Prentice Gautt rumbling for yardage against Syracuse in the 1959 Orange Bowl. He was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. The Sooners finished 10-1 and ranked between #3 and #5 in the polls. Their only loss was by one point to Texas.
Who would have suspected that the frightened little “Negro” boy dropped off at the orphanage would grow up to be one of the mightiest men in Oklahoma history? Prentice Gautt’s ex-wife Deide Gautt recalled to this author how beloved his deceased mother had been by him. Meanwhile, in addition to contributing to Prentice’s physical and intellectual stature, his alcoholic father had done at least one other good thing: he had married another good woman and taken Prentice away from the orphanage. That woman, Sarah Gautt, would become Prentice’s great guiding influence in life once the three of them settled down in Oklahoma City sometime in the 1940s.
Their home was no showplace. It stood in the shadow of the Deep Deuce, the legendary center of black commerce and entertainment in old segregated OKC. At night, the sounds of nearby music and revelers wafted to the Gautt residence. It was good enough, though, the eventually-single stepmother strong and godly enough, and the growing boy of firm enough substance. By the time he was in junior high, he had won the reputation of an articulate, scholarly young gentleman—and a whale of a football player.
Prentice Gautt as a University of Oklahoma student. He was named Academic All-American as a senior. His alma mater named its Prentice Gautt Academic Center in his honor.
One memorable day in 1952, as a ninth grader, he came face to face in downtown Oklahoma City with Billy Vessels, the first Oklahoma Sooner Heisman Trophy winner. Gautt would never forget the nationally-famed Vessels’ admiring words to him: “Gosh almighty, you look like you oughta be playin’ for us.”
“I hope to someday, sir. I really do,” Prentice replied. As author Jim Dent recalled, “Prentice could barely feel the sidewalk as he ran all the way home.”
Around the same time, he and his buddies caught the Interurban bus to Norman, scaled the fence at Owen Field, and raced up and down OU’s deserted football pitch. “Hey, look at me! I’m Billy Vessels!” Prentice shouted. When the boys got back outside the stadium, an old man said, “You need to get outta town before sundown. We don’t allow niggers around here after dark.”
“Yessir, we’re going,” Prentice replied. A moment later, he turned back and said, “Sir, with all due respect, I plan to be back.”
Prentice Gautt and Sooner backfield teammate Brewster Hobby, a Midwest City native. The only Oklahoman ever named high school player of the year in both football and baseball, Hobby stood up for Gautt from the beginning of their days together at OU. He hung out with him, walked with him to class, defended him against racist teammates, and roomed with him during football road trips.
His senior year at Douglass High School, 1955-56, the hard-hitting fullback and linebacker “was probably the best football player in Oklahoma,” according to legendary OU head football coach Bud Wilkinson. The first African-American to play in the All-State football game, he earned the game’s MVP award. Meanwhile, though four other blacks had recently tried out for the Oklahoma college team, neither the school nor the white culture surrounding it had welcomed them. One was Charles Parker, grandfather of recent, playmaking Sooner safety Steven Parker. None had made the squad. Wilkinson, facing ardent opposition to black players from major Sooner boosters, collaborated with OU President George Lynn Cross and the Med-De-Phar association of black doctors, dentists, and pharmacists in OKC to craft an innovative plan.
Med-De-Phar, headed by lionhearted men such as Frank Cox, G. E. Tarver, and Charles Tollett, Sr., would privately fund an academic scholarship to OU for Prentice. Cox recalled that they “recruited Prentice and considered him a very strong mentally and physically sort of a guy…a good guy, a nice guy, who would represent our race well,” and the right person to bridge the racial chasm on the vaunted Big Red football team.
Prentice Gautt in a Sooner football publicity photo.
Cross, keenly aware of the social pressure against such a move, agreed, and would approve admittance to the school for the elite student. And Wilkinson would allow him to try out for the team as a walk-on. If Prentice made the team—which won its third national championship of the decade that fall—he would receive a full athletic scholarship for the next school year.
