Dan Killins and Joe White never asked to be pioneers. But in 1969 at Fort Myers High School, they were.
Killins and White became the first black varsity players to take the field for the Fort Myers High School football program. They chose Fort Myers over Cypress Lake and North Fort Myers High after a court order closed all-black Dunbar High, making way for desegregating schools in Lee County.
At 7 p.m. Friday, Dunbar High, which reopened in 2000 when the court order expired, plays at Fort Myers in this, the 100th season of the Green Wave program. Exactly half of those years have been integrated.
For White, raised from age 2 in Fort Myers and who attended Dunbar High as a freshman in 1968-69, the move marked a major transition.
For Killins, it seemed more normal.
“To me, it was nothing to think about, because I had been indoctrinated from sixth grade, from being 12-years-old,” said Killins, who attended middle school in Chicago, which already had integrated its schools. He also spent his freshman and sophomore years in Ocala, which also had integrated its schools.
The Lee County School District was among the last in the nation to integrate.
“What you do realize is the younger kids associate with each other,” Killins said. “You get past the point of what color is. Kids don’t care what color you are at that age. You’re just the same size as everybody else. You’re just somebody to play with. As you get older, there are things you pick up because of society.”
“I took pride in being in charge of that for the two years I was there,” Killins said. “I would talk to teachers about certain scenarios. I even had teachers pull me out of class to ask me how to handle certain things. You’re talking about white teachers who were in their 50s who had never experienced anything like that.
“Everybody knew me as a person who came from someplace else. My two years at Fort Myers Senior High were exceptional. The communities on both sides accepted it extremely well.”
Killins, 66, lives in Atlanta, where he works for Delta Airlines in customer service. He returns to Fort Myers every so often to visit, but he did not want to live here.
“Fort Myers did not have anything to offer a young black man for any job,” Killins said. “Unless you were going to work for the government, for the county or the city, or own your own business. If you owned your own business, you’d have to cater to within the black neighborhood.
“Your job prospects were basically nil. That area has never changed.”
Killins attended Morgan State and then the University of Albany before joining the U.S. Army, serving at Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia, from 1978-81.
White, 66, still lives in Fort Myers, where he has retired after having worked for a phone company installing fiber optic cables.
Killins and White said they saw few race-related problems in the school.
They recalled seeing a skirmish in the stands between black and white students during a game. Football players ran to it from the field to help break it up.
White recalled trouble at times when he walked home from school.
“I had to walk through a white neighborhood, in the dark, on my way back to the projects,” White said. “I would get harassed. I would get hollered at, or people would throw bottles at me. That’s why I usually tried to catch a ride.
“In the school, the teachers were OK. Some of the students didn’t take to integration too well.”
The football team took to integration just fine, Killins and White both said.
“I was big for my age,” White said. “In eighth grade, I was 201 pounds.” His size and skill helped him find a spot starting on varsity as a sophomore at offensive and defensive tackle for the Green Wave. Killins started at cornerback as a junior and senior.
“After I established myself as not a pushover, they accepted me,” White said of his new teammates.
White and Killins weren’t the only newcomers to Fort Myers High.
The late Sam Sirianni began his 33-year coaching career with the Green Wave during that 1969 season. His brother, Frank Sirianni, served as an assistant coach.
“Which was probably a good thing,” Killins said. “Everything was brand new. They were exceptional coaches and exceptional personalities to handle at that time and being able to handle young men at that time.”
More: Margaret Sirianni, the matriarch of Fort Myers football, always put her students, school first
Sam and Margaret Sirianni would go on to become the godparents of White’s daughter, Kathy, who was born in 1980.
The Green Wave finished with a 3-3-2 record in 1969, defeating North Fort Myers 46-0 in the opener and Cypress Lake 14-0 in the finale. Fort Myers defeated Sarasota Riverview 19-7 for its lone out-of-county victory.
Lloyd Landrum, 65 and an African-American, still lives in Fort Myers, retired from a 41-year career in customer service for Florida Power and Light. Landrum joined White and Killins on the varsity in the fall of 1970 along with Dan Killins’ younger brother, Donald Bernard Killins.
Landrum, a former linebacker, and Dan Killins remain best friends. Landrum said he appreciated Killins and White paving the way.
“We had camaraderie on the team, like team sports are supposed to the be,” Landrum said. “It’s easier for a star athlete to be accepted than a normal person. We’re 65 yearsold now. I might not have seen some of them for 30 or 40 years. But we’re friends for life.”
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