VALPARAISO | Floyd Henderson had never seen a place quite like Valparaiso. Then again, Valparaiso had never seen someone quite like Floyd Henderson.
The two came together 62 years ago, changing not only Henderson’s life and the lives of countless athletes to follow, but forever altering the Valparaiso landscape.
When Henderson walked into the Butler Bowl in Indianapolis on Sept. 22, 1951, the Muskogee, Okla., native broke the color barrier at Valparaiso University.
“This is a Jackie Robinson story that was repeated in many different places,” Henderson’s childhood pastor Karl Lutze said. “This was a very exciting time for him, but it was not without difficulties and awkwardness.”
Henderson grew up in Muskogee and attended an all-black church where Lutze and his wife were the only two white members.
A star athlete in basketball and football at all-black Manual Training High School, it wasn’t long until Henderson was getting scholarship offers to play football at various colleges which already had black athletes on their rosters.
“I didn’t quite know what level I’d be able to compete at,” Henderson said. “Valparaiso sounded like a good place and Karl had introduced me to the school.
"He wrote them a letter, convinced Valpo to give me an opportunity. He really put himself on the line for me."
Henderson arrived at Valparaiso in the fall of 1951, the same year the Indiana Collegiate Conference ruled that freshmen were allowed to participate in varsity athletics.
Henderson wasted little time making his presence known as the freshman scored the final touchdown in a 41-7 season-opening win over the Bulldogs. The Crusaders would go undefeated that season and win their first of back-to-back ICC championships.
Everything was working for Henderson on-the-field, but off-the-field was another matter.
It didn’t take long for problems to arise when the team went on the road. The Crusaders stayed at the Claypool Hotel in Indianapolis and were informed Henderson was not welcome to stay at the hotel.
“We were told we had to get Floyd another room, so we took him outside and then we brought him up the fire escape and he stayed (with the coaches),” then-graduate assistant Bill Koch said.
“We walked out the next morning and we let the desk clerk know that we were No. 1 with our fingers, but I’m not sure we were using the appropriate finger.”
Henderson played a vital role on the first two conference championship teams before leaving for the military in 1953.
One of Henderson’s biggest contributions came in a 1952 win over Butler when the running back completed a halfback pass to freshman end (and future Valparaiso director of athletics) Bill Steinbrecher for a touchdown to clinch the ICC title for the second straight year.
“Floyd was immensely popular with everyone on the team and everyone at the school,” Steinbrecher said. “In all my recollections, I don’t recall thinking anything about (his skin color). Valpo was not an easy place, but it was never a big deal to any of us.”
Henderson returned to Valparaiso after two years in the military where he started for the U.S. Army 5th Division football team. Shoulder injuries kept Henderson from making much of an impact in his final two years, but he still was offered NFL tryouts with the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions after he graduated in 1957.
“I was honored to receive the tryouts, but I didn’t pursue them,” Henderson said. “I had a family, I had two children and that was going to be a little iffy. I had been accepted to Minnesota, so I went and started my Masters’ Degree and began my career.”
Henderson married 1956 Valparaiso graduate Susan Smith and the couple had three children, Sharon, Steven and Scott.
Henderson held several jobs after school and is now a retired biological science librarian with the U.S. Forest Service.
Susan, Sharon and Steven have since passed away, but Henderson and son Scott were in town for Saturday's Valparaiso Athletics Hall of Fame induction.
Henderson hasn’t been back to Valpo much since graduating, Sharon attended for one semester before transferring, and he is looking forward to spending time with Lutze and former teammates.
“Valpo was a new adventure for me,” Henderson said. “I was from an all-black community, going to an all-white campus. I was fortunate that most of the people I associated with were very nice.
"All in all, I had a wonderful time at Valparaiso.”