“I knew he would make it,” Wilkinson said later.
Prentice Gautt idolized Cleveland, Oklahoma native Billy Vessels, himself the product of a poor, broken home. Here, Vessels electrifies a national television audience with a 62-yard touchdown run at Notre Dame in 1952. Vessels’ epic three-touchdown performance against the powerful Irish that day, in the first game ever broadcast on TV in color, and with instant replays, helped him become the first Heisman Trophy-winning Sooner.
In the Same Boat
Prentice chose OU over numerous other major college programs so that he could remain close to his seriously ill stepmother Sarah—and because he had dreamed of wearing the Sooners’ crimson and cream since he was a little boy.
“You and I are sort of going to be in the same boat together, and we may face some choppy waters, son,” Wilkinson told him. “But I will stay in that boat no matter what happens. And I will be there any time you need me for anything.”
Prentice overcame all the challenges incumbent upon an eighteen-year-old “colored” boy blazing a new trail in the most passionately-revered arena of a racially-segregated, racial caste system, state. Initially, some of his own teammates treated him rudely, especially behind his back. Hotels where the team slept before games refused to allow him to stay. By his second season, after winning the coveted scholarship, he began to doubt himself.
Prentice Gautt’s 1962 St. Louis Cardinals player card. The Oklahoman led the Cardinals in rushing during a good portion of his career there.
That is when Wilkinson pulled the young man aside and told him, “The way that you’re performing now, you’re not going to make our squad.” It was clear to Gautt that that was not what Wilkinson desired. He dug deep and began to play with confidence and relentless determination.
When a certain restaurant refused to serve him food, the rest of the team got up and walked out with him. Players like Jakie Sandefer, Ronnie Hartline, and Brewster Hobby roomed with him and/or greatly encouraged him. With Wilkinson’s admonition, others apologized to him to his face for disrespecting him behind his back.
Prentice Gautt in later years, during which he became a distinguished educator and collegiate sports administrator.
In The Undefeated, author Dent memorably recounted one dramatic scene. The night before OU played Texas during Prentice’s senior season in 1958, Jim Crow-era Texas state law prohibited the Fort Worth hotel where the team lodged from allowing him to stay there. The next morning, the hotel allowed him to breakfast with his teammates—alone in a small room next to theirs.
Players became suspicious and started asking questions. “German Jim” Lawrence, a tackle from Sayre, stood to address his teammates as they took their seats on the team bus. Lawrence had participated in the restaurant boycott in Tulsa when the Chicken Corner refused to serve Prentice.
“Guys, Prentice Gautt is our teammate,” Lawrence said, his eyes filling with tears. “Last night, he didn’t get to stay at our hotel because he’s colored. (Profanity), that’s a shame. Football teams are supposed to stick together.
The Sooners were still buzzing when Wilkinson assembled them minutes before kickoff at the Cotton Bowl: “Win this one for Prentice Gautt.” He didn’t need to say another word. The Sooners almost ran over the coaches, and everyone else for that matter, as they roared down the long tunnel toward the playing field, the plight of Prentice Gautt now on their minds.
OU won the game 21-7, the last time the team would beat Texas for nearly a decade.
Prentice Gautt receives his honorary doctorate from OU in 2003.
The growing support paid off. Prentice helped lead the Sooners to Big Eight Conference crowns and Orange Bowl victories in both his junior and senior years. He won All-Conference honors both seasons and was an Academic All-American. He played seven years in the National Football League. Later, he held executive positions with the Big Eight and Big Twelve Conferences, and the NCAA. He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame. The University of Oklahoma named its elite Prentice Gautt Academic Center in his honor.
Meanwhile, OU’s Southeastern and Southwest Conference rivals, including Texas, did not accept African-American football players for more than a decade after Prentice Gautt came to Norman. By the time they did to any significant degree, the Sooners had black players aplenty and were on their way to another dynasty.
Prentice Gautt (1938-2005), amidst fear, doubt, challenge, and tumult, led the way. He came back to Owen Field and then some.