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Black Man On A White Field: Darryl Hill’s Run To History
COLLEGE PARK, Md.
COLLEGE PARK, Md.— On November 16, 1963, 20-year-old Darryl Hill entered “Death Valley,” the football stadium at Clemson University, and was greeted by the screams of 30,000 die-hard fans celebrating homecoming. Instead of building the stadium aboveground, the university had, in effect, dug a ditch and dropped the stadium into it, so fans entered at the top and peered down. Looking around the stadium, Hill couldn’t see a single black person — not sitting in the stands, not selling hot dogs, not pushing a broom.
In addition to playing halfback and receiver for the University of Maryland, Hill, the first black football player in the Atlantic Coast Conference, kicked extra points and returned punts, so during warm-ups he took the field before the rest of the team. When he did so on that day, Clemson’s coach left his side of the field and walked to within a few feet of him. He stood right next to Hill, smoking his cigar and glaring at him for nearly 10 minutes before he walked back to the sideline. Later, as Hill practiced catching punts, the crowd booed if he caught one and cheered if he dropped the ball. Just as the game was about to start, a Maryland assistant coach ran onto the field and said, “Darryl, there’s a problem. It’s about your mother.”
Hill froze. When he’d given his mother tickets for the Clemson game, he had told her that if his father couldn’t leave his business that day, then under no circumstances was she to travel from Washington to South Carolina by herself. But that was what Palestine Hill had done.
Hill, still in uniform, found her at the gate, ticket in hand. “They won’t let me in,” she told him. Hill argued on her behalf, but the ticket taker was not about to relent, and the uniformed state troopers standing nearby saw no reason to intervene. Frustrated and angry, Hill started to return to the locker room to change so that he could escort his mother out of there. Just then a well-dressed white man showed up. Introducing himself as the president of Clemson University, Robert C. Edwards invited Mrs. Hill to watch the game with him and his family in the president’s box. When Hill saw that his mother was in good hands, he went back out onto the field. His teammates soon heard about the incident. Jerry Fishman, his best friend on the team and frequent roommate on the road, asked Hill what he was going to do about it. Hill replied, “I’m going to light these people up!”
Hill caught 10 passes that day, setting a Maryland record, despite being double- and sometimes triple-teamed. When the game was over, Maryland Coach Tom Nugent was so sure there was going to be trouble — even though Clemson had won, 21-6 — that he ordered his players to get on the team bus in their uniforms. Their street clothes arrived separately the next day.
Two years earlier, Darryl Hill was a starting halfback on the highly regarded plebe team of the U.S. Naval Academy and the favorite target of its exciting quarterback, Roger Staubach. Hill was looking forward to playing three years of varsity football for Navy, and then possibly a career in the Navy or pro ball, or both. But in April he got a phone call from Maryland’s Nugent.
When he was a teenager in Lawrence, Mass., in the late ’20s, Nugent had been one halfback, and his team’s only black player was the other. They were friends as well as teammates. This experience, says Nugent, fostered his interest in signing black players.
Prior to coming to Maryland, Nugent had coached at Virginia Military Institute (where he introduced an innovation called the I-formation) and then at Florida State (where one of his players was an energetic halfback from West Palm Beach by the name of Buddy Reynolds, later better known as Burt). In the 1950s, there was no chance that the athletic department at either of those schools would let him sign an African American player. “Back then,” Nugent says, “the head of the Ku Klux Klan lived in Tallahassee [where Florida State is located]. You’d come out to your car and there’d be a notice on it announcing a Klan meeting that night. Tallahassee was not the place where you’d bring a black football player.” Nugent became Maryland’s head coach in 1959. Early in 1961, he had a meeting with the university’s president, Wilson Elkins. “He told me that at the last meeting of the Board of Regents, they’d expressed concern that with all the agitation for civil rights, and the frequent editorials on that subject in The Washington Post, if we continued to field segregated teams, we would be ‘in for some trouble,’ ” Nugent recalls. “Once I heard that, I put out the word to my coaching staff that they were to find a qualified candidate.”
Maryland was very different from the other schools in the conference — Wake Forest, Clemson, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina, Duke and Virginia. Bernie Reid, then an assistant to Nugent, says, “Unlike all the other ACC teams, we scouted up North and in the Midwest, where other schools had already signed black players. Maryland may have been south of the Mason-Dixon line, but the rest of the conference considered us a Yankee school.”
