Taylor Stokes completes another step in his journey by getting his Vanderbilt degree
by Jim Patterson
photography by John Russell
Taylor Stokes seems far away. He stares into space near tears and heavily repeats the phrase over and over.
“I had given up. I had given up. I had given up. I had given up. I had given up.”
Then the first African American scholarship athlete to suit up for the Vanderbilt football team recalls a time long ago when he walked down fraternity row with some friends after Vanderbilt lost a game.
“The Rebel flag was very prevalent on fraternity row in the 1960s,” Stokes says. “We got called the N-word walking through fraternity row. We got a little upset and we turned over a couple of Volkswagen Beetles.
“You mix Jack Daniels with a loss to Ole Miss, anything can happen.”
Stokes’ wife, Chandra, reaches over to comfort him. “He could never drive past Vanderbilt for 35 years,” she says. “We’d come to Nashville and never drive onto West End Avenue or come past Vanderbilt.”
In an unlikely turn of events given Stokes’ history with the university, a few years ago he again became a fixture on campus. The man who couldn’t bear driving on West End Avenue has been steadily working – even through a bout with cancer – toward finally earning his degree. In May, 40 years after beginning his undergraduate career, he finally gets to take that walk across the stage on Alumni Lawn and receive his diploma.
Walter Overton, a prominent Nashvillian who followed Stokes to Vanderbilt and became the first African American scholarship football player to graduate, played a role in Stokes’ return. “It’s a glorious moment,” Overton said. “We’re in our 50s. I admire him for doing that.”
The First Go-Round
Growing up in Clarksville, about 50 miles northwest of Nashville, Stokes was an achiever in the classroom and on the football field. He dreamed of playing football in the Big 10 or at Alabama. His father, Richard Stokes, preferred Vanderbilt, which had been recruiting him since the ninth grade.
“My father was a visionary,” Stokes said. “He knew that if African Americans were going to get ahead, they needed to have a presence at schools like Vanderbilt – and not just on the football field.”
Stokes’ dreams were more about being a big man on the campus of a major football power. Coach Bear Bryant tried to recruit him to Alabama, but that offer evaporated when another black player went elsewhere.
“Coach Bryant was interested in bringing in black kids in pairs, because of road trips,” Stokes said. “They were concerned about the stigma of black kids rooming with white kids.”
So Richard Stokes got his way and his son enrolled at Vanderbilt as its first black scholarship football player. His social circle included Perry Wallace, a Vanderbilt star and the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, and Joe Gilliam, then the star quarterback at Tennessee State University.
Stokes arrived on the Vanderbilt campus in the fall of 1969, on the heels of the killings of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. Racial riots had recently broken out in major American cities.
“It was difficult to socially adjust to Vanderbilt, particularly for black kids,” Stokes said. “We quickly came to understand that while there were some who wanted us here at Vanderbilt, there were others who didn’t. A lot of the kids who came to Vanderbilt came from south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and with them they brought in a lot of the ideals they had grown up with, including racial attitudes.”
On the Gridiron
After seeing little or no playing time his first two seasons, Stokes was used as a reserve receiver in 1971, but really blossomed as a kicker. He was 15-for-15 on extra point kicks that season, including seven in one game against Mississippi State, a record that stood for more than two decades. His 40-yard field goal in the fourth quarter lifted the Commodores to a 10-7 victory against the University of Tampa that season.
Then, in the middle of a game near the end of the season, Stokes ran out on the field after a touchdown to kick the extra point.
“The holder is saying, ‘What are you doing out here? Get your black a-double-s out of here.’ This white kid is running on the field and the coach is gesturing for me to come off the field.”
On the sidelines, a coach told Stokes he wasn’t going to kick the extra point.
“And they never really explained anything to me,” he remembers. “I never found out what happened. It wasn’t a performance issue, not after setting a record a few weeks earlier.”
Stokes, an emotional man, had trouble keeping his bitter feelings about football and social slights from affecting his schoolwork.
“I’m not going to say I was the most rebellious guy in the world, but I wasn’t about to keep my mouth closed about a lot of things,” Stokes said. “Did I make a choice? Sure. Could I have endured better? Sure. … I had a really dour attitude about the game and about the school and about the coaching staff. I could have endured, sucked it up, adjusted. But I didn’t. I didn’t.”
Then Richard Stokes got seriously ill and eventually died. Someone needed to step up and run the family painting and contracting business in Washington, D.C.
“I was making bad grades and when my dad got sick, that was it,” Stokes said. “Rather than straight-out flunk out, I just withdrew.”
