The Lou Montgomery Story E-mail
Tuesday, 27 March 2012 22:21

Why Boston College Should Change the Name of its Football Stadium.



If you have a connection with Boston College, its football program over the years,or college football in general, it's possible you may have heard the name Lou Montgomery.  It's much more likely that you haven't.

Lou didn't win a Heisman Trophy like Doug Flutie, or the Outland Trophy, like Mike Ruth, or a slew of National Defensive Player of the Year Awards, like Luke Kuechly.  He wasn't mentioned on any level of All-American teams, or  All-East teams, or any All-Conference teams, since in that era BC played as an independent. Nor is his larger-than-life photograph among those decorating the walls of BC's Alumni Stadium.

In fact, Lou didn't show up as a starter for BC games – not many, anyway. And he was held out of many games altogether, either because the opposition didn't want him on the field, or because the BC coaching staff, having to gain experience in games in which his absence was required, limited his playing time the previous week so the guys who would be allowed to play could gain experience playing without him.

But he was a highly prized recruit for the Eagles just after graduating from Brockton (MA) High School.  Based on his high school exploits, today he might well have been named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Massachusetts.  Lou was a consensus all-scholastic. He wasn't particularly big – maybe 5'6”, 5'7”, and 150 pounds.  But he was a brilliant and exciting open field runner, and he attracted the attention of coaches recruiting all the way from Massachusetts to as far away as UCLA.

Lou elected to stay in Massachusetts and to attend BC, where he would become the school's first black athlete in any sport.  He excelled as expected for the freshman team, then moved up to the varsity as a sophomore.  The head coach that year (1938) was Gil Dobie.  Dobie was not known for running an exciting offense, and he didn't  have much use for his young and elusive running back from Brockton.  Fortunately for Lou, Dobie's contract wasn't renewed, and BC, with visions of football greatness shining in its eyes, went and hired the soon tobe immortal Frank Leahy as its new head coach.

It didn't take Leahy long to realize that Montgomery could become a major spark plug in his backfield, along with stellar performers Vito Ananis, Henry Tocyzlowski, Frank Maznicki, and of course, the famous Chuckin' Charlie O'Rourke.  All-American Mike Holovak would move up from the freshman
team just a year later.

Lou's swiftness of foot and ability to evade tacklers soon led to his two nick-names – Lightning Lou and Hula Lou.  The bright side of all this talent, in the Boston College backfield as well as the line, was a 20 – 2 record for the seasons of 1939 and 1940.  This record included two major bowl games:

  • The Cotton Bowl, in Dallas against Clemson on 1/1/40 (Clemson won 6 – 3)
  • The Sugar Bowl, in New Orleans, on 1/1/41 (undefeated BC defeated undefeated and virtually unscored on Tennessee 19 – 13 in one of the great college football games of that or any season).

But there was a decided dark side to all of this as well.  In order to beef up its schedule, and to become familiar to those who hosted the bowls (all southerners with the exception of the Rose Bowl) BC had already started to schedule games against major teams from the mid- and the deep-south:

  • North Carolina State in 1936;
  • Kentucky in 1937;
  • The University of Florida in 1938 and 1939;
  • Auburn in 1939 and 1940;
  • Tulane in 1940 and 1941.

For a long time there had been something best described as a “Gentlemen's Agreement” between and among officials of northern and southern colleges and universities in the scheduling of athletic events with each other's schools.  This agreement was basically an understanding that if the northern (or mid-western, or western) school had any non-white players, it would agree not to bring them to play in any athletic contests in the south.  Some southern schools were so entrenched in segregationist (Jim Crow) culture that they even tried to impose these values when they traveled north to battle northern opponents.  Of course, the northern schools had more leverage, if they chose to utilize it, in these latter situations, than when they competed in the south.

Lou Montgomery couldn't have known it at the time, but he was about to become the most victimized athlete in the history of Jim Crow as applied to major college sports – both below and ABOVE the Mason-Dixon line.  For Lou was to be held out of no less six football games because of a combination of his skin color and BC's unwillingness to back up its own widely preached democratic and Christian principles and values.

It began with the third game of the 1939 football season: BC vs the University of Florida, at Fenway Park in Boston.  It turned out that BC administrators had agreed to placing a clause in the game contract that allowed Florida to cancel the game WITHOUT FINANCIAL PENALTY so as to avoid having to play against a black player.  Historic sources mention that BC officials attempted at game time to argue this point, but when Florida refused to back down, Leahy told Montgomery that he would not be able to play against the Gators.  BC, heavily favored to win the game, lost 7 – 0.

