“There are good people in the world.” How Wyoming’s Black 14 mended fences with LDS church and brought Thanksgiving dinners to Denver

“It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and put in his own garden. It grew, and became a large tree, and the birds of the sky lodged in its branches.”

— Luke 13: 18-19


Before last Tuesday, the bird had never heard of the Black 14. Christina Day knew the chapel on Quari Court like the back of her wing, though, having first approached the Salvation Army of Aurora ages ago in search of day care for her oldest son.

“And they said, ‘Sure, you can bring him over here, free of charge,’” Day recalled. “And at the same time, they asked me if I’d needed food for Thanksgiving. I said, ‘Well, we could use help.’ So they gave me this huge box. It had everything you needed for Thanksgiving. Everything.”

They could use a little help again. Day’s worn many hats at Sam’s No. 3. Server. Bartender. Host. But she can’t keep the building open for sit-down customers. She can’t make COVID-19 magically go away.

“(Sam’s) is great, but with the pandemic, it did close down,” Day said. “We were closed for about three months. We did takeout, but …”

Not the same. Not even close.

“I mean, it cut my money in half. It cut my income in half. And even being back to work, our money’s still half. And our whole situation’s different.”

As the holidays approach, we’re bracing for the worst again. For those whose livelihoods depend on large gatherings — sports, entertainment, restaurants, retail — the darkness of March and April is creeping back with a vengeance as coronavirus numbers skyrocket across the Front Range. It’s like 2020 can’t walk away without one last shot to the kidney.

Day’s a single mom, with a 15-year-old and an 11-year-old at home. She’s wrestled with alcoholism in the past. When life throws a punch, Christina knows better than most how to roll with the blow and get back on her feet.

“So just to see the community come together with all these gifts for those in the community who are in need,” Day said, “it really makes me feel good.”

Before last week, John Griffin had never heard of Christina Day. And yet he knows her story well. Too well.

His favorite restaurant had to shut its doors for a time, too. The former Wyoming Cowboy flanker and longtime Denverite felt 2020, just like the rest of us. He read the news reports. He saw lines of locals in cars this past spring, picking up donated food and supplies. He watched toilet paper vanish, stores close, dreams shatter and neighbors weep.

He asked himself: What can I do? He called his old Cowboys teammate Mel Hamilton and rephrased the question: What can WE do?

“Every day, I’m blessed to still be here,” said Griffin, 72, a civil rights icon and one of 14 Black football players kicked off the Wyoming football team in October 1969 for suggesting a protest against the Mormon church.

“It’s a blessing to me every day, because three of my (teammates) aren’t here anymore and haven’t been here for quite some time. Everybody’s dying around this country. Some people won’t be here tomorrow.”

Why not make the most of today? Hamilton, Griffin and seven of their teammates did their best to salvage this calendar year late last month when they announced a partnership with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the same organization that had once been the root of their silent protest — to conduct a food drive in nine under-served communities.

In one of life’s sweeter ironies, Hamilton, a former Wyoming lineman, has become good friends over the years with folks within LDS leadership, including former BYU quarterback Gifford Nielsen. Hamilton’s son even converted to Mormonism, marrying into a family of the LDS faith.

“You have these seeds of bitterness that were sown (in 1969),” LDS Elder Michael Jones said, noting the Cowboys’ opposition to the church’s ban on Blacks in the priesthood, a stance reversed in 1978. “And you have these great fruits that are being harvested today.”

This past week, that harvest was nine truckloads worth of non-perishable food, each truck containing 40,000 pounds worth of goods provided by the LDS, to aid charities across eight states — locales as far north as Pittsfield, Mass., and as far south as Charleston, S.C. The nine members of the Black 14’s philanthropic arm got to pick the communities served.

“There are going to be people Monday who had no idea what they were going to be able to eat,” Griffin said. “And come Tuesday and Wednesday, when stuff gets issued, they’ll know that they will be able to have Thanksgiving dinner. Wow, man. I’m happy to be able to have done that. The Mormons are happy to have been able to have done that with us.”

The 18-wheeler with the Denver donation, designated by Griffin for Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and other food banks, arrived last Tuesday. As Catholic Charities didn’t have a dock big enough to store the entire donation, the drop was made at the Salvation Army’s Emergency Services Center in north Aurora.

A small ceremony got underway as pallets of boxes were unloaded, each adorned with a white sticker that read:

University of Wyoming / BLACK 14 / Mind, Body and Soul Initiative / Donation in partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“To me, this is one of those snapshots in history,” Griffin said. “Fifty-one years ago, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Griffin’s a hugger by nature. He fought back tears more than a few times, pumping fists and touching elbows, as he thanked the multitudes who made the donation possible.

But the moment that knocked the ex-Cowboy for the biggest loop was when the truck driver who’d delivered the goods made a point to come over and tell Griffin how the journey had motivated him to research the legend of the Black 14, all those years ago. The black arm bands. Lloyd Eaton, the coach who’d turned his back. The shunning. The long walk to redemption.

“He told me that right at the border between Utah and Wyoming, at the truck stop, they have to check the trucks coming across the state lines,” Griffin said. “I presume the person was highway patrol or state patrol. He’d told (the driver), ‘We’re getting more trucks coming through with these same white stickers on the road, what is this?’ And he went on to explain it to this person. And the person goes, ‘Oh my goodness.’

“This truck driver, he gets paid to take loads across the country. I don’t know if he does this for every load. But he knew everything about the Black 14.”


Before Thanksgiving, Christina Day knew next to nothing about the Black 14. Until she discovered the boxes of food going home with her this fall had a story, too. A journey of brotherhood that goes back decades.

“It made me think of this year, with all the racial tensions and rioting,” Day said with a sigh.

“I drove downtown just the other day and saw all the windows still boarded up. But to hear that the same thing, somewhat, happened 50-odd years ago, for (Griffin) to think of the community 50 years later, it really, really does touch my heart. To know that we’re not forgotten.”

Not this week. Not ever.

“It’s really nice to know that there are good people in the world.” Day said. She paused, then let out a gentle laugh of blessed relief. “Still.”

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