Looking Back At The Career Of BYU’s First Black Football Player

Jun 19, 2021, 10:41 AM
Ron Knight - BYU Football...
Ron Knight was BYU’s first black football player. (Photo courtesy of BYU Athletics)
(Photo courtesy of BYU Athletics)

PROVO, Utah – Back in 1970, BYU football had its first Black American athlete join the varsity squad. That player was junior college defensive back Ron Knight.

To celebrate Juneteenth, we take a look back at the career of Ron Knight. An influential figure in the decorated history of BYU football.

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday and commemorates the emancipation of African American slaves.

During the 1969 season, BYU sports teams and the university faced protests within the old Western Athletic Conference. Students at opposing conference schools protested BYU whenever the Cougars rolled into a league foe’s home turf.

From Wyoming’s “Black 14” to Arizona fans dousing their basketball court in gasoline and setting it aflame before a conference tilt, BYU’s trips within the league were suddenly mired in controversy.

The protests centered around a religious policy with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church had a rule in place that prevented Black men from entering the temple and receiving the priesthood.

The Church, however, never had any rules against BYU having black athletes on their athletic teams.

Ron Knight: First Black BYU Football Player

After the 1969 football season, BYU made a public effort on the recruiting trail to bring minority athletes in all sports to the faith-based institution.

Football got it started. BYU’s head coach, Tommy Hudspeth, signed Ron Knight from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College (NEO).

Knight was a 5-foot-11, 175-pound prospect who helped NEO win the National Junior College Athletic Association championship.

Knight, a native of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, joined a BYU secondary that featured All-American candidate Chris “The Galloping Greek” Farasopolous and Ron Mendenhall.

Despite a lot of experience in the 1970 secondary, Knight still found his way onto the field in eight of BYU’s games that season, recording 29 tackles in his first full year with the Cougars.

Knight opened the door for minority athletes at BYU

Knight taking a chance on BYU in 1970 had a ripple effect on more minority athletes joining the program.

Before the start of the 1970-71 academic year, BYU added Tony Williams, a running back from Oakland, California. Williams signed to play on BYU’s freshman roster for that season.

In Knight’s senior year in 1971, he was a starting strong safety in BYU’s secondary that legendary assistant Dick Felt coached.

Knight recorded 62 tackles, five tackles for loss, and had two interceptions. Knight’s interceptions came in the first two weeks of the season, helping BYU jump out to a 2-0 start in Hudspeth’s final year as head coach.

After his playing days at BYU were over, Knight competed in spring games as a member of the distinguished alumni squad.

Since Ron Knight broke the color barrier at BYU football, it created opportunities for BYU legends Leon White, Derwin Gray, Jernaro Gilford, Kyle Van Noy, Cody Hoffman, Jamaal Williams, and many others.

Knight’s arrival in Provo helped change BYU football and its athletic department forever.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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Looking Back At The Career Of BYU’s First Black Football Player