Running past bigotry
Mizzou remembers Tiger great Norris Stevenson
Norris Stevenson was the first black student athlete to attend Mizzou on a football scholarship, where he was a letterman from 1958 to 1960 and led the Tigers to their first No. 1 ranking in school history.
Norris Stevenson, the first black student athlete to attend Mizzou on a football scholarship and a star in some of Mizzou’s biggest games, died Saturday after a battle with colon cancer. He was 72.
“The Mizzou family lost a great, great man in Norris Stevenson,” MU football coach Gary Pinkel said in a release. “I had such a tremendous respect for everything he accomplished and how he carried himself. He was such a good man.
“He loved Mizzou — that was very clear to me — and we're all very sad to have lost Norris. He'll be remembered around here as a very important figure in our history.”
The St. Louis native from Vashon High School came to MU in 1957. At that time in the university’s history, the marching band played “Dixie,” and a fraternity waved a Confederate flag when touchdowns were scored. The atmosphere wasn’t welcoming.
Looking beyond the racism around him, Stevenson befriended Mel West, another of the first black students to play football for the Tigers.
“Mel West and Norris Stevenson were not only two of Missouri’s best on the field; they were two of the best off the field,” teammate Russ Sloan told the Columbia Daily Tribune. “Everybody respected them.”
Stevenson was inducted to the MU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001. A $25,000 scholarship and a plaza bearing his name have been established to honor his accomplishments at the university.
On the field, Norris was a bruising fullback in coach Dan Devine’s offense. He ended his career with 1,174 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, and he was on the receiving end of three more. His best game was an all-time classic for Mizzou, as he ran for 169 yards and two long touchdowns (77 and 60 yards) to beat Oklahoma 41-19 on the road. The performance vaulted the Tigers to No. 1 in the country for the first time in program history and was a step toward the 1960 Big Eight Championship, the university’s last outright football championship. Norris lettered in football from 1958 to 1960 and also competed in track.
After graduating, Norris was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the 11th round of the 1961 NFL Draft, but he spent the season on the injured reserve list. He went on to play for the Edmonton Eskimos and British Columbia Lions in Canada. When his playing days ended, he coached track and field in St. Louis at Forest Park and Florissant Valley community colleges for almost 30 years.
Stevenson was inducted into the Missouri Track and Field Association Hall of Fame in 1999 and soon after joined an effort by Pinkel and MU Athletics Director Mike Alden to hear former players' grievances and make right past wrongs.
Stevenson was invited to speak with the football team at a camp in 2001, sharing his experiences from his time with the team. Following those emotional meetings, a $25,000 scholarship was created bearing Stevenson’s name, and the Norris Stevenson Plaza of Champions was built near the west entrance to Memorial Stadium. Stevenson also was inducted to the MU Athletics Hall of Fame.
“I tend to get very emotional about it,” Stevenson said in a 2001 interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But I hope what it really does is it means something to the African-American kids who were a part of it, all of Missouri’s history. If this lifts them, then great. That’s what it should be. It says … we did leave something here.”
Visitation for Norris Stevenson will be held 4-7 p.m. Wednesday, March 7, at Wade Funeral Home Twin Chapel, 4800 Natural Bridge Ave. in St. Louis. Funeral services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday, March 8, at Lane Tabernacle CME Church, 910 N. Newstead Ave.
The University of Missouri flag on Jesse Hall will be lowered to half-staff, and the Switzler Bell on Francis Quadrangle will toll in Stevenson's honor at 10 a.m. Thursday, March 8.
Stevenson is survived by his wife, Delores, daughters Loren Stevenson (Kevin) Wilson and Jennifer M. Stevenson, grandchildren Erika Michelle Wilson and Jessica Camille Wilson and siblings Joyce S. Hicks, Yvonne Kincade, Ricky (Saletha) Stevenson, Gerald Stevenson and Anita Watkins Stevens.
In addition to football, Stevenson excelled at track-and-field events. He coached track for nearly 30 years after his football playing career ended.
Stevenson, who started out playing both offense and defense, became a powerful running back for Mizzou coach Dan Devine. He led the Tigers to their greatest season, powering the team to a victory in the 1961 Orange Bowl.