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Sports Helped Ease Integration

John Dobbins was a star running back at Radford High School and went on to become the first black football player at Virginia Tech. "At the time, I really didn't think about it," he says of breaking the color barrier there. "Then you look back and see what you did, you feel good about what you went through."

The Roanoke Times

John Dobbins began thinking about the possibility of being the first black football player at Virginia Tech during those Saturday afternoons in the mid-1960s when he stood on the sidelines of Lane Stadium.

He wasn't a player then, he was only a teenager, a local kid from Radford who had finagled sideline passes from friends. He had grown up a Tech fan, so he knew there had never been a black face behind the face masks on the Tech helmets.

"I knew I was going to be the first," said Dobbins, who was a star running back at Radford High School. "No one ever mentioned it when they were recruiting me, but I knew I would be the first."

John Dobbins, 10/14/72 Homecoming vs. Oklahoma State University
John Dobbins carrying the ball vs. Oklahoma State University Homecoming, October 14, 1972
University Archive Photograph Collection

Dobbins' decision to play at Tech was a moment deemed so significant that the ceremony in which he and Radford teammate Tommy Edwards, a white running back and defensive back, signed to play for the Gobblers was televised live on head coach Jerry Claiborne's show.

At the time, freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition, so if it wasn't until the fall of 1970 that Dobbins became the first black football player in Tech's history, two years after track star Jerry Gaines became Tech's first black athlete in any sport.

In three seasons, Dobbins rushed for 705 yards and scored three touchdowns. He played mostly as a starting fullback, a position that requires a player to do more blocking for other running backs than actually carrying the football.

Being the first black player at Tech did not seem as monumental to Dobbins then as it does now.

"At the time, I really didn't think about it," he said. "I was just thrilled to be going there at all....Than you look back and see what you did, you feel good about what you went through."

Sports had always been a way for Dobbins to mingle easily with white people in the 1960s. By the time Dobbins became part of the second class of black students to attend Radford in 1964, he had already known many of his schoolmates by playing alongside them on the football fields, basketball courts and baseball diamonds of Radford's sandlot program.

Radford had integrated its recreation department under the leadership of director B. Dave Bisset and assistant director Joe Hodge around 1960.

"I was going to school with kids I'd played with," said Dobbins, now 40; who works as a supervisor at Volvo GM Heavy Truck Corp. in Dublin. "That helped with integration in this town more than anything I know of. A lot of the kids already knew each other [before the time of integration]. That shows how sports can help bring people together."

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