WEST POINT, NY. Fans are banned from the Army-Navy football game at West Point on Saturday due to COVID-19 restrictions, but Army Sports Director Mike Buddie made an exception for Gary Steele.
Steele, a retired Colonel, was one of about 30 black students at the academy in the mid-1960s and became its first black varsity soccer player in 1966 to pave the way for others to follow in his footsteps.
Among them were the current superintendent of West Point, Lieutenant General Darryl A. Williams, the first black to hold the position at the academy, and a former defense attorney. Williams graduated from West Point in 1983, 13 years after Steele.
"We all still find it hard to believe that it wasn't until 1966 that the color barrier [on the football team] was broken at West Point," said Steele's daughter, ESPN anchor Sage Steele.
"He was the first black college player there, and it's amazing because if you look at the team photo from that time it's pretty easy to recognize him. In a sea of his white teammates he's right there in the middle," she said .
Steele, 74, who also worked as a soccer assistant at West Point, had to turn down the offer to attend the game on Saturday, his daughter said because he was undergoing cancer treatment at home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
"He wanted to get in his car and pull up to see the story at West Point, but my mom had to say, 'Gary, you can't be with anything,'" Sage Steele said.
Rest assured, he'll see the first Army-Navy game at West Point since 1943.
"He gets pretty nervous the week of the game," said Sage Steele. "It's really something special to see. It's like it was yesterday [when he played in the game]."
Gary Steele finished his college career with 66 receptions for 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns, helping Army two victories over Navy. He also received four college letters in athletics, two indoors and two outdoors, and was inducted into the West Point Hall of Fame in 2013.
"It was never about [being the first black college soccer player]," said Sage Steele. "He just wanted to play football and be a great teammate and prepare to serve his country. He was just very good at it.
"He said that a million times and I'll keep saying it:" Someone had to be first. It was just me. "He's very proud. As he got older, he realized how important it is. "
The Associated Press contributed to this report.