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The Sports Issue

How a daring football team took on Boston’s busing era

As racial strife tore the city apart in the 1970s, two friends — one black, one white — and their teammates changed the rules of the game.

The first Billy’s Cowboys squad in 1975 at Kelly Field in Hyde Park.
Photograph from Bob DeVoe
The first Billy’s Cowboys squad in 1975 at Kelly Field in Hyde Park.

THEY WERE MUSCLEHEADS, PROJECT KIDS, BRUISERS, AND PARTIERS. They were former high school stars, college standouts, and guys just chasing weekend glory. They were (or would become) plumbers, pilots, teachers, bartenders, cops, firefighters, and, in one case, even a Secret Service agent. On the field, they played a gritty game, propelled as much by heart as skill. Some had speed. Others hit hard. When they charged across the line of scrimmage, they charged as one, determined to bring honor to the neighborhood.

They were the Cowboys. And Cowboys they will always be.

It all began 40 years ago this fall, when a motley band of football fanatics did something extraordinary. Down in Hyde Park, at the far edge of Boston proper, they built an amateur team to compete in the Boston Park League, a storied, city-sponsored federation. They called themselves Billy’s Cowboys. Their goal was ostensibly a simple one: to grab the league championship from long-established squads out of places like Charlestown and South Boston.

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But the Cowboys were more than just another Park League football team. From the start, they decided their roster would be racially integrated. They would invite the best players to try out, regardless of color. If you could play — if you had that wild hunger in your eyes — you could be white, black, or green. It didn’t matter.

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That may not sound remarkable now, but it was then, certainly in Hyde Park. This was 1975. The federal order to desegregate Boston schools had just taken effect. Racial tensions, simmering for years, boiled over. South Boston drew many of the headlines, but Hyde Park wasn’t far behind. Bricks and rocks smashed school bus windows. An effigy of a black ape hung from a front porch near Hyde Park High School. A white student was gravely wounded in a stabbing, then police stopped a plot to launch Molotov cocktails at buses carrying black students.

In this climate, it wasn’t a simple thing to start a football team with black and white players suiting up together. The Cowboys didn’t necessarily set out to make a political statement. But they did, simply by challenging the prevailing us-versus-them mind-set and affording space for black and white players to come together — at practices, at weekend games, and then at the bar afterward. For the Cowboys, it was us-versus-everybody-else, a shared drive to knock the stars out of their opponents. “We just wanted football players,” says Larry DeVoe, a founder and guiding force behind the Cowboys. “I didn’t give a [expletive] what color they were.”

Four decades later, despite many seasons of teeth-rattling blocks and tackles (and a concussion count no one really wants to tally), the Cowboys can still recite all the heroics and heartbreaks with stunning specificity. The ref who botched a key call. The highlight-reel catch in the end zone at Dorchester’s Town Field. The trick play on a second-half kickoff. The thousands of fans who packed the stands.

More than anything, though, what they remember is one another. They remember the trust and camaraderie. They remember the bonds that formed as they battled (and then drank) together. They remember the friendships that have endured, long after the rest of it — the busing acrimony, the Cowboys’ long run, the Park League itself — has vanished into history.

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***

LARRY DEVOE IS A nickname magnet. There’s “Ragu” (on account of his cooking pasta for a dorm full of college kids one wild night in Canada); “Toe DeVoe” (for kicking, as an offensive guard, the Cowboys’ winning field goal in their first ever Park League game); “the Godfather” (his black overcoat and outsize role with the Cowboys and amateur football in Greater Boston); and “Boss Hogg” (lack of neck and general outlaw mien).

But back before he’d earned any of them, before the two marriages, the five kids, the 41 years as a sprinkler fitter, the who-knows-how-many Michelobs, DeVoe was just a sports-obsessed kid in Roxbury, growing up on the top floor of a triple-decker outside of Jackson Square. Born in 1950, DeVoe was basically an only child. He had five half brothers, but the closest one, Bob, was 15 years older. DeVoe’s father was a plumber with the city water department, his mother a homemaker. He was an altar boy at All Saints’ Church and a choirboy at his Catholic elementary school.

Outside of school and church, DeVoe passed his days at Marcella Playground. From morning until night, DeVoe and his buddies — he likens them to Spanky’s crew from Our Gang — played basketball, baseball, football, or whatever was in season. In the winter, they’d steal wood remnants from a nearby pickle factory and frame out a hockey rink on the tennis and basketball court. They’d crack a hydrant, let the water freeze over, and, voila.