Stokes went on to become a successful businessman. He married, grew his business, divorced. Life went on, always with something missing. Perhaps the lowest point was the death of his old friend Joe Gilliam in 2000. Gilliam had made it to the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers before drug abuse shortened his career and then his life. But other earlier tragedies also weighed on him. All three of his brothers did not live past 25, with one of them committing suicide.
“When the lid closed on Joey Gilliam’s casket, it closed all his dreams of ever rising above,” Chandra Stokes says of her husband. “Because if Joey couldn’t make it with all of his talent, no one could.”
Stokes’ clinical depression deepened and his ongoing psychotherapy treatments continued, finally concluding in 2003 after spanning a decade.
The Road Back
The road back to Vanderbilt began for Stokes with a telephone call to an old friend in Clarksville. She wouldn’t call him back, but her sister did. Chandra Stokes would eventually become his second wife and chief cheerleader.
“She began to make me realize that I had a void in my life,” Stokes said. “She made me realize that there was more to me, and if I would only get in touch with my spiritual man I could pull something off. I could finish well.”
Reaching out to Vanderbilt began with reconnecting with some former friends and teammates. Overton, who now runs LP Field, the Nashville stadium where the Tennessee Titans play, was one of several old friends who spoke to connections at Vanderbilt on Stokes’ behalf.
“People often mistake me for being the first black scholarship football player at Vanderbilt, because I was a hometown boy and stayed in the city,” Overton said. “I make a point to correct that and point out that the first was Taylor.”
Overton spoke with David Williams, vice chancellor for university affairs and athletics, about Stokes. Williams was receptive. Eventually, Stokes himself made inquiries. He met with Lucius Outlaw Jr., associate provost of undergraduate education. Outlaw consulted with Francille Bergquist, associate dean of the College of Arts and Science.
The consensus: We can make this happen.
“Taylor and I had a talk – a quite moving talk – as he recounted his history at Vanderbilt,” Outlaw said. “I liked that for Taylor it isn’t about what people did to him. It’s about something he didn’t complete.”
The first time around, Stokes had majored in sociology. His scholastic record and current interests were reviewed to devise a comeback strategy. Needing 30 credit hours to graduate, Stokes settled on an independent interdisciplinary major within the College of Arts and Science on race, culture and religion.
Back to School
Stokes returned to Vanderbilt as a student in January 2007. He met Vanderbilt safety Reshard Langford in a class. He mentioned to Langford that he had never picked up his varsity letter jacket in 1971, because he couldn’t face coming back to campus.
The next thing he knew, Vanderbilt football coach Bobby Johnson called him and saw to it that Stokes received his letter jacket at last.
For a class on comparative biography taught by Devin Fergus, assistant professor of history, Stokes read Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama. He strongly related it with the story of his own father and began to see Richard Stokes as “a visionary” for having the dream of his son graduating from Vanderbilt.
“My father was ahead of his time,” Stokes said. “When I walk across that (Commencement) stage, my father will walk with me.”
One More Challenge
As he was making progress toward his degree, Stokes had one more setback. He was diagnosed with cancer and had to put school on hold while seeking treatment.
For most people, a brush with cancer is a life-changing obstacle. Stokes had been through so much that he took it in stride. He successfully sought treatment and returned to school.
A devout Christian of the Baptist faith, he equates his cancer scare with the wandering of the Jews in the desert before reaching the Promised Land.
“I knew in my heart of hearts that before I got to go across that stage, God had another test for me,” he said. “Cancer has been my desert experience.”
Stokes isn’t sure what the future holds for him after finally getting his degree. Current plans are to pursue a master’s degree in Christian counseling. He’s been a substitute teacher in the Clarksville school system and is intrigued with teaching. He wants to write down his story. And his work on race, culture and religion at Vanderbilt has grown into a full-blown program proposal to help minority students adjust to college. He’s hopeful that Vanderbilt or another college or university will adopt his plan.
“I want to help young African American students and athletes not to take 40 years to graduate,” he said. “You have to understand that you can’t get caught up in appearances, and you have to stay focused on the mission of earning a degree.”
Another Walk Down Fraternity Row
Last September, Taylor and Chandra Stokes walked down fraternity row together on the way to the Rice game. The atmosphere was festive, and the Stokeses felt a part of it.
No one shouted racial epithets at them. No cars were overturned.
“I could feel the bitterness from the past being chipped away because of the generosity and love,” Stokes said. “How often do you get to return to the scene of your greatest tragedy and it becomes your greatest triumph?
“I want people to see that there can be life after death, a resurrection so to speak. You can rise out of the ashes. You can return to the scene of the crime and there can be a different outcome – an outcome of survival that allows the victim to ultimately become the victor.”
Additional photography by Pat Slattery
To watch an interview with Taylor Stokes, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/news/video.