A White Athlete Joins an All-Black College

Breaking stereotypes and finding common ground

Interview by Jonathan Yates
Posted 9/12/21

Rickie Simmons couldn’t do the touchdown dance, but he could sure do the scoring. The only white player on the football team at Bowie State College, an Historically Black College & University (HBCU),

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A White Athlete Joins an All-Black College

Breaking stereotypes and finding common ground

Posted

Rickie Simmons couldn’t do the touchdown dance, but he could sure do the scoring. The only white player on the football team at Bowie State College, an Historically Black College & University (HBCU), Simmons was a wide receiver who led the Bulldogs in total receptions during the 1970s. He was so productive that teammates called him “The Clutch” and voted him co-captain his senior year.

As a minority student, he received an ‘Other Race Grant’ from the college, which helped pay his tuition. His unique story is a lesson in building respect and finding common ground as experienced in a reverse-minority situation.

How did you first become aware of your HBCU?

Having grown up in Laurel, MD, I had heard about Bowie State College, and knew it was a black college. However, I didn’t really know much about the school at that time.

After I graduated from Laurel High School in 1973, I went to Tusculum College in Greenville, Tennessee, where I had the opportunity to play basketball as a walk on, so I had to pay my own way.

My father worked as a maintenance man at an apartment complex to support a family of 9 boys, which needless to say, was difficult. There was no extra money for college.

I returned home from Tusculum College after my Freshman year. When I was home, a friend of mine told me about Bowie State’s football program and he offered to introduce me to their head coach at the time, Coach Clarence Thomas. Thomas had also played football at Morgan State.

I later met with Coach Thomas at his office on campus. This was also my first visit to the campus. After explaining my situation to Coach Thomas, he agreed to try to help me with getting financial aid.

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What were your initial thoughts about being a minority on campus?

It was very uncomfortable being a minority. I had to quickly figure out a way I could fit in not only in the classroom but also the locker room and football field. All while respecting the culture on campus.

What one event made you realize you were now a minority?

The first day I took a step into the locker room for Summer two a day practice.

There is a lot to be said to being taken out of your comfort zone and having to adapt as that is how you grow as a person. How did this take place for you in college at an HBCU?

As soon as I stepped foot on Bowie’s campus, it was very clear that I had stepped out of my comfort zone. Facing the many challenges of being a minority did make me learn to accept and trust people for who they are.

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I came away from the experience at Bowie with a new confidence that has served me well in my career. I feel comfortable in any situation and I don’t feel intimidated by someone’s position or title. I try to approach everyone as an individual and respect their different experiences and backgrounds as uniquely theirs.

What one event made you realize that you were now part of the HBCU family?

Our first home game. I was the long snapper for punts. It was a scoreless game, and we were punting inside the 20-yard line. It was one of my first snaps and I snapped it over the punters head. The other team ended up kicking a field goal, which cost us the game.

Of course, this was the first and only time I ever snapped the ball over the punters head.

That was a real low point for me in the locker room. To my surprise, everyone went out of their way to support and encourage me. The team and coaches made it clear that one play didn’t define me as a player. That day made me feel part of the family and I knew they had my back no matter what.

What is the best part about going to an HBCU?

Being in an environment that was totally different made me try new things and think about my relationships differently. It was fun being part of something so different than what I ever thought about. I learned to appreciate little things differently, like music, dancing (absorbed the funk in my blood) seeing the commonality of humor and appreciate such a different culture.

When you take a diverse group of people with different backgrounds, if you find a common goal and have mutual respect, you can have a great experience and learn a lot about each other.

Another important part of the experience was learning how to deal with intimidation. After being immersed into uncomfortable situations, more often than not, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Mutual respect was gained by both sides.

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Do you recommend the HBCU experience to others?

I would recommend other minorities to HBCU. After immersing yourself into a totally different environment, you leave with a difference perspective. Everything has a way of leveling out, and differences between people don’t matter as much as you thought. The world is becoming even more diverse and integrated. Having experience at an HBCU will prepare students to excellent in their personal and professional life.

What part of your success do you attribute to having gone to an HBCU, where you were a minority, as opposed to going to a school where you would not have been a minority?

There is strength in diversity that I would not have had at other predominately white schools. When people bring a different point of view to any situation or challenge, everyone can learn from that.

I learned to face challenges, obstacles and intimidation. Being among such a diverse group, I was interested in learning more about their story that made them who they are.

I left with a much better understanding of what being a minority is truly like. While attending Bowie, I had friends who looked down on me because they didn’t understand why I would go to an all-black college. This actually motivated me to prove them wrong and to be even more successful.

Jonathan Yates is host of "The Culture of Sport". He has written numerous articles in outlets such as Newsweek and Washington Post, and held interviews at NPR and CNBC.

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