Ralph Goldston was one of the first Black players to integrate the Eagles. Not everyone welcomed him with open arms.
By Vaughn Johnson
All Ralph Goldston wanted to do for a living was play professional football. His dream became a reality when the Philadelphia Eagles selected him with 125th overall pick in the 1952 NFL Draft, making him one of the first two Black players to integrate the Eagles.
Ralph was overjoyed with attaining his lifelong goal. The rest of the Goldston family, on the other hand, was not. Ralph's family was afraid. They were afraid of Ralph enduring what every other Black person integrating an institution that whites considered exclusively theirs: violence and possibly even death.
That fear kept fellow Black running back Johnny Bright, the Eagles' first-round draft pick in that same year, from ever playing in the NFL, citing his uncertainty in how he would be treated.
Ralph did not share Bright's fears.
While Ralph didn't suffer bodily harm, he did not walk away from his experience completely unscathed. From the outside looking in, Ralph was unmoved by what he experienced. He was the patriarch of his family and was always willing to lend a helping hand to someone in need.
But during private moments, mainly with his wife Sarah Sloan Goldston, he expressed his pain – the pain of having slurs hurled at him in his home stadium while he played, or the pain of being passed over for coaching opportunities after his playing days were over in favor of less-qualified white candidates.
However, he would not dwell on it for too long. He'd curse the names of the people who had wronged him, laugh about it, and move on, adding more layers to the calluses racism put upon him.
Ralph died at the age of 82 on July 9, 2011, leaving behind a book's worth of tales and a loving family willing to tell them. Family members like his eldest daughter, Ursula Goldston, who learned the value of hard work and teamwork from her father. Family members like Ursula's son, Trent Cannon, who sat by his grandfather's side while he scouted players for the Seattle Seahawks. And Sarah, who at 92 years old, can still vividly remember what she and Ralph went through.
"He was a tough person and if he had not been a tough guy, he wouldn't have never made it with the Eagles for four years," Sarah says. "He was not afraid to hit back. (He) would curse you out in a second. He didn't care who you were, how big you were, that was it."
Sarah knew Ralph was tough from the moment they met back in their hometown of Campbell, Ohio, a small industrial town tucked away in the northeastern part of the state near the Pennsylvania border.
One day during elementary school, Sarah had gotten herself into a situation with another little girl that resulted in a fight. According to Sarah, she came out on the winning end of it, which resulted in her defeated opponent summoning one of her brothers to enact revenge.
However, Sarah was not deterred. She took the fight right to the boy and notched her second victory of the day. Sarah, taking on all comers at this point, then summoned another member of the family. This time, however, she got Ralph, the older, more athletic member of the household.
Sarah was surprised by Ralph's presence, but was not one to run from a fight. She made sure to get the first hit on Ralph. Ralph didn't retaliate. He merely prevented Sarah from getting any more hits on him. Sarah and her sisters made sure to tell their father, who made sure Ralph knew to never come near his daughters ever again, and he didn't – all the way until high school.
Ralph and Sarah eventually mended fences and began a romantic relationship, which is how Sarah found herself sitting amongst the Eagles' wives at Shibe Park alongside her father. Unfortunately, that was when she realized that Ralph had no room for error. If Ralph made a mistake on the field, slurs rained down from the stands, only adding to the mounting pressure not only for him, but for others like him to follow.
As Trent recounts, "My grandfather was good, but I didn't know how good he had to be to be Black and to play in the NFL at that juncture."
Sarah heard the slurs loud and clear and would quickly clench her fist and cock it back, ready to defend the same man she was fighting against as a child. Her father would always find a way to talk her out of it.
"They don't know what they're talking about. Sit down," Sarah recalls her father saying.
It didn't stop after the game either, as Sarah remembers waiting outside of the Eagles' locker room along with the other wives. While waiting after one game, she went to the restroom and saw a Black woman drying the floor after mopping it. The cleaning woman asked another player's wife not to use the bathroom until she had completely dried the floor. The player's wife responded by calling the woman a racial slur.
"Uh oh, this ain't good," Sarah said at the time.
Sarah's intuition was correct. The cleaning woman responded by hitting the player's wife in the head with the mop, knocking her to the ground.
"Honey, I've worked here a long, long time and nobody has ever called me that," Sarah recollects the cleaning woman saying.
The player eventually came in and asked his wife, who by this point was sitting on the floor crying, what happened. She recounted the events as they happened.
