Unrattled: The Florida A&M Rattlers are proud of their groundbreaking legacy
February 25, 2019
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
Florida A&M Men's Golf Team strive for success
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – An unknown world awaited at the end of his cross-country train ride, but first, a trusted voice imparted words of caution. “I will never forget my mother, just shaking her finger at me,” said Ron Tate. “She told me, ‘Do not go down there and get involved in all those protests.’”
He presents the persona of a man who has experienced so much in his lifetime – from social injustice to hard-earned success – but Tate offers deep respect to those words spoken by his mother more than 50 years ago. “Of course,” he laughs, “five days later I was in jail.”
Born and raised in Minnesota, Tate arrived in Tallahassee, Florida, to attend Florida A&M at a time when the Civil Rights movement, already more than decade old, was building toward what would be the March on Washington in August of 1963. All of it – the segregation, discrimination and disenfranchisement – remains a shameful era in our country’s history, and so, yes, it all felt so wrong to this young man from Minnesota when he arrived at FAMU on a golf scholarship and discovered that the downtown theaters were segregated.
Apologies, mother, but I’m joining the picketing.
Tate was among the 225 arrested, only to have the charges dropped when a judge reached an agreement to new picketing guidelines. Bottom line, his college career was off to a disjointed, though righteous, start.
There is a soft smile, and an unmistakable sense of pride, as Tate recalls the story. But mostly, it’s his way of saying that he has a perspective that helps him measure a nation’s growth.
It has a way to go, he said, but as he stood on the putting green at Capital City Country Club, he was warmed by what he saw, a sight that told him things have changed exponentially for the better. Six African-American young man – Mulbe Dillard, Ethan Mangum, Cameron Riley, Prince Cunningham, Chase Killette and Isaiah Shaw – resplendent in their orange team pullovers and shirts, and punctual for a practice session, strolled to the back of the clubhouse to meet their coach, Preston Rice, and be introduced to this man who proudly wore the FAMU uniform more than 50 years ago.
“He’s a great man and a loyal supporter of our program,” Rice said of Tate, who shook hands with each of the six young men.
There were pleasantries and a few questions, but there was also a practice to get to, so Tate bid the players a good day and watched them move onward. “I would love to have lunch with them, though, to talk with them, but I guess I couldn’t pay for it or it would be an NCAA violation,” said Tate, who has supported the golf team in a quiet fashion at his alma mater for years. His reason is simple, rooted deep into what ignited his golf passion as a kid and still pushes him at his age – “I’m in my mid-70s,” he said – to be a mentor.
“Kids today aren’t any different; they want role models and they need role models. All of us want to see others doing something we want to do; they may not be as efficient as others, but we can be inspired by the fact that they are doing it.”
In the beginning, there was a love of golf – a game with stick and ball – and when you’re a kid it is no more complicated than that.
“I think I was too young to think about (being the only African-American) in junior golf. I was just going out there to have fun,” said Dillard, who is from Chicago. “It didn’t faze me.”
“When I played, I got a lot of looks,” said Mangum, who was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi.
“And you got even more when you kept winning everything?” laughed Riley.
Mangum nodded. An accomplished junior who got recruited to play golf at Jackson Academy (current University of Alabama standout Wilson Furr was a classmate), Mangum conceded he stood out as the only African-American competitor in many of his junior tournaments in Mississippi and Louisiana, a situation that only attracted more notice as the wins piled up. “But all the looks made me even more determined to keep playing.”Ethan Mangum hits a tee shot at Capital City County Club during a visit with the Florida A&M Univeristy golf team.
The looks never bothered Shaw, who grew up in Orlando and remembers the landscape at the 2015 Florida State Golf Association Junior Amateur. “Literally, I think there were two blacks in the tournament,” he said. “But I never worried about being a minority.”
Said Dillard of those days when he looked around junior tournaments in Illinois and didn’t see any other African-Americans: “It was difficult, but I learned to be by myself. Being independent, I feel it helped me grow as a person.”
Cunningham and Killette, both juniors, never would have met without golf and never would have found golf without The First Tee of North Florida in Jacksonville. “I first hit plastic clubs and got hooked and told my father I wanted a set of clubs,” said Cunningham. The dilemma of where to play was solved by The First Tee, which has been integral to each young man’s life.
Cunningham still goes back as a volunteer, while Killette circles as a highlight to his golf career his participation in the PGA TOUR Champions’ PURE Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach where the pros pair with youngsters from the First Tee Program. (Killette played with Larry Mize.)
