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Mile High Morning: Looking back on Walter Highsmith's pioneering stint with the Broncos as the first Black starting center

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Walter Highsmith's football career may not have truly taken off until after he left the Broncos and entered the Canadian Football League, but the former offensive lineman still remembers the memorable 1968 season he was part of in Denver.

That year, two Broncos broke two pro football color barriers. The most notable was that of Marlin Briscoe, who became the first Black player to start at quarterback, but Highsmith also made history in his own right as the first Black player to start at center.

"That kind of went under the radar," Briscoe said in 2007.

The way that modern pro football integrated after the dissolution of an informal ban on Black players that lasted from 1933-46, African-Americans broke the color barriers at certain positions but not at others, like quarterback, inside linebacker and center. Those positions were considered the most cerebral, and racist stereotypes of the time dictated that African-Americans weren't qualified to play those positions.

"My dad told me about the history of offensive linemen in the NFL and how African-Americans usually played the left tackle position, and they didn't play guard and they didn't play center," Highsmith's son, Alonzo, said on Thursday. "… It was no different than the Black quarterback — wasn't smart enough. Guards and centers were the smartest guys, and the athletic guys played tackle."

With that start in Week 4 against Cincinnati — the same game Briscoe made history as the starting quarterback — Walter opened the door. Even though the Broncos wouldn't make him their long-term starter, the decision helped pave the way for the likes of Hall of Fame center Dwight Stephenson in the years to come.

Looking back on that moment more than 50 years later, Walter demurred about the historic moment in regards to race. To him, he was simply glad that it meant he had a role on the team.

"Couldn't do nothing if you didn't make the team!" Walter said Thursday in an interview with DenverBroncos.com. "I wasn't thinking about Black or white, just that I made the team."

In his home, though, Walter would mention it when he told his son about the salad days of his football career, playing alongside the likes of "Bullet" Bob Hayes at Florida A&M and Rich "Tombstone" Jackson with the Broncos.

"I always knew it because we talked about it and stuff like that. But it wasn't something that was maybe publicly known," Alonzo said. "I've always known it and always been proud, but I didn't think anyone really in the NFL kept up with anything like that."

The Broncos would later trade Walter to Pittsburgh before the 1970 season. That summer, after players went on strike, the Steelers released him and he ventured out to start a new stage of his football career in the CFL with the Montreal Alouettes.

Being in a different country, not to mention a region that prides itself on being predominately French-speaking, didn't faze him. That the Alouettes were the most successful team he had been on since leaving college didn't hurt either.

"We won the Grey Cup that year," Walter said. "That was the best time I ever had. I should have went there right out of college."

Life in Canada as a Black man also was much different from what he was used to, Walter said.

"It was great," Walter said. "It wasn't no such thing as Black — everybody was everybody. I stayed there. … I didn't come back to the States until 1981, because my kids were all getting ready to go to high school and stuff."

After his playing career, Walter became a longtime coach, teaching football players at each level. He became a head coach for Texas State University — a five-year stint perhaps most famous for producing Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Strahan.

"One thing I learned from Walter Highsmith — he was going to work you into the ground," Strahan said in 2008. "There was no quit. We ran more than anybody. We hit more than I've seen anybody hit. We worked to the point that now being in the NFL, I realize that when it comes to football, this is hard work but it's nothing like what I went through in college. I thank him for that and for instilling a work ethic in me."

Alonzo, himself a former NFL player and now a personnel executive for the Seahawks, still marvels at his father's lengthy history in the game across multiple leagues and credits the tales Walter told for building the foundation for his career.

"My father's probably meant the most to me in my football career, even my scouting career," Alonzo said. "His knowledge of players, he always made sure that I knew the history of the sport, and we always discussed the players from the '60s and '70s and '80s. ... I was almost like an old soul in football, as a young guy, because my dad had so much history. …

"My dad was a part of a lot of history, and he introduced me to a lot of that just telling me stories."

Below the Fold

Troy Renck's new profile of Malik Reed for Denver7 has some interesting tidbits in it, including that his father was Troy University's all-time leading scorer in basketball and that he thought his future might be on the hardwood — until he tried football, which hadn't been his first love. "I got back out there and hit the field and saw some of things I could do to impact the game," Reed told Renck. "I stopped playing basketball and baseball in eleventh grade to focus on the sport. And the rest is history."

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