LARAMIE, Wyo. — It had been nearly 50 years since the University of Wyoming banished 14 black players from its football team, but the decades-old dispute was all Tom Burman could think about as he guided his car across the grain-colored plains stretching from the Denver airport to campus.

The university’s athletic director had spent the previous night in Orlando watching the players — known as the “Black 14” — accept an award and explain how they had been kicked off the team in 1969 after trying to ask their coach if they could wear black armbands during an upcoming game. They had wanted to show solidarity against racism at a time when civil rights protests were common on the nation’s college campuses.

Instead, they were immediately banished, sending many of their lives into turmoil. Some transferred away from Wyoming, others left school, never to return and never to receive a degree. Burman hurt for the men as he heard how they had been villainized throughout the state as insubordinate and ungrateful, how most fans sided with their white coach and his strict “no protest” policy.

Over beers at the hotel bar later, Burman listened as the players, now in their 60s and 70s, talked of keeping tabs on their former team’s wins and losses, even though most had not been back on campus in decades.

“I thought to myself: These guys, they don’t have a school,” Burman said. “As simple as that was, that was important to me.”

And so, as he drove back to campus in September 2017, Burman decided he had to do something. As it turned out, the school’s president at the time, Laurie Nichols, had been thinking the same thing, working to educate herself on the Black 14 scandal, which remained perhaps the most divisive incident in the school’s 132-year history. When Burman mentioned the idea of trying to repair the university’s relationship with the players, Nichols readily agreed.

“It is a time when universities are really grappling with their histories,” Nichols said. “We can’t go back and change history, but there are times when you can come back and have an appropriate response to it.”

The university’s probe of its past — and how it treated elite players who had been recruited from across the country — came as institutions across the nation were reexamining their sins of the past. Heated debates have arisen about the presence of Confederate monuments in town squares, universities have agreed to pay reparations for their use of slave labor in their early years, and newspapers have issued apologies for encouraging public furors that resulted in lynchings.

Consensus here in Laramie has softened toward the players over time. When the anniversary of the Black 14 would come up, students and faculty felt shame for how the players had been treated. Nostalgia for the white football coach who dismissed them had long since melted away. And the more Nichols read, the more she, like Burman, became convinced it was necessary to publicly soothe the hurt that had been ignored for too long.

She reached out to John Griffin — then 69 and living in Denver — one of the only former Cowboys who had been to campus in recent years. He was receptive.

“It was the first time that a university president had ever reached out to us,” said Griffin, who in May 2018 drove to campus for a meeting. Two other Black 14 players joined by phone for a two-hour discussion.

There was no grand agreement: The university wanted to host an on-campus dinner. The players thought they were owed more.

“Wouldn’t you want it to be special? But this was just a dinner. Hello and goodbye. We said ‘No, not enough.’ ” Griffin said. “But we also let them know we weren’t walking away.”

'I thought it was a dream'

It was three nights before game day when the black players gathered around their dorm room bunks, the campus buzzing with protest.

A campus activist group, the Black Student Alliance, had announced a boycott of the upcoming football game between the University of Wyoming and Brigham Young University. Students wanted to protest the Utah school, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because of a Mormon policy that then forbade black parishioners from becoming clergy. The group had asked the black football players to join their fight.

The players were skeptical. Similar protests of BYU in the past had not led to much change.

Then Tony McGee, a star defensive lineman, interjected.

When the team had traveled to Provo the year prior, BYU players spit on him and took cheap shots at his knees, McGee said. Referees, and even his own coach, had ignored his complaints about racist taunts. When Wyoming’s black players walked back to the locker room after the game, someone turned on the field sprinklers, drenching them.

“I don’t have a problem with Mormons,” he told his teammates. “I have a problem with my treatment on the field.”

Ultimately, the players decided not to join the Black Student Alliance’s protest, but rather to stage their own, with each of them wearing a black armband with a white “14” on the side. It was meant as a warning: if you mess with one of us, you’ve messed with all 14 of us.

But first, they decided, they would talk to Coach Eaton.

Since taking over as head coach in 1962, Lloyd Eaton had led the Cowboys to national prominence, winning the Sun Bowl after the 1966 season and going undefeated in the regular season in 1967.

That success came in part because Eaton was a recruiter ahead of his time. He stacked his roster with nimble pass-rushers and, crucially, was willing to recruit black high school standouts at a time when many major NCAA programs had yet to integrate. On the top teams that did accept black athletes, transfers or underclassmen might have had to wait multiple seasons for playing time, said Guillermo “Willie” Hysaw, a wide receiver who chose the Cowboys over the University of Southern California, the University of California at Los Angeles and Stanford University.