Like their teammates, Cunningham and Killette found a joy in playing golf and chose to follow that compass. That there wasn’t an abundance of other African-American kids in golf, as there would have been in football or basketball, wasn’t a deterrent, though it clearly is an issue they do not shy away from discussing.
“Not many minorities will have access to golf, (because) it’s too expensive,” said Mangum. “It’s real. I know a lot of children don’t have the opportunity that I had.”
Each young man embraces this topic; in fact, it is part of what galvanizes them as Florida A&M teammates. These are not kids who constantly bumped into one another at AJGA tournaments and planned their golf futures to run through the University of Georgia or Oklahoma State or Alabama or Texas. No, they came from Illinois (Dillard) and Mississippi (Mangum), from Jacksonville (Cunningham and Killette) and Orlando (Shaw) and even from the islands (Riley), and when they chose Florida A&M, by happenstance it was as if an instant brotherhood was formed. African-American golfers at Florida A&M, the fifth-largest historically black university in the country, united by the challenges they all faced just to find their way into golf.
“It’s almost like we’re representing not only yourself, but your group of (African-American) friends,” said Cunningham. “We take a lot of pride in that.”
Together, their goal is to win the PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship (May 10-12 in Port St. Lucie, Fla.), something that has happened just once in Florida A&M’s history, that being 2000 when Rice was a member of the team. The first-year coach takes pride in that, but even greater pride in the mission at Florida A&M to emphasize African-American golfers. Curious as it may sound, but to compete at a team level in the PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship, you must be a historically black university, but you are not obligated to field a team of minority golfers.
Rice grudgingly accepts that landscape but chooses not to follow suit. He is proactive in recruiting African-American golfers and takes pride in a roster that demonstrates that commitment. Six of the 10 players on his roster are African-Americans. That they are diligent students as well as serious competitive golfers provides Rice with a sense of success. Like many other collegiate golf programs, at FAMU there are players who dream of professional careers. But unlike many other collegiate programs, at FAMU these players with pro dreams also envision making golf more accessible to young African-Americans.
Shaw talks of having his own foundation “that would fund a minority golf program” and Killette would bring golf into neighborhood schools. “We have to show the kids in the city that golf is not boring, that it’s not a stereotype,” he said.
Big goals, daunting tasks, but these are young men who appreciate trailblazers such as Ron Tate and accept that they must now do their part. “My entire life,” said Mangum, “I’ve tried to lead by example and I definitely would like to be a role model (to other African-American golfers).”
Turbulent and unjust as the times may have been when he arrived in Tallahassee, Tate can savor a sense of appreciation for what was also present on the Florida A&M campus while he was a student: The incomparable presence of African-Americans named Jake Gaither and Robert “Bullet Bob” Hayes.
Gaither was getting toward the end of his illustrious 25-year career as FAMU’s head football coach (six Black College National Championships; overall record 204-36-4; a mentor, of sorts, to young coaches of the time named Paul “Bear” Bryant, Woody Hayes, and Frank Broyles), while Hayes was a glorious streak of lightning on the track field and football gridiron. Oh, how Hayes could run, and Tate still smiles at Gaither announcing “a new world record” for an 8.93 timing in the 100-yard dash during a spring carnival, a time that left everyone speechless.
But the euphoria was short-lived. “Jake measured wrong,” laughs Tate. “The course was only 93 yards.”
Of course, Hayes proved his brilliance on correctly-measured tracks and he remains the only athlete to earn both an Olympic Gold Medal (1964, in both the 100-meter and 4x100 relay) and a Super Bowl ring (1971 Cowboys) and he and Jim Thorpe are the only Olympic champions in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. An iconic athlete in special company, Hayes competed at a time when mainstream universities would not invite him to track meets and when he couldn’t stroll into the downtown theater in Tallahassee.
“So much,” said Tate, “was stacked against us.”
He allows that to be digested, then turns his attention back to the young African-Americans pounding drivers and hybrids on the range and challenging one another to short-game shots at the practice green. “But we lived for a purpose and these kids today,” he said, casting a gaze at the young men in the practice area, “are standing on our shoulders, whether they know it or not. And down the road, others will stand on their shoulders.
“It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.”
Tate would be pleased to know that the African-Americans on the FAMU roster appreciate the history and understand his sentiments. Said Killette: “If other African-Americans see us in this position (competing at FAMU), they can grab some motivation from that – and that’s a good thing.”Chase Killette and Mulbe Dillard practice at Capital City Country Club during a visit with the Florida A&M Univeristy golf team.
