What's it like to be a black athlete in Laramie in 2019?

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LARAMIE — In Hawthorne, California, where Tyler Hall comes from, the average high in January is 67 degrees.

"Back at home, there’s only one season," he said. "We don’t have the winter and all that."

Compare that to Laramie, where in January 2017, Hall's first winter here, the highest temperature all month was 44 degrees above zero, and the lowest was 42 below.

So, the cold took some getting used to when Hall moved here to play cornerback for the University of Wyoming. The cold, the snow, the altitude. And the fact that there wasn't a place in town he could trust to cut his hair.

"Hair cuts were a big struggle," he said.

Back in Southern California, Hall said, he would get his hair cut every week.

"Those young men like to stay fly," UW cornerbacks coach John Richardson said. "They like to be fresh every game day. They never know when the camera’s going to be on them."

But staying camera-ready can be a tough proposition for a black athlete in Laramie. In recent years, a dearth of hairdressers with experience cutting African-American hair meant many players would have to either find a teammate who could give them a quick cut or wait to go home on breaks.

"I would say that’s probably one of the toughest things that they deal with," Richardson said. "Which is minute, but it’s also big at the same time."

Compared to the events of Oct. 17, 1969 — 50 years ago this week — when 14 black UW football players sought to protest racism and instead were kicked off the team, going without a weekly haircut can sound trivial. But it's a reminder, and not the only one, that the team's diverse roster isn't matched by the community it represents.

"They have been able to adjust and adapt here," said Richardson, who similarly moved from Compton, California, to Fargo, North Dakota, to play college football. "And kids have been able to keep doing what they’re doing.

"But anytime you go from something that you’re (used) to, it’s always going to be an adjustment."

***

C.J. Coldon gets questions "all the time" about what it's like to live in Wyoming.

There's not a lot to do, the sophomore cornerback tells people back home. There's no Topgolf or Dave & Buster's. But it's safe. You can keep your door unlocked.

Coldon grew up in Cahokia, Illinois, near East St. Louis, where there was a little bit too much happening.

"It’s always something going on out there, like violence," he said. "You’ve just got to stay away from those things. That’s why I got into sports. I played baseball, basketball, football, tried to travel with sports and get out the area a lot when I was younger. And my dad did a great job with that. But my family members from bad areas, like the projects, I go back and visit them. You’ve just got to go at the right time. You can't get caught at the wrong place, wrong time."

Coldon moved to a more suburban area of Illinois after finishing first grade.

"Coming from a school that was mostly all black, an area that was mostly all black, it took me some time to see how things operated," said Coldon, who is black. "Like, we got two recesses when I was in second grade. I’m like, ‘Two recesses? That’s crazy.’"

Now, he lives in a city where, according to 2017 American Community Survey estimates, 1.68 percent of residents are black or African-American, including those who also identify as Latino. And that percentage actually outpaces the state whose name is on Coldon's jersey. Wyoming has a black population of just over 1 percent, among the lowest in the nation.

Coldon used to play against Wyoming in NCAA Football video games, but outside of that, he never gave much thought to even visiting the state, much less attending college there.

But it's been a nice change of pace, he said.

"It’s good getting away from all the chaos and hectic things that go on in the city," Coldon said. "So I like it. It’s different. It’s just small. You’ve got to get used to it."

***

Last year, for the first time since sixth-year head coach Craig Bohl arrived in Laramie, the Cowboys had a black quarterback on the roster. Sean Chambers took over as starter late last year and ignited a seven-game winning streak that stretched into this season.

For much of football history, the quarterback position was all but off-limits to black players. BYU, the school whose racist treatment of black UW athletes was cited as one motivation for the 1969 protest, started a black quarterback for the first time in its 94-season history Saturday.

UW barbershop

The University of Wyoming athletics department included a barbershop in its newly-opened training facility as part of an effort to help black athletes -- who hail from all across the country -- feel more at home in the predominantly white community. Barbers from a Cheyenne salon visit the campus at least twice a month. 

