First black Blue Devil mascot receives letterman jacket at Duke homecoming

jalexander@newsobserver.comSeptember 29, 2013 

Michael Holyfield as the Duke Blue Devil mascot in 1976 at a Duke football game.

COURTESY OF DUKE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES

— All it took was a bet from his roommate for Michael Holyfield to decide to interview for the Duke Blue Devil mascot position 1976, not knowing he’d be the first African American to do so.

He and two friends were reading the student newspaper when Michael saw the ad for the position.

“I said if I go out and interview for it they’ll choose me based off sheer force and personality,” Holyfield, now 57, said. “My roommate said ‘bet you won’t!’ And on a dare I went down and interviewed and that was that. I never was aware of history.”

Then-Athletic Director Karl James agreed Holyfield had what it took and chose him to be the next Blue Devil mascot. Holyfield described James as a gentleman who would always inform him of the games and let him know when the bus was to leave.

He was sometimes referred to as the Black Blue Devil.

Sue Wasiolek, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Duke, was a student at Duke in the ’70s and while Holyfield was the mascot.

“He brought a different spirit to the Duke mascot,” Wasiolek said. “He was a lot more animated, and a great dancer.

“He appeared to be so much more of a free spirit. The students looked forward to seeing him.”

However, after football season, James was fired for reasons that are unknown. Tom Butters then became AD. Butters is known for hiring current Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Holyfield said when that happened he felt forgotten. He was no longer being informed of the games or when the buses were to leave for the stadium. Holyfield said he was also talked down to.

Duke had already integrated its sports teams, 10 years prior, but this was the first year the mascot was African American. His costume was a blue batman-like outfit. The cape was very long and the mask was cut off under the nose, exposing his skin color.

“As much as I was concerned, and as much as the students concerned, it was a non-issue,” Holyfield said. “It was the alumni and administration that had a problem with it.”

The next year, Holyfield said, the Duke’s mascot head was covered in totality.

“That cartoon character is my legacy,” he said. “It’s a shame but by the same token it is as it should be. The focus should be on the mascot the image and not the person in the suit, and that was the travesty. (The administration) made it about the person in the suit and I was just a kid.”

Butters could not be reached for comment.

The first African American students to integrate Duke’s campus arrived 50 years ago in 1963. For nine months, Duke has been commemorating the 50th anniversary.

As part of this commemoration, former African American students were given chance to write on the website’s memory wall. It was intended for those to write about their experiences, expecting them to be positive ones. But Holyfield’s post told a different stoy.

“Nothing, however, was more heartbreaking than to discover that I had been excluded from university alumni functions when visiting other cities with the cheerleading squads, evidently due to my obvious blackness,” Holyfield wrote.

He continued to say “This alienation was further driven home when I was excluded from the annual athletic banquet held at the end of the academic year. Not only was I not invited, but I also was never offered, nor did I receive, the customary athletic jacket that previous Duke mascots received.”

Holyfield said not longer after the post, he received many emails from alumni and administration expressing concern. The athletic department caught wind of the post and contacted Holyfield a week later, said Jon Jackson, associate director of athletics external affairs.

“We were informed in January about the post and we reached out to him,” Jackson said.

Duke wanted to give the respect they thought he deserved.

Duke sports honored Holyfield in the second quarter of their football homecoming game against Troy University on Saturday. Letterman jackets were not given to the Blue Devil mascots until the mid ’80s but Duke presented Holyfield with a jacket of his own.

“He clearly had a difficult experience here,” Jackson said. “I think it’s important at Duke that all of our students have a great experience here. We wanted to honor him and the historical contributions he made.”

Alexander: 919-932-2008 Twitter: http://twitter.com/@jonmalexander1">@jonmalexander1

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