Cereal has been a fixture in homes across the world for as long as I can remember. Kids and adults have enjoyed milk and wheat, corn flakes, and other versions of the popular breakfast food. Growing up, one of my favorite pastimes was eating a bowl of cereal and reading the box. In some cases, the box is just as iconic as the food itself. This is the case when it comes to the “Wheaties Box.” Athletes from different sports have looked to one day grace the cover of the orange box. Its “The Breakfast of Champions” slogan goes back to 1927 when Knox Reeves, an advertising executive from Minneapolis, Minnesota, coined the phrase.
Its connection to sports grew in the 1930s. New York Yankees’ first baseman Lou Gehrig was the first athlete to grace the Wheaties Box cover. Fellow baseball legends Jimmie Foxx and Dizzy Dean landed on the box before aviator Elinor Smith and Babe Didrikson Zaharias broke barriers as the first woman and first female athlete to become the face of the emerging cereal brand. But in 1936, an extraordinary performance at the Olympics landed the first Black man on the cover of the iconic box.
James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was a standout track and field athlete in the 1930s. Owens, affectionately known as the “Buckeye Bullet,” won a record eight individual NCAA championships between 1935 and 1936 during his time at Ohio State University. In 1935, Owens would set or tie four world records and was a sure bet at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. At the Berlin Games, Owens would put on a show in front of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler at a tense time in the world. Hitler wanted to use the games to show the world that Germany and its White athletes would dominate the games to prove racial superiority.
Nazi Minister Albert Speer would go on to say, “People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future Games.” Owens’ color was an issue with the Nazi leader. That didn’t stop him from dominating.
Owens would win four gold medals (100 meters, 200 meters, 4×100 meter relay, and long jump) at the ‘36 games, destroying Hitler’s belief in Aryan supremacy. The victory was so historical, the track star became an American hero, prompting Wheaties to make him the newest face of their cereal, a first for a Black man. While the world acknowledged Owens’ victory and record-breaking feats, he didn’t receive the same fanfare at home. Aside from a parade in New York, Owens’ didn’t meet then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Roosevelt refused to meet with him.
In October 1936, Owens remarked, “Hitler didn’t snub me — it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” It would be nearly 40 years before he was honored at the White House as Gerald Ford awarded Owens the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976. He would make a second appearance on the Wheaties box in 2003.
Since Owens’ first appearance, Black men and women would become regulars on the famed box. NBA legend Michael Jordan holds the record with 18 appearances with Tiger Woods second with 14. In 2001, Althea Gibson became the first Black woman to land on the cover of the box. Other Black athletes to land on the cover include Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, and LeBron James. And it was all made possible by one of the greatest sports moments in history with Jesse Owens became what the box is synonymous with: Champions.