Vandy's Overton a Pioneer for the Commodores

Former wide receiver one of school's first Black student-athletes

by Graham Hays

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Walter Overton had the talent to excel as Vanderbilt receiver in the early 1970s. He also had the grace to persevere despite being denied an opportunity to line up at his best position.

His play made those teams better. His courage helped the university be better.

A gridiron star at the former Pearl High School, Overton grew up close enough to Vanderbilt Stadium to sit by a window in his childhood home and hear the roar of the crowd on Saturdays. On occasion, he and friends would watch games through the fence or slip in after kickoff.

By the time any Black student-athlete competed in the SEC, Overton was already in high school. He went most of his childhood without seeing a Black student-athlete compete for Vanderbilt in any sport. Yet as someone born and raised in Nashville, he always wondered if he, too, could be part of those Dudley Field scenes that unfolded so close to where he grew up.

The world had changed just enough by the time he was looking at college that Vanderbilt was among the schools recruiting him. He arrived one year after Taylor Stokes became the first Black student-athlete to receive a football scholarship at the university. An all-state quarterback for mighty Pearl High School, Overton had just one question for the Vanderbilt coaches who sought him out. Would they let him continue to play quarterback in college, potentially putting him on course to become the first Black quarterback in the SEC to start?

They told him yes.

It wouldn’t be quite that simple.

At a time when freshmen weren’t eligible to play varsity sports, Overton played quarterback for the freshman team in 1970. By his recollection, the team fared well that season, even beating their counterparts from the University of Tennessee. Yet when he saw the varsity depth chart the next spring, he was listed third – behind even his White backup from the freshman team.

Coaches told him they wanted to get him involved in the offense in other ways. In other words, like so many Black quarterbacks of the era, they wanted him to change positions.

Dismayed, Overton briefly returned home to the neighborhood separated from the university by scant miles but a social chasm. He was mad. He was hurt. Maybe he had been hopelessly naïve to trust the coaches and follow those childhood dreams. But family and friends advised him to go back to campus and earn a degree, no matter where on the field he lined up.

“It’s not all about football, it’s about getting your education and growing up and being a man,” Overton recalled of the advice. “So I stayed — with bitterness. But I tried to make the best of it. With what I’ve done and what has happened here in the present, probably one of the best decisions I ever made was coming to Vanderbilt.”

He went on to total 46 receptions, 692 receiving yards and four touchdowns over three seasons in a run-heavy offense. Far from the bitterness which would have been understandable, Overton remained committed to the Nashville sports scene throughout his professional career. He only recently retired after serving as executive director of the Nashville Sports Authority and general manager of Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, among other roles.

And it was at Overton’s urging that Stokes, his fellow pioneer who originally left the university prior to graduating, returned to complete his degree more than 40 years later.

Growing up, Overton wondered what it would be like to be part of Vanderbilt. Looking back recently, he talked about his pride in helping make it the university it should be.