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  • Writer's pictureShawn Papi

The Day the Eastern Shore Ruled the Super Bowl

Pretty much everybody loves a Super Bowl party. Even non-fans get to look forward to the commercials and the halftime show. But what if the game is a blowout? What if those ads are boring, or the music falls flat? Here at Secrets of the Eastern Shore, we are here to serve, so here is a bit of Eastern Shore football history sure to help you fill up those boring stretches with fascinating, homegrown small talk.

When the New York Jets and Baltimore Colts were getting ready to play Super Bowl III in January 1969, no one gave the Jets a chance. Everyone just laughed when the Jets’ braggart of a quarterback, “Broadway” Joe Namath, “guaranteed” a victory for his team. But Namath’s Jets lived up to that brash promise, delivering a 16-7 victory that still ranks among the greatest of Super Bowl upsets. In fact, it’s arguably the most famous football game ever played.

Now for the real news: There is an amazing Eastern Shore angle to that game.

• Five players on the two Super Bowl III teams came from the same school, and that school was Maryland State College, which we now know as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Yup, the school in little Princess Anne.

• When I first researched this several years ago, it looked from everything I could find like that was still a record. No other school had ever had more than five players in the same Super Bowl. But that has changed in recent years. Several schools have matched that record of five, LSU, Penn State, and Florida among them. The record was definitely broken in 2021 when LSU landed six players in the big game.

But looking back, UMES came so very close to still placing in a tie for the all-time record, even today. Another UMES grad, offensive lineman Sherman Plunkett, played for the Jets in the season in the games leading up to that 1969 game. But wasn’t included on the team’s Super Bowl roster for some reason. (Trivia: Plunkett is the guy who gave Namath his famous nickname, “Broadway Joe.” Thanks to reader Lanny Butler Jr. for the tip on Plunkett …)

• The UMES alumni who were active participants in Super Bowl III were Colts defensive back Charlie Stukes; Colts kick returner and defensive back Jim Duncan; Jets running back Emerson Boozer; and Jets defensive backs Johnny Sample and Earl Christy.

That’s quite an amazing feat for such a small school, and one located about as far as you can get from any national spotlight. But UMES actually has quite a rich football history dating back to the 1920s. The golden age of the Hawks started in 1948 when the school hired a man named Vernon “Skip” McCain as coach.

A native of Oklahoma, McCain was quite an interesting guy. He didn’t set out to be a football coach. He actually wanted to be a math teacher, but the only jobs he could find at the start of his career were in high schools that needed PE teachers and coaches. He climbed that ladder and became the head basketball coach and an assistant football coach at Tennessee State University before landing the job in Princess Anne.

Other McCain tidbits:

• He was just 5 feet 5 inches tall.

• He never cursed, and he never missed church on Sunday.

• He loved to say, “You must not only be a winner on the field, but also in the classroom.” He would personally visit dorm rooms in the evening to help players with homework.

• Conditioning was a huge focus for him. He would often ask this demanding question: “Can you be at your very best … when you’re tired.”

• McCain coached at UMES until 1963. During that time, the Hawks won 109 games, against just 16 losses and four ties. They enjoyed seven undefeated seasons. That adds up to a better winning percentage than football legends Paul “Bear” Bryant of Alabama and Woody Hayes of Ohio State. His teams played against another legend, Eddie Robinson of Grambling, four times and won all four games.

• He died in 1993 at the age of 84, too soon to be present for his posthumous induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

• Today, a road through the center of campus bears his name.

McCain’s career at UMES coincided with the Jim Crow era of segregation. All-white teams were the norm at most colleges. And games pitting black schools against white ones were few and far between. But McCain was a trailblazer on that front, too. In 1948, he scheduled a road game against the all-white team at Albright College in Pennsylvania. That game seems to rank as just the third-ever matchup pitting a black team against a white one–and the first to involve teams from different states. (UMES won that day, 25-0, before what one Pennsylvania newspaper described as a “forlorn, silent crowd.”)

In 1949, McCain played two games against white schools at home in Princess Anne. Some football historians believe that these were the first college games between teams of different races ever played below the Mason Dixon line. The crowds in Princess Anne were integrated, with whites and blacks welcome to watch no matter the opponent.

One more McCain milestone. He also served as the basketball coach at UMES. In 1950, he scheduled a game up in Hanover, N.H. against Dartmouth, making UMES the first historically black college team to ever compete against an Ivy League school.

Some 20 UMES graduates played in the National Football League, and here is a list of their names. The biggest name in the bunch is Art Shell, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and eight-time Pro Bowler with the Oakland Raiders. Shell, who also became the first modern-day African-American head coach in NFL history, hosted an annual golf outing to benefit his alma mater for many years.

Johnny Sample at UMES

The defensive end Roger Brown is another UMES grad who became an NFL star of the first order in the 1960s, playing in six pro bowls. He is believed to be the first player in the league ever to clock in at more than 300 pounds. He was one of the Los Angeles Rams’ legendary “Fearsome Foursome,” but his most famous feat came while playing for the Detroit Lions, when he sacked Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr six times in a single 1962 game, including one for a safety. That game is known in Lions’ lore as “The Thanksgiving Massacre.”

In his post-football life, Brown lived just across the mouth of the Bay from his old stomping grounds on the Eastern Shore. He owned three popular restaurants in the Hampton Roads region, where he also served on a dozen charitable boards and civic committees. He passed away in 2021.

Emerson Boozer at UMES

Among the UMES alumni who played in Super Bowl III, it was Sample came closest to turning his appearance into a star turn. When the Colts were driving for a potentially game-changing touchdown at the end of the first half, he intercepted a pass by Colts quarterback Earl Morrall at the two-yard-line and kept the momentum on the Jets’ side.

It was a moment of sweet revenge for Sample, who harbored quite a grudge against the Colts for releasing him early in his career. “I was almost in a frenzy by the time the game arrived,” he has said of the Super Bowl.

I will mention one other player. He never made it to the NFL, though many observers thought he had the talent. Injuries suffered in an automobile accident derailed the football career of UMES alum Clarence Clemons. He had to settle for his second choice as saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Citing rising costs and other complications, UMES shut down its football program in 1980. Various groups of alumni in the years since have lobbied for the sport’s return to campus, but without success.

Enjoy the next Super Bowl, everyone–here’s hoping it turns out as memorable as Super Bowl III.

–written by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. First published in 2016. Last updated on Feb. 10, 2022.

• The old UMES publicity photo up top here features four stars from UMES in the old days–(from left) Emerson Boozer, Lanny Butler, Curtis Gentry, and Leslie Donaldson. You will find three of those names on that list of Hawks who played in the NFL that I linked to above.

• Here is a little historical write-up about UMES football. And here is a bio of Coach McCain.

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