He may not have realized it at the time, but Granville Liggins was a trailblazer for future athletes at Oklahoma.
Although OU had welcomed a number of black players since Bud Wilkinson had desegregated the team by bringing in Prentice Gautt in 1956, Liggins became the first black player from OU to gain All-American status, paving the way for the host of African-American athletes who followed him.
Being a black player in NCAA football in the mid-60s was much different than it is today.
“It was quite scary, actually. In 1963 and 64, there were only three or four black players on the football team – and only about 100 black students out of about 18,000 on campus,” Liggins recalled. “We didn’t have many experiences off-campus. Today, as we speak, the black kids have a helluva lot more fun socializing and doing things away from school than we ever did. The only exciting things that happened to me at OU were on the football field.
Racism was never a factor on the football field, but it was driven home for Liggins during the off-season in his hometown of Tulsa.
“On my summer job in 1966, I was working at a paper company and one day I went to lunch at a restaurant with some other guys who were white,” Liggins said. “I was told by the manager of the restaurant that I couldn’t eat my lunch there. As an 18 or 19-year-old kid, I was stunned.”
“And as I sat outside and ate, I wondered to myself “if this was OU and Notre Dame playing on a Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma, would those same people who refused to let me eat in their restaurant be cheering for me?” Of course they would. It hurt, but I just moved on.”
It had always been Liggins’ dream to play at OU for Bud Wilkinson. He grew up idolizing lineman Ed McQuarters, another Tulsa Washington grad who starred for the Sooners in the early ‘60s. Liggins listened to the OU games on the radio and watched Wilkinson ‘move those little pieces around on the chalk board’ on the weekly Sooner Football television show. He never got to play for Wilkinson, as the legendary coach resigned to run for the U.S. Senate shortly after Liggins had committed to the Sooners.
And even though he went on to be a two-time All-American for the Sooners in football, Liggins’ greatest moment in Oklahoma athletics may not have even occurred on the gridiron.
As a junior, Liggins was pressed into service by the OU wrestling team, which was in desperate need of a heavyweight. The 5-11, 212 lb. Liggins had been a star grappler in high school, but at this level, he often had to go against opponents that were 50 to 100 pounds heavier.
“The Big Eight Championships were in the old field house at OU, “ Liggins remembered. “I wrestled some guy about 6-6 and 280 lbs. And somehow I beat him. Everybody went crazy and I was hoisted around the field house and everybody was chanting ‘Granny, Granny, Granny’. It still sends tingles up my spine to think about it.”
Liggins went on to become an All-American in wrestling as well, losing in the NCAA Championships to future NFL star Curley Culp, a 300-pounder.
Despite his small stature, Liggins was a demon for the Sooners at middle guard, taking on larger opponents and outmaneuvering them with his speed and quickness. That was a trademark of Sooner teams of that era.
“We had the lightest defensive line in college football. I think we averaged about 210 lbs. across the front but the one thing about OU is that we were fast from sideline to sideline. They couldn’t run around us.”
But many teams still tried, including old Sooner nemesis Notre Dame. Liggins calls the meeting against the Fighting Irish in 1966 as the biggest game of his career.
“They had Terry Hanratty, Alan Page, and Nick Eddy and their offensive line averaged about 250,” Liggins said. “For two or three quarters, they tried to run around the end, but finally (Notre Dame coach) Parseghian got wise and they go the bright idea to run right at us and just wore us out.”
The other Oklahoma game that stands out in Liggins mind was the 1968 Orange Bowl victory over Tennessee. It was a bittersweet moment for the senior, as he suffered a knee in jury in the third quarter and had to miss the Hula Bowl All-Star game.
That might have affected his NFL draft status as well, as he only went in the 10th round to the Detroit Lions despite finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Their offer was not enough to suit Liggins, but another one was. It came from the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders and it would change his life.
“I didn’t know where the hell Canada was then. All I knew is that it was up north”, laughed Liggins. “My size was an issue with the NFL, but in the CFL, the bigger field gave me a chance to use my speed.”
“I had a ten-year run in Canada, when most pro careers average five to five and a half years. The best thing that ever happened to me was coming to Canada. It’s a great place to live. I was truly blessed.”
Liggins played on Calgary’s Grey Cup championship team in 1971, defeating the Toronto Argonauts. Ironically, Liggins was traded to the Argos in 1973 and recently, he was named as one of top five greatest players in Toronto history. Staying in Canada, Liggins still makes his home in Oakville, Ontario.
Even though he now considers himself a Canadian, after spending more than half of his life north of the border, Liggins holds fondness for Oklahoma and the Sooners. His mother lives in Oklahoma City and he still wears his “O” Club ring and the Orange Bowl/Big 8 Championship watch he got after his senior year alongside his Grey Cup Championship ring.
Liggins said he almost fell on the floor when told that he had been selected as one of OU’s greatest players.
“I’m amazed that people in Oklahoma still remember my name. That is very humbling”, admitted Liggins. “My years at OU, that was a great ride. Every year I pull for those guys, but I don’t have the opportunity to get back there very often.”
“I was just fortunate. Very few people get to do what they want to do. I wanted to play football at OU. I wanted to be an All-American. I wanted to play in the NFL, but wound up in the CFL, which was a blessing for me. When I retired from football at 32, my life was complete. Everything since then has been a bonus.”