As the Colorado football team checked into a Salt Lake City hotel in November of 1956, there was one room key missing.
Frank Clarke and John Wooten, the Buffaloes’ two Black players, didn’t have a place to stay.
Hotel staff told CU head coach Dal Ward, “Colored can’t stay here.”
Ward, who was set to lead his team against the University of Utah that Saturday, responded, “Well, if they can’t stay here, neither can we and we’ll just get on the bus and catch a plane going back to Boulder.”
The staff relented and offered Clarke and Wooten a room “in the crow’s nest,” Wooten said.
Again, Ward spoke up.
“No, Johnny is an offensive lineman and he’ll room with (Bob) Salerno, as he always does,” Ward told the staff, “and Frank is a wide receiver and he’ll room with Dusty Rhodes.”
Wooten, 84, has never forgotten that incident, as well as others where Ward, CU administration and his teammates stood by him and Clarke at a time when the United States was in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement.
“The way they handled it just really, really made me feel like that was the right thing to do,” said Wooten, who lives in Arlington, Tex. “I’ve often wondered many times, had they said to us, ‘Well this is the ’50s and we all know what’s going on in this country in the ’50s’ – the blatant signs and ‘colored water over here’ and ‘colored bathrooms over here’ and restaurants and so forth. The thing about it is, that isn’t the way they handled it. They turned us into really understanding how great Colorado is and what it meant to us.”
In 1955, Clarke became the first Black player on the CU varsity football team. A year later Wooten became the second. Clarke died on July 25, 2018, but Wooten said he remains close friends with some of his CU teammates, including Boyd Dowler.
Growing up in Carlsbad, N.M., Wooten was the youngest of six children to a single mother, Henrietta, and to this day says, “I’m one of the blessed people in the world.”
When Wooten was a child, schools in New Mexico, and around the country, were segregated. Just before he was to begin high school, however, that changed in his hometown, as Carlsbad High School integrated.
Wooten was one of a few Black students at his school and he became a popular student and star athlete. He was All-State in football and basketball and led the Cavemen to two state titles in basketball.
Several schools recruited Wooten, including CU and Denver. Wooten connected with Denver head coach Bob Blackman, who became the head coach of Dartmouth when Wooten was a senior. Blackman tried to get Wooten to Dartmouth, but Wooten’s mother connected with CU freshman coach Hugh Davidson.
“She just felt that Hugh Davidson would look after me,” Wooten said. “She made the right choice.”
An All-American at CU, Wooten helped the Buffs go 20-9-2 in his three years on varsity (1956-58). In 1957, he helped the Buffs lead the country in rushing – still the only time CU has done that. He then became a fifth-round draft choice of the Cleveland Browns in 1959 and played 10 years in the NFL – nine with the Browns and one with the Washington Redskins. He was one of the lead blockers for three Hall of Fame running backs in Cleveland: Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly.
As a player, Wooten was sensational. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and NFL champion (1964) with the Browns. He’s been inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame, the CU Athletics Hall of Fame and the Colorado and New Mexico sports halls of fame.
After his career, he became a player agent, scout and worked in the front offices of the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens. He won two Super Bowls as an executive, with Dallas (1977) and Baltimore (2000).
Wooten has also been a life-long activist, fighting for civil rights since his playing days.
In 1965, he accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. to Washington, D.C., as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He helped Jim Brown establish the Black Economic Union in 1966.
Then, in 1967, Wooten helped organize what was known as the “Cleveland Summit,” a collection of Black athletes, including Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) who supported boxer Muhammad Ali’s objection to serving in the Vietnam War.
Wooten’s fight for justice as never stopped.
“I was between 13 and 14 years old and my mom said to me this: ‘There’s nobody better than you are. … By the same token, don’t ever think that you’re better than anybody,’” Wooten said. “She said, ‘There is nothing more important in this God’s green earth than people. Wherever you go and whatever you do, you make sure that you are doing what you know is right by people.’
“I’ll tell you, everything I have, everything I’ve ever accomplished, someone helped me along the way, sometimes people that I didn’t even know, but they took it upon themselves to help me. That’s what I’m returning.”
For nearly two decades, Wooten has been heavily focused on doing what’s right for Black coaches in football. In 2003, he helped establish the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which is dedicated to providing equal opportunity in the coaching profession. He was chairman until retiring in 2019.
“I had played in high school, I had played in college and I had played in the NFL and I was never on a field where there was a Black coach on my team,” he said. “Being around coaches and knowing what they’re about, I was very much aware of the fact that there’s no reason why Blacks shouldn’t be given the same opportunity. That led into the Fritz Pollard Alliance and the Rooney Rule and what we’re going through here today in the National Football League.”
Wooten is proud to see his alma mater, CU, led by a Black head coach, Karl Dorrell. Dorrell is actually the third Black head coach in CU football history.
Although the fight to get more opportunities for Black men to be head coaches continues, Wooten is happy to see many minorities and women in coaching and officiating.
“Those are the kinds of the things we’re very happy about,” he said.
Asked if he’s pleased with the progress since his playing days, Wooten said. “The answer is yes, but by the same token, we’ve still got to keep pushing to the point where you just know that if you go and prepare yourself, you’re going to get the opportunity.”
Opportunities were provided to Wooten when he was a youth and he has never stopped in his efforts to help others get their fair shot, as well.
“As long as I breathe, I’m going to always be involved in human rights,” he said.
“When I tell people I’ve been blessed, the greatest blessing I’ve ever had, that God has ever given me, is he gave me a Christian mother. … She just made sure I understood what life should be about. You help someone else, someone has helped you. I smile at things that happen in my life and it comes because I know that this is the way that I show her that I’m doing what she wanted me to be.”