"There’s never been a line; I’ve never felt that way about Coach (Bohl)," UW receivers coach Mike Grant said. "And that’s why he’s a pleasure to work for. If I felt that, I wouldn’t have ever come."

In his playing days, Grant was a black quarterback himself.

When he was looking at colleges as a recruit out of Florida in the late '80s, he found many programs weren't going to let him play quarterback.

"They wanted to move me to safety, receiver or make me a skilled athlete," he said.

He wound up at Nebraska, where he played under Tom Osborne, a coaching legend whom Bohl also played for and later coached under.

"He was one of the few people at the time that, the line was blurred for him, and he was playing black quarterbacks," Grant said of Osborne. "And so I think it’s really changed, and it’s really nice to see, when I see a Russell Wilson or I see Doug Williams win the Super Bowl. Dak Prescott. The list goes on and on. I think it’s totally changed, the mindset with that position on the football field."

Changes have come off the field too. Grant said he believes there are still obstacles for black athletes in a place as white as Laramie. But things continue to improve.

"And I think it starts with the people," he said. "I think, at least the majority of the people that I’ve been around or come across, those things are slowly blurring. The line is slowly blurring. When I was growing up in the South, it was totally different. There was a black and a white line. And I just think the more I’ve grown, the more people have become educated and understand the ignorance of racism, that those things have really kind of blurred the line."

He believes some of the credit for those changes, on and off the field, goes to people like the Wyoming players who were kicked off the team in 1969.

Black 14: What its like now

With fall semester in full swing, students and faculty walk in and out of the Wyoming Student Union Oct. 2 on the university campus in Laramie.

"I hope that (the current players) all understand the sacrifices that those men made for what I do, what we do now at this point," Grant said of the group now known as the Black 14. "I can almost contribute it to some of the things like what Kaepernick is doing in these times. Just social justice. I think it really brought that to a light for these young men, that everything that they may be facing, other men have met. And we’ve got to continue to lift as we climb and not forget about what has taken place in the past."

***

Jahmari Moore was surprised to learn about the Black 14 in his freshman Sports and Society class when he arrived in Laramie. Moore had come to Wyoming from Chicago, and the unfamiliarity made him feel like he couldn't trust anyone in Laramie. So to learn that the University of Wyoming would teach him, a black football player, about what many consider the football program's most shameful moment — well, it was a surprise.

"Seeing the demographics of Wyoming and just coming from a big city to a smaller town, I was initially surprised that that was a very important thing on the program," the junior tight end/fullback said. "But it was a good surprise. I was happy that they went into that and they explained that before I found out for myself."

He began college during the run-up to the 2016 election, which made the political differences between his old and new homes starkly apparent. 

"The reaction to the election was very different from what it would have been in Chicago," Moore said. "And so as a freshman, I feel like I wasn’t as mature as I was today, and I feel like that was a very hard thing to adjust to."

Moore's feeling of distrust in Wyoming didn't last long, he said.

"It eventually got better, and I learned that there are some really great people in Laramie, Wyoming — Wyoming in general, some really nice people," he said. "And so I think that’s what helped me grow more comfortable being here, because I felt pretty welcome. But it was just intimidating at first."

He admits there are still challenges to being a black athlete in Wyoming.

"I’d be naive to say that there isn’t," he said. "I just think you get a different level of attention, being in a place like this. Not to say that it’s all negative, but you are looked at differently. You might get stared at longer. I haven’t had any experiences here, though, fortunately, where I felt disrespected or I felt like I was threatened.

"But I just think how people see you, especially being an athlete here, I think you definitely get a different level of attention. Because some people are coming from small towns, and they may not have been around people of color. And so it’s an experience for everyone."

Many of those life experiences, like having a teammate wear a "Make America Great Again" hat to practice the day after the election, probably wouldn't have happened to Moore if he'd stayed in Chicago.

