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Brave Heroes: The Story of Earl Faison and the Boycott of the 1965 AFL All-Star Game

Juneteenth Faison

As part of the celebration of Juneteenth, the Chargers are highlighting the impact of Earl Faison, a former player who helped lead a boycott of the 1965 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans.

Earl Faison knew something was amiss immediately after arriving in New Orleans.

The Chargers defensive end was among dozens of players who had landed in the city for the 1965 American Football League (AFL) All-Star game. A dominant defender for the Bolts, Faison was ready to enjoy his fourth straight selection in the game.

But Faison and his fellow Black All-Stars quickly realized that a supposedly celebratory event was going to turn sour due to repeated and intense racism.

"The moment he stepped off the airplane, he was subject to a racial slur in the New Orleans airport," Erin Sapp, a New Orleans-based author, said of Faison. "So, as soon as you can be discriminated against and abused in a city, that was his experience."

Todd Tobias, a well-renowned AFL historian, said the hopes of a golf tournament, family time and special events were quickly dashed.

"Once they got there, they quickly realized that what they were promised was not what they were experiencing," Tobias said.

Sapp and Tobias have each done extensive research on the 1965 AFL All-Star Game — and the ensuing boycott that forced the game to be moved to Houston.

Sapp published a book called "Moving the Chains" in 2022. The nearly 300-page book looks at how the All-Star Game landed in New Orleans, what transpired once players arrived and how the game being boycotted led to major changes for the city.

Tobias, meanwhile, runs an AFL-themed website and has conducted dozens of interviews with former players and coaches with ties to the Chargers and the AFL, including Faison — who passed away in 2016 — as well as Ernie Ladd, Dick Westmoreland, John Hadl, Sid Gillman and others.

Both Sapp and Tobias noted that while the boycott of the 1965 AFL All-Star Game eventually had sizable and lasting ramifications of positive change, the events and interactions players experienced has largely been forgotten.

"The more I dug, I realized that this was an incredible story," Sapp said. "These were brave men. They are heroes and they had a huge impact on New Orleans."

Tobias added: "It's one of the most unknown but yet most important racial situations in American sports history. It's something very few people even know about."

Faison was one of nine Chargers selected to the AFL All-Star Game for their superb play during the 1964 season. Of those nine players, six have passed away.

Here is the story of Faison and his impact on the boycott of the 1965 AFL All-Star Game:

'They all witnessed the same thing'

Faison wasn't only subjected to discrimination when he stepped off the plane in New Orleans.

It continued when he walked outside of the airport, too, as the then 25-year-old couldn't hail a cab like his white teammates could.

And, according to Tobias, Faison said one of his strongest memories came once he did finally arrive at the Roosevelt Hotel.

Tobias relayed a story Faison told him in which Faison — who stood at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds — was initially confused at the front desk for Ladd, a teammate who had a larger stature.

"At that point, Ernie was known as probably the biggest man in football. He was 6-foot-9 and at least 320 pounds," Tobias said. "The hotel worker said, 'Is that Ernie Ladd?' And the response he got from his coworker was, 'No, Ernie Ladd is a bigger [racial slur] than that.'

"And that struck Earl," Tobias added. "He wasn't naïve … but he couldn't believe this kind of stuff was being said out in the open when, basically, the city was in a position where they were trying to impress the league enough to expand into New Orleans."


At the time, New Orleans was hoping that a strong showing in hosting the AFL All-Star Game would be one of the final steps to the city getting a team of their own.

But the more and more interactions players had upon arriving in New Orleans, the deeper their frustration grew.

"They basically all witnessed the same thing," Tobias said.

Both Tobias and Sapp said players faced repeated racism and discrimination when they went out to try and enjoy themselves around New Orleans nightlife.

The most striking example, the duo said, was when a group of players that included Faison, Ladd and Westmoreland happened upon a nightclub that was playing the music of James Brown. A bouncer at the front door refused to let stunned players inside.

"They said, 'What are you talking about? You're playing James Brown music, but you won't let Black people in?' And then the bouncer pulled a gun on them," Tobias said.

