GREATEST MOMENTS | Lafayette won ‘The Greatest Game They Never Played’


Lafayette-greatest-1Lafayette may have paved the way to Texas Western’s “Glory Road” in 1966.

On Nov. 19, 1948, the Leopards were invited to play in the Sun Bowl against Texas College of Mines — later Texas Western and now UTEP. But there was a stipulation.

Enforcing the South’s segregationist policies, the University of Texas Board of Regents refused to allow Lafayette tailback David Showell to play because he was black.

That sparked “The Greatest Game They Never Played” and the sports moment judged the greatest in Lafayette history, one that was a catalyst for social change.

Lafayette, one of the oldest college football programs, had been one of the most successful from 1921-48 with two national championships, four undefeated seasons and several All-Americans during that time.

In 1948, Showell and captain Danny Kovacs led the Leopards to a 7-2 record, including victories against Fordham and rival Lehigh.

Before the Lehigh game, Lafayette received the invitation to play in El Paso. The Sun Bowl would have been the team’s first major bowl game and Showell told teammates he didn’t want to be the reason they missed it.

Lafayette-1949-Sun-BowlBut Lafayette declined because Showell could not play. Students gathered in a demonstration in support for the school’s stand against segregation.

“I think that could possibly be one of the earliest student civil rights demonstrations anywhere,” Lafayette archivist Diane Shaw told The Guardian’s Les Carpenter in 2015.

According to historical accounts, students wired President Truman, journalist Walter Winchell and others. The telegram to Truman read: “Denied Sun Bowl game because we have a Negro on our team. Is that democracy?”

The next day, approximately 1,000 students assembled in Lafayette’s Pardee Hall and passed a resolution stating their opposition to racial discrimination: “We protest the racial discrimination against one of our fellow students and declare without equivocation our firm resolve that all Americans have equal rights under the law.”

“He was one of us,” Frank Downing, who was the team’s quarterback, told Carpenter in 2015.

“Maybe this was the first type of thing where black players were treated equal to white players. I guess it was more a statement that all Americans are created equal.”

Lafayette never did go to a bowl game. After 1949, the school began to de-emphasize football. The Leopards now compete in FCS, formerly NCAA Division I-AA.

But the school and the 1948 football team made a lasting impact, an early ripple in the wave of racial equality that swept across the South and the nation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Lafayette’s refusal to play helped force the Sun Bowl to change its policy. On Jan. 1, 1952, Texas Tech and Pacific played the first integrated Sun Bowl. Texas Tech won, 25-14.

After Lafayette’s rejection, West Virginia accepted and beat Texas Mines, 21–12, on Jan. 1, 1949. The quarterback for Texas Mines, Jim Bowden, became Texas Western’s assistant athletic director in 1966.

That was the year of “Glory Road,” when Texas Western made history as the first men’s basketball team to win the NCAA Tournament with an all-black starting lineup. That opened the doors wider to integration.

In 2004, Lafayette earned its commemoration in the song “The Greatest Game They Never Played” by folk singer Terry Kitchen:

So give up a cheer for the Leopards

Not for the touchdowns they made

But for standing together

To win the greatest game they never played

To win the greatest game they never played

• Maroon Club Hall of Fame

Middle and on the cover: Because David Showell (inset) was not allowed to play in the 1949 Sun Bowl, Lafayette rejected an invitation, leading to a student demonstration against segregation. (Courtesy Lafayette College Archives)


Monday: Kent State and Lafayette
Tuesday: Lake Superior State and Lamar
Wednesday: LaSalle and Lehigh
Thursday: Liberty and Longwood
Friday: Louisiana Tech and Loyola Maryland

Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.