Things changed around 1963, when DeVoe’s family fled Roxbury’s intensifying racial strife. DeVoe didn’t want to leave; he’d even had a black friend in his childhood crew. But once his father announced they were moving to Hyde Park, that was that. Before they went, DeVoe stood on the roof of his apartment building hurling rocks at black guys he says were rioting in the street. A couple years later, when DeVoe was 15, his father died of colon cancer. His mom got a waitressing job.

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The older DeVoe got, the more football dominated his life. It was already in his blood. His father had played in the Boston Park League, as had his brother, whom DeVoe grew up watching. He admired the Green Bay Packers’ legendary coach, Vince Lombardi, and idolized players like Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, and Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston. DeVoe joined the Hyde Park High School football team as a sophomore. He played guard and nose tackle. He wasn’t tall — around 5-foot-8 — but he was tough, like he had something to prove. “I was a rugged little son of a bitch,” he says.

When DeVoe graduated, in 1968, Hyde Park’s head coach, Joe Collins, helped him get a tryout at football-proud Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. The culture shock was severe (“I was in hillbilly heaven, man,” he says) but DeVoe was thrilled for a chance to play college ball. He worked his tail off in the heat that summer and made the cut. There was just one problem. He couldn’t afford college.

“You gotta give me some money,” he told the team. “My mother’s a widow.”

But Marshall couldn’t give him anything, at least not right away. DeVoe was crushed. He returned to Boston, not sure what was next. He got a phone company job, and then his brother Bob secured him a coveted spot in the sprinkler fitters’ union, where he began apprenticing. He got married. In November 1970, he was shaken by news of the fatal plane crash that decimated the Marshall team, knowing he might have been among them.

Still hungry to play football, DeVoe sought out a former Hyde Park coach named Paul Costello, who was now leading the Lyons Club, an amateur team out of Dorchester. DeVoe played there for a couple years, then for teams in Malden, Peabody, and Middleborough. “Number sixty on the field, number one in the hearts of the fans,” he took to saying with a smile.

After the 1974 season, DeVoe had tired of driving so far to play. And that’s when he got an idea. The vision came in early 1975, as he lifted weights at the Hyde Park YMCA. He’d build his own football team.

***

IN THE COLUMBIA POINT HOUSING PROJECT, a few miles east of where DeVoe and his friends jury-rigged their hockey rink as kids, Rich Young was doing the very same thing. As far as they knew, Young and his brothers were the only hockey-playing African-American kids around. In the winter, they’d flood a big parking lot and play under the lights. They built goals from barrels and traffic cones but had no frame around the rink. You missed a shot, you chased the puck.

Born in 1952, Young had moved to the Point with his mother, two brothers, and sister after his parents divorced. He was about 12 years old. His mother worked as an administrative assistant at a community health center; his father was an engineer for Westinghouse. Young loved the Point and appreciated having white friends, black friends, and Chinese friends. Like DeVoe, he was drawn to sports. He put Sports Illustrated covers up in his room. He followed the Los Angeles Rams and especially Hall of Famer David “Deacon” Jones, who popularized the quarterback sack.

Young played high school football at Boston English, but only his senior year. Before that, he’d been too busy working as a State House page. His family, like everybody else in the Point, needed the money. On the team, Young proved himself quickly, getting named cocaptain and making the city- and conference-wide all-star teams. He wasn’t big — 160 or 170 pounds — but he hit hard. His teammates, after watching him pummel people, once asked his mom, “What do you feed him, Mrs. Young?”

The summer after high school, Young apprenticed with an elevator company that was helping build the University of Massachusetts campus in Boston. He thought his future was set. Then the football coach at Boston State College came calling. Young and his mother wrestled with what to do. He was earning $370 a week, more than many men twice his age, and yet his mother wanted him to get a college education, believing it would keep him from being drafted and sent to Vietnam. He chose college and enrolled in the fall of 1971.

At Boston State, Young initially played defensive back and running back. But he found his niche as a linebacker. He earned an award as the team’s best hitter, a plaque that still sits in his trophy room at home in Dorchester. Off the field, he was studying to be a physical education teacher.

Lane Turner/Globe staff
Jim McIntyre, the team’s first head coach, in his furniture restoring studio.