Lee Corso, one of Nugent’s assistant coaches, contacted Earl Bailey, head coach at all-black Morgan State. Bailey gave Corso a list that included the name Darryl Hill. Without much controversy or attention, Navy had already broken the service academy athletic color barrier with Hill. When Corso and Nugent learned that Hill had attended Gonzaga, the academically rigorous Jesuit high school near Union Station that traditionally produced some of the best teams in the Washington area, they became even more interested.
The Maryland coaches knew how good Hill was because they’d already seen him play. In a game to determine the (unofficial) No. 1 spot among freshman teams in the country, Maryland had eked out a 29-27 win over Navy. But Hill had scored three times — once by running back a kickoff 98 yards, and another time on a punt return of 61 yards. “Darryl Hill was a fantastic player,” says Corso. “I knew that if we could get him he would be great.”
Hill looked even better when the coaches checked into his background: His mother was a schoolteacher and his father a businessman, and their son’s partial scholarship to Gonzaga was not for athletics but for academics. Even though he was only 11 when he took the entrance exam, having skipped a grade and a half in elementary school, he scored well. In his initial phone call with Hill, Corso came right to the point: “We see you as the right guy to integrate the Atlantic Coast Conference. How would you feel about that?”
“I’m no Jackie Robinson,” Hill replied. “I just want to play football.” But over the next few weeks and months, Hill discussed the idea with his family (which wanted him to accept the offer, with the lone “no” vote coming from his maternal grandfather, the only member of the family who had actually lived in the Deep South), and also with a number of former teachers and coaches, and a few close friends. It was not an easy decision for Hill, since it was well known around the ACC that several member schools planned to resist integrating the conference. Both South Carolina and Clemson had made it clear to Nugent that if Maryland brought a black player into their stadiums, they would refuse to play.
Hill was well aware of what Corso and Nugent were asking him to do. It was, after all, only six years since the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi. “We knew that some of the same schools I’d be playing against had to be integrated by force at that very time — and that was just to go to class!” Hill says. “My family’s attitude and mine was that there’s a time when you have to stand up for things. What I was being asked to do was really an honor.”
When Hill eventually decided to come to Maryland, Nugent and Corso told him they were pleased. What they did not tell him was that not everyone in the Maryland family was equally pleased.
“When I met Hill and told him we wanted him, I said, ‘If you have the courage and the guts to come here, I’ll give it a shot and I’ll put up with whatever comes along,’ ” says Nugent, now 90 and living in Florida. He didn’t have to wait long for his first challenge. While he was still waiting for Hill’s transcript to arrive from the Naval Academy, Nugent received a call from the admissions office, asking him if he knew Hill was black, and expressing doubts that his grades would be acceptable.
“I got Darryl’s grades,” Nugent recalls, “and he had a 3.2 average, which was better than any of my incoming freshman players. There was no way they could turn him down on that basis.” According to Nugent, the admissions office made one last attempt to keep Hill out by suggesting there was a problem with his “background,” but when Nugent described Hill’s family and home life, pointing out that his mother was a highly respected teacher in the D.C. public school system and his father owned a small furniture-delivery business, there were no more objections.
When stories appeared in Washington’s three daily newspapers that the University of Maryland had signed a black football player, Nugent began getting calls from upset fans.
In 1962, his first year at Maryland, Hill was red-shirted, because under NCAA rules he had to sit out a year before he would be eligible to play. But he was allowed to play on the scout team, which was composed of red-shirts, walk-ons and, as one varsity player described it, people “the coaches wanted to run off the team or just hurt.”
“That first year was damned tough on Darryl,” says Jerry Fishman, tailback and star middle linebacker. “The scout team was raw meat for the varsity, and everyone on it got hit hard, but Darryl got hit a little bit harder. Being the first black athlete, he had something to prove, and some of my redneck teammates had something to prove to him.”
That year Fishman, the team’s only Jewish player, and Hill were in the same economics class, a subject Fishman found daunting. “I said to Darryl, with whom I was already friends, ‘You get me through economics, and I’ll get [you] through your year on the scout team.’ Darryl stuck out his hand and said, ‘Deal.’ I was kind of his bodyguard, and he got through it.”
