Photo provided by Garnet and Great/FSU archivist; taken by Bill Wood/Florida Flambeau
In recent months, racial injustices have come to the forefront of society’s conscience.
Many alive today grew up during a time of segregation. The racial makeup of athletic programs today look far different than they did a half-century ago.
On this day 50 years ago, Florida State played its first black football player. On Sept. 12, 1970, James “J.T. Thomas” not only became the first black player to play in a game for the Seminoles, but he played a major factor in the contest. In the season opener, Thomas’ blocked field goal helped the Seminoles preserve a 9-7 victory over Louisville.
Fresh off a 6-3-1 finish in 1969, FSU opened the 1970 season at home. Louisville had gone 5-4-1 the prior season and was looking to start 1970 off on the right foot.
Thomas Saves the Day
The Seminoles had taken a 9-0 lead into the final quarter, but that was on the verge of evaporating. The contest seemed to swing when FSU’s Arthur Munroe fumbled into the Louisville end zone.
With less than eight minutes to go in the game, Bill Gatti scored from four yards out to break up the shutout and move Louisville to within two points. With time ticking away, Roger Gruneisen lined up for a 33-yard field goal attempt. Thomas blocked the kick, seemingly preserving the win for the Seminoles, but there was one problem.
Thomas was called for offsides.
With 17 seconds to go, Gruneisen was given the opportunity to try again from 28 yards out. It was deja vu.
With the help of 6-foot-4 Dan Whitehurst, Thomas blocked the kick yet again. FSU had prevailed.
The block would serve as Thomas’ second of the day. His first set up kicker Frank Fontes’ 47-yard field goal to get the scoring started in the second quarter. FSU’s lone touchdown of the day also was provided by a big special teams play as David Snell returned a punt 71 yards early in the third quarter.
Thomas was the hero for FSU, but he wasn’t alone. Benny Rust had a key interception for FSU.
Gatti led the Louisville offense with 109 yards rushing. The Cardinals finished with 283 yards to 212 for FSU, but it wasn’t enough.
The 1970 season would be the final campaign for the Seminoles under head coach Bill Peterson. FSU would go on to finish 7-4. Louisville finished strong during an 8-3-1 season.
As for Thomas, he was just getting started. Thomas would spend three years in Tallahassee and was named a first-team All-American by multiple publications in 1972.
Thomas would go on to spend nine years in the NFL and win four Super Bowls as an integral part of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” defense. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1976.
In 1979, Thomas would break the color barrier again when he became the first black football player to be inducted into the FSU Hall of Fame. Thomas became the first black player to take the football field for the Seminoles on this day a half-century ago.