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Oscar Jones attended East High at a time when black quarterbacks were still rare in a nation adapting to racial equality.

Oscar Jones attended East High at a time when black quarterbacks were still rare in a nation adapting to racial equality. Mike Hutmacher/ The Wichita Eagle | Buy this photo

Oscar Jones’ act of defiance resonates 50 years later

Published August 3 at 8:25 a.m. | Last updated August 5 at 1:44 a.m.

The singular act of bravery occurred late in the summer of 1964, in the equipment room at East High.

The African-American boys from the incoming class of 1967 — fresh-faced 10th graders ready to play football — stood in a long line leading to a coach handing out gear for the upcoming season.

Among them was Oscar Jones, slowly approaching the front. The other boys buzzed in his ear.

“You can’t do it.”

“You’re not allowed to do it.”

“They won’t let you do it.”

He’d heard it all before. And he simply did not care. He’d already seen enough in his short life to know what was in his heart.

He’d already slept with his family in the car on cross-country trips to Los Angeles when hotels wouldn’t rent his family a room. He’d already watched his father, also named Oscar, pick up hamburgers in Wichita, to go, because they weren’t allowed to eat in the restaurant.

He got to the front of the line.

“What number ’ya want?” The coach asked him.

“Give me 18,” Oscar said. “I’m a quarterback.”

The coach looked at him for a second, if only to size him up. He turned and grabbed the jersey Oscar asked for. Oscar took it and turned, defiant, and looked at the other boys, none of whom could believe what they just saw.

A singular act of bravery.

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Larry Cracraft spent his adult life as a pastor. In Indiana, Nebraska, Kansas … even some time in Massachusetts. Some people are just wired to help people, built to serve selflessly. That’s Cracraft.

Fifty years ago, he was the student manager on the football team at East. And when he thinks of that time, he thinks of Jones.

“I was just in awe of him,” Cracraft said. “He was such a great athlete, but he was such a great person, too. Just the way he carried himself, on and off the field, you knew he was going to make something of his life. He was terrific.”

Cracraft, who is white, saw Jones last year in a restaurant in Wichita for the first time in decades. He was dining with another East grad and asked her, twice, if that was who he thought it was.

“She said she thought it was Oscar Jones,” Cracraft said. “This is kind of embarrassing, but the first thing I wanted to do was go home and get my yearbook for him to sign it.”

Cracraft approached Jones, reintroduced himself and mentioned something about wanting his autograph. The two old men laughed and laughed.

“There’s people you just don’t forget, no matter how much time passes,” Cracraft said. “That’s Oscar.”

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It’s difficult to determine who the first African-American quarterback in City League history was, but if you use America as a gauge, it’s not hard to determine that Jones was a pioneer — an African-American wouldn’t become a full-time starter in the NFL until the Los Angeles Rams’ James Harris in the mid-1970s.

“It just wasn’t something that was done back then,” Jones said. “For ignorant reasons, of course.”

Ignorance wasn’t something that was tolerated in the Jones household. Growing up at 13th and Minneapolis, Jones was the youngest of three children — he had two older sisters — and his parents were hard-working people. His father worked at Boeing for 35 years as a supervisor on airplane modifications and his mother, Anna, worked at Boeing for 40 years as a supervisor on the housekeeping crew.

They pushed academics constantly. Independent thought was encouraged — work hard, be your own person, do the right thing even if it’s not popular. Anna’s mother, Mary, lived with them and played the role of disciplinarian.

“She gave you one shot, across the bow, as a warning,” Jones said, laughing. “Then you got your butt whipped.”

Jones played football and basketball at East — he was the starting quarterback on the sophomore and junior varsity teams his first two years, and as the varsity backup to a senior during his junior year he figured he would be in line to be the starter in the fall of 1966.

Didn’t happen. He played on the varsity, often coming into games when East was behind or the game was out of reach. But no starts, even thought he was listed as the presumed starter in a Sept. 4, 1966 Eagle season preview.

East went 6-3 in 1965, and 7-2 in 1966, Jones’ senior season. Doug Stevens began the season as starter, then when he was injured early in the year future All-City quarterback Greg Esaw took over.

“That was a big leap, for them, for the coaches,” Jones said. “It was one thing to have a black quarterback on the sideline, wearing the jersey, but to trot him out as the starter was something entirely different. The way I look at it now is that if I opened the door for somebody else, whatever I went through was worth it.”

He still got an offer to play football in college, at Friends, but went to Kansas State instead. There, he walked on the basketball team as a freshman, then got a degree in nuclear engineering. He went to work for the Department of Defense, then IBM, then into private business for himself.

He moved back to Wichita about 20 years ago, where he still lives with Oscar and Anna, and runs a financial services company that deals almost exclusively with African-American clients.

He’s still tall, still handsome, still sharp as a tack and still up to debate about almost anything — creationism vs. evolution, marijuana laws, Barack Obama’s presidency, or even why so many people come to Old Town on the weekends.

And he can still command a room. Eerily, almost.

“I live by this saying, that I’m living my life under an open heaven,” Jones said. “It means that I am in the right place at the right time, doing the right things for the right reasons.”

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It is five decades later, and members of the East High Class of ’67 are making time to talk about Jones. It doesn’t take long for each one to get their point across.

“He was an absolute rock star,” said Dave Ranney, a former Eagle reporter who now works for the Kansas Health Institute. “A legend of our time, that’s for sure.”

Classmate Eddie Thomas played basketball with Jones and remembers him much the same.

“He was always pushing himself academically, always taking advanced courses, always taking the toughest math and science courses,” Thomas said. “At the time, he was one of the few blacks playing the quarterback position, probably around the country. He was pretty determined, so much so that you knew it wasn’t necessarily athletics that was going to advance him forward in life. He was a particularly intelligent kid, very much attuned to what was going on around him at all times.”

And then there’s the story of what happened at prom their senior year. It’s a story that gets told many ways, but it always ends with one last act of defiance by Jones.

Up for prom king, Jones was pulled aside at the dance by some white teachers and administrators. They told him if he won, he was to skip the traditional kiss with the queen, who would be white. Wouldn’t be acceptable in this case.

“So my name gets called out as king and everybody is like ‘What’s he going to do?’ ” Jones said. “So I went up there, took my crown and I gave her a kiss.”

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Jones walked around East on Thursday, carrying a football used as a photo prop and letting the memories come flooding back.

“This is where I walked into school every day,” Jones said, pointing at a door facing Grove. “And that class is where I took Algebra II.”

He marvels at the expansion and the improvement done at the school and how they’ve still managed to keep the old facade in place. He sits on a bench under a shaded tree, just under the tower.

“The frustrating thing for me, now, is when I see that the doors have been busted wide open and these kids aren’t walking through them,” Jones said. “The opportunity is there for you, you’ve got the whole world at the tip of your fingers. Go get it. Don’t forget what we went through, of what the struggle was to get to this point.”

Reach Tony Adame at 316-268-6284 or tadame@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @t_adame.