Celebrating Black history in BYU athletics
Several notable Black athletes have led the way throughout the history of BYU athletics, including most recently BYU men’s basketball against Loyola Marymount on Feb. 10, which included the first starting lineup to ever feature four Black players.
The first Black athlete to blaze the trail at BYU was Ron Knight on the football team. He joined the Cougars as a transfer student from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College at a time when the university faced tremendous controversy and backlash stemming from the Church’s racial priesthood ban.
From the Black 14 protests to boycotts of BYU athletic games, the atmosphere surrounding BYU and the Church’s public image at the time was mired. In 1970, Knight was recruited by Tommy Hudspeth for the football team and became the first Black athlete at BYU, breaking the color barrier at the university.
According to BYU Maxwell Institute research member Grace Soelberg, most of the African Americans who attended BYU between 1977 and 1985 were student-athletes.
Pictured above in “The Banyan,” second from the left is Rhonda Shelby, the first Black woman to become a member of the Cougarettes, BYU’s dance team. Shelby later became the captain of the cheer squad. In 1985, she graduated from BYU with a degree in broadcast journalism.
Shelby is also a founding member of the Advisory Council for the Harold Schnitzer Diabetes Health Center at Oregon Health & Science University and is actively involved in serving her community.
From becoming one of the first African American players to play basketball at BYU along with Keith Rice to making history as one of the first Black missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after the priesthood ban was lifted in 1978, Danny Frazier is of utmost importance to BYU history.
Frazier played football for the Cougars from 1977–1979 as a linebacker. After suffering a career-ending injury to his neck during a game, Frazier went on to serve a mission for the Church. Frazier started a law firm in South Jordan, Utah, in 1990 that specializes in criminal defense.
Leon White was the first African American All-American in BYU football history. The San Diego native was a member of the 1984 national championship football team and was inducted into the BYU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004. He was also selected as defensive MVP of the 1984 Holiday Bowl and elected to the Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame.
After his college career, White was selected in the fifth round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals as the 123rd overall pick. He helped lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl and played a total of eight seasons in the NFL.
Former BYU standout athlete Shaquille Walker received the Curtis Pugsley Track and Field Award in 2016, the highest track and field award an athlete can attain at BYU. While running for the Cougars, Walker was a four-time All-American in both indoor and outdoor events.
Walker holds the record for the school’s indoor all-time 800-meter record with a time of 1:46.97. He went professional in 2016 and has since competed in the USA Olympic Trials and the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championship.
Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah found himself on an unlikely journey from Ghana to Detroit. Born and raised in Accra, Ghana, Ansah’s first choice of sports at BYU was not football. It was a new sport to him.
“It wasn’t easy at first,” Ansah said. “It’s just a different sport to me.”
Ansah tried out for the BYU men’s basketball team first but didn’t end up joining the team. The 6-foot-6, 275-pounder joined the track team next, but despite his athleticism, his size was just not the right fit for the track. He found his unexpected path to football when coach Leonard Myles-Mills of BYU Men’s Track and Field introduced him to the football coaches. The rest was history.
In 2013, Ansah was selected No. 5 overall by the Detroit Lions in the NFL draft. Ansah remains the highest-drafted defensive player in BYU history. The free agent has since played for the Seattle Seahawks in 2019 and the San Francisco 49ers in 2020.
Jaren Hall made history at a face-off between BYU and South Florida on Sep. 25, 2019 as the first African American to start as quarterback for BYU since the program’s existence in 1922. The Spanish Fork native has played 19 games since joining the Cougars in 2018.
In his college career so far, he has recorded 3,003 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and averages 18.9 completions per game. The former dual-sport athlete also played baseball for the Cougars in the 2019 season.
“I’m very proud of my ancestors, I’m very proud of my ethnicity and all the things that come with that, so it’s an honor and a privilege to be here and to be playing in this wonderful university,” Hall said of being a Black quarterback at BYU.
The Cougars made history at a game between BYU and LMU in Los Angeles on Feb. 10 with a starting lineup of four black players and all non-members of the Church. BYU guard Te’Jon Lucas documented this moment on Twitter with a post captioned “Changing the Culture.” Other basketball players like Seneca Knight and Alex Barcello took to Instagram to celebrate the moment.
“I never planned on making history,” Knight said. “I just came here to hoop. It shows you can be any race and come here and play.”