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Patriots alumni reflect during Black History Month

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DORCHESTER, Mass. - At the head of the classroom was a sophisticated two-paneled television and camera installation, beaming a live image from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, while simultaneously viewing an image back of the school children huddled around two football heroes in that room at Boston College High School on Friday morning.

"Things have definitely changed," former Patriots running back Larry Garron said.

Garron's comment wasn't directed at the marvel of technology in the classroom that allowed for the two sites to be linked up for the day's discussion. Instead, it was said in reflection of the changes that have come to the game of football and, more importantly, the nation in the realm of civil rights and racial harmony.

He was joined by former teammate Gino Cappelletti for a roundtable discussion on racism for Black History Month. The Patriots alumni were joined by Pro Football Hall of Famer Ron Mix and Green Bay Packers great David Robinson live in Canton. All talked about their experiences with racism, either direct or indirect.

Friday's session was the second of the two-day series, which also included a discussion at BC High on Thursday with Patriots alums Ed Ellis and Roland James.

"There were so many indignities heaped upon black players in that time," Cappelletti said. "It was a struggle."

Cappelletti and Garron both joined the Patriots in their inaugural season of 1960. Both were named to the AFL All-Star team following the 1964 season. The All-Star game was scheduled to be played at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. After arriving for the game, many black players were refused service in many of the city's segregated hotels and restaurants. A group of players, led by Buffalo Bills running back "Cookie" Gilchrist and including Garron, gathered to talk about boycotting the game.

"I told the guys that we have to do this purposefully," Garron said.

The players unanimously - black and white - resolved to petition commissioner Joe Foss to move the game to another city or they would not participate.

Garron called The Boston Globe's football writer Will McDonough with the scoop. McDonough would in turn call the commissioner's office to inform him of the players' decision, levying pressure to move the game, or risk losing the game altogether.

The game was moved. It was played in Houston at Jeppesen Stadium where the West squad turned in a 38-14 win over Garron and Cappelletti's East team in front of 15,446 fans.

The score didn't matter much that day.

"It's really amazing how it all turned around," Garron said.

Cappelletti added, "I still can't believe we played the game. They moved the entire thing in a couple of days notice with no arrangements being made. It was a great scene."

Mix, the former San Diego Charger, was also a part of that All-Star game.

"We wanted to show that race had no place in football. When you're playing on a team, it doesn't matter what color the player is next to you. You're working toward one goal."

In attendance at the event at B.C. High was 12-year-old Eric Simonelli. He'd recently written a school report on the subject of the American Football League and racism in the 1960s.

Simonelli sat in the classroom with a plastic Patriots helmet, which was autographed by Cappelletti and Garron.

"It's important to hear how the players were able to succeed even though it was tough," he said.

Garron was born in Marks, Mississippi - the starting point of Dr. Martin Luther King's Poor People campaign in 1968 - and was no stranger to the "separate but equal" treatment blacks received throughout the South.

"I would say that it was a motivating factor for me," he said. "You're marked a certain way and you're just trying to show people that you're the same as they are. We're all the same."

A valuable lesson for generations to share.

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