At Wyoming, where Eaton had 17 black players on the roster to start the season — three quit before the BYU fiasco — playing time was readily available.

Eaton’s reign at Wyoming came during the era of the tyrant head coach, which featured strict disciplinarians such as Ohio State University’s Woody Hayes and Arizona State University’s Frank Kush, who expected their players’ full deference. Among his edicts, Eaton banned any political activity or protest. By the time the team’s 14 black players appeared at the field house to ask for permission to wear their armbands, Eaton already was incensed.

“The only words that we could get out of our mouths was, ‘Coach, we came to talk to you about —’ ” Tony Gibson, a junior running back who had just transferred to the school, said of the meeting between the players and the coach in the campus field house. “I can save you a lot of time,” Eaton said, cutting them off, Gibson recalled. “As of this moment, you are no longer members of the Wyoming football team.”

According to the players, Eaton went into a racist diatribe: telling them to go back to their fatherless inner-city homes and live off public benefits. Eaton later denied making those comments, but acknowledged yelling and telling the players to “shut up.”

“I was numb. I thought it was a dream,” said Ted Williams, a running back who was among the players kicked off the team. “I couldn’t talk. I opened my mouth and no words came out.”

Most of the 14 players were recruits out of junior colleges or highly touted prospects from suburban high schools. In interviews, they said they had rarely experienced racism of any kind in their hometowns.

Eaton would later claim that by bringing the armbands with them to the meeting, the players had violated his long-standing “no protesting” policy.

“If they were so serious about their grievance, why didn’t they all go to the Mormon church directly?” Eaton would tell the Denver Post in 1982. “They were biting the hand that feeds them.”

“Demonstrations have no place in athletics, not while you’re on scholarship,” he added later in the same interview. “You’re trading your athletic ability for a chance to get an education. They slapped the state of Wyoming in the face.”

The governor raced to campus in an attempt to broker a compromise, but Eaton refused to attend a meeting with the players. Early the next morning, the university announced it was standing by the decision of its coach.

At practice that day, coaches didn’t acknowledge the missing 14 players, said Phil Karpuk, a white player who was a defensive lineman at the time. Instead, assistants worked to identify substitutes to fill the slots now open. No one discussed where the 14 black players had gone.

“We never talked about what happened,” said Karpuk, who recalled that many of the white players were torn about how they should feel about the protests. What exactly had happened, he said, remained unclear.

Like the university, the fans and much of the state backed Eaton. When the team took the field that weekend, the mostly white crowd marched into the stadium wearing gold paper armbands that read: “We support Coach Lloyd Eaton.” Wyoming soundly defeated BYU, and then topped San Jose State the following week. But then, crippled by the loss of many of their best players, the Cowboys started losing.

Many on campus despised the Black 14, under the impression that they had voluntarily left the program, including some of their former white teammates, some of whom began calling themselves “The Survivors.”

As the losses accumulated, Eaton’s support began to evaporate. The Cowboys dropped their last four games of the season and, unable to coax top recruits to an embattled program, won just once the next year.

“It’s a lesson to be learned that you can’t just be dictatorial person in a coaching situation. You need to understand players,” Karpuk said. “After awhile, you can’t lose 14 guys . . . it catches up with you.”

Eaton was run out and ultimately moved to a secluded section of Idaho where he vowed to never return to campus, a promise he kept until his death in 2007. Asked, 13 years after the incident, if he would have done anything differently, Eaton was characteristically brash: “Hell no.”

‘They put a hardship on me’

The talks between the school and the Black 14, which had been going on for months, remained at an impasse when Griffin made the drive from his home in Denver to the Laramie campus in June 2018.

He settled into a chair in the same conference room where, nearly 50 years before, the state’s governor had tried and failed to broker a truce between the players and their coach, hoping that this time would have a better outcome.

“We negotiated on top of negotiations on top of negotiations,” Griffin said.

Many of the players still held raw feelings about how Eaton’s move to kick them off the team had changed the trajectory of their lives.

A group of professors scraped together scholarship funds so the players could stay on campus until the end of the semester. Some assistant coaches contacted smaller colleges behind Eaton’s back to help players find new programs. Most of the Black 14 eventually finished their degrees elsewhere.