Dejected, the group decided to diffuse the situation by walking away and heading back to the hotel. Of course, they were once again unable to hail a taxi.

"They get directions and they start walking back to the hotel," Sapp said. "It was on that walk back to the Roosevelt Hotel that those three Chargers players decide that they're not staying. They weren't going to take this and they were not going to play."

'A phenomenal ball player'

At this point in his career, Faison was no stranger to postseason accolades.

The No. 7 overall pick by the Chargers in the 1961 AFL Draft, Faison made an immediate impact right away by garnering First-Team All-AFL honors and an All-Star recognition in his initial season.

Faison played and started in all 14 games, recording 3.5 sacks and two interceptions while setting the tone against the run, too. His play helped lead the Chargers to a 12-2 record and an appearance in the 1961 AFL Championship.

Tobias said Faison was "a phenomenal ballplayer" but a gentle giant off the field.

"A very intelligent man, a very proud man. Very impressive figure — he was 6-5 and, even well into his retirement, was probably 270 pounds," Tobias said. "And he was a very nice dresser. You saw him and he was an imposing figure and he looked like a powerful man and successful man.

"He was just a good guy to be around," Tobias added. "On top of me wanting to know about his history, he was just a good person and I enjoyed being around him."


Faison's rookie season was the start of a remarkable run of five straight All-Star nods. He received Second-Team All-AFL honors in 1962 before tallying three straight First-Team All-AFL accolades — essentially First-Team All-Pro honors in today's game — from 1963 to 1965.

A key member of the Fearsome Foursome in the early 1960s, Faison was inducted into the Chargers Hall of Fame in 1986.

He played his final season in 1966 before his career ended early because of injuries. He finished his career with 31.0 sacks in 73 career games.

But the impact he made was clear, especially when the Bolts won the 1963 AFL Championship with a 51-10 drubbing of the Boston Patriots.

"He was proud that he played pro ball," Tobias said of his 1998 and 1999 interviews with Faison. "He knew the game well and went into coaching after his playing days and was a successful high school coach.

"I think he was, to some degree, a little frustrated because his career was cut short by injury," Tobias continued. "Earl could have been much more dominant than he even was had he not suffered the injuries he did.

"But at the same time, he was very proud of what he did. At one point, he was one of the very top defensive linemen in the AFL, if not all of professional football," Tobias added. "He was proud of the 1963 team he was part of. He loved his teammates and was proud of that group."

Faison helps lead the way

Faison, Ladd and Westmoreland headed back to their hotel trying to hatch a plan.

They had already decided they weren't going to play in the upcoming All-Star game. But they knew they needed a strong contingent of support from both Black and white players.

Faison and Ladd, who were roommates at the hotel, started a phone chain with other Black players to get details of their encounters with racism, too.

"When I started looking at it through the Chargers lens, it was interesting to me how impactful they were," Sapp said of the trio.

Words and actions quickly followed, with players deciding a vote would be the most sensical way to determine whether to stay or go.

"It was a collective decision. And while the final vote was said to not be unanimous, they all decided to act together as a collective unit," Sapp said. "But it does seem like Earl was in the group that first said, 'We're out of here.' I do think he was a leader in that regard."

Tobias added: "Ultimately, the league backed them and it was moved to Houston and it was played the following week."


Tobias said Faison, who was born and raised in Virginia, wasn't immune to previous discrimination.

But Faison and others simply didn't expect for them to be hit with repeated racism during All-Star festivities.

"They were surprised that these things hadn't been taken care of prior to them arriving," Tobias said. "This was a situation where the city was trying to woo the AFL into expanding into New Orleans. They were trying to put their best foot forward to impress the players."

Tobias later added: "It was still the South and still the 1960s, so [were players] surprised? Maybe not. Frustrated and disgusted? Absolutely."

The All-Star game in Houston eventually featured a 38-14 win for the West squad. Yet in the days after the successful boycott, many pondered the question:

Why was New Orleans awarded the game in the first place?

A naïve city

On July 1, 1964, the AFL and the City of New Orleans jointly announced that the 1965 AFL All-Star Game was coming in six months.

