When an athletic program reaches the century milestone, there are bound to be incredible stories about the rich history of the team. As the University of Toledo football team celebrates its centennial, there is no shortage of stories to tell.
One of the most interesting narratives in Rocket football antiquity is that of legendary quarterback Chuck Ealey. Ealey’s story is one of the rare athletic stories that transcends the world of sports and helps tell the history of our country’s evolving and often lamentable race relations.
Ealey did not lose. In his three years at Notre Dame high school in the late 60s, Ealey led the Titans to a state championship in 1967 and finished his high school career with an incredible 30-0 record. These types of statistics would leave any college scout with his jaw on the floor but, in 1967, at the height of the civil rights movement, being a black quarterback was enough to negate Ealey’s previous accomplishments.
Ealey was offered a third-string opportunity at Miami University, but he turned down the offer and went with the starting quarterback job at the University of Toledo. What followed is one of the most impressive careers in not only Toledo football, but in all of college football.
Ealey, as previously stated, did not lose. Ealey played for the Rockets for three years as the starting quarterback and in those three years the University of Toledo lost a total of zero games.
Ealey’s 35-0 career record at Toledo remains the record for a starting quarterback winning streak. From 1969-1971, Ealey led the Rockets to three straight Tangerine Bowl (now called the Citrus Bowl) wins, winning MVP in every one of those victories. Ealey finished eighth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1971 and was named a first-team All-American in the same season.
Ealey’s jersey number is one of four retired numbers in the 100 years history of Toledo football, and he was a charter member in the Mid-American Conference Hall of Fame.
When Ealey entered the NFL draft in 1972, these accomplishments were once again seen as void due to the color of his skin. NFL teams still saw the quarterback as a position that was meant to be played by a white man, and all of the teams that scouted Ealey were interested in him as a wide receiver or as a defensive back.
Ealey stayed determined to play quarterback and wouldn’t let his position be compromised.
Prior to the start of the draft, Ealey sent a letter to all prospective teams that he would only agree to be drafted if he was drafted as a quarterback. To NFL teams, this may as well have been a letter stating he did not want to play in the NFL.
Round after round passed in the draft and, out of the 442 picks made that year, none were for Chuck Ealey. Few teams were interested in signing him as an undrafted free agent, and none of those teams were interested in him as a quarterback.
Ealey continued his career in professional football but not in America. Ealey joined the Canadian Football League in 1972.
“I came to Canada to live the American dream,” Ealey said in an interview during his rookie season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Ealey’s success in the CFL was expected by anyone who had seen his amateur career. Ealey was moved to the starting quarterback position by game four of the season, where he went on to lead the Tiger-Cats to a Grey Cup victory, the CFL version of the Super Bowl. Ealey played seven seasons in the CFL before his career ended with a collapsed lung injury.
When it was all said and done, Ealey had recorded 13,326 passing yards and 82 touchdowns in his CFL career. This level of success does not come by accident, and, along with his impressive college career, it is easy to see that Ealey wasn’t given his chance in the NFL due to the color of his skin and the position he played.
Ealey getting the chance to shine in college is one of the brightest spots in Toledo football’s 100-year history and shows the importance of approaching challenging political topics through the lens of sports.
Ealey’s incredible success at Toledo gives him a spot as not only one of the most important players in Toledo football’s rich history but as an important example of the discrimination and inequality of the past.