‘Gifts of grace’: Prentice Gautt broke barriers as OU Football’s first Black scholarship player

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Prentice Gautt believed there are no coincidences in life.

His widow, Sandra, said he called them “gifts of grace.” Even 15 years after his death, she believes in and feels that grace, as well.

“Prentice is still very much a part of my life,” Gautt said.

There’s a connectedness that never went away. In the same vein, Prentice Gautt - with his warm “patented Prentice smile,” as OU athletic director and lifelong friend Joe Castiglione called it - is connected forever with Oklahoma Sooners football.

The Sooners did have four Black practice players in 1955. However, Gautt was OU’s first Black football player on scholarship, credited with breaking the team’s color barrier in 1956. He lettered on varsity in 1957.

Lifelong friend and high school teammate Russell Perry recalled Gautt grew up living with an aunt in Oklahoma City; the house situated in such a way that it led to an alley.

“We never knew we were in poverty,” Perry said. “The way I looked at it, and I assume he did, as well, is ‘This is life.’”

The Douglass High School standout would take the bus with his friends to Norman in the offseason, hop the fence at Owen Field, and run up and down the sidelines.

Gautt didn’t anticipate playing for the Sooners in segregation-era America. It seemed like a fantasy.

OU coach Bud Wilkinson had other ideas.

After a successful career as quarterback at the University of Minnesota, Wilkinson took the reins at Oklahoma from 1947 to 1963. Wilkinson had played with Black teammates, and sought to do the right thing at OU. He recruited Gautt out of high school.

The two developed a lifelong friendship. Wilkinson had an “open-door” policy for his players; Gautt spent many hours on the head coach’s couch.

“They made a great team, the two of them,” Wilkinson’s son, Jay, said. “My dad ended up saying the most significant thing he ever did was to help break the color line. He recognized this would be a very difficult barrier to break.”

While Wilkinson had put considerable thought into the type of man he wanted to recruit - in terms of academics, temperament, and character - he still received internal backlash for adding Gautt to the team.

As a result, Gautt did not have a scholarship his freshman year. A group of Black doctors, dentists and pharmacists led by Frank Cox - known as the Med-De-Phar society - pooled together the money to pay his tuition.

Gautt endured excessive hard hits and being stepped on in practice. Wilkinson noticed several players making racist comments about Gautt behind his back, as well. It forced the head coach to call a team meeting.

“Bud walked in and simply said, ‘I understand a number of you have been talking about Prentice behind his back. I expect you to be men, and I expect you to say it to his face,’” Sandra Gautt said. “And he walked out.

Prentice said, if he could go under the chair -- he wanted to. And he said, actually, people spoke up. But also there were individuals who spoke up in terms of support of him. And he said after that, things just shifted.”

Another moment happened freshman year, after a game at Tulsa.

“The restaurant they were attending, when they walked in, refused to serve the team because of Prentice and the fact that he was a Black man,” Wilkinson said.

“He left and walked back to the bus,” Gautt said. “He describes it as really being one of the lowest points in his career. So he’s on the bus by himself. He says he looks up, and he says all of a sudden, the whole team is back on the bus.”

Gautt befriended many of his teammates and produced on the field. Still, Jay Wilkinson recalled hearing heckles and vulgar language from the stands when Gautt took the field. He recalled his father receiving several telegrams after games laced with racist comments about Gautt.

It took a certain temperament and character for Gautt to persevere.

“He had a pathway in his mind seemingly, to me, that he wanted to be someone, in spite of the conditions we all grew up in,” Perry said.

The Sooners went on to win three conference titles with Gautt on varsity, including his MVP performance in the 1959 Orange Bowl vs. Syracuse.

Gautt played eight seasons in the NFL, all but one with the then-St. Louis Cardinals. He then earned his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

He noticed Sandra on campus while waiting for an elevator in the basement of Hill Hall. The meet-cute featured what Sandra referred to as the “worst pickup line ever.”

“He says ‘Hi, I’m Prentice Gautt. Haven’t we met somewhere before?’” Sandra Gautt said, laughing. “My response was ‘No, I’m sure we haven’t.’”

She let the elevator pass twice. The rest is history.

Gautt worked for the Big 8 conference and served on several NCAA committees. During that time, he met an up-and-coming athletic director at Mizzou, Joe Castiglione.

“Prentice was always focused on how he could make people become the best they could be,” Castiglione said. “How they could make - as we say in today’s world - make their story better.

“I wish our student-athletes today would’ve had the chance to get to know Prentice. He was never afraid to speak up on behalf of the welfare of people.”

Castiglione referred to Gautt as one of his favorite people ever - and a friendly rival on the golf course.

His respect for Gautt’s administrative work and legacy was the impetus for naming OU’s student-athlete academic center after him.

That dedication happened in 1999, Castiglione’s second year at OU. The Sooners honored Gautt at halftime of their game vs. Baylor.

On the field where Gautt had once endured racial slurs and boos, came applause.

“When I think about it, the hair on my skin still sticks up.” Castiglione said. “I’ll never forget that.

“It went on and on and on, so much so that I’m not sure the people that were in the stadium that day ever wanted to stop. I felt like if they could all come down and hug Prentice to show how much they love him, they would’ve done that.”

It was one last “gift of grace” for Prentice Gautt.

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Gautt died in 2005 of flu-like symptoms. The Big 12 Conference awards postgraduate scholarships to two student-athletes per school in his name.