Score: Jim Crow 1; Lou Montgomery 0.

Then shortly afterward, it happened again, at another 1939 BC home game – this time against Auburn University.  In the aftermath of the Florida game, sources state that embarrassed BC administrators had promised not to sign any more game contracts with racially restrictive clauses, but apparently they weren't being what we would now call fully transparent, because apparently they had already done so.  And again Jim Crow laws ruled, and Lou remained on the bench for the game against Auburn, won by BC, 13 – 7.

Score: Jim Crow 2; Lou Montgomery 0.

BC finished the 1939 season with a record of 9 wins against just the single loss to Florida.  Lou Montgomery, in the games he was allowed to play in, rushed for an average of 9.7 yards per carry, quite possibly the highest rushing average in the history of college football.  Now highly ranked in the Associated Press poll (the only major ranking system at the time) BC was invited to play in the Cotton Bowl against Clemson, in Dallas Texas, on January 1, 1940.  This would be BC's first post-season bid.  But Dallas was still very much the “Old South”.  BC was told that its lone black player wasn't welcome, but chose to accept the invitation nonetheless.  For the third time that season, BC threw principle to the wind in order to increase its prestige in  the world of college football.  The financial payoff didn't hurt, either.  With Lightning Lou not on the field, BC lost 6 – 3.

Score: Jim Crow 3; Lou Montgomery 0.

But it was the 1940 gridiron season which brought the greatest glory, and perhaps the greatest shame as well, to Boston College and its rising star football team. The second game of the season was against Tulane University, at Tulane's home field in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Tulane was still a national football power in those days, but BC won easily by a score of 27 to 7.  Not only did Lou not play in this game, he was not even allowed to stay or to eat meals with his own team-mates.  Again, BC was OK with one of its own getting treated as a second class human being.  After all, they would be getting a chance to show their stuff in front of New Orleans-based Sugar Bowl officials.  Lou was farmed out to stay and eat in facilities of Xavier University, an all-black Catholic institution.

Score: Jim Crow 4; Lou Montgomery 0.

A few weeks later, Auburn came again to Boston for another BC home game. The Eagles whipped the Tigers, 33 – 7, to remain unbeaten.  Did Lou play this time?  Of course not, even though BC officials were now well grounded in what Auburn would agree to do and not do.

Score: Jim Crow 5; Lou Montgomery 0.

By the end of the season BC was unbeaten at 10 wins against no losses, and was ranked right up there with the elite football programs in the country.  The AP poll went like this – before any bowl games were played:


  1. Minnesota
  2. Stanford
  3. Michigan
  4. Tennessee
  5. Boston College
  6. Texas A&M
  7. Nebraska
  8. Northwestern
  9. Mississippi State
  10. Washington

All in all, it wasn't a bad year, rankings-wise, for Jesuit schools, with both Fordham (#12) and Georgetown (#13) not far behind.

As a result of its gridiron success, BC was invited to play in the Sugar Bowl, where its opponent would be the high-scoring and also undefeated Volunteers of the University of Tennessee.  Now living the dream of back-to-back years of big time football success, and now wholly comfortable with granting whatever southern segregationist schools and customs required of them, BC accepted the Sugar Bowl bid, fully knowing that once again that Lou Montgomery, despite his own high-level contributions to his team's success, would not be allowed to participate in what should have been the game of his life.  He did accompany the team to New Orleans, and played, for cash, in an all-black all-star football game.  The Sugar Bowl powers-that-be also magnanimously allowed Lou to watch the game from the press box, where he assisted those broadcasting the game back to Boston in amassing game statistics.

Score: Jim Crow 6; Lou Montgomery 0.

The Years Since.

Has BC ever seriously stepped up to the plate and acknowledged that it took the easy way out?

That, as a supposed moral leader, it erred grievously in seeking what it saw as the glories of a successful big-time football program over human decency?  I would have to say no.  In my own experiences in the classrooms of both BC High School and Boston College (1954 through 1962), the Jesuit priests and scholastics preached to us that doing the right thing; making the hard choice; was the moral superior to making excuses and making the expedient choice  I imagine that this tone was also in effect back in the decade of the 1930s as well.

