Racially Charged Cloud Still Following Eddie Mcashan

ATLANTA - Eddie McAshan grabbed a laminated newspaper clipping and swatted the fly buzzing on a window of his 14th-floor apartment.

The clipping came from a pile of plastic-coated pages spread across the carpet of McAshan's spartan studio apartment. The pages recall the triumph and the disgrace of a promising young football player who in 1969 had become the first black to play quarterback at a predominantly white Southern university.

McAshan now views the glory and controversy of his college football days with ambivalence, a mixture of reverence and resentment that turns a plastic-coated press notice into a flyswatter.

``It's like you served a 20-year sentence, and you come out and everybody asks, `Did you feel you got a fair trial?' '' he said. ``You just want to forget it.''

Many of the 17 school records McAshan set two decades ago at Georgia Tech are only now being challenged by sophomore Shawn Jones, another black quarterback, who will lead the Yellow Jackets against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on New Year's Day.

To Jones, whose undefeated and second-ranked Yellow Jackets are chasing their first national title, McAshan is just a name in the record books: the only Georgia Tech quarterback to throw five touchdown passes in one game, the single-season leader in touchdown passes and the record holder for career touchdown passes.

``I heard he was pretty good,'' Jones said.

McAshan (pronounced mc-SHAN) was more than good; he was years ahead of his time. Only in recent years have black quarterbacks appeared with any regularity on Southern schools' practice fields.

McAshan broke into the starting lineup back when blacks were regarded as lacking the intellectual and leadership skills to play quarterback. His sophomore debut at Georgia Tech was hailed as a milestone in Jet and Ebony.

But before the final game of his senior year in 1972, everything exploded under a racially charged cloud that has followed Eddie McAshan along 18 years of detours and dead ends.

During those tense years when Southern college football was still largely segregated, mistakes - even misunderstandings - weren't tolerated. When it came to crossing the color barrier, you could step over the line, but not out of line.

``One of the first things you learned at Georgia Tech is that `Ma Tech' is unforgiving,'' said Karl Barnes, a teammate during the 1971-72 seasons. ``Ma Tech would knock you down, and the strong would get back up and keep going.''

McAshan and Ma Tech kept going, but in opposite directions, an estrangement that has lasted nearly two decades.

Now, in hope of healing the wound, Barnes and four other black Georgia Tech alumni have started a scholarship fund in McAshan's name.

Ostensibly, the scholarship recognizes McAshan's perseverance in obtaining his college degree in 1979, seven years after leaving the football program. In reality, it provides common ground on which McAshan and Georgia Tech can reunite. McAshan's reputation is restored; Georgia Tech's integrity is preserved.

``The net result is to get Eddie and Georgia Tech back together. That's the intent,'' Barnes said. ``This is to lay to rest the whole issue of Eddie McAshan and Georgia Tech.''

The old clippings McAshan had sealed in plastic tell of a shy young man who endured the special stresses of breaking a color barrier and bearing the racial taunts, the slashed tires and the lynchings in effigy.

So when the university denied McAshan's request for extra family tickets to the season-ending game against Georgia in 1972, ``It was what they call the last straw,'' McAshan said recently.

When McAshan skipped a practice to protest the decision, coach Bill Fulcher suspended him from the Georgia game, which Tech lost, then extended the suspension to include the Liberty Bowl against Iowa State.

Atlanta's black community rallied to McAshan's defense; Georgia Tech's athletic department and administration backed Fulcher. McAshan soon became a civil rights cause celebre, receiving advice from black activists who tried to organize a boycott of the Liberty Bowl. His black teammates, fearing the loss of their scholarships, crossed an NAACP picket line outside the Liberty Bowl but wore black armbands in a show of support.

While his backup led Georgia Tech to a 31-30 victory over Iowa State, McAshan sat outside the stadium in a white stretch limousine with Jesse Jackson, who would call him the ``Jackie Robinson of Southern college football.''

Although McAshan holds several school records, his name isn't listed in the university's hall of fame. In the university's eyes, he was good, sometimes brilliant, but not good enough to rank with the likes of J.W. ``20 Percent'' Davis, Judy Harlan or Pee Wee Williams.

But during the Yellow Jackets' game against South Carolina this season, McAshan stood on the field for the first time in 18 years, while school officials announced a drive to raise a $250,000 endowment for the scholarship.

At 39, he is slim, handsome and unmarried. Six-foot-two and 195 pounds, he has a Billy Dee Williams mustache and Reggie Theus hair. He wears nice suits and drives a BMW but lives in a stark apartment of bare white walls and minimal furnishings.

McAshan is searching for direction, looking for a future even as he is pursued by the past.

Nobody, least of all Eddie McAshan, can say whether he will find the success that has eluded him these years. But the scholarship has given McAshan back some of what he forfeited so many years ago. Here, it says, is someone who went where nobody had gone before remember his name.

``We want the Shawn Joneses to know that there was another young man 20 years ago leading a team, who was out there pretty much by himself,'' Barnes said. ``Shawn is standing on the shoulders of Eddie McAshan.''