Army invites its first Black varsity football player, Gary Steele, to Navy game

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Fans won't be allowed at the Army-Navy football game at West Point on Saturday because of COVID-19 restrictions, but Army athletic director Mike Buddie made an exception for Gary Steele.

Steele, a retired colonel, was one of about 30 Black students at the academy in the mid-1960s and became its first Black varsity football player in 1966, paving the way for others to follow in his footsteps.

Among them were current West Point superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the first Black person to hold that position at the academy and a former defensive lineman. Williams graduated from West Point in 1983, 13 years after Steele.

"It's still hard for all of us to believe that it took until 1966 for the color barrier [on the football team] to be broken at West Point," said Steele's daughter, ESPN anchor Sage Steele.

"He was the first Black varsity player there, and it's amazing because if you look at the team photo from back then, it's pretty easy to spot him. In a sea of his white teammates, he's right there in the middle," she said.

The 74-year-old Steele, who also served as a football assistant coach at West Point, had to decline the offer to attend Saturday's game, his daughter said, because he is undergoing treatment for cancer back home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

"He was going to get in his car and drive up to see history at West Point, but my mother had to say, 'Gary, with everything going on, you cannot,'" Sage Steele said.

Rest assured, he'll be watching the first Army-Navy game at West Point since 1943.

"The week of the game, he gets quite nervous," Sage Steele said. "It's really special to see. It's like it was yesterday [when he played in the game]."

Gary Steele closed his college career with 66 receptions for 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns, and helped Army to a pair of victories over Navy. He also earned four varsity letters in track and field, two indoors and two outdoors, and was enshrined in the West Point Hall of Fame in 2013.

"It's never been about that [being the first Black varsity football player]," Sage Steele said. "He just wanted to go and play football and be a great teammate and prepare himself to serve his country. He just happened to be very good at it.

"He's said this a million times and I'll continue to say it, 'Somebody had to be the first. It just happened to be me.' He's very proud. As he has gotten older, he has realized the importance of it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.