BC found itself in a position to call attention to the severe injustices that were taking place, not just in the south, but pretty much everywhere else in the country as well.  They could have shown that they practiced what they preached in the classroom and the pulpit.  But instead they blamed others – the hardened Jim Crow attitudes of southern institutions – rather than “manning up” and doing the right thing.

Lou Montgomery graduated and spent a career working in the insurance and airline industries.  He died in 1994.  He was posthumously named to the Boston College Varsity Club Hall of Fame in 1997.

In 2004, Reid Oslin, Associate Director of the BC Office of Public Affairs, who previously functioned as BC Sports Information Director, came out with the book TALES FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE SIDELINE, a football history.  In Chapter 6, he goes on about the glories of the two high-achieving Frank Leahy years of 1939 and 1940, before Leahy opted out of his just-signed new five year BC contract because Notre Dame had offered him its head coaching job.  Amazingly, in this chapter there is not a single mention of Lou Montgomery

Curiously, only when the reader gets to Chapter 9 (Maroon & Gold, But Not Black) does there appear a sanitized version of the Lou Montgomery saga. Oslin attempts to portray Mr. Montgomery as the good-natured “good sport” in the whole nasty series of events, rather than the victim of avoidable racial oppression and injury to human dignity.  Instead of finally confronting the real issues that Lou's treatment raised,  Oslin offers bromides instead, such as in regard to the 1940 Auburn game, played in Boston “Jim Crow reared his ugly head again, and Montgomery did not play”.  Even the setting of these two indivisible stories into two distinct chapters smacks of a latter day Separate But Equal.

Oslin manages a little better in his 2008 multi-media book/memorabilia combination entitled THE BOSTON COLLEGE FOOTBALL VAULT: THE HISTORY OF THE EAGLES. The unique package itself is a highly creative and attractive achievement.  In it, although he still tries to portray BC rather than Montgomery as a victim of the  times, Oslin does manage to include two pictures of Lou.  The standard photo that I've come across of the starting BC eleven does not include Lou Montgomery in the back-field.  Still, the segregationist “spirit of the day” continues to get the blame for what occurred, not BC's inability to take a moral stand when it was needed most.

Can Anything Meaningful Be Done Now, Over Seventy Years Later?

It has been a long time since the events which comprise the Lou Montgomery story occurred.  Can anything be done today to decisively show that Boston College has learned its lesson in placing football prestige over social justice?That is has since realized that in the late 1930s and early forties it really “blew it” when it came to taking matters of racial justice seriously?  Of course, as mentioned earlier, the university has added Mr. Montgomery to the wall of plaques that comprise the Varsity Hall of Fame along one wall of Conte Forum. But is that enough?  I for one think not.

Boston College football goes on today, played (most years, anyway) at a pretty high level.  There is some irony that BC has elected to leave its original athletic conference – one which contains most of the Catholic universities which still compete at the top level in many sports – in order to join a conference made up otherwise of all southern universities. Of course, all of these below-the-Mason-Dixon-line universities now pursue talented African-American athletes with all of the determination that they once used to keep them off the playing field or court.

BC plays its home football games in the blandly named Alumni Stadium. Like many schools, the alumni have chipped in when such facilities were being designed and constructed.  Apparently, in BC's case, no single alum contributed such a large amount as to get his or her name on the building itself.  Which I feel now is a good thing.

In actuality, Alumni Stadium sounds kind of pedestrian – maybe a little boring.  I propose the Alumni Stadium be renamed Lou Montgomery Stadium, and further, that a statue of Lightning/Hula Lou be placed right out there in front of it next to that of Doug Flutie.  And there should be a plaque right there on, or close to the statue, that tells Lou's story – both the good and the bad.

This will be kind of a redemption story.  Catholics and Catholic institutions are supposed to be all about redemption.  Americans in general love a good redemption story, and stand ready to forgive all transgressions when the offender is contrite.  

We love it when the transgressor comes clean regarding past failings. BC is among those people and institutions who have from time to time not lived up to their expectations of themselves.  But we will love her all the more when she finally agrees to “fess up” - to allow the real story to come out, despite the blemishes.  I bet this even helps recruiting.  Boston was the home of William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolitionist movement.  This positive reputation has suffered in recent years.  The Boston School Committee was found by a Federal court to have for years run two separate and decidedly unequal public school systems – one for whites and the other for blacks.  The move by BC of what I propose will further help to make Boston less known as a city inhospitable to people of color.

I say it's a win-win.


Last Updated on Friday, 13 April 2012 10:24

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