Montana State University

Spring 2012

Share this article

Mountains and Minds

Breaking through April 30, 2012 by Bill Lamberty • Published 04/30/12

Charles Jackson came to MSU in 1956 to block and tackle. He also broke barriers.
As Sonny Holland began to speak,
five decades and thousands of miles melted away.

"The (Bobcat football) team asked me to speak on the last day (of spring football), and I told them, 'Let me just start out by saying that teammates are forever.' And I said, 'Let me just give you an example. I played alongside a guy who was a Bobcat for four years, he played right guard, and if I had to go to Afghanistan tomorrow and I had my choice of who I could have in the foxhole with me it'd be him because I know everything there is to know about him. I know what he does under pressure; I know what he would do for me, as I would do for him. That's who I would want with me. Anyway, Charlie, I just wanted to tell you that."

Charles Jackson, a retired U.S. Army colonel living in his hometown of Winchester, Va., didn't hesitate.

"Well Sonny, I appreciate that, and I feel the exact same way about you."

Holland, the man widely considered The Greatest Bobcat, stood in a cluttered office in Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, and he smiled.

The timelessness of college sports transported Holland, an All-America player and the head coach with more wins than anyone else in Bobcat history, 55 years into the past. On this day, two Bobcats who had experienced many of life's joys and pains were kids again, sharing a moment.

And the man on the other end of the phone, Charles Henry Jackson, also a great player at Montana State, was not a retired military man battling health issues and limited vision. He was a Bobcat, re-connecting with a teammate and fellow ROTC cadet from 55 years before.

"We spent a lot of time together."

"We sure enough did."

Jackson arrived in Bozeman in the late summer of 1956, fresh from the Bainbridge Naval Base in Maryland. The former enlisted sailor came to Bozeman at the bidding of newly minted Bobcat assistant coach Herb Agocs. Earlier that year, Agocs, then a coach at Bainbridge, invited Jackson to join him in Montana.

Jackson arrived in Bozeman at the same time Holland moved over from Butte to begin what would be a legendary career. Holland earned All-America honors three times before launching a highly successful coaching career capped by 61 wins as the Bobcats head coach and the 1976 NCAA Division II National Championship. Jackson earned Honorable Mention All-America honors twice, graduating in 1960 and earning his commission in the U.S. Army through ROTC.

Jackson used athletics to improve his lot in life, and also to bring diversity to an isolated but largely welcoming community in the Northern Rockies.

Jackson said the military prepared him for life in the rural west "to some degree," but that his real acclimation came growing up. "What certainly prepared me a whole lot more was the little town I'm standing in right now," Jackson said of Winchester, Va., his hometown and where he lives now. "It was segregated." But Jackson said his best teachers were those closest to him. "The people that prepared me the most were my parents. They prepared me to be respectful of other people, and don't take no crap off nobody."

Holland and Jackson couldn't have known it when they arrived in Bozeman, but they were shortly to become inextricably linked to each other and their teammates by one of the great seasons in Bobcat history. Holland was immediately recognized as a star at center on offense and linebacker on defense, and the quiet Jackson quickly moved into the spot next to Holland. He was a very, very good player almost from the beginning.

"I was a fullback in high school, but (at Bainbridge) I decided that I wanted to be a guard because there were all those halfbacks running around," Jackson said with a laugh. "And I was good."

The two joined a proven group of veteran players as the program welcomed back head coach Tony Storti after a one-year hiatus. Storti had revitalized Montana State football before entering private business in 1955, but in 1956 his program was poised for great things.

On offense, the line anchored by Holland and Jackson steamrolled all in its path. Montana State scored 30 points or more in each of its first four games, and its only close game of the regular season came at Northern Colorado, where the Bobcat defense pitched a shutout in a 13-0 victory.

That Northern Colorado game marked a turning point in the season. Montana State's offense lost a touch of steam, averaging only 25.6 points from that game on after scoring 39.5 points over the first four, but the Bobcat defense really found itself. The Cats shut out three of its last six opponents, did not allow more than two touchdowns in any of those games, and gave up just 5.5 points a game in the season's closing stretch.

Bobcat fans loved it. Blue and Gold die-hards poured through the turnstiles at Gatton Field, embracing their high-flying team. Yet Jackson, the first African-American to play regularly for the Bobcats (basketball star Larry Chanay arrived on campus simultaneously, but his season had not yet begun), often felt alone.

"When you're a minority, there is a difference," he said. But less than a decade after Jackie Robinson had integrated major league baseball, and at a time when major college football was negotiating race as an issue in instances of intersectional--particularly bowl--games, Jackson used athletics to improve his lot in life, and also to bring diversity to an isolated but largely welcoming community in the northern Rockies.

"When you have something to offer," Jackson said of his opportunity as both an athlete and a student, "and people are able to fit you into a system, things are looked at in a different light. They were putting together a football team (at MSC) at that time. Of course they knew I was a minority when I came there."

Agocs, who recruited Jackson to Bozeman, laid out the situation clearly. "Herb told me that they put it to the players, and they felt, 'If he can help the team, bring him on,' you know? I walked onto campus and there were 30-some people that I knew, (those) being the football team."

