Despite being a four-sport high school star in Uniontown, Pa., college options were limited for Sandy Stephens. In the late 1950s, major Southern colleges were still segregated and may Northern colleges wouldn't recruit African Americans, especially potential quarterbacks.
Stephens was determined to play quarterback in college and found a college coach willing to take a chance on him — Gophers coach Murray Warmath.
Stephens became the Gophers starting quarterback as a sophomore in 1959. The Gophers went 2-7 that season, but in 1960, Stephens directed the Gophers to an 8-1 regular-season record and the national championship. Following the regular-season the Gophers played in the Rose Bowl for the first time. Stephens became the first African-American major-college All-American quarterback and finished fourth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.
The Gophers went 7-2 in Stephens' senior season and returned to the Rose Bowl, where they defeated UCLA, 21-3. Stephens was named the Most Valuable Player of the Big Ten Conference by the Chicago Tribune.
Following his Gophers career, Stephens was drafted by teams in the AFL and NFL but signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. He played three years in the CFL.
Stephens was named to the University of Minnesota All Century Team and is just one of five Gophers football players to have their jersey number retired.
His Gophers career had made him a role model to many young athletes.
"Sandy's a big, big reason why I went to the university," Tony Dungy, who quarterbacked the Gophers from 1974 to 1976, told the Star Tribune in 2000. "I was younger (than Stephens), but I was very much a historian by the time I got to high school. At the time, I wanted to play quarterback, and I knew that Minnesota had pretty much set the trend in the nation."
Former Gophers basketball player Al Nuness agreed.
"Every African-American athlete that ever wanted to be a quarterback looked up to Sandy Stephens," Nuness told the Star Tribune in 2000. "Before he came along, that's a position we just weren't allowed to play. I knew about him as a kid growing up in Chicago. He is really a legend among black athletes."
In 1999, he was named one of the Star Tribune's 100 most important sports figures of the 20th century. In 2011, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the University of Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame, the Western Pennsylvania All Sports Hall of Fame and the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.