One of Young’s teammates was a Hyde Park guy named Jim McIntyre, who had arrived at school after a stint in the Navy. A few years older, McIntyre had played on amateur teams with Larry DeVoe and other guys from the neighborhood. By 1975, McIntyre was scheming with DeVoe to establish a new Hyde Park football team. Young — fresh legs, heavy hitter, gifted athlete — was just the kind of player any team would want. So McIntyre asked him: Why don’t you come play for us? Young was intrigued, but also a little uneasy. As a black man, did he really want to spend the fall of 1975 in Hyde Park?

***

LONG BEFORE Monday Night Football, long before nationally televised college games, long before you brought three-layer dip to Super Bowl parties, the neighborhoods were where you saw football. Many of Boston’s parishes and villages had teams in the Park League, which dates back to at least October 1929. Five years later, the league had more than 5,000 players on 228 different teams. The 709 games played in 1934 collectively drew more than 641,000 fans. “What it meant to the neighborhoods was paramount,” says Robert Beckwith, a Park League historian who played with the Charlestown Townies. (“The Townies were like God,” Charlestown-bred Howie Long, an NFL Hall of Fame defensive end, once said. “To touch a Townie, to just stand in his shadow, was an honor.”)

Over subsequent decades, crowds flocked to big games by the thousands, and teams came and went. Roxbury alone fielded, among many others, the Wildcats, the  Zephyrs, the Rangers, the Rebels, the Red Raiders, the Reefers, and the Runts. Many played purely for the fun of it, a reward for long weeks as longshoremen or laborers. Others hoped to be the next Johnny Unitas, who vaulted from the Pittsburgh sandlots to the height of NFL glory.

Larry DeVoe had tasted glory with other teams, but he wanted to taste it in Hyde Park. The team DeVoe and his cohorts were building would call itself the Cowboys, styled after the ascendant NFL franchise in Dallas. They’d ask Billy’s Saloon, a Hyde Park bar, to sponsor them. They’d put stars on their helmets and wear blue and silver, colors Dallas and Hyde Park High School shared. The core of the team would be a group of friends who’d already been playing together. DeVoe had little doubt they could live up to the Cowboy name.

First, they needed money. DeVoe and McIntyre made their pitch to Billy Mouradian, the saloon owner, who didn’t take much convincing. He’d pay for the helmets, gear, trainers, and miles of athletic tape. “Anything we needed, it was there,” says McIntyre, the first head coach. In return, Mouradian, a self-described “wise guy” they called “Papa,” would benefit from Billy’s Saloon becoming the Cowboys’ home base. He predicted (correctly, it would turn out) that the team and its many followers would get very, very thirsty.

As they built their roster, McIntyre connected DeVoe with Rich Young, who was mulling whether to join the team. DeVoe assured Young that if he came to Hyde Park, the rest of the team would have his back. “A lot of my black friends thought I was crazy,” Young says. They’ll never accept you, he was told. But having come up in the Columbia Point melting pot, he took DeVoe and the other Cowboys at their word.

Friends Rich Young and Larry DeVoe back in their playing days.
photograph from Rich Young
Friends Rich Young and Larry DeVoe back in their playing days.\

At first, DeVoe began picking Young up at his Mattapan apartment and bringing him to practices, just in case. Young felt the pressures of breaking the color line. He understood that his skill as a linebacker made his presence easier to swallow. “Everybody wants to be your friend when you’re a good athlete,” he says. Nonetheless, before long Young was a fixture in the Cowboys’ defense and at the bars, too. “Hyde Park became almost like my second home,” he says.

Young was one of only a few African-American players on that first Cowboys team. Still, their presence sent a powerful message, and it would open the door for more black Cowboys in subsequent years — a Jackie Robinson story writ small. Reynolds Shepherd, a Roxbury native who’d played with  DeVoe in high school, was another pioneer in 1975. “It was just a rule: We were a team,” says Shepherd, who played halfback, later became a Boston firefighter, and now runs a fitness company.

Then there was Keith Tillman, a safety and outside linebacker recruited by DeVoe’s brother Bob. Tillman had played at Hyde Park High and returned to the school  after college as a city youth worker, to help keep the peace. He felt the busing fallout every day. But like Young, Tillman’s faith in his white teammates would be rewarded.

At a regular-season matchup against the Charlestown Townies in Charlestown, Tillman vividly remembers opposing fans hurling racial insults at him, which got worse when the Cowboys won. After the game, his white teammates recognized the potential danger, surrounded him and other black players, and got them safely to the bus. “I can remember them saying, ‘Strength in numbers,’ ” says Tillman, now a college registrar in Illinois.

