In 1892, the 2-year-old Nebraska Bugeaters football team had its first conference game scheduled. Having joined the Western Interstate University Football Association, Nebraska was due to play Missouri in Omaha.
Missouri would elect not to play, instead giving Nebraska its first conference win: a 1-0 forfeit. The Tigers forfeited because of the presence of a Black halfback by the name of George Flippin. When asked later if he was good at football, the then-doctor gave a witty response.
“Was I any good?" Flippin said. "Why, yes. In fact, one time, I was so good I beat the University of Missouri all by myself."
Partly as a response to the Black Lives Matter protest movement which dominated the social consciousness over the summer, Flippin’s story has been recognized in a more visible capacity relative to his honoring previously. A group of Nebraska student-athletes even requested months ago that the university do a better job of honoring Flippin.
One step that Nebraska has taken is wearing a sticker with Flippin’s name on it on the back of Husker helmets for football games. For many, Flippin’s story is a powerful and relatable one.
“It really embodies what it is that we hope for a lot of our students to be,” Nebraska Athletics diversity and inclusion director DaWon Baker said. “For a lot of our students and our people within the state of Nebraska, somebody who was a Husker themselves really went through some trials and unfortunately that wasn't at fault of his own and was really just something with intimacy.”
Flippin was born in Ohio in 1868. His father, Charles, was a freed slave who served for the Union during the Civil War and became a doctor. After his mother passed away, Flippin’s father remarried to Mary Bell Reed, a white physician. The family moved to Henderson, Nebraska where the family set up a clinic and pharmacy.
In 1891, Flippin attended UNL and became the first black athlete in Nebraska history. He was also the fifth black athlete nationally to compete at a university predominantly populated by whites. Throughout his time at Nebraska, Flippin competed in football, wrestling, track and field and baseball.
“I didn't know much about George Flippin before this year,” Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost said. “If you haven't read about him, it's an unbelievable story. It's fascinating and I encourage our fans to go research that. You can't honor everybody, you can't do as much as you ever want to do to honor someone but honoring him I think is a good start.”
Flippin’s athletic career at Nebraska wasn’t safe from the racism both outside and on campus. From being denied entrance to white establishments to having teams refuse to play Nebraska due to Flippin’s presence. Flippin would have also been team captain for the 1894 season, but was overrode.
Flippin then decided to attend medical school in Chicago where he went on to earn his doctorate. He then married Georgia Smith and moved to Stromsburg, Nebraska where he and his father later opened the town’s first hospital.
“Flippin’s influence has been very quiet but still heavily felt,” Baker said. “When they're the first person to do something, they're breaking the seal. However, they unfortunately have to endure a lot of issues and challenges in society. There are people today who still have to endure these issues and challenges. But figures like Flippin have helped pave the way for them to overcome them.”
Flippin passed away in 1929. Nebraska eventually honored him by inducting him into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1974. Flippin's name and silhouette is one of six on the Tunnel Walk path onto Memorial Stadium's Tom Osborne Field.
However, students, athletes and staff believe that Flippin needs to be honored more and should be recognized for his journey that was and wasn’t documented.
“I can't imagine some of the things that he had to go through that weren't documented,” Baker said. “Our student athletes recognized and realized that somebody was able to kind of fight this fight for them 100 years ago gives them a strength that is really helpful for them to be able to endure themselves.”
There were plans to honor Flippin earlier in the year, but due to COVID-19, the plans were seemingly scrapped, according to Baker. The school is still trying to honor Flippin on a grand scale with a memorial, but in the meantime they’re finding ways to honor him.
Flippin’s story isn’t the only example of overcoming racism in collegiate athletics, either generally or at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Frost also said that college football locker rooms can be a great place to expand your worldview and be unified.
“With a lot of things going on in the country, anything we can do as a football team to be closer together and anything we can do as a football team to be an example is important,” Frost said. “Football locker rooms oftentimes are the best places I've ever been. People come from all different backgrounds, all different races, all different places and they come together. In a lot of ways society should mirror locker rooms so you have a good culture built.”
Baker talked about how bringing light to Flippin’s story will bring light to other individual stories both at and outside Nebraska. Those are the conversations that lead us to other conversations about who else came before them, after them, who's coming now and who's gonna come after them.
“I would like to see these stories, and [this] information being infused in everything that we do,” Baker said. “What has happened over the past few months, these are all problems that have existed for literally hundreds of years. To see us really have these situations, these conversations, this education that we are really integrated and are done every single day in everything that we do.”