Holland barely recalled the arrival of an African-American--"There wasn't a big deal made about it," he says--and Gene Bourdet, a former Bobcat quarterback who was in his first year as a Montana State assistant coach that fall and later went on to be athletic director at MSU, Fresno State and San Diego State University, concurred. "It was no big deal."

Jackson said that his membership on the Bobcat team made him feel part of the campus community immediately, and his teammates advanced that process. "Most of the guys would go out of their way to talk to me, sit down and chat and different things, want to know how I was doing when we started up classes. And I appreciated that."

"I have nothing but respect and nothing but thanks for the opportunity that I received at Montana State University. It's the finest university in the world." - Charles Jackson

Montana State rolled to a perfect 9-0 regular season that year, and as a reward found itself fielding post-season offers. The decision to accept a bid from the inaugural Aluminum Bowl in Little Rock, Ark., billed as the NAIA National Championship game, presented Jackson and the team its first significant confrontation with America's color line.

"I volunteered, 'I'll stay here because I don't want no crap (in the South),'" Jackson recalled. "But (Agocs) came back and said, 'You'll be able to play, there's no problem.'"

But there was a problem. Agocs also informed Jackson, "You got to stay in the other (African-American) hotel."

"So now, here we are, Charlie. And I just want to tell you that I was in a meeting here last week. This committee is the Hall of Fame Committee for Montana State University, and it's a big deal, Charlie. And you have been nominated for the Hall of Fame, and you were unanimously selected for our Hall of Fame. And it's such a great pleasure to be the first one to let you know about that."

In the years after World War II, the sporting landscape in the American South as it related to issues of race changed almost constantly. While the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, rescinded an invitation to Lafayette when that school's faculty refused to allow the exclusion of the team's star, Dave Showell, who was black, the Cotton Bowl found a competitive advantage over other southern bowl games by inviting integrated teams, such as Penn State in 1948 and Oregon a year later. In 1951, however, the University of San Francisco's spectacular undefeated team failed to receive a bowl invitation after refusing to leave African-American stars at home.

In 1956, the city of Little Rock earned host privileges for the first Aluminum Bowl by agreeing to allow African-Americans to play. The Jim Crow custom of separate housing for blacks and whites, however, would be honored. Bowl officials arranged for Jackson's lodging at the Charlemagne Hotel. The rest of the team stayed a 10-15 minute taxi ride away.

Less than a year before Arkansas' governor created a national firestorm by relying on a military presence to maintain segregation at Little Rock's Central High School, the Bobcats arrived. While Jackson had faced segregation before, the rest of the team learned the realities of the situation first-hand.

"Everywhere we went (Jackson) was just one of the guys," Holland remembers. "We showed up at the hotel, and (the team's reaction was), 'Where the hell's Charlie?'"

The team went so far as to leave the door open for him in the room of Herb Roberts, Jackson's road roommate, and Jackson was allowed to participate in all team activities at that hotel except sleep.

"We were so naïve," said Holland, who recalled a later conversation with teammate Jim Posewitz. "(He) said, 'I can't believe we tolerated that bullshit. Why did we not stand up and raise hell about it.' But we didn't," Holland said, because at the time "kids were told that's the way it is, so that's the way it was."

While Holland remembers Jackson receiving racial abuse from the stands during the Aluminum Bowl, the game's defining factor was the extreme muddy conditions. Neither team gained much traction, and the contest against St. Joseph's ended in a 0-0 tie. The teams shared the national title, but as the only team without a loss, Montana State's claim was considered stronger. In MSU records, 1956 is listed as the university's first national championship.

"Sonny... you're choking me up, now. You're choking me up. I wasn't always happy at Montana State College."

"I know. I know."

"But that was the best thing that ever happened in my life. I learned more from mistakes. You can learn two ways, either by doing it right or doing it wrong. And I've always held that school and the people I played with in the highest esteem. But I never dreamt that this would happen to me."

"Well it happened, Charlie. And it's a great thing."

During his Bobcat career, Jackson was named Honorable Mention Small College All-America twice. As an offensive lineman and linebacker in an era before defensive statistics, objective evaluation of his career is difficult. The situation is further muddied because MSC played without conference affiliation from 1957 until joining the Big Sky in 1963. But his contemporaries, such as Holland, consider Jackson an outstanding player and a better person.

Jackson married his long-time girlfriend in Bozeman, his oldest child, Charles, Jr., was born at the old Bozeman Deaconess Hospital, and he received his commission in the U.S. Army upon graduation from MSC. Jackson eventually retired as a colonel after more than a quarter-century's service. He holds Bozeman as a place where he encountered hardships, but also happiness, and he said he learned an important lesson at Montana State. "People respond to you how you come on to them."

Jackson will be honored in September with induction into the Wendy's Bobcat Athletics Hall of Fame. But he said he doesn't want to be remembered as a pioneer.

"I have nothing but respect and nothing but thanks for the opportunity I received at Montana State University," he said. "It's the finest university in the world."

"Charlie, it's been too long, and I look forward to seeing you out here next fall."

"Me too, Sonny. Me, too."