A day later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted. It is still viewed as a monumental law that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

"There was no major pushback and no major violence in New Orleans after the Civil Rights Act was passed," Sapp said.

Looking ahead, New Orleans didn't expect any problems to arise in January for the game.

"City leaders were kind of patting themselves on the back when in reality, not that much compliance had taken place either," Sapp said.

"The city was set up to believe it really had things in order and it revealed a lot of naivety on the part of city leaders and the sports promoters who brought the All-Star Game to New Orleans because their initial reaction was very defensive," Sapp continued. "They said, 'We're a progressive and tolerant place, what are you talking about?'

"But they didn't realize how far New Orleans needed to go to catch up with the rest of the civil rights movement and the rest of the country," Sapp added.

Sapp did extensive research for her book that detailed why New Orleans thought it was further ahead it imagined.

The city had blended neighborhoods and a notable carefree attitude that seemingly allowed people of all races to co-exist.

But Sapp noted the city was also slow to enact sweeping changes, too.

"It's a very New Orleanian trait to want to guard and protect the city's heritage and tradition and what makes it New Orleans," Sapp said. "So, no politician or sports promoter or the average guy on the street is going to gain a lot of popularity by calling for rapid and massive change in New Orleans.

"For racial progress to take place, it's going to happen behind closed doors very quietly, very slow and in a piecemeal fashion," Sapp added. "A lot of white leaders in New Orleans really believed they were doing better than they were on the civil rights front."

Of course, football also played a pivotal role in the All-Star Game coming to the city.

New Orleans did not have a professional sports franchise at the time, and the hope was that a smooth All-Star Game would be one of the final hurdles to the city getting an AFL team.

"When the future in football got threatened, it gave the whole city a popular reason to rally behind progress and change," Sapp said. "It was a way to openly push for rapid, citywide change that would not have come from behind closed doors."

And while the city was awarded the Saints in 1967, Sapp said the city had to undergo a comprehensive review process on racial and social matters.

"New Orleans was able to prove that they had made a lot of changes and that they had it together," Sapp said. "They passed the inspection, they just never celebrated that version of the story."


The lasting impact

The upcoming NFL season means we are nearing the 60th anniversary of the boycott of the 1965 AFL All-Star Game. The players who played in that game did so because of their accomplishments during the 1964 season.

And in a twist of irony, New Orleans is slated to host Super Bowl LIX in February, marking the 11th time the city will have hosted the Super Bowl since 1970.

Sapp is hopeful the city will find some kind of way to acknowledge, honor and even celebrate the boycott that happened six decades ago.

But while that remains to be seen, what is crystal clear is the impact Faison and his teammates had on the game of football, the city of New Orleans and the civil rights movement as a whole.

"He was proud of the fact that they stood their ground," Tobias said. "That kind of thing binds people in a way we can't understand and describe that well unless we've been through something like that ourselves.

"I'm a 51-year-old white man, and while I can read about these situations and try my best to understand them, I really can't understand what it's like to be discriminated against in that fashion," Tobias continued. "It was definitely something they were proud of but certainly wished they didn't even have to go through something like that.

"They stood up for themselves, their teammates and friends, and indirectly, stood up for African-Americans all over the country and the world," Tobias added. "Earl was quite proud of that."

A year after the boycott, Faison and others were headed to Houston for the 1966 AFL All-Star Game. Faison had earned the honor for the fifth consecutive season.

But inclement weather forced their place to be rerouted to — of all places — New Orleans for an unexpected layover.

"Earl and two others get in a taxicab with a Black driver and tell him they want to go get oysters," Sapp said. "The driver says, 'Oh yeah, I'll take you to the French Quarter.' The guys look at each other like, 'That didn't go so well for us last time.'

"The cab driver realizes who they are and said, 'You have no idea what an impact you had.' The city wanted football so badly, all of those old segregation customs were gone," Sapp continued. "The taxis were integrated now, the restaurants were integrated, the nightclubs.

"I don't think the full extent of what the players did has ever been fully acknowledged," Sapp added. "But it gives me some comfort to think Earl might have gotten a taste of, 'Hey, we really made an impact here.'"

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