Chuck Ealey deserves to be in the College Football Hall of Fame
By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer
Editor's Note: As part of FOX Sports' series of Black History Month Stories, writer RJ Young is examining the players, teams and moments that changed college and professional football.
"Chuck Ealey was a beast."
That’s Tony Dungy — you know, Peyton Manning’s old coach — talking about one of the best quarterbacks he has ever seen. Dungy came of age in Southeastern Michigan around the time Ealey was shattering records 70 miles away at the University of Toledo.
"He was Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson before we realized QBs like that could play in the NFL," Dungy said. "I was in high school when he played for Toledo, and he inspired me. Too bad he was a generation to[o] early."
In high school and college, Ealey’s teams never lost a game with him under center. From 1969 to 1971, Ealey and the Toledo Rockets strung together three consecutive undefeated seasons. His record was 35-0.
The man never lost. He didn’t even tie.
Only Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey and USC quarterback Matt Leinart — each of whom compiled 34-game winning streaks — have come close to matching that record. To find an unbeaten run that surpasses Toledo’s with Ealey, you have to go back almost 70 years to when Oklahoma won 47 straight from 1953 to 1957.
Some folks say wins are not a QB stat. Fair enough. But when Ealey arrived at Toledo, the Rockets were 25-32-2 in their previous six seasons.
Chuck Ealey, who starred in the Canadian Football League, never lost a game at Toledo, going 35-0 as a college quarterback.
Yet the quarterback with the most consecutive victories as a starter, Ealey, isn’t in the College Football Hall of Fame.
What’s worse is that he might never be. This year’s ballot represented Ealey’s final chance to receive the honor he deserves, and he wasn’t even on it.
"IT JUST WASN’T TRUE"
The Hall of Fame snub might be the latest injustice Ealey has had to stomach, but it damn sure isn’t the first.
When Ealey entered the NFL Draft in 1972, all 26 of the league’s teams passed on him — not once but 17 times. Somehow, with 442 players drafted, the quarterback who finished eighth in the Heisman voting that year wasn’t among them.
How the hell does that happen? Ealey passed for 4,824 yards and gained 865 on the ground in three years at Toledo. He threw 42 touchdown passes and ran for another 12.
Ealey became the first Black quarterback to win the Grey Cup when he led Hamilton to the CFL championship in 1972.
Between high school and college, he was 65-0 as a starting quarterback, and he hadn’t tasted defeat in almost a decade.
Does that sound like the résumé of an undrafted free agent? When asked what went wrong, Ealey told the Louisville Courier-Journal about a rumor published in the Toledo Blade the day before the draft.
"One of the primary reasons was the Canadian thing," Ealey said. The Ohio paper had quoted an anonymous NFL scout claiming Ealey signed a three-year, $100,000 contract with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.
"It just wasn’t true," Ealey said.
Other reports suggested — maybe even more ridiculously than the CFL rumor — that Ealey couldn’t throw the ball far and couldn’t throw it accurately.
That one made Toledo’s sports information director, Max Gerber, blow a gasket. "Can’t throw long?" Gerber said. "Chuck threw 43 touchdown passes — and 23 of them were 40 yards or better.
"Can’t throw accurately? In three years, Chuck completed 54% of his passes — only 11 quarterbacks in college history had a better percentage, and that includes a hell of a lot of guys who become professional quarterbacks."
Well, if you believe that the entire NFL passed on Ealey because he had a weak arm or because one nameless scout said he had already signed in Canada, then I have a bridge in Toledo to sell you.
No, the reason Ealey didn’t get selected for in ’72 NFL Draft is because he was a Black quarterback who told NFL clubs that he didn’t want to play another position.
At that point, it was still common practice to ask Black college quarterbacks to play different positions in the pros. Only two Black quarterbacks had ever started an AFL or NFL game: Marlin Briscoe, who got five midseason starts with the Denver Broncos in 1968, and James "Shack" Harris, who started just one game — the Buffalo Bills’ season opener in 1969.
But Ealey didn’t flat-out refuse to play any position besides QB. He just said he wanted to be allowed to compete for the job.
"I wouldn’t be satisfied to go somewhere and be a defensive back without getting a chance to be a quarterback," Ealey told the Courier-Journal. "If I went somewhere and found out I couldn’t make it as a quarterback, that would be different."
The pre-draft rumor that helped sink Ealey’s NFL dream turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. He took his talents to Canada, signing with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats and playing his career out of the view of most NFL fans.
Ealey, who also played for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts, visits the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse in 1977 to lead a chapel service.
What did Ealey accomplish north of the border? He only led Hamilton to the CFL title as a rookie, becoming the first Black quarterback to do so in league history.
THEM'S THE RULES
Now, it seems the College Football Hall of Fame has made certain that most college football fans won’t think of Ealey’s college accomplishments as they should — as being worthy of the Hall.
During his 35-0 run at Toledo, the Rockets won by an average of 23 points, went 3-for-3 in Tangerine Bowl appearances and finished two seasons ranked in the top 20.
Ealey and Toledo whipped Lou Holtz’s William and Mary 40-12 in the 1970 Tangerine Bowl.
Displaying the brand bias the sport still suffers from today, the Rockets didn’t finish any of those undefeated seasons ranked higher than No. 12 in the Associated Press poll.
After going 11-0 in 1969, they didn’t finish ranked at all.
Now, due to a pair of technicalities in the College Football Hall of Fame induction criteria, Ealey might never receive the honor he clearly deserves.
First, the rules say that only players who made first-team All-America according to "a selector recognized by the NCAA" will be considered. His senior year at Toledo, Ealey was a third-team AP All-American, a second-team United Press International All-American and a first-team Football News All-American.
Back then, Football News was not an NCAA-recognized selector.
The rules also require potential Hall of Fame inductees to have played their final season of college football in the past 50 years. This year marks a half-century since Ealey finished his career at Toledo, and because of the recognized selector rule, he couldn’t be included on the ballot.
His last hope is located within an asterisk on the website of the National Football Foundation, which oversees the Hall of Fame induction process: "Players that do not comply with the 50-year rule may still be eligible for consideration by the FBS and Divisional Veterans Committees, which examine unique cases."
The Hall has made some exceptions. Both Fran Tarkenton and Archie Manning are members, even though neither of them made any selector’s first-team All-America.
Will the Hall selectors do right by Ealey and honor a great Black quarterback who never got the opportunities or recognition he deserved?
Or will it allow technicalities to make the College Football Hall of Fame seem deliberately obtuse, too late and incomplete?