Sandy Stephens (2009)

Former Uniontown High School quarterback Sandy Stephens was a sports hero of mythic proportions; he was a legend on the playgrounds in Uniontown. Sadly, Stephens succumbed to heart failure on June 6, 2000.

Stephens starred on some great Uniontown football teams in the late 1950s. He started the final game of his sophomore year at quarterback and was the starter as a junior and a senior.

Sandy Stephens  

In 1956, the Raiders were 8-2 with losses coming at the hands of Mt. Lebanon, 28-13, and Monessen, 7-0. The 1957 squad was unbeaten at 8-0, but 16 players were stricken with the flu and two games were cancelled against Redstone and Baldwin. The Redstone game was rescheduled but Gardner points knocked the Raiders out of a chance to play for the title.

Stephens was disappointed that the Raiders were kept out of the playoffs by Gardner points in his senior season.

“The Asiatic flu was the real reason that we missed out,” Stephens lamented. “We didn't get a chance to play Baldwin and they were a good team and we would have had enough points. We would have been first or second had we been able to play them but we missed Baldwin and Redstone Twp. We made up the Redstone game at the end of the season but we couldn't make up Baldwin so that made us third in the Gardner race. Everyone wanted to see Clairton and Uniontown, all of western Pennsylvania wanted to see those two. My college roommate Judge Dickson was on the Clairton team. We had played against them in camp and that's how I got to know him, but they ended up playing Wilkinsburg because there were four undefeated teams and New Kensington was the fourth one. Wilkinsburg was the first team.”

Stephens had a soft spot for his football coach at Uniontown, Bill Power.

“We had two great teams that I played on,” Stephens opined “My sophomore year we kind of learned what the game was about under a real good coach in Bill Power.”

Stephens completed his brilliant high school career at Uniontown when he graduated in 1958. He had won 9 letters in all, three each in track, basketball and football. He scored the winning touchdown in the first Big 33 game and garnered All-State honors.

He was pursued by over 50 Division I colleges for football. He also had 6 basketball offers and interest from the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies. Stephens chose to play football at Minnesota.

Stephens arrived at Minnesota with Judge Dickson, a fullback and linebacker, from neighboring Clairton. Stephens’ buddy from Uniontown, halfback Bill Munsey, joined him a year later.

“On our recruiting visit, Judge and I stood in front of the Radisson Hotel in downtown Minneapolis for three hours on a Saturday afternoon,” Stephens said. “We didn't see one black face. I told Judge, ‘We're still coming to Minnesota, and we're still going to the Rose Bowl.’

“I went to Minnesota because I thought I would get a chance to play quarterback and I wanted to play in the Big Ten. I felt like we had the best high school football in western Pennsylvania. I played against the best. I played in the Big 33 game. Out there where the Pennsylvania All State and All Americans beat the rest of the All Americans from the rest of the country. I wanted to go where I thought it was the toughest and roughest league because of the fact that they felt like I couldn't play quarterback and I wanted to go where the toughest league was to disprove them.”

At Minnesota, Stephens was a catalyst for a national championship team in 1960. That was a special year; the Gophers went from last in the Big Ten in 1959 to first in 1960.

After losing to Washington 17-7 in the 1961 Rose Bowl, Minnesota went 7-2 and beat UCLA 21-3 in the 1962 Rose Bowl. Stephens had an outstanding game scoring two touchdowns, a career highlight.

Stephens reaped the benefits of his outstanding 1961 season, as he was named Associated Press and UPI first-team All-American, first-team Sporting News All-American, All-Big Ten conference, and Big Ten most valuable player. He was fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting behind Ernie Davis of Syracuse. Oddly enough, Davis was born in New Salem, outside of Uniontown, lived there until he was 12 years old.

“I knew Ernie extremely well,” Stephens recalled. “We played on the same midget ball club. Ernie and I played basketball at East End playground. He was also on the Benson midget league team. Ernie was the third baseman and I pitched. That's where I got my arm for football. I pitched in the midget league and the pony league. Ernie's father died when we were in seventh grade and he went to live with his mother in Elmira, N.Y. He would come home every summer. When Ernie and I made first-team All American football, we had never seen each other play. We knew we could both play basketball and baseball, but we never thought of each other as football players.”

When he graduated from Minnesota, Stephens was drafted by the New York Titans of the fledgling AFL and by the Cleveland Browns of the NFL. The Titans didn't want to put any contract money in escrow. The Browns were a different story.

Stephens' version was that Jim Brown, the great running back, called and said: “Sandy, if you think you're going to be the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, you're crazy.”

Brown told Stephens that Cleveland and the NFL were not ready for a black quarterback.

Stephens wasn't going to stop being a quarterback, so he signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. In Canada, he bounced around for a few years. He had a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs, but wasn’t the same player after a serious car accident.

Stephens never got the chance to play quarterback in the NFL and that haunted him until the day he died.

Stephens was inducted into the Western Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, Rose Bowl Hall of Fame and is a member of the University of Minnesota Hall of Fame.


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