"It allowed me to be more open-minded," he said. "I have people I really respect and really care for, people I would say that are my brothers that have a completely different political belief than me. And so I didn’t want to be hypocritical and condemn them for what they believe, when that’s what I wanted to fight against. And so I have to sit down and just say, ‘Explain to me your side of things.’ And I think if I stayed in Chicago, in the Midwest or a blue state, I would have never taken that chance to actually listen to people and have conversation and dialogue. It just gives me a bigger perspective.

"It’s not necessarily changed what I think, but I have a better understanding of what other places are like. I realized that a lot of it is just where people come from. Like, that’s all they know, and so I think that it made me a more mature person, being in an environment that’s different and having to adapt and learn from my teammates."

***

When high school recruits sign with UW now, they're not committing themselves to the same barren barbershop scene that Hall faced back in 2016.

In February of last year, 7220 Barbershop opened downtown with a staff of four full-time barbers that has helped fill that void for black residents in town.

Black 14: What it's like

The barbershop inside UW's High Altitude Performance Center caters to athletes and is open sporadically based on need.

"I know that the demand for it is pretty high here, and there’s not a whole lot of supply," owner Dominic Vigil said. "So the fact that we have a few barbers in my shop that are highly confident in cutting African-American hair and hairstyles and textures and stuff like that, it’s definitely been a big benefit."

Vigil said his clientele includes a number of UW athletes, including football and basketball players. They often are relieved to have found a place in Laramie where they can get a reliable haircut, he said.

"It’s kind of nice to hear them say that, because they do say it a lot. They’re like, ‘Oh man. It’s been so long since I’ve had anybody locally who I basically trusted to cut my hair and do a good job with it,’" Vigil said. "... And it’s just really great to hear that and give these guys a little bit of relief that they can get their hair cut somewhere in Laramie and not have to outsource or go to Cheyenne or Denver or some other place other than Laramie just to get their hair cut."

Later in 2018, UW athletics' Mick & Susie McMurry High Altitude Performance Center officially opened.

The 71,000-square-foot facility bordering War Memorial Stadium houses a state-of-the-art locker room, a strength and conditioning center with weight rooms for both football and Olympic sports, a nutrition center, recovery pools, a theater-style meeting room, a biomechanics lab, and an altitude simulation chamber.

It's also the home to a roughly 200-square-foot-room with a sink and two barber chairs.

The school now contracts with Legends Gentleman's Salon in Cheyenne to come over and cut hair in the new space at least twice a month, said China Jude, UW's senior associate athletics director for administration and senior woman administrator.

The room, dubbed the Tim White & White Family Dealerships Barber Shop, was already built by the time Jude arrived in February 2018. But she was tasked with getting barbers in there on a regular basis — in part by Bohl, who pushed for the grand-scale renovations in the first place.

"He said, 'This right here, this barbershop is very important,'" Jude said.

UW is not the only university of late to include a barbershop in a new, multimillion-dollar athletics palace. But its presence sticks out a bit more in a place like Wyoming than Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

"The barbershop just showed that the coaches, they care about us and they’re supporting us," said Hall, the cornerback from Southern California.

When the barbershop first opened, it took some effort on Jude's part to get the minimum 10 athletes to book appointments, she said. Not because the need wasn't there. Rather, Jude, who is black, chalked it up to the same factor that leads her to still get her hair done back in New York every three weeks or so.

Trust. 

"In the ethnic minority community, we’re very loyal to the people who do our hair," said Jude, who was previously the assistant vice president and athletics director at Queens College. "So that’s the reason why I think it was a little slow start for the barber, going from 10 to now 15. Because people are just like, ‘Well, I’m kind of used to my guy. So I’d rather just have my hair grow out until I can go home for spring break or winter break.’"

Now that the Legends crew is staffing the barbershop on a regular basis, Jude said the student-athlete response has been positive.

"It really does make a significant difference in building out young men’s morale," Jude said.

And as Vigil has seen, it's about more than just looking good.

"Shop talk will always be shop talk," he said, "and it’s definitely something that I take serious. I like creating a free and open environment in the shop so people can talk about whatever they want.

"... That’s the stuff that I really love about the shop. The culture and the conversation, that stuff never gets old."