"Well, you shouldn't have said that," the player said.
Sarah and her friends laughed about the story for years. Unfortunately, they laughed at a lot of stories just like that one.
"I guess you have to laugh to keep from crying. That's what we used to say," Sarah affirms.
Being amongst the fans was a weekly ordeal for Sarah, but being around the team was not much better. Sports has always been praised for being an area of society where people of all walks of life can come together. While that may be true on gameday, non-gamedays were a different story for Ralph and Sarah.
Ralph didn't interact much with his white teammates mainly because they never made much of an effort to interact with him. According to Sarah, their presence on the team and in the city went virtually without acknowledgment except during practice and on gameday. The way Sarah saw it, they might as well had been invisible. If the team got together for a gathering, the Goldstons were not invited.
"We never got to be close," she says. "Once the practice was over, Ralph came back to the Black neighborhood and they went on their way. I never even knew where they lived."
"(We) would only see them on Sunday afternoon for the game," she adds. "Once the game was over, they went one way, Ralph and I went back to where we were living."
After each season, Ralph and Sarah would pack their belongings, load them into their car, leave their residence at 24th and Montgomery in North Philadelphia, and head back to Ohio. They never attempted to buy a house in Philadelphia.
Things were only worse for road games, as Ralph and the team's other Black player, Don Stevens, a 30th-round pick in 1952, were not allowed to stay in the same hotel with the team in certain cities. Instead, the team made arrangements for Ralph and Don to stay elsewhere.
According to Sarah, the first time that occurred, Ralph and Don were not told of the arrangements until the team landed in the opposing city. Ralph managed to find the positive in the situation – they did not have to abide by the 9 PM curfew.
"The other players had bed check, but we were on our own," Ralph once said during an interview with Ray Didinger.
When Ralph's playing days were over, he stayed involved with the game by way of scouting and coaching. His occupation may have changed, but the discrimination he faced was more of the same.
While coaching at Harvard University, Ralph was offered the opportunity to become the head coach of the Portland Storm of the fledgling World Football League in 1974. He accepted and signed a three-year, $122,000 contract that included life insurance and a stock option in the team, according to The Oregonian.
The hiring was seen as historic at the time, as Ralph was lauded for being the first Black head coach in pro football history. This was before it was widely known that Fritz Pollard was indeed the first Black head coach in the history of the sport during the 1920s.
Goldston's offer fell through, however, because the deal between the league and the potential owner, John J. Rooney (not related to the Steelers' owners), failed to come to fruition. Ralph eventually sued the league and Rooney for $2.2 million in federal court for failing to honor the contract. He won the lawsuit and was awarded an undisclosed amount of money. What wasn't reported in the newspapers was the apparent real reason Ralph never coached the team.
According to the Goldstons, Rooney thought he was hiring a Jewish man. When he realized Ralph was Black, he reneged on the contract despite Ralph having already signed it. He had even begun the process of hiring a coaching staff, which included Eagles Hall of Famer, Ollie Matson.
The Portland franchise, along with the World Football League, folded after the 1975 season. Ralph managed to land on his feet, receiving the top scouting position with the Seattle Seahawks. What he did not receive, however, was another head coaching opportunity in any league.
"That's what he saw over and over," Ursula says. "He was always overlooked for being a head coach ... at the collegiate level and in the pros."
It wasn't for a lack of effort, as Trent recounts his grandfather having typed and sent hundreds of letters to teams seeking head coaching opportunities.
"I think that was always his dream, to be the coach of a team, but for whatever reason, it did not happen, and we can attribute a lot of it, of course, to some of the racial things," Trent says.
The obstacles thrown before Ralph never stopped him. He knew his worth. He knew what he was capable of and that was all that mattered. In his mind, he didn't have to prove anything to anyone but himself.
It is a mindset Ralph had to have in order to break down barriers.
People like Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Barack Obama, and many others are all rightfully heralded as heroes for breaking through a color barrier, but what isn't discussed is the trauma they suffered as a result of blazing the trail for future generations.
Ralph didn't see himself in the same light as those pioneers, but he suffered through the same disdain for the color of his skin just the same.
Racism doesn't simply end when a Black person reaches a new plateau. While it may not be as overt as, say, the Jim Crow South, there is still unspoken segregation in major cities throughout the country thanks to redlining and gentrification.
Trailblazing isn't nearly as glamorous as it is depicted in school textbooks, but it is necessary to spearhead real change.