A few months before he died on March 17, 2002, Bill Munsey and I had a long chat on the telephone. Munsey was in poor health, after surviving heart transplant surgery and taking medication. His heart finally gave out and he passed away of complications following a heart attack. He was 60 years old.
When we spoke he was still having a tough time coming to grips with the death of his childhood friend and teammate Sandy Stephens. The former quarterback had died of a heart attack on June 6, 2000 at the age of 59.
"I’m still recovering," Munsey said. "I didn’t know that a grieving period was this long. It’s actually tough for me to even talk about it. We were about as close as anyone could be, closer than brothers. We grew up together a block apart and as soon as we were old enough to venture outside we knew each other.
“We were inseparable and I guess we really didn’t know it until he died. I guess I really never knew how much I depended on him and he probably depended on me a lot."
Munsey reminisced about his days as a Red Raider. He was an outstanding athlete in track and basketball for the Uniontown High School Red Raiders, but it was on the football field that he became a legend. He was the star running back on the maroon-and-white’s 1957 team, which went undefeated at 9-0.
Sports were a stepping stone for black athletes in the 1950’s and 1960’s and Uniontown was a hot bed for sports. The playground system flourished and great athletes seemed to be on every corner.
"We didn't have a steel mill, but the attitude was the same as in a mill town," Munsey explained. "You had to watch yourself in Uniontown. Any kid you'd meet might be able to outplay you, outrun you or clean your clock."
He was one of six children in the Munsey household. The George Munsey Sr. family lived across the street from a grade school in Uniontown. "That's where the people voted, and my father was the unofficial bronze mayor of Uniontown," Bill Munsey said.
"The politicians on both sides would slip my dad a few hundred bucks for his influence. Then, he'd set up a bar on the porch on election day, the folks would come by, and my dad would tell 'em to vote for whoever they wanted."
The East End Playground was also across the street from the Munsey home, and that's where Sandy Stephens and Bill Munsey honed their athletic skills; it truly was a playground of champions.
Munsey was a 200-pounder, with 10-flat speed in the 100 in high school. Munsey's football nickname was the "Big Train." "There were train tracks at one end of the field," Munsey said. "Whenever that train came by on Friday night, I'd score a touchdown."
Away from football, Munsey had another nickname: "Herky." "Herky was a neighborhood bulldog with the biggest head you ever saw," Munsey said. "Herky scared the daylights out of me, but Herky was lazy, and he'd only chase you about 10 yards. I wasn't much of a distance man, but nothing could beat me in 10 yards."
Several colleges pursued Munsey when he graduated from Uniontown in 1959.
Ohio State put the rush on Munsey, but Stephens convinced his childhood buddy that Minnesota was the place for him.
At the time opportunities for black athletes remained limited. At the University of Minnesota, however, Coach Murray Warmath recruited three black players, including Red Raiders quarterback Stephens, for his 1959 team. The squad finished last at 1-6 in the Big Ten conference, with a 2-7 overall record.
Munsey joined the Golden Gophers the following year, which proved to be one of the more remarkable turnarounds in college football history. The Gophers improved to 8-2 to earn the school’s first invitation to the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif.
The favored Gophers lost 17-7 to the University of Washington at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1961. Munsey, playing right halfback, ran 18 yards on an option play to score his team’s only touchdown.
Minnesota was back at the Rose Bowl a year later, beating UCLA 21-3. Munsey scored the game’s final touchdown on a run from the two-yard line.
After he graduated from Minnesota in 1962, Munsey was in great demand from professional teams on both sides of the border. The B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League courted the 6-foot, 217-pound player, who was also selected by the Cleveland Browns in the fourth round of the National Football League draft.
After five All-CFL seasons for the British Columbia Lions, he played his final pro season at Cleveland in 1968.
Munsey put on a show on the biggest stage as his two touchdowns helped the B.C. Lions beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 1964 Grey Cup game in Toronto.
He scored two touchdowns in the third quarter, one on offense and another on defense. Having replaced injured running back Bob Swift; he took a handoff from quarterback Joe Kapp, and broke over right guard for an 18-yard touchdown.
Later in the quarter, at the B.C. 35-yard line, Hamilton quarterback Bernie Faloney tried to lateral to halfback Johnny Counts, who dropped the ball. In the ensuing scramble for the fumble, Munsey picked up the ball and ran 71 yards for another touchdown.
"I was always first team defense," Munsey recalled. "Our offensive running back Bob Swift got hurt in the first or second quarter and I was called on to go both ways.
“Fortunately, I had a good game and I scored a few touchdowns and still took my turn at defense and did a good job there. We won the game and I was lucky enough to be named MVP."
Munsey’s performance won him the spot he had long coveted, as he was eventually moved to the Lions offensive backfield. He led the team in rushing yards in 1966 and 1967.
He retired having played 76 games. He took a job as a commodities broker with Pillsbury Corp. in Minnesota. He later moved to California as the company's regional manager. His family believes he was the first black commodities broker in the U.S.
Munsey spent 20 years in Fresno in the high-pressure field of brokering commodities - 16 successful years for Pillsbury, two years with his own company, which went bankrupt, and two more with a Fresno firm.
Munsey lost his house in the bankruptcy and was separating from his wife of 21 years when he became ill with a heart condition.
At this time he went through another crisis. Munsey's brother, Chuck Muncie, who had a solid career as a running back in the National Football League, was on trial for attempting to sell two ounces of cocaine to an undercover agent. Muncie was found guilty and served a prison term.
Let’s also clear up the difference in the spelling of the brothers’ last names Munsey and Muncie.
This is how Bill explained the difference.
"My dad had a tendency not to pay his bills, so he would use various names when he signed things, hoping the bills wouldn't find him," Munsey said. "Chuck's the baby in the family, and dad was trying to figure out how to avoid the bill when he was born.
“So, my dad signed Muncie on the hospital forms. Chuck picked up on that later and started using it. He wanted to express his individuality, I guess."
Munsey, after undergoing heart surgery in 1989, was retired and lived in Apple Valley, Calif., a semi-rural town of about 60,000 people until his death in 2002.