The decision to include black players, DeVoe says, didn’t initially sit well with some in Hyde Park, particularly a group of white kids from the projects. “What are you doing?” DeVoe remembers them saying. They told him, using a racial epithet, that he’d better not recruit black players. He says he sat them down and said, in so many words, this is how it’s going to be. Anyone who made trouble would answer to the football team — all of it. “They got a quick education,” DeVoe says.

The Park League was fairly segregated in those years —you had white teams, and then Roxbury’s black team, the Shelburne Cobras. The Cowboys weren’t the first to integrate, however. The Brighton Knights, for one, had had black and white players, and Tillman and Shepherd had both played on largely white teams before. The Hyde Park High School squad even showed that an integrated team could work in its tumultuous neighborhood. Still, the Cowboys’ gesture of racial reconciliation meant something in Hyde Park at a time when busing tensions were peaking. “That was one of the reasons we wanted to start the team,” says McIntyre, who now re-purposes and sells antiques and vintage furniture. “For all the problems we had, there was still a good side.”

The Cowboys’ first season opened with promise. The team hosted East Boston at Kelly Field in Hyde Park. With time running out, DeVoe persuaded McIntyre to let him attempt a 30-yard field goal. DeVoe hit it — in the rain — giving the Cowboys the victory. A couple of games later, Jerry Howland — who would become a revered Boston teacher and mentor — caught a long touchdown pass in the closing seconds to give the Cowboys another win, prompting DeVoe and some teammates to drive to Newport, Rhode Island, for Cowboys tattoos.

The team’s fan base steadily grew. A group of players’ fathers worked the gate at Friday night games, after which the team would promenade triumphantly through Billy’s Saloon. “You had that jacket on and you felt like part of this elite team — ‘Oh, you’re with the Cowboys!’ ” says Rick McCormack, a running back and cocaptain in the early years who became a Boston police officer.

On December 7, 1975, the Cowboys took an undefeated season into the Park League title game against the Townies, who’d won three straight championships. The game, in front of more than 8,000 people at East Boston Stadium, had a bit of everything — disputed calls, more than 1,000 total yards of offense, three overtimes, critical missed field goals, a drop in temperature that turned the field to tundra, and numerous injuries, including a lacerated eye and a broken arm. In the end, the Townies prevailed, 12-6, when halfback John Houlihan powered into the Cowboys’ end zone late in the third overtime (Houlihan is now serving life in federal prison for murder).

The loss brought the Cowboys back to earth. Their storybook season would not come to pass. Soon after, DeVoe got his hands on a Townies jersey. That offseason, he tacked it to the ceiling above the bench press at the Hyde Park Y. The words he spit out as he heaved the barbell in the air, the powder-blue jersey staring down at him, are not printable.

***

THE PARK LEAGUE, like the sport of football — especially in the 1960s and ’70s — was not for the faint of heart. Rivalries were fierce. Games had rules and referees, but cheap shots were plentiful. You might spit in an opposing player’s face. Or throw dirt in his eye before a snap. Or poke him in the eye with a finger. Or clothesline him. Or all of the above. The partying, drugs, drinking, and girl-chasing were conducted with equal passion off the field. The league lasted until 1984, its demise hastened by a drop-off in city support and a racial dispute a few years earlier, Beckwith says.

The relationships forged on and off the field remained. The physicality of a football team, players will tell you, creates a unique bond. “You’re building that big, strong fence to keep your kids safe,” says Erle Garrett, who joined the Cowboys in 1976. “And that’s what they are — your kids.” Garrett, who is black, was a little skeptical about coming to Hyde Park, but those doubts were erased once he got to know the Cowboys. And that was how it went. More and more black players signed on as the years passed, helping fuel the team’s success.

Billy’s Cowboys would exist for about 25 years, and then later for a few final seasons as a team that DeVoe coached in Braintree. Along the way, they would endure many highs and lows — a move from the Park League to the broader Eastern Football League, inductions in the Semi-Pro Hall of Fame, serious injuries, defections, divorces, a schism at Billy’s Saloon, and bitter disagreements about the team’s direction. (DeVoe fired his brother from the team on three separate occasions.) “It was like one big family,” says Kevin McCarthy, who helped start and manage the Cowboys.