“They put a hardship on me and my family, my parents, to help me accomplish my dream of getting a BA or BS,” said Lionel Grimes, a defensive back who went on to play baseball at what is now the University of Findlay in Ohio, then a long career at Ford. “When they took my education away from me, it was a nightmare.”

Two of the players, Tony McGee and Joe Williams, were able to salvage their professional prospects and eventually made it to the National Football League. A few others, including Ivie Moore, Mel Hamilton and Ted Williams, had short semiprofessional careers. But for most of the 14, Eaton’s decision meant the end of their football lives.

After Burman and Nichols reengaged with players, the Black 14 set up weekly conference calls in which they debated a simple question: What, 50 years later, does an apology require?

The Black 14 were among the first few waves of black students on campus, and they often encountered white classmates from Wyoming who had only ever seen a black person on television. Students would ask to touch their hair, and one of the players was once asked by a classmate if he had a tail.

“The ground was white with snow,” Hysaw said. “The professors were white. The students were white.”

And while the campus doesn’t look much different today — 70 percent of the 12,500 current undergraduates are white and fewer than 1 percent are black — administrators emphasize that, like most campuses, the culture has become much more inclusive than it was 50 years ago.

School officials initially expected some internal dissent to the idea of apologizing to the players, but they soon discovered that the passage of time had morphed the campus’s feelings toward the players from contempt to embarrassment.

“What I’m most upset with myself about is that I knew some of those guys, and I didn’t make an effort to say, ‘What happened?’ ‘Eaton kicked those guys off; well, they must have been doing something wrong.’ That was my mentality about it,” said Kevin McKinney, who at the time was a student employee of the athletic department, living down the hall from some of the Black 14 players, and is now the university’s senior associate athletic director. “I just so regret that I didn’t knock on their doors and ask them what was going on.”

The two sides reconvened at the end of August, and the once-banished players had brought with them a list of demands.

Some of the requests — monetary reparations and honorary degrees — were non-starters for the school. But as university administrators read down the list, they saw plenty that seemed doable.

The former players wanted a formal invitation back to Laramie with their families for homecoming. They wanted a public letter of apology from the university, chances to speak with students on campus, a historic marker on War Memorial Stadium, scholarships for students studying diversity issues. They wanted letterman’s jackets. They wanted to be introduced as Wyoming football players again.

Nichols drafted former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) to continue shepherding the process, and in February 2019, with final negotiations ongoing, seven members of the Black 14 returned to campus for Black History Month at the invitation of the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Burman brought them to a Cowboys basketball game and had them introduced at midcourt during halftime.

“To a person, it was, ‘Welcome home, and it’s about time,’ ” Hysaw said. “I turned around and looked at Burman, the athletic director, and he was teary-eyed and so was I. It wasn’t what I expected.”

With an initial visit in the books, the university extended another invitation for the players to return to campus, pegged to the 50th anniversary of their banishment. Of the 11 living players, eight showed up in September, wearing matching T-shirts during a university panel discussion. They spoke to history classes and met with student athletes.

“The way that the students gravitated toward us when we were on campus and we were on tours and doing panel discussions, they were interested in the true story,” recalled Gibson, a fullback. “That felt good.”

On Sept. 13, the Friday night before game day, the Black 14 and their families joined university officials for a special dinner, where Burman stood up and read a letter he and Nichols had signed: an official apology.

“To have your collegiate careers derailed as both students and athletes is a tragedy,” the letter read. “Please accept this sincere apology from the University of Wyoming for the unfair way you were treated and for the hardships that treatment created for you. We want to welcome you home as valued members of this institution, and hope you accept our old Wyoming saying, ‘Once a Cowboy, always a Cowboy.’ ”

The players were stunned, some moved to tears. While a few had guessed they might receive an apology, no one had told them for sure that it was coming.

The following morning, the Black 14 were invited to the football team’s pregame breakfast, where football coach Craig Bohl welcomed them back to the team.

“These guys got their jerseys taken away from them,” Bohl told his players that morning at the team breakfast. “So we’re going to give them back to them.”

They then joined, arm-in-arm with current players, for the team’s ceremonial “Cowboy Walk” march through the tailgate and into the stadium, and then, at halftime, were brought onto the field as the crowd roared.

“I had to throw up the peace sign to show them we love them as much as they love us,” said Williams, who played halfback. “I wanted to honor them for listening to our story. It felt so great, like I went back to see old friends.”

One by one, the players walked to the 10-yard line to be draped in a Wyoming letterman jacket. Fifty years later, they were Cowboys again.

Bogage reported from Washington.