Overcoming Race and Running Rebels Football: The Story of Former Aggie, Cardinal and Rebel Roy Shivers

By Aron Csiki | March 27th, 2017
Photo courtesy of Roy Shivers

The Start of a Career

Interstate 55 stretches from the toes of Louisiana to the banks of Lake Michigan by way of Chicago. The historic highway punctures the Mason-Dixon line and binds the industrial midwest with the deep rural south; the land of factories and freemen and the land recently governed by Jim Crow and lynchings, twined together by a single artery that runs through the American heartland.

It was in the middle of the I-55, just slightly north of the divide, that former UNLV Rebels assistant coach Roy Shivers was to begin his career in professional football.

“You know where the hell you goin’?” Shivers’ father asked him.

“Yeah. I’m going to St. Louis.”

“That’s right there in Missouri. Not far from down south.”

“Ain’t no big deal to me.”

“You gonna get in trouble with that mouth of yours…”

Roy Shivers was only two when his father moved their family from Arkansas to Oakland, California in 1943. They were amongst the 1.5 million black Americans who migrated out of the south during World War II to escape severe racism and find better work. His father’s previous job with Southern Pacific took him through Missouri many times, and he knew that the state was no place for a free-thinking, Bay Area black kid with a sharp tongue.

Despite the foreboding, Shivers’ 1966 draft into the St. Louis Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) sent him on an incredible journey through both football and American history. Shivers went on to coach at several colleges — including UNLV during the golden age of Rebels athletics — and became the first black general manager in professional football. While on this journey, Shivers and his wife, Carol Brown, a white woman from rural Utah, faced down the discrimination directed at interracial couples during and after the civil rights era.

In Henderson, Nevada, 2017

Driving up to Roy Shivers’ home in Henderson feels a bit like going through the nice neighborhoods of Irvine or Corona, California; lush trees line the roads and are surrounded by parks dotted with happy families. It’s a quiet, upper-middle class community, just over a decade old, where Roy and Carol Shivers live in retirement and where they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last July.

The two look incredibly youthful and healthy for their age, more than one might expect of folks who’ve navigated such a dense arc of the nation’s history. Shivers is a nice person and welcoming of guests, though it is immediately clear from his bearing that he is comfortable with speaking his mind and that he is definitely not a guy you’d want to piss off.

The Shivers sit down in their living room which holds several pictures of their daughters Nicole and Renee, the latter of whom was a cheerleader for the Runnin’ Rebels during the Tarkanian era and is currently an inspector under the Nevada attorney general.

With the television set tuned into ESPN on low volume, Shivers begins his story.

California and Utah, Race and Marriage, 1943-1966

“There was the big migration of blacks to the west and up north…” Shivers said, reflecting on the circumstances that brought him to Oakland. “A lot of them had the mental tenacity, the mental fortitude and the mental sight to see that ‘hey, it’s time to get our kids out of here and make for a better future’.”

Oakland in the 50s and 60s was very much a hotbed of political strife and activism. Workers’ unions and university students were in the streets, the influx of southern families created ripples in race relations, and white families were moving out of the inner cities in droves for the suburbs.

Nonetheless, the Bay Area remained a beacon of progress in the United States, and a force for social change.

“Growing up in the Bay Area was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I still think it’s greatest place in America to live,” Shivers said. “Everything centers around UC Berkeley, the liberalism, all that.”

Shivers even went to high school with the founder of Black Panthers, Huey Newton, and its minister of information, Virtual Murrell, the latter of whom he remains friends with.

“Huey was… I never thought he’d turn out the way he did. He was an angry young man in high school, but most of us were then,” Shivers said.

While Shivers was never involved with the Black Panthers, he remained politically literate and passionate about racial and political issues.

“My buddies would send me the Black Panther papers, and you know, I never thought in my life I’d read something like that.”

Despite being in the liberal west coast, Shivers experienced a harsh blow from reality about the place black people were to have in sports; even though he had the qualifications, he was denied the quarterback position on his high school team which was given instead to a white person.

“He always played QB in the black school,” Carol Shivers said. “But when he got to the white schools… nope. The mentality was that blacks were not intelligent enough to play QB.”

Shivers graduated from Oakland Technical High School in 1959, fully reared by the values and freedoms provided by the west coast. He went to play junior college football for Oakland City College (now Merritt College), and served in the Army for two-and-a-half years afterwards.

In 1964, Shivers went to play for the Utah State Aggies as the team’s star running back. It was during this time that he met Carol Brown, the daughter of a Utah cattle rancher raised in the Mormon church, and began a relationship that was not only taboo but outright illegal in many parts of the country.

“The dean of students used to come and spy on us through the window of my apartment,” Carol Shivers recalled. “I was in a sorority, but they dropped me… my father, he was — with a gun — he was gonna kill us both.”

“Supposedly,” Shivers interrupts her with a smirk.

The mountainous pressure and horrible displays of discrimination Roy and Carol Shivers faced proved their strength. Their love soon drove them to do something that is the stuff of fantastical rom-com films— they ran away to Las Vegas and got married in 1966 at the Chapel of the Flowers.

