By David D. Medina
Stahle Vincent ’72 was among the first African-Americans to play football at Rice and was the first black quarterback in the Southwest Conference. Despite his many accomplishments as a student-athlete, he was ready to quit Rice in his junior year after injuring his arm.
But then he started receiving a barrage of congratulatory letters from teachers, athletes and administrators from around the state. He especially remembered one from an athlete who praised him for making it “cool to be a good student and a good athlete.”
That letter convinced Vincent to stay at Rice. “I realized it was not just about me,” he said. And thanks to that letter, Vincent now encourages his fellow alumni to extend a hand to current athletes “because it’s hard to be a student at Rice and it’s doubly hard to be a student-athlete.”
Vincent spoke April 1 at “Celebrating Trailblazers in Rice Athletics,” a dinner in honor of 15 black alumni who were among the first to compete in a sport at Rice. More than 125 people, many of them former and current athletes, attended the dinner in Rice Stadium’s R Room.
The event was part of the yearlong celebration of “50 Years of Black Undergraduate Life at Rice” organized by the President’s Office, the Association of Rice University Black Alumni (ARUBA), the Department of Alumni Relations, Rice Athletics and Public Affairs.
Bobby Tudor ’82, chair of the Rice Board of Trustees, said that black athletes have added tremendously to the quality of life at Rice. “We would not be today what we are without you as part of us,” he said. “The board of trustees is deeply committed to building on a legacy that you started, and in fact is committed to making it better and better and better for all our students, particularly our African- American students who continue to add so much to the life at Rice.”
Tudor said that when he played basketball at Rice in 1978, he wasn’t aware that just six years earlier Leroy Marion ’72 had been the first black basketball player at Rice.
“The fact that it didn’t register on me said that we at Rice weren’t particularly sensitive to understanding what it must have been like to be an African-American at such a small institution,” he said. “So hopefully, at the very least, a recognition will help us go forward and be more aware, to be more proactive about addressing issues that need addressing.”
President David Leebron said, “We are celebrating something that is very important to the history and well-being of an institution.” He said that those honored were more than trailblazers in athletics: They were trailblazers for the whole university because in the early years the majority of the black students were athletes and helped with the integration of the university.
“That was great, and we are indebted to those athletes,” he said. Today there are 300 black students at Rice, and the majority are not athletes, Leebron noted.
“Congratulations to each of those folks whom we are recognizing tonight,” Leebron said. “We know that it was not always an easy time for you here, but we hope you will take pride in your university, in what we have achieved.”
Willis Wilson ’82 was the first African-American head coach at Rice. He was 32 when he was selected to lead the basketball team, making him the youngest basketball coach in country in 1992. “At Rice, it was the first time that I really felt comfortable being smart, black and a good basketball player,” he said.
“The greatest thing I learned at Rice was how to learn, how to articulate and how to get along with other people. My experience at Rice really helped me become the kind of coach I am today,” he said. Wilson is a finalist for the Ben Jobe Award, which is presented annually to the top minority coach in Division I.
He ended his talk by suggesting that Rice hire coaches who reflect the student body. “There are people in this audience whom we need to bring home, make them part of the university,” he said.
Nakachi “Nikki” Maduka ’15, who played on the women’s basketball team, said that it’s important that black alumni help sustain a black student presence on campus by establishing strong relationships with them. Maduka said that when she was at Rice, she attempted to succeed on her own.
“I was completely wrong,” she said. “You need people to succeed. You need people to show you what is love and what is faith. So I’m here to encourage you to come back and reach out to the students. As Rice alumni, we have the opportunity to carry the torch, to keep the light burning. Rice fights, never dies.”
15 trailblazers honored
* Stahle Vincent ’72 was the first African-American quarterback to play in the Southwest Conference in 1969. He made the All Southwest Conference Academic Team, set a single-season rushing record and was inducted into the Rice Hall of Fame. He is now director of human resources with International Textile Group in Greensboro, N.C.
* Rodrigo Barnes ’73, a defensive end and a linebacker, was the first African-American to be named to the All Southwest Conference defensive team and was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. He is an assistant principal at South Garland High School in Garland, Texas.
* Willis Wilson ’82 was the first African-American head coach at Rice. As the basketball coach from 1992 to 2008, he led his team to an appearance in the National Invitation Tournament and was named District 9 Coach of the Year. He is head basketball coach at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi.
* Joseph Callier ’77 was head of the R Association when the Dr. Hubert E. Bray Scholar-Athlete Award was started to honor male and female athletes with the top grade-point average. He is an attorney with Callier & Garza.
* Darryl “Doc” King ’79 won three consecutive Southwest Conference championships in the high hurdles, earned All-American honors and was the first African-American track and field athlete inducted into the Rice Athletic Hall of Fame. He is minister of education at Lake Norman Baptist Church in Huntersville, N.C.
* Leila Freeman ’79 was a sprinter and ran the 100-meter and 55-meter dash on the women’s track team.
* Denise Bostick ’80 played volleyball and was known as an outstanding hitter.
* Goya Qualls ’82 was the first player in the women’s basketball team to receive a full scholarship. She was team captain, was named most valuable player and set a record for rebounding. She is CEO of Dandy Candy, a Houston-based confectionery business.
* Wanna Hadnott ’84 lettered four years at Rice as a member of the women’s tennis team and served as the team’s co-captain. She reached top-20 status in the country in 1983. She is human resources manager for Aggreko LLC, an equipment rental and leasing company in Houston.
* Don Freeman ’89 attended Rice on a tennis scholarship.
* Merritt Robinson ’90 was a three-year letterman in football and baseball. He is an assistant dean at California Baptist University in Riverside, Calif.
* Raffi Belizaire ’05 was a forward on the varsity soccer team in her sophomore year. She played in nine games and started in three games, recording one goal and one assist. She also threw the shot put and hammer for the women’s track and field team.
* Lauren Lewis ’13 joined the women’s swim team as a walk-on and competed in the 100-yard breaststroke, the 200-yard breaststroke and the 50-yard freestyle. She was on the USA Academic Honor Roll for three consecutive years. She is now a medical student at the University of Miami.
Two of the athletes were honored posthumously:
* Leroy Marion ’72 was on the 1970 Southwest Conference championship basketball team. He had the best game of his career against Texas A&M as the leading scorer and rebounder. Rice beat the Aggies and took first place. Marion was in the insurance business before he died in 1998.
* Mike Tyler ’72 was a three-year standout as defensive back, earned All Southwest Conference honors and was drafted by the Detroit Lions. He died in 2014.
— David Medina is director of multicultural community relations in the Office of Public Affairs.