but maybe it should be. Lou Montgomery, the first black athlete in any sport at BC, was that good. He just never got a full chance to show it.
Montgomery was a native of Brockton, Mass., and played his first season for the Eagles in 1937. After playing his first year on the freshman team, he moved up to the varsity squad as a sophomore in 1938, where he saw little action. In 1939, though, legendary head coach Frank Leahy took over at BC, and utilized an exciting offense, of which Montgomery was an important part. That year, The Heights wrote that Montgomery was “the best broken-field runner on the team.”
While the team went 20-2 in 1939 and 1940, in part thanks to Montgomery’s play, the star running back was held out of many games played in the South, and even some at BC.
According to Mark Dullea, BC ’62, who is leading a campaign with his own telling of Montgomery’s story and trying to get the school to rename Alumni Stadium after Montgomery, “Lightning Lou” was subjected to a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” in many games, forcing him to sit on the sideline.
“For a long time, there had been something best described as a ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ between and among officials of northern and southern colleges and universities in the scheduling of athletic events with each other’s schools,” writes Dullea in his 40-page proposal. “This agreement was basically an understanding that if the Northern (or Midwestern, or Western) school had any non-white players, it would agree not to bring them to play in any athletic contests in the South.”
Even some southern schools tried to impose this agreement when they played in the North against northern schools. This first happened in 1939, in the third game of the season, when the University of Florida came to play BC. The game was set to be played at Fenway Park, and according to Dullea, “BC administrators had agreed to placing a clause in the game contract that allowed Florida to cancel the game without financial penalty so as to avoid having to play against a black player.” Montgomery was forced to sit out the game, which the Eagles lost 7-0. The game was the only regular season loss that Leahy had in his time at BC.
The same scenario happened just weeks later, when Auburn University traveled to play at BC. Montgomery was once again sidelined for the game.
In the games he played in that season, Montgomery rushed for 9.7 yards per carry, while the Eagles finished with a regular season record of 9-1. BC was invited to play in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas on Jan. 1, 1940 against Clemson, which marked BC’s first postseason game. According to Dullea, “BC was told that its lone black player wasn’t welcome, but chose to accept the invitation nonetheless.”
The Eagles went on to lose the bowl game 6-3. Following the loss, Leahy told Montgomery, “Lou, if they had let us bring you along, we wouldn’t have lost.”
“For the third time that season, BC threw principle to the wind in order to increase its prestige in the world of college football,” Dullea said.
Montgomery faced the same struggles during the 1940 season, but on an even larger scale.
The second game of the season was at Tulane, and not only was Montgomery not allowed to play, but he was not even allowed to eat meals or stay with his own team. Dullea said that Montgomery was forced to stay and eat in facilities at Xavier University, an all-black Catholic institution.
Montgomery missed another home game later in the season, when Auburn again visited Boston.
At the end of the regular season, the Eagles were 10-0, and had attained the No. 5 ranking in the country in the AP poll. Once again, BC was invited to play in a bowl game in the south, this one the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans against the University of Tennessee.
“BC accepted the Sugar Bowl bid, fully knowing once again that Lou Montgomery, despite his own high-level contributions to his team’s success, would not be allowed to participate in what should have been the game of his life,” Dullea writes in his report.
After the decision was made that Montgomery would be kept out of playing in the game, The Heights wrote about the impact he would have to have from the sideline.
“Hula-Lou may not be able to play in the big game on Jan. 1, but his spirit will be right down on the field with the boys. His indomitable fight will undoubtedly be a great help to the rest of the team in this most important of games. During his stay at the Heights, Lou has shown everyone this commendable team spirit and will to win … At the game high above the field, Lou will act as a spotter for the broadcasters, but with every play he will be tackling, blocking and running with Charley [O’Rourke], Gene [Goodreault], and Toz [captain Frank Toczylowski].”
Montgomery was forced to watch the Sugar Bowl from the press box, where he served as a spotter for the broadcasting crew.
Overall, Dullea has taken issue with the fact that BC, as a Jesuit institution, continued to partake in games they knew that Montgomery would not be allowed to play in, and never took responsibility for it.