“Public opinion wasn’t that important to me,” Carol Shivers said. “I knew how I was, and how I felt, and just because he married a white woman and I married a black man, you know, the public opinion didn’t bother me.”

Public opinion certainly did not bother Shivers either.

“See, I don’t have very much diplomacy,” Shivers explained. “When we first got married, my family gave me a lot of flack… when we were walking down the street and someone was staring, I’d be like ‘what the fuck are you looking at, what’s the deal?’ And I got it from both sides, white and black.”

Their families eventually accepted their marriage, and Shivers was drafted into the St. Louis Cardinals the same year he got married in 1966. Against his father’s wishes, he went back into the same region of the country that his family and so many others had escaped from.

St. Louis and a Changing World, 1966-1973

“It was an experience,” Shivers said. “In some ways a traumatic experience, in other ways an enlightening experience, because I really didn’t know St. Louis was that close to the south… we had conflicts, racial conflicts. This was in the early 60s, and it was an experience I will never forget… but I met some people I enjoyed, some people that were very interesting.”

Among his teammates were radical leftists Dave Meggyesy and Rick Sortun, with whom Shivers discussed social and racial issues and shared pieces of Black Panther literature. During this time, Shivers took to reading Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, one of the ideological texts of the Panthers.

While Shivers and other black players walked around with writing used in the black liberation movement, many of their white teammates walked around with Knights of the Ku Klux Klan pins and patches on them.

“It was ugly,” Shivers said. “The dressing room was divided between the north and the south… it was an experience that I wouldn’t like to send anybody through, but for me coming from Northern California, it was enlightening. So I lived and learned a lot during this period.”

Although Shivers doesn’t have many pleasant memories about St. Louis, he happily describes the thriving, middle-class black community that existed at the time:

“I was amazed at the number of black professionals they had,” he said. “They had black doctors, lawyers… but once you got out of city proper, it was like you were in the south again.”

In August of 1968, Shivers and the Cardinals were training in Chicago when the Democratic National Convention police riots broke out. It was a defining moment in American history; 10,000 protesters, most of them young people and college students, were brutally assaulted by over twice as many police and national guardsmen under the orders of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Shivers snuck out of the dorms the team was staying at and went to the demonstrations.

“This was when Daley sicked the dogs and police on everyone… you had to get out of the way, and if you didn’t, you got stampeded.” Shivers said. “There were a lot of young people, a lot of young people. I slipped back into the dorms around four o’clock that morning.

“It was a whole different world, man, and the world was changing, and I thought it was changing for the better…”  

Shivers retired from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973. The painful irony in all of it was that everything he experienced could have been avoided. In 1966, Shivers also received an offer from the (then) San Diego Chargers— but they were in the AFL at the time, and the Cardinals were in the NFL. He had no idea that the two leagues would merge a year later.

After he left, Shivers coached at Oakland City College and University of Hawaii for a year each, becoming distinguished for his ability to recruit talented players.

UNLV Rebels, 1975-1983

In 1975, Shivers came back to Las Vegas to coach at a tiny, young college that was quickly making a name for itself in collegiate sports: The University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

When Shivers came to UNLV that year, it was a whole different ball game. Lied Library, the Student Union, the Thomas & Mack Center and many of the buildings that define our school today were nonexistent.

It was a simpler time. Flora Dungan Humanities was the campus’ center piece, the student body consisted of 7,500 people and asbestos was not a health concern. UNLV did not have much, but what it lacked in size it made up for in athletics, and it would continue to dominate with Shivers’ help.

He started his assistant coaching position the year after former head coach Ron Meyer left. In 1974, Meyer led the Rebels to an NCAA Division II playoff after an 11-0 season — the only perfect one in the school’s history.

Fortunately, Shivers’ time was spent under the equally brilliant Coach Tony Knap, nicknamed the “Silver Fox.”

“We played an exciting brand of football, and we were averaging something like 27,000 fans a game,” Shivers said. “We were always top 10 in the nation for offense. Tony Knap believed in throwing the ball around, and he didn’t give a damn about defense.

“See, that’s how we recruited, we recruited for speed… and that was [Knap’s] thing: ‘we’re not as big and strong as a lot of people, but we can get the speed and we can do this.’”

Under Knap’s leadership, UNLV went to the Division I level in 1978. It was the same year UNLV faced Brigham Young University in Yokohama, Japan, where they lost 28-24.

But Shivers’ talent for recruiting players elevated the Rebels to shocking victories and produced a satisfying revenge story. In 1979, Shivers recruited UNLV’s first black quarterback, Sam King, whose name will forever be engraved into Rebels’ spirit for his conquering of BYU in 1981.

King single handedly brought back the Rebels from a 17 point deficit to defeat BYU— ranked 8th in the nation at the time— 45-41. It was a devastating blow to the Cougars who were unable to get their star quarterback, Jim McMahon, on the field because of a knee injury, and instead started the then-unknown Steve Young.

Shivers also recruited running back Raymond Strong, who was inducted into the UNLV Hall of Fame in 1989. Strong was famous for gaining 843 yards rushing, averaging 5.9 yards per carry and rushing for six touchdowns in 1977.