Adjusting to life off the field was easier, if not exactly comfortable. Hill recalls that when he arrived at College Park there were “probably not more than 30 black students” living on campus. “We weren’t hard to spot.”
Hill donned a varsity uniform for the first time in 1963, a year that proved to be a pivotal time in the history of the civil rights movement. The Freedom Rides — busloads of black and white civil rights activists who traveled from Washington to the Deep South to challenge segregation — were only two years old, and the year before, President John F. Kennedy had sent federal troops onto the campus of the University of Mississippi to stop the riots over the admission of James Meredith. August of 1963 saw the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech to a roaring throng of 200,000 who joined his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and September saw a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that left four little black girls dead. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was still almost a year away from passage.
Hill’s home debut was against North Carolina State, the leading team in the conference. “Debut ‘Just Another Game’ for Hill, ACC’s First Negro,” was the headline in the Evening Star three days before. Asked, “Is there any added pressure breaking the color line?,” Hill replied, “I’m trying to take it as just another game. I guess I’ll feel something when I go down to South Carolina or Clemson, but this is a home game and I’m not too worried — except how I’ll do.”
Hill may not have been worried, but Fishman was: “In 1963, Darryl would be the target of every bigot along Tobacco Road. The player that knocked him out of the game would be a hero.”
Hill fumbled the opening kickoff, but picked it up and ran it out to the 40. By the end of the game, most of Maryland’s 189 passing yards had come on catches made by Hill. But the Wolfpack was too strong for Maryland, and N.C. State won, 36-14. Hill was relieved to have the game behind him without incident.
Maryland’s second game was against South Carolina, in Columbia. Despite year-long threats to the contrary, the Gamecocks did take the field. Nonetheless, Maryland was apprehensive — the coaches as well as the players. “The booing had started before we even came out on the field, surrounded by the National Guard,” Nugent says. “There was so much anger and hatred in the air, it was truly frightening.”
Adding to the tension was the fact that several days before the game, in addition to numerous ugly letters, Nugent had received a phone call telling him that at some undisclosed point in the game he would be shot and killed by a sniper. But the intimidating atmosphere seemed to have little effect once Maryland took the field. Hill scored on a 19-yard run in the first quarter, and with just seconds left in the half the Terrapins scored again to put Maryland up, 13-0.
South Carolina fans were incensed, and when the gun sounded for the half, hundreds of them spilled onto the field. The police made the Maryland players wait before they could go into their dressing room. Once the police had escorted the team inside, the crowd grew larger and more unruly. “There were people waiting out there with rocks and tomatoes and everything else,” Nugent says. “It looked like there was going to be a terrible riot. It took 48 minutes to restore order.” In the second half, South Carolina came back to beat Maryland, 21-13.
At the end of the game, says Fishman, “Darryl was attacked by fans as we left the field. We took off our helmets and held them by the face mask and swung wildly at a couple of hundred fans who were blocking our way to the locker room. We’d actually gotten used to their shouts of ‘Kill Hill, kill Hill,’ but when it got physical we had no choice but to fight back.”
Back in College Park, while Maryland fans may not have booed him, Hill recalls his reception up to that point as being chilly. Then, in their fifth game, the Terrapins hosted the Air Force Academy. Terps fans were worried: Maryland had yet to win, and the Air Force had yet to lose.
Hill caught five passes in all, one for an early touchdown. Maryland scored a second time, on a run, and with only seconds left the game was tied, 14-14. The Terps had one last opportunity. Maryland had the ball at midfield, and Air Force’s defensive backs were deep, guarding the goal line.
In the huddle, Hill said to quarterback Dick Shiner, “Throw me the ball underneath these guys, and let me see if I can beat ‘em somehow.” Running a pattern called “wing across,” Hill cut diagonally across the field, caught the ball, just barely eluded two tacklers coming at him from opposite directions (who then crashed into each other), changed direction, and was hit at the 5-yard line but managed to dive into the end zone as the gun sounded. The Maryland fans poured out of the stands and mobbed the team. From that day on, Hill’s reception at home was enthusiastic.
