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Silver Anniversary Award winner: Pellom McDaniels

Football exposed the Oregon State lineman to different cultures and attitudes, shaping the direction his life would take

Pellom McDaniels studied more than speech pathology and football film at Oregon State University. The former defensive lineman moved from San Jose, Calif., to Oregon for college in the mid-1980s, and quickly learned that the entire country was not as diverse and socially integrated as what he had grown accustomed to in the Bay Area. That trend would continue throughout his life and, eventually, shape his career path after his days on the gridiron were over.

At the time, many of the student-athletes at Oregon State were African American, but the majority of the student body was white. The dynamic was new for McDaniels and he gradually learned to navigate the social complexities. McDaniels became the president of his fraternity, and spearheaded the first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. candlelight vigil on Oregon State’s campus with the help of his teammates.

“We were really trying to educate those individuals who came from a real homogenous background,” McDaniels said. “[We wanted them to know] student-athletes were not just athletes; they were students and part of the campus community as well.”

After earning his college degree in little more than three years, McDaniels wasn’t selected in the NFL Draft, but later signed with the Birmingham Fire of the World League of American Football. He spent two years with the team, and found himself navigating another unfamiliar cultural environment. In Birmingham, he learned to interact with people from different backgrounds, often using sports to build common ground rather than relating to people only through race.

McDaniels went on to have a successful career in the NFL with the Kansas City  Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons, and he was recognized as much for his involvement in the community as he was for his play on the field. Both in college and at the professional level, he didn’t limit his focus to football, learning from predecessors like Willy Lanier, who was a Hall of Famer for the Chiefs and attended an historically black college. Lanier told McDaniels what it felt like in the 1960s to be a black athlete who was appreciated for his play on the field but disregarded off of it.

“I really began to recognize what these men went through,” McDaniels said. “These were people less well-known than Malcom X or Dr. King, but had similar experiences and changed how people thought about race.”

Because of those experiences, McDaniels decided to pursue a Ph. D. in American studies after he retired from football. He studied at Emory University in Atlanta, focusing on the impact of black athletes on 20th century America, and went on to become an assistant professor before being named the faculty curator for African American collections at Emory. In more recent years, McDaniels finds himself and the school delving deeper into African Americans athletes’ role in the larger culture.  

“Their performances mean so much more than wins and losses,” McDaniels said.