Veryl Switzer, the first African-American ever drafted in the first round by the Green Bay Packers and a trailblazer as they integrated their roster over the 1950s, died Saturday.
Switzer was 89. Gene Taylor, athletic director at Kansas State University, Switzer's alma mater, announced his death on behalf of the family in a statement Sunday. No other details were provided.
In 1954, the Packers drafted Switzer with their second of two first-round draft picks, a choice obtained from the New York Giants along with defensive halfback Val Joe Walker in exchange for the rights to former Army quarterback Arnie Galiffa. The Giants engineered the trade on the recommendation of their offensive backfield coach Vince Lombardi, who had been an assistant at Army in 1949 when Galiffa led the Cadets to a 9-0 record and was named to the Associated Press All-America Team.
Curly Lambeau was in his final days of running the Packers when he had drafted Galiffa in the 18th round in late January 1950. Galiffa had returned to civilian life only months before the 1954 draft after fulfilling his service commitment following his graduation from West Point.
The 1954 pre-draft trade with the Giants gave the Packers two of the first four selections. They used their own No 1 choice, the third overall, to select tackle Art Hunter of Notre Dame. They took Switzer with the fourth choice.
To this day, Switzer is the highest drafted player in Kansas State history. Not only did Switzer letter three years in football and twice led the Wildcats in rushing, he also was a three-time letterman in track and field. Switzer was a charter inductee into the Kansas State Athletics Hall of Fame and is in the football program's Ring of Honor.
Switzer played two years with the Packers, 1954-55, mostly as an offensive halfback, but also doubled as a defensive back in a pinch. In fact, his first extended action as a rookie was on defense. Against the Chicago Bears in the second game of the season, Switzer was in on eight tackles. He also led the NFL in punt returns with a 12.8 average, including what was then a club record 93-yard touchdown against the Bears. On kickoff returns, he ranked seventh and sixth in the league in his two seasons.
As a right halfback on offense, Switzer was used as much as a receiver as he was a runner. In two years, he caught 31 passes, averaging 8.7 yards per catch, and also averaged 5.2 yards on 31 rushing attempts.
His future looked bright.
In fact, late in the 1955 season, coach Lisle Blackbourn said he had only eight players on his 33-man roster whom he believed could make a championship team. Switzer was one of them in a season where the Packers finished 6-6.
"He could do anything," former Packers end Gary Knafelc said in a 2007 interview. "He could catch the ball. I played against him at Kansas (State) when I was at Colorado."
However, Switzer, like many NFL players at the time, also had joined the service and was called to active duty at the end of his second pro season. A lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve, he was ordered to report to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas to learn to become a pilot.
He returned to the Packers in 1958 after fulfilling his military obligations but was cut late in camp by Scooter McLean. Switzer played three more years in the Canadian Football League and then went back to Kansas State, where he held a number of administrative and athletic department jobs.
Although Switzer's stay with the Packers was relatively brief, he was one of only three Black players after NFL teams began to integrate again following World War II that played in 12 games or more for the pre-Lombardi Packers. Defensive end Nate Borden played in 57 games from 1955 to 1959; Bob Mann, who broke the modern-day color barrier in Green Bay in 1950, 38; and Switzer, 24.
But there were those who believed the Packers never fully tapped in to Switzer's potential because he was Black.
"I felt he never got a fair shake," fellow halfback Al Carmichael said in a 2001 interview.
At the same time, Switzer was the first Black Packer to embrace the community by becoming a year-round resident. Popular with both teammates and fans, he worked for Farah's Liquor in the offseason as an in-store salesman and also did promotional work in the Green Bay area.
"I enjoyed it," Switzer said of his time in Green Bay in a 2003 interview. "It was the first time I was in Wisconsin, so I wasn't familiar with it.
"I lived at the YMCA. I can't remember what they charged. I had some very good friends in Green Bay. They'd invite me out to dinner after games. One owned a liquor store."