CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The University of Virginia Cavaliers made appearances in the ACC title game and the Orange Bowl last year and finally broke their long losing streak against Virginia Tech.
Fifty years ago, Virginia was nowhere near as prominent.
“UVA wasn't a powerhouse or a household name back in the day," John Rainey recalled.
Back in 1970, George Blackburn was about to begin his sixth and final season as head coach of the Cavaliers. He had only one winning season during his tenure. Nne of the four coaches who preceded him, going all the way back to the Korean War, had winning overall records either. It wasn't an attractive option for some of the better high school players in the Commonwealth.
“I had no real thoughts about going to school there,” Stan Land admitted. “I had no real thoughts about going to school at all.”
“Virginia wasn't really attractive to us,” added Kent Merrit. “Virginia didn't win.”
Merritt was an all-district and all-state running back from Lane High School in Charlottesville.
He was recruited by schools like Penn State, North Carolina, and Tennessee. He had his choice of scholarship offers.
In the end, the decision was pretty much made for him.
“My parents were a big influence on me getting to come here [UVA],” Merritt said. “The average kid would be looking to go to an established program and UVA had none. So at their urging, I decided to come here.”
Likewise, Land, Rainey, and Harrison Davis were all-state performers who had multiple options for college. All four chose to go to UVA and make history in the process.
Fifty years ago, they were the first African American scholarship athletes to play football for the Cavaliers.
“We came to play sports and athletics,” said Merritt. “We didn't really come to do anything earth-shattering. We thought we could at least improve the program while we were here.”
"We just wanted to go somewhere and play football and win football games,” Land added. “We weren't so much aware of what we were doing until after we graduated, really.”
Back then, freshmen were not eligible to play on the varsity team. But once the four reached that level, they began to contribute and become part of the program.
Not that there weren't hurdles and constant reminders that their trailblazing wasn't always celebrated or desired.
“People were nice, but you knew in the background, people were saying we're not ready for this,” Rainey said.
“After a touchdown, they had a rebel flag that they waved in the stands,” Merritt recalled. “They played Dixie and that sort of thing.”
"I can recall having a spirited wrestling match with one of the other players during one of the drills that we were doing,” Land added. “He decided that he wanted to use a word that I didn't particularly like, so around and around we went.”
“Harrison Davis, our quarterback, caught the brunt of it because you didn't have black quarterbacks back in the 60s and 70s,” said Rainey. “I remember one time he had thrown an interception and someone in the stands said 'Get him a watermelon, maybe he can throw it better.' He turned around and gave everyone the finger.”
You can still find some of their accomplishments in the UVA record books. But the ones of which they are most proud are earning their degrees and making those around them re-think what they thought they knew about African Americans as players and as students.
“After you get away from it and look back and reflect, you start to understand what that really meant,” said Land. “That was a big event in the history of UVA.”
"We were groundbreakers,” Merritt added. “I think people appreciated the way we carried ourselves while we were here at UVA. All four of us graduated and we went on to do some pretty successful things.”
Rainey recounted a conversation he had with a teammate that told him just what their decision had meant.
“In my third year, he said 'John, I didn't know what to expect when they said Blacks were coming to UVA. I had to call my parents liars because of the lies they told me when I was coming up about Black people. You all proved to me that all of the stuff my parents told us was a bunch of crap. And I want to apologize for that'. If we did nothing else, maybe we showed a few people who blacks really are.”
Merritt led the Cavaliers in rushing in 1971 and 1972. The latter season, he played with a quarterback named George Allen, who would go on to be both Governor and Senator from the Commonwealth.
UVA plans to honor these four student-athletes but will do so when COVID restrictions are relaxed and they can be presented in front of a full crowd at Scott Stadium.
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