Freddie Sigler was only 26 years old when he decided to make himself an important part of the rich Senior Bowl tradition in Mobile.
The year was 1965 and Sigler, who grew up and lived in the historic Maysville district of the city, was as excited as anybody to see charismatic Alabama quarterback Joe Namath and Heisman Trophy runner-up running back Tucker Frederickson of Auburn come to town for the game.
But Sigler, like many African Americans on the Gulf Coast, was even more intrigued by the arrival of two players each from Michigan State and Florida A&M. Dick Gordon, Jerry Rush, Bob Felts and Bob Hayes arrived in Mobile 65 years ago ready to become the first minority players to play in the game.
Sigler, now 82 and going as strong as ever, decided he should do his part to make the players feel comfortable in Mobile during their stay.
“Back in those days we didn’t have any places in Mobile for the black players to socialize with the white players during the week after they were done with practice,” Sigler said. “It wasn’t like how it is today where you can go anywhere you want to go. So, I decided I could help with that. I went down to the Battle House hotel to see all the big guys who ran the game and were instrumental in bringing the game to Mobile. I told them I could volunteer to take these guys to socialize with some people of color in the city. They told me they thought that was a good idea, and they told me to go around the corner and pick up two cars to take them around and have them back at the hotel by 10 o’clock at night.”
Sigler did exactly that, acting as an informal tour guide for the visiting heroes.
“Those guys were 21 or 22 years old, so I felt like I was a grown man and I could lead them around,” Sigler said, laughing. “I took them out to see a man named Honey Bee who cooked the best barbecue in the city. They loved that. Then I brought them back to Davis Avenue — we just called it The Avenue — where the clubs and some restaurants were, and they loved that, too. But I got them back on time.”
Sigler said the four players made a big splash in the community.
“Everybody thought I was a big man because I had brought them out,” Sigler said. “There were some Florida A&M alumni in town, so they really loved seeing those players here for the game. The night went so fast because everybody had such a good time.”
Not only were the players a hit in the community, they were a success on the field the following day.
“I still remember that game,” Sigler said. “Joe Namath hit ‘Bullet Bob’ Hayes on a 65-yard pass to score a touchdown for the South. After the game, Namath was asked about the throw and he said, ‘I just put it up there and Bob was fast enough to go get it.’”
That was not just football talk. Hayes had already competed in the Olympics in Tokyo the previous summer as a sprinter and earned the reputation as the fastest man in the world before turning his full attention to football. He went on to star in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys, ultimately being selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
Sigler was living in style during the actual game, which is another key element of his story.
“They gave me a box seat on the 50-yard line right next to the big guys,” Sigler said. “I had four seats and we could walk down all the way to the field. So, it turned out it was really worth it, even though that’s not why I decided to do it. You have to give something to receive something. So, I gave them something and they returned it back.”
That 1965 game will always hold the distinction of featuring the No. 1 pick in the AFL draft (Namath to the New York Jets) and No. 1 pick in the NFL draft (Frederickson to the New York Giants). But the successful inclusion of Hayes, Felts, Gordon and Rush was even more significant in the long run.
Freddie Sigler, who will be at Ladd-Peebles Stadium again Saturday for another edition of the Senior Bowl, deserves at least some credit for helping to make sure it was success not only on the field but in the city of Mobile.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. Follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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