They would also write a Cowboys chant, to be performed in falsetto:

Go back, go back, go back to the woods

Your team is too short, you ain’t got the goods

You ain’t got the rhythm, you ain’t got the jazz

You ain’t got the class that the Cowboys has

I like it, I like it, I like it like that . . .

(There’s one final line, but it would never pass my censors.)

After that stinging loss to Charlestown in 1975, revenge was the Cowboys’ first order of business. They returned in 1976 more determined than ever to claim the Park League title. They had more talent now, not least Garrett, a kick returner and tight end who’d been drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 1974. After a narrow win to start the season, the Cowboys began bowling over opponents, including the Townies, routing them 44-6. “We rolled,” says Garrett, a longtime physical education teacher, coach, and referee in Boston.

When the Townies lost unexpectedly in the playoffs, the Cowboys faced the South Boston Chippewas in the championship game, which drew 8,000 people to Franklin Park’s White Stadium in late November. It wasn’t close. The Cowboys destroyed the Chips, 53-7.

It had taken them two years, but the title was finally theirs.

Keith Tillman, left, and teammates celebrate Billy’s Cowboys winning the Boston Park League championship in 1976.
photograph from Keith Tillman
Keith Tillman, left, and teammates celebrate Billy’s Cowboys winning the Boston Park League championship in 1976.

***

BOTH GREW UP in working-class Boston. Both were raised, in their teenage years, by single mothers. Both loved to hit people on the football field. Both wore No. 60 in their careers. Their stories are so intertwined, in fact, that when Rich Young has a health issue, he often calls Larry DeVoe first, because DeVoe’s probably had it, too. “Sometimes I don’t even have to go to the doctor,” Young says. “He’s my Siri.”

DeVoe, now 64, is stocky, has piercing blue eyes, and still wears the goatee of his younger years. He lives in Braintree with his wife, Deborah, and is largely retired. Young, 63 and divorced, has a thin layer of dark curly hair, a warm smile, and a few more pounds than he had in his playing days. He retired in 2010 after a long career as a Boston physical education teacher and coach.

In the 40 years since DeVoe brought Young onto the Cowboys, they’ve shared countless holidays, cookouts, football games, and escapades, including the time they filched a gorilla suit for DeVoe to wear at his wedding rehearsal. It was Young whom DeVoe’s wife once called to hunt DeVoe down after a serious bender. DeVoe turned to Young when he wanted a godfather for his son. A few weeks ago, they traveled to Canton, Ohio, together for a Hall of Fame ceremony.

Sometimes Young bristles at what comes out of DeVoe’s mouth. (Politically correct Larry DeVoe is not.) “He says things I wouldn’t let nobody else say to me,” Young says. But he has no doubts about DeVoe’s heart. “There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for me,” Young says.

Boston, MA - 07/25/15 - Larry DeVoe (hat) and Richard Young (prefers to be identified as Richard, NOT Richie) at Kelly Field, where the Hyde Park Cowboys won their first game. Lane Turner/Globe Staff Section: MAG Reporter: Scott Helman Slug:
Lane Turner/Globe staff
Rich Young and Larry DeVoe at Kelly Field today.

DeVoe, whose playing career spanned from the days of leather helmets through his 40th birthday in 1990, has the longer injury ledger, which includes eight operations on his ankles, five on his knees, a bicep reattachment, a shoulder replacement, and a shoulder reconstruction. Nerve damage from compressed vertebrae gives him pins and needles in his hands and makes walking difficult. “I didn’t think it was going to be this [expletive] bad,” he says. “But I wouldn’t change it.”

I’m not sure he could have anyway. DeVoe’s passion for football, the pure joy he derived, the itch to play he felt every year — it’s hard to imagine him resisting any of it. “Football is an analogy for life,” he told me when we first met last fall. You keep good people around you. You show loyalty, respect, and caring. You work hard. DeVoe will admit there were times he didn’t live up to those ideals himself. But in one important way, he did. And at a time in Hyde Park when it wasn’t necessarily easy to do.

In recent years, when DeVoe has seen Billy Mouradian around, the former saloon owner still embraces him like a proud papa. Mouradian can’t recall much anymore, DeVoe says, but the team — that’s burned into his memory.

“Hey, hey, how good were them Cowboys?” Mouradian asks him.

“We was real good,” DeVoe answers.

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at scott.helman@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @swhelman.