I was asked by a friend to write something about Ezell Singleton who passed away this past September. I said I would put some words together, basically, because I’m not one to say “No.”
But I don’t know Ezell. And I love to tell a story well. So I tried to do a little research and ended up mistakenly deleting what little information I found. There was something in it, though, about Ezell being the first African American to do something or another, I don’t know, but it was sports related which leads me to this: when I say I don’t know Ezell, I mean I’ve never met him in the flesh but his name surely isn’t new to me as he’s nestled comfortably in San Diego sports history.
The first time I heard about him was at my barber shop soon after I had come to town in 1962. His name came up in an animated conversation about “Who Was the Baddest Athlete to Ever Come out of San Diego.” A dude who was wearing, as close as I can remember it, a red hat, yellow suit, blue shirt, green socks and pink shoes spoke through his gold teeth on behalf of Ezell, summarizing his multihued speech with “He was one bad cat, Jack!” Well, that’s the “G” rated version of what he said. If he had been like Isaac Hayes singing about Shaft, his back up singers would have had to sing “Hush yo’ mouth.”
His name would come up in picnic football games. Somebody would make a flashy move and get teased with “Who you think you are, Ezell Singleton or somebody!”
He was featured in trash talk all over the city, praised in much the same way as he was at the barber shop. I can still hear bits and pieces of conversations about Ezell being the best.
If somebody was bragging about how good some hotshot jock and his teams were they were trumped with “Man, when Ezell ended his career at San Diego High School in 1959 the Caver’s football win and loss record was 21-2. Can you say that ’bout your boy? Huh? I can’t hear you.”
If somebody countered with “Yeah, but can he play anything else?” they’d get hipped to: “Look here, man, Ezell was All-Every-Thing. All-City, All-State, All-Southern California C.I.F. and All-Milky Way back in his day. He brought the ball up the court with Art “Hambone Williams,” who went on to play in the NBA. Struck out 146 batters at Citrus College before going on to play football and baseball for UCLA. That’s a record till this day. Your boy couldn’t do that on a good day.”
If somebody was going on and on about how strong some legendary jock was, the come back was: “Hey, pound for pound Ezell was the strongest dude around. He wasn’t big but he was built tight. You understand what I’m saying? Had lot of muscle and grit. You grab hold of him it was like you had grabbed onto Captain Marvel or some damn body. Shazam, that fool was gone. Cuz you couldn’t hold on. Wasn’t no give in his bones. We can talk strong to the cows come home, Jim.”
If somebody threw out a name like Art Powell who went on to become a superstar in the AFL, he had to be prepared for “Aw, man, come on, you talking apples and oranges now. Art Powell was a receiver. Every Negro in the ghetto can catch a football. But Ezell can throw. How many black quarterbacks do you know? Right. Zero.”
If somebody said something like “Okay, now, if Ezell was so good how was he when the game was on the line?” this would come up everytime: “Oh, so now you wanna talk clutch, huh? Well, check this out. You remember that UCLA-Pitt game, back in ’60, when the Bruins were behind and Ezell busted through that line looking like James Brown in cleats, in four-four time, and scored the tying touchdown and they went on to score a two point conversion (listed in the school’s “UCLA Memorable Late Game Plays”) for the win? Them Pitt players were pickin’ up their drawers all over the end zone. Came down to a last minute kind of situation and they were no longer number 7 in the nation. Is that enough ‘game on the line’ for your behind?”
“Yeah, but what do the experts have to say about your man, Ezell?”
“Oh, I’m not expert enough for you? Is that what you’re saying? Okay, I can play that game. You know who Nick Canepa is?”
“Yeah, he’s the sportswriter for the Union-Tribune.”
“Correct. Okay, wait a minute, I’m going to google him and Ezell Singleton and show you something. There, what does my man Nick have to say, right there? You can read, can’t you?”
“Best high school QB this area has produced.”
Wow, what a thrill it must have been to see Ezell Singleton play. He’s now where he surely should be, among a group of great athletes who compose the inaugural class in the San Diego Section Hall of Fame at Market Creeks’ Joe & Vi Jacobs Center.
I asked a couple of my friends who were childhood friends of his, to tell me something about him. I asked one “What’s the first three words you think of when I say ‘Ezell Singleton?'”
His reply was “Friend, athlete, high school.” My question brought back nice memories of days gone by, of playing football with a buddy, on the receiving end of touchdown passes. Days when girls pursued a young nice friendly likeable super athlete who had beautiful hazel eyes. Days before he’d go on to college and dazzle at the next level.
The other childhood friend remembers him as “reserved, pretty quiet,” and that spoke to me. Because with the noise I’ve heard surrounding his name over the years I can’t imagine the high decibel levels he must have generated when he was actually entertaining Caver fans – for him to play it cool and just take it in stride, for him to keep his head on straight and not get full of himself, well, there’s a legend who’s underneath it all a decent human being.
This man who left us on September 19, 2012 (in one of three places based on my research, Dallas, Garland, or Grand Prairie) had this to say about his induction into the Hall of Fame event: “Today was outstanding. I really appreciated the invitation and the honor. I see a lot of old classmates and friends and people I knew from way back then like 40 or 50 years ago. I really appreciate it and I appreciate the honor of them recognizing all the things that I did when I was here.”
Enough said. Ezell Singleton was one bad cat, Jack.