In memory of FAMU’s finest: Alonzo Gaither


Bragg Memorial Stadium is packed, fans are cheering and lights are shining bright. Florida A&M’s opponent is waiting on the other side of the field for its looming loss. The football players are in the locker room being led in prayer by legendary head football coach Alonzo “Jake” Gaither. The prayer went as follows: 

Dear God,

God of the Rattlers, a sweet and just God, the only God we know.  We submit ourselves humbly today for your blessings. We are not asking for victory over all our enemies, but for the ability to participate fairly in the game of life. Grant us the wisdom to know what plays to call and the strength to follow them through.  Help us, Lord Jesus, to transfer your strength and wisdom to the game of life and be able to walk in the footsteps of our Heavenly Father.  All these blessings we ask through the grace of your son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

During the 1940s and 1950s, FAMU football was at its best. Gaither led the Rattlers to five black college football championships.

The Gaither era, which lasted 25 years, was the most memorable of FAMU football, producing six national titles, 22 conference championships, 36 All-Americans and 42 NFL football players.

Rudy Givens played football for FAMU during the 1960s. Givens was a lineman from 1961 to 1965. In 1965, he was the co-captain of the team and won the Division I Defensive Player of the Year. He was part of the “blood” unit.

Gaither introduced the Split-T formation on offense and held one of the top football clinics in the nation. He used the words “blood,” “sweat” and “tears” to describe his team’s depth chart. The blood of the team was the starting offense, the sweat was the starting defense and the tears were a combination of offensive and defensive backups. 

“This era was the most winning era we had,” Givens said. “That’s when the love and desire for FAMU really started. Blood, sweat and tears is the history of FAMU.”

From the starters to the players who did not get much playing time, each player was assigned to a unit. Those who did not get much playing time were known as the scraps. 

During the time of segregation, Gaither took advantage by recruiting the best African-American football players and turning them into stars. Most of them were from the surrounding cities in Florida. 

 “He only recruited the top athletes in Florida,” Givens said. “The greatest thing was you knew you had to be the best.”

Gaither had second string and third string players on his team who would start for most college football teams. He said that he wanted his players to be hostile, agile and mobile. Gaither produced NFL players such as Willie Galimore, Bob Hayes and Hewritt Dixon.

From 1957 to 1960, John D. Glover was part of the blood, sweat and tears era of FAMU football. Glover played split end, known today as wide receiver. He had a Hall of Fame career and went on to become the first African-American to be a special agent in charge in an FBI field office.

 “One team would leave the field, and excellence was still sustained,” Glover said.

Under Gaither, the Rattlers made history several times. Against Bethune-Cookman University, the Rattlers shut out the Wildcats and won one of the highest scoring games 97-0. 

“During the Cookman game, we weren’t trying to run the score up,” Glover said. “It just happened.”

The school also made history by beating a predominately white college, the University of Tampa, which was a first for the program.  

After retiring as head football coach of FAMU, Gaither became director of athletics.

“Coach Gaither was a successful teacher,” Glover said. “He made you feel that when you came to FAMU, you were the best.”