During his time with the Rebels, Shivers also coached local football legends Jim Sandusky, Sam Green, Michael Morton, Darral Hambrick, Jeff Speck, and of course, Randall Cunningham, the most famous Rebel of all time.

Cunningham passed for 2,847 yards in 1982, scored 12 touchdowns in his final season, and in 1984, the year after Shivers left, led the Rebels to the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference (now, Big West) championship and a victory in the California Bowl. The Rebels’ joined the PCAA in 1982 under their new head coach, Harvey Hyde.

“Yeah. We had good football,” Shivers said proudly .

This era of UNLV athletics also saw the Rebels dominating in basketball under coach Jerry Tarkanian, baseball under coach Fred Dallimore and track under coach Al McDaniels. It was really Tarkanian and his program that put UNLV on the map, according to Shivers.

“The basketball team played at the [Cashman] convention center back then. I think it was 7,000 seats, and it was packed every time, and you couldn’t even get a ticket to a game until they built the Thomas & Mack,” Shivers said. “It was basketball fever ‘round here.”

Tarkanian’s achievements further motivated coach Tony Knap and Shivers in building the football team.

“Tony Knap’s thing about the Runnin’ Rebels was that they were gonna be the Runnin’ Rebels, and we were gonna be the Runnin’ Rebels of football. They’re gonna score, we’re gonna score. That was his whole thing: run up the score like they did,” Shivers said.

“And at the time Tark was kicking rear ends in basketball, the girls’ team was just as good!” Shivers said. “Dan Ayala was the coach, and they were just like the Runnin’ Rebels.”

Shivers left his assistant coaching position in 1983 and worked in the registrar’s office for the rest of the year. Once the dream years came to an end, Carol Shivers points out, the ever present issue of race reared its ugly head again.

“Because Shivers coached at UNLV and he had played pro ball, it opened doors for me and my children that would not have been opened,” Carol Shivers said. “And it was real strange, because the day he stopped coaching at UNLV, boy, those people that were my friends all those years, they wouldn’t even say hello to me.

“Racism is very alive and well in Las Vegas,” she said. “For so long it was hidden, but I see it… if Shivers hadn’t been a pro-athlete, it would have been a lot worse for our kids.”

The community as whole was greatly supportive, however. Roy and Carol Shivers fondly recall when Las Vegas was a small city, tightly-woven and wrapped around the university.

“The community was really involved because it was a small city,” Shivers said. “Everything gravitated towards the University… for people in the north side, west side, [UNLV] was their shining light, and they got involved… business people, doctors, lawyers, they got involved because they loved the Rebels, and the hotels and businesses in town would help us out too. I never had a problem getting a summer job for a kid.”

Canadian Football League, 1984-2006

Shivers left his post in the registrar’s office in 1984 when he was offered an assistant coaching position for the B.C. Lions in the Canadian Football League. The year after he joined, the Lions won their first cup game since 1964.

In 1991, Shivers became the assistant general manager of the Calgary Stampeders, helping to lead yet another team to a cup victory a year later.

In 1995, the CFL made a failed attempt to expand the league into the United States. Shivers was selected to be the general manager of one of these team, the Birmingham Barracudas. Though the teams folded after one season, Shivers made history by becoming the first ever black general manager in professional football. It was a stepping stone for him to becoming the general manager of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1999.

Shivers slowly worked to restore respectability to the Roughriders, a team that had been struggling severely in past years.

“Team was about to go bankrupt when we got there,” Shivers said.

Disagreements and spats with the board of directors for the team eventually led to Shivers’ dismissal.

“We stayed there for eight years before they ran us out. I guess they got tired of me talking to them… I made some statements, and they said ‘well, you can leave now.’” Shivers said.

Today

Back in the home of Roy Shivers, former professional football player, Rebels coach, general manager and destroyer of race barriers, is a man who has lived an electrifying life of accomplishment and struggle.

Roy and Carol Shivers defeated society’s hate and achieved their dreams. Roy Shivers himself is not only a testament to the word “strong,” but he is among the finest example there have ever been of a former Rebel.

He and his wife Carol Shivers are now grandparents. Their daughters moved on and have success stories of their own.

“Our kids had a good life, they did well in school and they both excelled,” Carol Shivers said. “And that came from having strong parents and not letting society weaken us.”

Following the interview with the UNLV Scarlet & Gray Free Press, Roy Shivers wanted to thank some of the local African-American professionals whose love of UNLV helped drive the Rebels to success:

Jackie Newton – UNLV Academic Counselor and advisor of intercollegiate athletes in the 80s

Dr. William Boulware – Neurologist

Clayton Bywater – Rebels assistant coach in the 70s. Academic and speciality teams coach.

Roosevelt Fitzgerald aka “Fitz” – UNLV anthropology department, 1971-1996. One of the first black professors at UNLV. Also taught African-American history.

Dr. Porter Troutman – Professor

Joe Neal – First black senator in Nevada legislature

Jimmy Walker – Former owner of the old Moulin Rouge casino, businessman on the west side

Stan Armstrong – UNLV alum and documentary filmmaker. Activist in African-American social issues.

QB Bush: One of owners of Town Tavern bar


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