Black History Month: First Black man to earn varsity letter at West Point

Colonel Gary Steele was the Army’s first Black American to earn a varsity letter in football at West Point.
Published: Feb. 28, 2023 at 5:50 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Colonel Gary Steele was the Army’s first Black American to earn a varsity letter in football at West Point.

He was one of 30 Black students paving the way for the next generation. After graduating, he dedicated 23 years to the Army.

On Tuesday, he spent time at Augusta University speaking to students and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps members.

We sat down with Steele to hear about the lessons he’s learned.

In 1966 he put his football cleats, shoulder pads, and helmet on just like his teammates did, not knowing history would be forever changed.

“At the time, I didn’t put any real significance to it. Because I was just a member of a team. I worked hard for my first team position. And I wanted to keep it, so I was willing to do anything I could to keep it,” said Steele.

But unlike his teammates, his first catch as a football player made history for African Americans all around.

“With this pass, first quarter of the game I became the first African American to play varsity football at West Point,” he said.

He says it’s never been about the notoriety of being the first. As he reflects on life and Black History Month he says the message is simple.

“Individually, it’s very hard to win. But when people come together and work together, you become there’s a lot more solidarity there. There’s a lot more power there,” he said.

Something Army Veteran Mikkala Jones says hit home for her as she listened to Steele speak.

“I got to see the diverse side of the Army. So him reflecting on his past and how it wasn’t as diverse when he came in. It was like an eye-opener of how far America has come in the United States Army,” she said.

The point he drives home is better together.

“You get a lot more done hands working. Doing things. So, Black History Month is a good thing. It’s a good thing. But American History Month for me is even better,” said Steel.

At the end of the day, Steele says by traveling to universities across the country, and sharing his story and the message of what working together instead of alone does is impacting everyone.