Retired Col. Gary Steele Speaks on Being a Trailblazer at US Military Academy

Kevin Faigle

Tuesday, March 7th, 2023

Retired Col. Gary Steele didn’t set out to be a pioneer at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, but by the time he finished his collegiate career, he was just that.

Steele was the first Black student-athlete to ever to play varsity football for the academy. He was also the first Black student-athlete to ever receive a varsity letter in football, but it wasn’t until after graduation that it struck a chord with him.

“At the time, I didn’t put any real significance to it because I was just a member of the team,” said Steele. “I worked hard for my position and was willing to do anything to keep it. But after I graduated, when we started having more African American cadets in and playing football, I realized that wow, maybe there was some significance to it.”

Recently, Steele spoke to a group of about 50 people at the Jaguar Student Activities Center not only about football, but also life in the military and how some of the practices he learned can be applied to everyone. The event was sponsored by the Department of Military Sciences and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Multicultural Student Engagement to cap off a celebration of Black History Month.

Steele graduated from West Point in 1970, a time when there were very few Black cadets attending the academy. He said one of the people who helped him get through was his brother, a student a year ahead of him.

He credits his strong foundation and building blocks that were laid by his parents and H. Minton Francis, the first Black cadet to attend the academy. Steele still urges people to recognize those influential people in their lives.

“When was the last time you acknowledged that to them?” Steele asked those in attendance. “Remember whose shoulders you are standing on because they are the people that are going to boost you. Because you’re on their shoulders, you can see a future and see a distant horizon that you couldn’t see without them.”

Steele almost didn’t graduate though. After failing two classes his junior year, he was given a choice to repeat those classes or find a different college to attend. He told his parents he was seriously thinking about going to Penn State, where he had a football scholarship offer. His parents told Steele he could, but his dad said something he’ll never forget.

“Just understand that if you quit, that means West Point beat you.”

Steele went back, took the two classes again and eventually graduated.

“I finally threw my hat up in the air and graduated. It took me five tough years. I did not endure what Milton Francis endured, but there were challenges.”