WSW: A Film About Race, Sports And Family

Sep 10, 2018

Spartan Stadium - file photo
Credit Lekcots11 / Wikimedia Commons

When former NFL defensive lineman Bubba Smith passed away in 2011, Maya Washington learned more about the integration of college football in the 1960’s. Part of the story involves her father Gene Washington. That inspired a new documentary film being screened in Grand Rapids on Wednesday.


Through the Banks of the Red Cedar will be shown at the Wealthy Theater in Grand Rapids on Wednesday. The film’s director and producer Maya Washington and her father, retired NFL football player Gene Washington, will conduct a question and answer session after the movie. Details about tickets can be found here.

The movie tells the story of Michigan State University’s football teams in the 1960’s. The Spartans won championships by recruiting African-American players from the south who could not attend major universities close to home. But Maya Washington says the movie is also “a film about family, it’s a film about race and sports, but also about where we are today by looking back at what happened in the past.” 

"It's a film about family, it's a film about race and sports, but also a film about where we are today by looking back at what happened in the past."

Gene Washington came from La Porte, Texas to East Lansing because of Bubba Smith. They played against each other in high school. Smith’s father was his school coach. Washington says Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty was recruiting Smith. Washington ended up in East Lansing, along with Bubba Smith, because he says both Smith and his father put in a good word for him with Daugherty.

The Spartans went undefeated in 1965 earning a trip to the Rose Bowl. Michigan fell to UCLA 14-12. Then MSU went undefeated again in 1966, the only blemish on its record was a 10-10 tie with Notre Dame. Gene Washington says Michigan State was a leader in integrating sports in part because of the school’s Athletic Director Biggie Munn and MSU President John Hannah, who had been the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Gene Washington says he was the first member of his family to go to college. Washington earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State, and later a master’s degree as he continued his education while playing in the NFL.

Gene Washington was selected in the first round of the 1967 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings. He was the eighth overall selection, and three of his Michigan State teammates were drafted before him. All four of those players, Washington, Smith, Clint Jones and George Webster have since been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Washington went on to play six seasons with the Vikings, and another with the Denver Broncos.

Maya Washington says she didn’t know her father as an athlete. He had retired from the NFL by the time she was born. She says he was a “fit guy,” and watched sports. But Maya Washington says when Bubba Smith passed away, and the former MSU team mates gathered in California she learned more about her father’s youth. She says the film shows how the two of them got closer as they worked together to tell the story.

Gene Washington says he was surprised at first when his daughter said she wanted to make a movie about him and his former MSU team mates. But he says it is a good story. Maya Washington attended USC and had already made a couple of films. Washington says she raised the money and made the film independently because she didn’t want to wait for a studio to agree to make the documentary.

The title Through the Banks of the Red Cedar is a play on the Michigan State fight song which begins with the words “On the banks of the Red Cedar,” a reference to the river that runs through the East Lansing campus. Maya Washington says the idea is that “through the banks of the Red Cedar,” people like her father were given an opportunity. She says that had an impact on future generations, including her. 

Image from Wikimedia Commons