It doesn’t compare to the social injustices piled against Tate and other African-Americans decades ago, but Killette and his teammates are currently getting a taste of what it’s like to deal with the residual effects of past transgressions beyond your control. Citing a poor Academic Progress Rate at FAMU, the NCAA recently imposed one-year postseason bans on four men’s programs, including golf. “It’s disappointing,” said Rice, who wasn’t the head coach in the years (2013-14 through 2016-17) detailed in the report, nor were his current players involved, “and there’s a real flaw in the system when kids who didn’t do anything wrong are penalized. But I reminded my players, this has nothing to do with them.”
They have heard Rice and they have focused on the matters they do have control of. No, FAMU is not eligible for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Championships nor the NCAAs, but truthfully, neither of those would be brushed as realistic goals. Instead, their true focus – the PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship – remains in play, because the sanctions do not include that annual tournament where the Rattlers finished fourth a year ago and sixth in 2017.
In their push to gain momentum toward their goal, results of late have been promising. At the Black College Golf Coaches Association Legends Invitational Jan. 23-24 in Kissimmee, Florida, Florida A&M posted a team victory with Dillard second overall on the strength of 74-76. Then, at the William & Mary Invitational Feb. 16 in Savannah, Georgia, the Rattlers were sixth of 18 teams with Dillard T-7, Riley T-26 and Mangum T-57.
OK, we’re not talking blue-chip college results here, but to brush them aside for that reason is to miss the significant flavor of this FAMU story. These six African-Americans who share roster spots with Rice’s other four players – Mahindra Lutchman, Logan Bryant, Alejandro Toro, and redshirt freshman Stephen Davis – came to fall in love in golf, even though it wasn’t an easy courtship. These are not kids for whom doors were opened and affordability and accessibility were staples.
Still, their passions are real, and their resumes prove it.
Mangum, a redshirt sophomore, went from Jackson Academy to Mt. Vernon, a private school in the Atlanta area, then earned a scholarship to Drexel. It was the engineering school he wanted, but “the chance to play golf year-round” at FAMU was too good to pass up.
Mangum transferred, and of his push to excel in golf, he said: “I didn’t come from a wealthy family, but we did the best we could, and my father and mother were always pushing me to be the best I can be.”
In Chicago, Dillard had a 45-minute commute to the nearest golf course – no country-club membership for his family – and often satisfied his golf fix with trips to the driving range with his mother. One benefit to those? “I used to give lessons,” laughed Dillard, who made himself CEO of the “Mulbe Dillard Golf Coaching Academy.”
Riley, who was born in the Bahamas, fell in love with golf after moving to the U.S. Virgin Islands and going out to play with his father. Later, he moved to Florida “and the reason I’m at FAMU is because of Dr. (Thomas) Dorsy,” he said of the man whose Orlando Minority Youth Golf Association has been offering kids a chance to play the game for years. That program paved the way for Riley to play in the Hero World Challenge pro-am few years ago, and the pairing with Billy Hurley III and a chance to hit balls in front of Tiger Woods only reinforced his love for the arena.
A redshirt sophomore transfer, Shaw also came out of Dr. Dorsy’s program. Son of former NFL linebacker Ricky Shaw (1988-89 Giants, 1989-90 Eagles), he originally was recruited to play golf at Fayetteville State, but embraces his new landscape at Florida A&M. So, too, does he envision a day when he’s continuing to bring golf to African-American youths.
“Youth golf opportunities have to be more supported,” he said. “A system has to be round for a minority golf program.”
Dillard, Cunningham and Killette are still motivated to teach kids at The First Tee. Meanwhile, while the college golf landscape is very competitive, even at FAMU, and not everyone can get in the lineup, the enthusiasm for this game grows stronger by the day. “I will always play golf and I will always love golf,” said Riley, who has professional dreams, but is also interested in working in the game. He served an internship for the USGA at the 2018 U.S. Open and this summer will work for the LPGA Tour.
In other words, there is a determined short-term goal – to win the PGA Minority Golf Championship. But there’s an even more ambitious endeavor – to make golf a vehicle for positive impact.
Explained Killette: “I want to do something to help. I’ve got the drive.”
He is not alone. His teammates and friends share his passion and commitment to knocking down barriers and opening doors in golf for this and future generations of African-Americans. Killette knows he can’t make the past right. But he can try and make the future bright.