***

In 2014, UW receiver Keenan Montgomery was walking with teammate Jeff Lark near 15th Street and Sorority Row, a prominent intersection on the Laramie campus. Lark turned to him and said, "Bro, it’s crazy. This town is crazy," Montgomery recalled. "Like, I feel like everybody just looks at me like I’m a n---a."

Montgomery was considering how to respond when some teenagers pulled up in a truck and hung a noose out of its window.

"Here, n---y n---y n---y," he heard them say.

Montgomery described the experience in a poem he wrote that year for a student documentary. It reached a much larger audience when he read it later that year on Wyoming Public Radio.

The poem, "My Black Experience," also describes the time a student admitted to him that "her initial reaction to my appearance was fear, as if skin color could bring her harm." He did not include the time another student thought Montgomery was making advances toward his girlfriend and remarked, "They need to go back to Africa."

His poem received varied responses. 

"I think on the negative side, people thought that I was grandstanding, using my position as a football player to speak poorly on Wyoming," said Montgomery, who is from Minnesota. "And then on the positive side, I think people really didn’t know that things like that happened on a somewhat everyday or weekly basis."

By the time the poem hit the radio, Montgomery's final football season had already ended, and he was about to graduate.

Keenan Montgomery

Keenan Montgomery wrote a poem, "My Black Experience," for a student documentary during his time at the University of Wyoming. 

Montgomery says that disconnect from the team, and the fact that he had only spent one season under Bohl's new coaching staff, contributed to him feeling like he didn't have the coaching staff's support. 

"And so I feel like it came out in a situation where they didn’t really need to have allegiance to me. I didn’t really show allegiance to them," Montgomery said. "And it was just, ‘We’ll go our separate ways now.’"

He said there were conversations among the coaching staff that his poem might hurt the team's ability to recruit black athletes to Wyoming — a reality the program lived through in the years after the Black 14.

Bohl disagreed with Montgomery's characterization of the team's response.

“I’m sorry that he went through those situations," Bohl said last month. "I’ve been really sensitive to making sure our players have had a good experience. That’s out of step from anything that I’ve heard.”

Laramie police approached Montgomery about filling a report, but he declined. He felt that the act of writing the poem had resolved the situation.

"My Black Experience" also depicts a student at a house party who, in spite of her blood alcohol content, expressed a level of empathy that resonated with Montgomery: "Even though she barely had the capacity to stand," he wrote, "I could tell her mentality was one that was capable of promoting peace and equality."

While the hate speech incident was the part that received the most attention, Montgomery actually views the poem as a hopeful one.

"I think it’s important, especially in the more diverse parts of a state that aren’t diverse, to speak about race in the terms of where it can be instead of where it is," Montgomery said. "I think that’s the beauty in being on campus is that it’s not necessarily the most diverse campus in the United States — by any means — but it is a diverse hub in a homogeneous community. And so I think it’s important for us to understand that if any progress is going to be made, it’s going to be made in those parts of (the state).

"And I think that there are forward-thinking people amongst an ignorant community, in some ways, and I think it’s important to highlight those individuals and that potential in order to help recruiting, in order to show that diversity is on the mind of the university and on the community of Laramie. And that would help to offset the bad experiences, in my opinion."

Montgomery said he was surprised to get an interview request about his poem five years later. He lives in Los Angeles now and doesn't really think about it anymore, he said.

But his poem has a legacy at UW. It became part of a larger conversation in Wyoming athletics about how to improve the experiences of black athletes.

"His poem caused us to reflect," athletic director Tom Burman said in an email.

"Which is the only real outcome I think you can expect when it comes to art," Montgomery said.

Those conversations transcended mere discussion in at least one concrete outcome: They ultimately led to the decision to set aside 200 square feet where, twice a month, a black athlete can sit in a chair and get a haircut.

Star-Tribune staff writer Davis Potter contributed to this report.

Follow managing editor Brandon Foster on Twitter @BFoster91

This article originally ran on trib.com.

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