You can find Ricardo ‘Ricky’ Lanier’s name listed in the Tar Heel football media guide. In 1969, he set a record for most yards rushing from the quarterback position in a 61-11 win over VMI. The media guide says Lanier tallied 174 yards. He begs to differ. “It was 199 yards! I don’t know how they came up with 174,” he says, laughing. “Coach (Bill) Dooley said I had 199, then I got sacked for 25 yards.”
But Lanier’s impact on Carolina football goes far beyond a single line in the media guide. In fall 1967, he became the first African American scholarship football player in Carolina history.
Lanier was a standout for coach Herman Boone (of Remember the Titans fame) at Williamston’s E.J. Hayes High School, once scoring 13 touchdowns in a single game, a state record. As a National Merit Scholar finalist, he took care of business in the classroom as well, so Lanier had many scholarship offers. When Carolina came calling, Lanier’s parents, both educators, encouraged him to visit Chapel Hill.
The newly hired Dooley was assembling his coaching staff, so a pair of basketball players — Charles Scott and Larry Brown — took on the responsibilities of hosting Lanier. A year prior, Scott had become the first African American scholarship athlete at Carolina, so he knew well what Lanier would be walking into. “Larry and Charlie were just honest with me about what to expect,” Lanier says. “I didn’t think twice about being the first, but Larry and Charlie just did such a good job.”
Scott and Brown’s recruiting job, plus the fact that Carolina was relatively close to home, ultimately won Lanier’s heart. “I went back to my hotel room and thought about it, and the next morning, I think, I let them know that that would be my choice.”
The Carolina hospitality didn’t end there. Lanier was a suitemate with Don McCauley and John Swofford, and Chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson and Educational Foundation Director Ernie Williamson took an interest in Lanier. “They just wrapped their arms around me,” he says. If there were problems related to race, Lanier said he didn’t experience many. “I was never called names. I think that the South and the nation just were in a transition when I came to Carolina. I never had any problems. The camaraderie with my teammates was great.”
As other African Americans followed him on to the football team, Lanier found himself something of a leader. “We were a very tight group of athletes, basketball players and football players,” he says.
There was one issue that arose, as Lanier recalls. “The playing of ‘Dixie’ at basketball and football games was just uncomfortable for us,” he says. The athletes met with Dooley and basketball coach Dean Smith and Sitterson. “After that meeting, they stopped playing it,” he says. “I wouldn’t call it a demand. We didn’t refuse to play; we just didn’t like it.”
Lanier recalls Sitterson as an agreeable chancellor who had his students‘ best interest at heart. “He would walk on campus, I’d see him on my way to class, and he’d ask me how I was doing.”
For the most part, Lanier says he was treated with respect on the road as well. One year, Clemson coach Frank Howard paid a visit to the Tar Heel locker room after a game in which Lanier had played particularly well. “The next year, my parents said they heard things in the stands, but I never heard them. They didn’t get to us on the field.”
Off the field, Lanier continued the ways that had made him a high achiever prior to arriving in Chapel Hill. “Academically, I just did what I was supposed to do. I went to class, and during the season, when we had road trips, I’d take my books with me and do my work on the plane,” he says. “We had to be students. I think a lot of the students that we were in class with didn’t know we were football players, sometimes.” He credits his parents with stressing the importance of good study habits and then-academic advisor Bill Cobey with keeping him on track toward graduation at Carolina.
Lanier graduated in 1970 and soon after was on the coaching staff at North Carolina Central University. From there, he worked with IBM. When a transfer took him to Los Angeles, he reconnected with Scott, who’d been traded to the Lakers. “We spent some fun times in Los Angeles together for a couple of years,” he says. The deaths of his parents brought Lanier back to the east coast in 1990, and for the past 17 years he’s been back in the classroom.
Today, he teaches Earth and Environmental Science at Western Guilford High School in Greensboro. “I enjoy it, because I feel like I’m giving back,” he says. “I feel like I’m doing something that my parents would be proud of. They did it for 30 plus years each, so it’s in my blood.”
Carolina is still in his blood as well. A loyal Tar Heel fan, Lanier is at every home football game and attends team reunions. “I just love my school,” he says. “I’m glad I made the decision. I’d do it again.”
As for his record, Lanier says the game moved away from running quarterbacks, but he sees the trend coming back. “I really like the way Marquise (Williams) plays the game, where he’ll put pressure on the defense and run or pass,” he says. “I was a little ahead of my time, I think.”
In more ways than one.
By Turner Walston, courtesy of CAROLINA digital magazine and GoHeels.com.
Published February 7, 2014.