34 years later, Riverhead football star finally gets championship ring

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Riverhead's Anthony James shows of his championship ring from the South Carolina State University football team.

A lot of people around Riverhead didn’t believe all of Anthony James’ tales about his days of playing football.

The lifelong Riverhead resident would tell them about the 35 games his team won during his days as a running back at South Carolina State University. Then he’d spin a yarn about the 19 former teammates from college that went on to play in the NFL, including former Giants Hall of Famer Harry Carson. And don’t forget that all-too-perfect story he’d tell about being a national champion.

“‘Yeah, right,’” he says people would respond. “Prove it.”

Didn’t believe him then? Take a look at his left ring finger now.

Mr. James, 54, was among the members of the 1976 South Carolina State football team that received rings this October commemorating their achievement as national black champions. Despite finishing that season with a 10-1 record and a share of the National Black College Football Championship, the Bulldogs players and coaches never received rings from the university. It wasn’t until one of Mr. James’ former teammates, Charlie Brown, who won two rings as a Super Bowl champ with the Washington Redskins, looked into the matter that the Bulldogs finally received their rings 34 years later.

“It’s a blessing,” Mr. James said.

After a standout football career at Riverhead High School, Mr. James left for the historically black South Carolina institution on a scholarship in the fall of 1975. After one season as a linebacker, he moved to the fullback position for Hall of Fame coach Willie Jeffries’ team.

The Bulldogs saw unprecedented success in 1976, winning 10 games for the first time since the program was founded in 1907. Their one loss was by just one point.

Despite the defeat, the Pittsburgh Courier, the black newspaper empowered at the time with picking a black national champion selected South Carolina State along with unbeaten Florida A&M as co-winners. It was the Bulldogs’ first time garnering the honor, an achievement reached by the team three times since.

When the school won the title again last season, Mr. Brown began looking into acquiring rings for all the players on the first title team. In 1976, the college declined to purchase the players rings, saying it could not afford to, according to a recent account in the Georgetown Times newspaper of Georgetown County, S.C.

The players finally received their rings in October at a special ceremony Mr. James attended in Santee, S.C.

Having been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008, the reunion with his former teammates was a therapeutic experience for Mr. James, according to his daughter.

“Since he went through his bought with prostate cancer in 2008 he decided to reconnect with old friends and enjoy the brotherhoods and relationships that were formed so many years ago,” Sharice James Wallace wrote for a recent service honoring her father at First Baptist Church of Riverhead. “It is so wonderful that during his time of health challenges his former teammates were there for him offering him prayers and words of encouragement. The bonds that were formed on the football field continue to be strong.”

Mr. James said he believes only a knee injury suffered during his junior season kept him from joining his teammates in the NFL. Even with a bad leg, he was invited to a Jets training camp in the late ’70s. He was one of 24 Bulldogs from the 1976 title team to get a training camp audition with an NFL squad.

Despite the sour ending to his own career, Mr. James, who went on to become a truck driver, said he remains proud of all his teammates accomplished as their own playing days continued.

“It’s incredible to think that I played with all those guys,” he said.

He’s kept a close eye on his high school Alma mater, too. Mr. James can be seen on the sidelines or in the stands at many of the Riverhead varsity football and basketball games, cheering loudly for his team.

“When the [football] team went 12-0 a couple years back I kept hollering at those boys all season long,” he said. “I’m true Blue Waves, brother.”

Ms. Wallace said her father has made it a point in his life to stress the importance of education to teenagers, and to tell them about the positive role sports can play in their lives.

And now he may even get some of those players and others in the community to believe he really did all those great things he’s been telling them about.

“Now I can show them the ring and prove it to them,” he said. “Now I can show them it really was true.”

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