Her dad was the Rose Bowl's first black QB; now he'll join its Hall of Fame

  • Samantha Pell
  • The Washington Post
6:13 p.m Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 Journal-News Sports

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — In the dining room of her quaint brick home, Linda Nickens sat quietly as she traced her glittery, pink fingernails over an old black-and-white photo of the late Charles "Pruner" West.

Nickens, who has lived at her house since 1974, has seen her collection of photos, footballs, plaques, books, awards and trinkets multiply as her once-bare walls have become full of deep-rooted memories. 

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At the dining room table, Nickens, 72, spread out a handful of photos, going through one by one as she recounted the stories of the man some called "Doctor," others "Pruner" or "Charlie," but to her was simply "Daddy." 

West made history by becoming the first African-American to play quarterback in the Rose Bowl. He was part of a small Washington & Jefferson team from western Pennsylvania that squared off against a mighty, undefeated University of California squad in the rain-soaked 1922 Rose Bowl, which ended in a 0-0 tie.

"He's kind of my hero," Nickens said of her father. "I don't know too many men like him. I don't want to start crying, but he taught me the good lessons about family and how to deal with people. People in Alexandria (Virginia) would say he was the kindest man they knew."

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The Washington Post
Linda Nickens holds a photo of her father, Charles West, who was the first African-American quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl. Nickens will represent her dad in California as he is inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. Must credit: Washington Post photo by Toni L. Sandys

West, who grew up in Washington, Pennsylvania, is being inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in Pasadena, California, on Dec. 30 along with three other inductees — 1997 Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson of Michigan, former Texas coach Mack Brown and former UCLA quarterback Cade McNown.

"The theme this year is making a difference," said Brad Ratliff, chair of the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame selection committee. "I said, 'Let's look for individuals who not only were great on the football field and leaders at their schools, but what they did after and what impact they made in their communities. Dr. West certainly followed along with those words."

W&J, which only had 11 players play the entire game, was invited to play in the Rose Bowl after going undefeated in the 1921 season. California was known as one of the best college football teams on the West Coast, dubbed the "Wonder Team." At the time there were only a handful of black athletes playing on predominantly white college teams, and after Fritz Pollard of Brown University became the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl in 1916, West was the first to participate in the game at the sport's most important position. 

Nickens will travel to Pasadena to represent her father at the induction ceremony Saturday, as well as during the Rose Bowl game Jan. 1, when the four members of the class will be honored before the fourth quarter. Nickens will also get to ride in the Tournament of Roses Parade, and Nickens's two children will also make the trip. 

"I'm really looking forward to this," Nickens said. "Just the honor. . . . It just warmed my heart when I got the phone call." 

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Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
Linda Nickens at her Alexandria home.

West, who died from cancer Nov. 20, 1979, played football for W&J from 1920 to 1923. He was heralded as a pioneer by those at the college during the pre-Civil Rights era and was still an anomaly in the sports world, which would not see Jackie Robinson become the first African-American player in Major League Baseball until 1947.

Nickens said that when her father, whom she described as light-skinned, traveled for road games in the 1920s, he would often have racial insults thrown at him.

Once during the 1921 season, when the W&J football team traveled to play West Virginia, the local pharmacist put up a display in the storefront window. In the middle was a toy ambulance, in which there was a baby antique bisque doll, painted jet black with the outline of a football uniform in W&J colors - the implication being that West would leave the town in an ambulance after what the West Virginia team would do to him on the field. 

West, who had heard about the display, went over to the merchant after W&J defeated West Virginia and asked if he could have it when he was done with it. The embarrassed pharmacist gave it to him.

Nickens, who said her father took most of the racial insults "in stride," still has the toy ambulance and doll in her house.

Before a game against Washington and Lee in 1923, the Virginia college refused to play if West did. Given those demands, W&J's coach, John Heisman, and West's teammates decided not to participate, and the game was canceled. The stand the college took remains a point of pride for the institution.

That event, among others, is retold in an unpublished manuscript put together in 1981 by Nickens' late mother, LaVerne Gregory West, and Arthur P. Davis from Howard University. It compiled West's handwritten notes about his athletic accomplishments as well as his time as a black man in the 1920s.

In addition to his success in football, West was also an accomplished track star. He won the pentathlon at the Penn Relays in 1922 and 1923. He also was a member of the 1924 U.S. Olympic team, although he did not participate due to injury. After graduating, West signed with a professional football team, the Akron Pros, but only practiced with the team for a week before finding out he was accepted to study at the Howard University College of Medicine.

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
Charles West won this watch after his first-place finish in the 1923 Penn Relays pentathlon.

West started a general medical practice in Alexandria in 1928 and maintained it for about 50 years, through both the Great Depression and World War II. His efforts during the war included donating his time to giving physicals as well as treating veterans when they returned home.

"He found a way to take care of people over and above the medicine," Nickens said. "He was just a kind person, and my mother, too, they were real giving people." 

Nickens has learned more about her dad since his passing, and she said she is glad her father's story has started to reach more people. But her memories stretch back to the time she sat on her dad's lap on a tractor on his farm in Virginia, and when she was nine years old on the skeet range and shot down five clay pigeons, causing her father to shout, "West can't lose!" 

She believes both her parents are still with her, watching as she and her brother have gone through life. As for the weekend in Pasadena, Nickens said she knows her father will be there, too, observing as she represents what he stood for. 

"He'll be out there with me," Nickens said. "I'm just so happy for him." 

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