The 1965 American Football League All-Star game was scheduled for 52 years ago this week in New Orleans, but it never happened.
Dave Dixon, who had been trying to bring the AFL to New Orleans, organized the game with promises that there wouldn't be any problems in the still-segregated city. Players were promised testimonial dinners and golf tournaments, and even told to bring their families. But trouble began as players landed at the airport.
Cabs lined up for the White All-Stars, but the 22 black players weren’t so lucky. A porter called black cabbies from downtown for several players, but there were a few who were picked up by white cabbies — only to be driven out to the boonies before being ordered out of the cab. Bills fullback Cookie Gilchrist was warned by a friendly white cabbie, “Be careful in this town.”
Ten members of the AFL Champion Bills were on the East All-Star team, and Bills Head Coach Lou Saban was East coach. Four of the 10 Bills were black: Cookie Gilchrist, Elbert Dubenion, Butch Byrd and Ernie Warlick.
Bills quarterback Jack Kemp and linebacker Mike Stratton were also among the all-stars, and were joined by their teammate Warlick in the French Quarter. In several different places, Kemp and Stratton — both white — were allowed in, but Warlick was told with hostility that he wasn’t welcome.
In his book "The Birth of the New NFL," Larry Felser tells the story that Warlick packed his bags after an incident the following morning.
"Warlick was able to order breakfast in the dining room of the hotel, ‘but I lost my appetite when an older woman said loud enough for me to hear, that she didn’t want to eat in the same room with monkeys.’ "
There were many other black players who had similar or worse experiences. Many didn’t want to spent the rest of the week there and play in such an environment.
There were several meetings of players over the coming days. The black players voted at one meeting to skip practice. Then there was a meeting with the game organizers and the NAACP, where Gilchrist did much of the talking.
At a larger meeting, with many players of both races, Bills tight end Warlick was nominated spokesman of the black players. It wasn’t unanimous, but the black players voted to not play.
Immediately after the meeting, Warlick told reporters that the fact that they’d been promised there wouldn’t be any segregation made it that much harder to deal with. Players were told that the better night spots, restaurants and hotels would greet all the players equally with open arms.
“Actually, this came as a complete surprise to us,” Warlick said of the way he and his teammates had been treated. "We were led to believe that we could relax and enjoy ourselves in New Orleans just like other citizens. Maybe if we had been alerted to the fact that we wouldn't have the run of the town, we could have avoided this unpleasant situation.
“If they had told us this before, we’d have looked specifically for those cabs and sought out our entertainment in those places,” Warlick continued. “But they led us to believe everything was going to be OK. And it wasn’t.”
Kemp was the backup quarterback for the East All-Stars, had just won the AFL Championship with the Bills, and was also the president of the league’s players’ union. He and San Diego Chargers offensive lineman Ron Mix were among the white players at that final meeting. The two agreed to lead white players to stand by their teammates -- but not all white players embraced the move. Patriots linebacker (and later Hall of Famer) Nick Buoniconti called the walkout a “raw deal” which “hurt the league a great deal.”
Later a Buffalo congressman, HUD Secretary and vice presidential candidate in 1996, Kemp was also influential in the negotiations to move the game to Houston, where it was played days later.
Immediately following the vote to not play, Gilchrist found a Mexican cabbie to take him to the airport, but snow in the northeast had flights delayed. News of a player revolt came on a TV in the terminal, and "Suddenly, people are all looking at me," Gilchrist told Murray Olderman of the Jamestown Post-Journal. "I can sense the hostility. For the first time in my life I'm scared. I've been brainwashed about the South."
He finally got on a flight for New York and was comforted that he was among friends when someone asked him for an autograph.
“We weren’t out to correct anybody,’’ then-Bills cornerback Butch Byrd told the Sporting News in 2015.
“We were just thinking, ‘They’re showing us no respect. This is just pure hatred. We have to get out of here,’ ” said Byrd. “We weren’t thinking about making history, so to speak. We just knew we were treated badly, and we wanted to leave.’’
“The stand the AFL and its players took against the city of New Orleans was unprecedented,” wrote Pro Football Hall of Fame researcher Jon Kendle in a piece for the Hall of Fame’s website. “The boycott was clearly a milestone event that went beyond the world of sports and was more of a reflection of American society at the time. It helped shine a spotlight on Congress’s ability to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and proved that if America was to desegregate, the culture needed to change its mindset and adopt a more progressive view of the human race as quickly as possible.”