The first two black football players set records that still stand today at The University of North Alabama.
UNA was one of the first to integrate the school and the football team Sept. 21, 1968. Head coach Hal Self added two African American athletes out of Decatur and Huntsville, Alabama.
Recruited simultaneously, freshmen Leonard Thomas and Bobby Joe Pride broke the color barrier by both playing in the first game of the 1968 season against Central Arkansas. Pride garnered interest out of Lakeside High School, while Thomas did the same out of Butler High. Neither player started the game that played out on Sept. 21,1968,but had significant playing time against the Bears.
“Bobby Joe said he will sign if you sign,” said Thomas in an interview with Carl Prather in 2018. “I was from Butler and he was from Decatur. My senior year we played each other, and at the end of the season, FSU asked me to sign with them. I was bit skeptical but at the same time Hal (Self) was offering Bobby Joe.”
After both careers ended in 1971, Thomas ranked as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 2,271. He added 21 touchdowns throughout his tenure with 3,938 all-purpose yards. Thomas had over 2,000 return yards throughout his time on the field. He gained over 3,655 all-purpose yards throughout his four years at Florence State. Respectively, Thomas is No.1 all-time in all-purpose yards, while Pride follows suit at No. 2.
“I don’t think he (Self) wanted to play freshmen at first,” Thomas said. “He said he would give me an opportunity, so at first I was on kickoff return and punt team. After the game started he put me in as a blocker, I learned to block in the early years so I graded good. After the second game the coaches started me, then I became a permanent starter.”
Thomas was the all-time leading rusher for the Lions until 1981 when Lawson Fletcher surpassed him. He rushed 463 times in his career with 25 touchdowns that holds at No.6 all-time in the UNA history. Thomas was inducted into the UNA Hall of Fame in 1996, Pride is not yet inducted.
Several teams such as West Alabama, Jacksonville State and Samford had and played African Americans that were on their roster in the 1969 season. Auburn, Alabama and troy followed in the consecutive years 1970, 1971. Alabama had five African American football players on the roster during the 1967 season, none of the five played in a game.
“I didn’t know it was the start of integrating schools,” said Thomas when asked about his impact as the first black football player. “They brought a jet book and it showed us (Bobby Joe Pride) in it. It was the start of integrating programs.”
Kentucky used Nat Northington during the 1967 season becoming the first Southeastern Conference team allowing African Americans to play. Tennessee and fellow SEC schools followed in the consecutive years after Kentucky and North Alabama.