- Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - When Nevada laces up its cleats at Texas A&M; on Saturday, it will face a Southeast Conference team for the first time. But if not for a dose of heavy racism in the 1940s, the Wolf Pack already would have played an SEC foe.

In 1946, Nevada was scheduled to play at Mississippi State, one of the 10 founding members of the SEC, which formed in 1932. But 15 days before the contest, Nevada cancelled the game.

The reason: Mississippi State wouldn’t let Nevada’s two black players - Bill Bass and Horace Gillom - take the field.

“They told us that they didn’t want our black players to play,” said Dick Trachok, the former Wolf Pack player, coach and athletic director who was a sophomore during that season. “They said they don’t do that down there. I remember our coach saying, ‘If we can’t take our whole team, we’re not going.’”

That coach was Jim Aiken, who famously recruited black star Marion Motley to Nevada and didn’t have much tolerance for racism. A little more than two weeks before the game was to be played, Nevada received a letter from Mississippi State stating Bass, a halfback, and Gillom, an end and punter, would be barred from the field. Backing Aiken, the Nevada Board of Athletic Control voted to cancel the game.

“We were the first ones in the country to cancel a game because they wouldn’t let our black players play,” Trachok said. “The decision came from our coaches and president that if everybody couldn’t go, we weren’t going. I don’t think we ever got enough credit as a school for taking that stand.”

It was big news at the time. Headlines across the country reported on the decision.

“Nevada’s Colored Gridders Barred by Mississippians,” read one headline.

“Southern College Doesn’t Want Negro Players in Football Game,” another read.

“Mississippi Grid Official Upholds Southern Code,” another read.

Nevada’s decision began a trend. One day later, Penn State cancelled its game at Miami as a result of that school barring its black players. Mississippi State didn’t allow black players at their games because “an unfortunate commotion would ensue if the colored stars were allowed on the Starkville field.”

“It is not custom in the South for members of the Negro race to compete in athletics with or against members of the white race nor members of the white race to compete against the Negro race in athletic contests,” Mississippi State athletic director C.R. Noble wrote to Nevada. “I am sure that you understand this traditional custom which Mississippi State college cannot under any circumstances violate.”

While a paper in Mississippi wrote having two blacks players on the field could be “accompanied by murder threats,” Nevada pushed to play the game with Gillom and Bass so the Southern school could see “what kind of unfortunate commotion Mississippi State wants to start” with the Wolf Pack.

Gillom was born in Alabama and raised in Massillon, Ohio, where he played high school football for Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown. After Gillom earned three Bronze Star Medals in World War II, he returned to football and was going to play for the Cleveland Browns. But Paul Brown decided to take Motley from Nevada and in exchange had Gillom go to Nevada, where he led the nation in punting in 1946.

Gillom played 10 seasons with the Browns and won three AAFC titles and three NFL titles and led the NFL in punting three times. Brown went on to say there “has never been a better punter than Horace.”

Bass also played professionally, spending the 1947 season with AAFC’s Chicago Rockets.

This wasn’t the only time Nevada fought racism. In 1948, Nevada was scheduled to play at Tulsa, but the state’s governor and university president wanted to cancel the game unless the Pack barred its black players. Nevada held firm and the game was played, with Nevada’s Sherman Howard and Alva Tabor becoming the first blacks to play a college football game in the state of Oklahoma. Nevada won, 65-14.

Despite missing out on playing Mississippi State, a big-time school at the time, Trachok said the team didn’t have any regrets about cancelling the game.

“They were a big school but that never came to anybody’s mind,” Trachok said. “We just thought the important thing was if they didn’t want our blacks to play, we all weren’t going to play. That was the only thing people mentioned. Nobody ever said, ‘This is bad because we’re going to miss playing a good team.’”

___

Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com

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