Sandy Stephens
(Game Worn)

When one takes the measure of a man, the reference points can be numerous. For a man such as Sanford Emory Stephens II, both his “measure” and reference points provided a basis of inspiration for many, covering a wide array of ethnic, social, and sporting perspectives. He was the first African American to lead his college team to a National Championship and the hope and guiding light of his hometown community. He was a man respected for his demeanor, drive, and determination and motivated young men to emulate his path. He was by any measure, a great football player. Recruited to the University Of Minnesota by Head Coach Murray Warmath [see HELMET HUT Minnesota seasonal summaries at  http://www.helmethut.com/College/Minnesota/UM5667A.html ] with Uniontown (PA) Joint High School teammate Bill Munsey, Stephens led the 1960 Gophers to the National Championship. As a three time letter winner in football, basketball, and track, and a High School All American quarterback, Stephens topped off his prep career by scoring the winning touchdown in the first Big 33 Game. One might have easily predicted collegiate success for Stephens but his ability and spectacular play - making allowed him to break an unspoken barrier that had previously prevented black quarterbacks from leading major college football programs.


He had chosen Minnesota over fifty-eight other scholarship offers with the stated goal of being the quarterback that would lead them to a Rose Bowl championship. “I was going to be more than a Big Ten quarterback who was black. I was going to be a Big Ten quarterback who took his team to the Rose Bowl,” said Stephens, decades later. The squad won the National title yet lost the Rose Bowl to Washington 17 – 7. Stephens led the team back to the Rose Bowl following the 1961 season and took his Consensus All American, Big Ten MVP, and fourth place Heisman Trophy vote honors with him while defeating UCLA.

Affectionately nicknamed “Mutt” after his dog, Stephens was a hero in Uniontown and most of Western Pennsylvania, among African Americans and Caucasians, rich and poor, and among those who followed football and those who didn’t.  Predictably drafted high by both the NFL and AFL, Stephens was less than enthusiastic about the plans of both the Cleveland Browns and New York Titans to use him at possible positions that did not include quarterback. He instead spent 1962 and ’63 as the quarterback of the CFL Montreal Alouettes, leading the Als to the Grey Cup final in his second season. A new coaching staff brought resentment over his contract and he was claimed on waivers by Toronto prior to the ’64 season.  Attempting to join the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent, Stephens’ plans were altered when he suffered injuries described as “near fatal” in an auto accident, and there was concern that he would not regain the ability to walk. However, dedication, perseverance and all of the positive attributes Stephens always stood for in Uniontown and at Minnesota came to the fore and two years later, he was attempting a comeback with the Kansas City Chiefs.



Stephens was realistic enough to understand that by 1967, much of his ability had eroded due to the accident and age and he was willing to play any backfield position for Kansas City. He entered camp listed as a quarterback candidate but he had filled out to 225 pounds and with Pete Beathard as a capable and experienced back-up to Len Dawson, Stephens was in reality, a candidate at one of the running back positions. Still he intended on willing himself into the quarterback position and Chiefs Head Coach Hank Stram was open to at least the possibility that Stephens could make it happen. The Chiefs pre-season schedule included games at Houston, against the Jets in Birmingham, Alabama, against the Raiders in Portland, Oregon, at home against the NFL Bears, and a Los Angeles date against the NFL Rams. Stram had the foresight to add an all rookie contest against the Denver Broncos and he had the assistance of well known Kansas City sportsman Lester Milgram. Lester’s father Nat had founded the Milgram Food Store in 1913 and with the assistance of family members, grew his one store into thirty-seven when they were purchased by the Kroger Company in 1928. Taking over the Milgram groceries upon his father’s death in 1958, Lester was deeply involved in community affairs and supported both charitable organizations and numerous sporting events. Lester had been an early member of the Kansas City Southwest High School Hall Of Fame and to the present, awards are given in his name throughout the Kansas City area by high schools, colleges, and amateur sports organizations, reflecting his long standing involvement in athletics. When the Chiefs moved to Kansas City, Lester, as an accomplished musician, led the early wolfpack of followers by leading the Chiefs rendition of “Charge” on his trumpet.


Perhaps mimicking the less than famous 1961 pre-season “Grocery Bowl” game that pitted the New York Titans and Boston Patriots at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium in front of 74,000 fans, the rookie contest was dubbed “The Milgram Grocery Game.” Like its namesake, tickets were distributed as part of store giveaways when groceries were purchased and though far less than 74,000 came to see the Chiefs and Broncos rookies fight for a roster spot at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, the game was highlighted with a tie-in to local radio station and game co-sponsor KCMO. They had agreed to a microphone hook-up on the Chiefs game time quarterback that would broadcast directly to its on-air and stadium audience. With Stram giving Stephens the nod to play the position that had brought him so much past glory, Stephens took the microphone that was secured in his shoulder pads, took the football, and almost became the first true “Run And Shoot” quarterback in pro football history. Instead, he immediately blew out all of the circuits and transmitters as he clapped his hands and exhorted his teammates to “Get this motherf___er going!” we are sure the spelling was correct. The Chiefs legendary linebacker Bobby Bell was in the stands watching the rookie game and leaned over to ask a teammate, in an unbelieving manner, “What did he say?” before chuckling. Coach Stram’s son Dale was on the Chiefs sideline, and like many in the stands, had his transistor radio in hand. He had a similar, somewhat surprised response though he was privy to “locker room language” on a daily basis. Lamar Hunt's reaction was a bit more disconcerting. In an attempt to maintain decorum, the microphone feed was immediately cut-off as most of the crowd first gasped, and then enjoyed what they accepted as a rather humorous remark. Bell, a close friend of Stephens from their days at the University Of Minnesota, noted that Stephens was the last man cut from the active roster for the 1967 season, ending his pro football career.

The legacy of Sandy Stephens football career is lengthy and impressive; induction to the Western Pennsylvania All Sports Hall Of Fame, Rose Bowl Hall Of Fame, University Of Minnesota Hall Of Fame, a member of the Minnesota All Century Team, and the College Football Hall Of Fame.  In every sense of the word, he was a ground breaker for the African American quarterbacks who followed him. Stephens said, “As a pioneer in the field, first of the black Consensus All American quarterbacks, my experiences leave me feeling like the Moses of Black Quarterbacks, able to see the Promised Land, but unable to enter it.” Those who knew him best noted that his real legacy was his ability to make others “feel good, this is why Sandy truly was a legend.”  Jesse Jackson, Sr. noted that Sandy “made us feel so proud, with his poise and dignity as well as his athletic ability.”  Stephens died young, on June 6, 2000, at the age of fifty-nine and public notice was given to his “non-negotiable dignity and private pride that were never broken” by his inability to be granted a chance to play quarterback in the NFL.

Part of his legacy is this beautiful Kansas City Chiefs RK 4 helmet with two bar mask. The helmet displays numerous bolt holes, indicating long use and relatively older age. The name “Harris” is hand-written on the inside of the helmet, perhaps confirming that Stephens was given one of the older helmets in the Chiefs inventory and one previously worn by Dallas Texans defensive back Jimmy Harris, the former Oklahoma University quarterback who was such an integral part of the Sooners forty-seven game winning streak. An extremely interesting and unique feature of this specific helmet is the inscription of S44 within the KC logo decal itself. Perhaps this was a stock number but it was and remains a part of the original decal and was not added at a later date. Thus, like the very unique Sandy Stephens, his Kansas City Chiefs helmet too, reminds us of his special qualities.