Mark W. Wright felt a great sense of pride when "Redemption Song," the short film he produced for ESPN about the Howard men's soccer team's 1974 national championship, premiered at the school's Cramton Auditorium in April 2016. But as Wright, a 1993 graduate of Howard, looked out at the audience that night and saw the faces of a few members of the Bison's 1971 team whose title was vacated by the NCAA, he knew he wasn't done telling their story.
"This is America, right? We want to talk about winners, and we want to talk about falling down and getting back up and holding the trophy at the end of the day," Wright said in a recent phone interview. "That film focused on (the 1974 team). I felt that the '71 group was getting side-barred, and I made a promise to a lot of those guys that I wasn't going to put this story down until I did them justice."
Seven years later, Wright has made good on his vow. The 1971 Howard team that experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows under legendary Coach Lincoln Phillips is the subject of Wright's three-episode podcast "The Bison Project," produced as part of Meadowlark Media's "Sports Explains the World" series. It debuts Wednesday on Wondery Plus and on other podcast platforms starting Nov. 15.
"The Bison Project" features interviews with several of the surviving members of the 1971 team, including lifelong friends Ian Bain and Alvin Henderson of Trinidad and Tobago, and former New York Times reporter Lena Williams, who was the first female editor of "The Hilltop," Howard's student newspaper. Williams covered Phillips's squad in 1971 when it became the first historically Black college or university to win a Division I national title in any sport.
Howard's soccer team burst onto the national scene in 1970. After the Bison started 9-0, The Washington Post declared that Phillips and longtime coach Ted Chambers, who guided the program to an NAIA title in 1961, were "quietly building a soccer dynasty" that "might someday rival UCLA's basketball success." Howard lost to UCLA in its first trip to the NCAA semifinals that year, but returned stronger than ever in 1971.
Players credited Phillips, a former star goalkeeper for Trinidad and Tobago's national team and player-manager for the North American Soccer League's Washington Darts, for building unity on a team composed of players from 10 countries.
After an undefeated 1971 regular season, Howard defeated Harvard, 1-0, in the national semifinals. The Bison met defending national champion Saint Louis, which was riding a 24-match winning streak, in the title game. Howard prevailed, 3-2, at Miami's Orange Bowl on Henderson's second goal of the game, a blast into the upper left corner of the net off a pass from Stan Smith.
"As far as I am concerned, this is the biggest achievement of my life," Phillips told reporters afterward.
At the start of the 1972 season, The Post reported that the NCAA was investigating Howard for potentially using ineligible players. Keith Aqui, the Bison's best player and a focus of the investigation related to his amateur soccer career in Trinidad and Tobago, was sidelined indefinitely.
The Bison enjoyed another dominant regular season and advanced to the national semifinals anyway, but had their 30-game winning streak snapped in a 2-1 overtime loss to Saint Louis. Aqui and Tony Martin had already been declared ineligible for the game because they had played too many years of soccer in Trinidad and Tobago after turning 19. Howard athletic director Leo Miles withheld two other starters, Mori Diane and Keith Look Loy, after meeting with the NCAA rules infractions committee 10 days earlier.
"It's pretty evident that a Black school isn't supposed to win," Phillips said afterward. "Once we start winning, it's considered unfair, we're cheating somehow and things have to be righted."
Phillips echoed those sentiments at a banquet the following night, with NCAA officials in attendance.
"I would say that the NCAA is guilty of practicing racism," he said. "Saint Louis did not beat Howard University last night. They beat the remnants of what was left of Howard University."
The news came via telegram a couple weeks later, on Jan. 9, 1973: The NCAA was placing Howard on one-year probation and stripping it of its 1971 national title. The investigation alleged Aqui and Rick Yallery-Arthur had exhausted their five years of eligibility before the 1971 season by playing in Trinidad and Tobago, and that Martin and Guinean forward Mori Diane had failed to take the SAT or ACT. Diane and Howard filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming the NCAA's ruling was unconstitutional. A judge acknowledged the NCAA's rules were vague and overly complex, but did not find the enforcement of those rules discriminatory. Meanwhile, Saint Louis Coach Harry Keough declined to accept the Bison's vacated trophy.
"There were Black players sprinkled on the best teams of the day in college soccer," Wright, who never received a response from the NCAA in the course of reporting his podcast, said. "(Howard was) the only school with an all-Black team and a Black coach. ... Did Howard unintentionally break some rules? Yes, I don't think we hide from that. Intentionally? I would say no."
Born in England and raised in Jamaica before moving to the D.C. area as a 12-year-old, Wright has a personal connection to this story beyond his Howard degree. Bain, one of three players on the 1971 team who was also on the team that won the 1974 title, was later hired to coach soccer and teach Spanish at Springbrook High School, which Wright attended. Wright joined Springbrook's soccer team as a senior, and Bain became a lifelong mentor.
In "The Bison Project," Wright gives Bain and his teammates their flowers, and the opportunity to speak their truth about the pain that followed a joyous season.
"He would never say on the record that he wanted those flowers, but I know he appreciates it," Wright said. "I still get text messages from a lot of the players, and they're just super grateful that they can share the story with their kids and their grandkids."
Bain and Henderson recall playing soccer as kids in Trinidad and Tobago, and their difficulties assimilating to American college life as freshmen at Howard in the podcast, which is narrated by Wright and Sam Dingman. Williams, the Hilltop reporter, describes the "out of body experience" watching the Bison win the title in 1971 as Sly & The Family Stone's "Family Affair" - the team's unofficial anthem - blared on the pitch, and her dismay at seeing a team of immigrants get labeled as cheats after the NCAA's ruling.
One of the more interesting off-the-field stories Wright explores in the podcast concerns Howard's lack of a White House visit with President Richard M. Nixon after winning the title. (His research took him to the Nixon Library and included interviews with Nixon's former Cabinet members.)
Wright has written to Vice President Kamala Harris, a fellow Howard graduate, about a potential future visit to the White House. He still holds out hope that the NCAA, which has since amended the rules it penalized Howard for violating, might reconsider the Bison's case.
"If they come back with the same conclusion, I won't be happy, but at least they'll have taken a second look," Wright said. "And how great would it be (for the 1971 team) to go to the White House? It would be amazing for them to be recognized with a visit, whether the trophy is with them or not. All I want is something like that for these guys."
SOURCE: The Washington Post