Wherever he played in the South that year, Hill found that it was the fans and the coaches, not the opposing players, who were most negative toward him. Meanwhile, his own teammates continued to rally around him. If a hotel or motel refused to admit him, the coaches would take the entire team elsewhere. The same held true for restaurants. The first time Hill was denied service, the others had already been served, but they immediately stopped eating. Fishman — an emotional player who once flashed the finger at the entire Navy cheering section during a game — got so angry he threw his food on the floor, and the team was told to leave.
When the Terrapins played Duke, several Maryland players were walking around Durham, N.C. When they came to a store displaying a Confederate flag and a set of crossed pistols in its window, the proprietor was standing in the doorway. A Maryland player asked him what the pistols were for, and he replied, “To shoot that nigger you got on your team.” One of the Terps, realizing the man didn’t know that the light-skinned young man with them was Hill, said, “Well, then you better start shooting, because here he is.” Startled, the man went back inside his store.
Fishman had developed a strategy for protecting the increasingly valuable Hill on the field. As one of the co-captains, he would use the coin-toss ceremony to convey a message. “I’d inform our opponents that if Darryl went out on a bad hit, a cheap shot, their quarterback was going out shortly thereafter, courtesy of me. And I pointed out that losing a quarterback for a flanker was not a good trade — like losing a queen for a bishop.”
Although the team was making civil rights history on the field, its play was decidedly less impressive. However, that surprise win over Air Force gave the Terrapins a much-needed spark, and they went into Winston-Salem, N.C., for a game against Wake Forest with renewed spirits. But Hill, considering the host school’s deep Baptist ties, was surprised by the Deacons fans’ abusive shouts and taunts. As the pre-game warm-up ended, Hill noticed Wake Forest’s captain approaching him.
“I want to apologize for the behavior of my fans,” he said to Hill. Then, draping his arm over Hill’s shoulder, he began walking him toward the Wake Forest side of the field, where the jeering was at its worst. By the time the two of them reached the middle of the field, the raucous screaming had dropped to near silence. The player’s name was Brian Piccolo, who, years later, would inspire the television movie “Brian’s Song,” which chronicled his relationship with African American player Gale Sayers and Piccolo’s subsequent battle with cancer.
While Piccolo’s gesture was unforgettable to Hill, Fishman remembers the Wake Forest game for a different reason. “At one point, Darryl was knocked out by an illegal hit and had to be carried to the sideline, unconscious,” he says, but the rescue squad refused to give him oxygen. One of the emergency medics said that no black man is “putting his sweaty face in my mask.” Fishman ripped the mask from the medic and gave it to Hill, who was able to come back in the game a few plays later.
Maryland rolled over Wake Forest, 32-0, with Hill scoring twice on passes from Shiner. But that win was followed by three losses. At 2-7, it was hardly the year Maryland was hoping for, but there were some bright spots, most notably the play of Hill and Shiner.
Going into the final game, against Virginia at home, Hill needed seven catches to set the Maryland single-season reception record. He was expected to do it in that game, which was postponed for several days because of the assassination of President Kennedy. But Nugent decided to abandon his passing game and concentrate on running the ball. As a result, Maryland won the game to finish the season at 3-7, but Hill caught only two passes and, with 43 catches for the year, fell short of the record. Later, Hill says, Nugent told him he didn’t like to see a player break a record as a junior, because then he wouldn’t try as hard in his senior year.
In 1964, Hill returned for his final college season but sustained a serious leg injury in the second game and played relatively little after that. Later that year, NFL teams, wary of his injury and his relative lack of size — 6-feet-1, 160 pounds — passed on the chance to draft him. Hill did sign as a free agent with the New York Jets — the same year they signed Joe Namath, out of Alabama, for a record $400,000. But Hill, who was on the taxi squad, left before the season began.
That same year, Maryland signed three black football players and Billy Jones, the ACC’s first black basketball player.
After his playing days, Hill became the first executive director of Anacostia Economic Development Corp., then headed the Metropolitan Washington Business Resource Center and later became the director of the Greater Washington Business Center. “In the late ’60s, early ’70s,” he says, “black economic development was a new concept. The idea was to try to create economic parity and assist black businesses and communities to develop economically.” In the 1980s, he moved to the West Coast, where he owned and operated an energy-management company, but he returned to Washington in the mid-’90s to pursue different business ventures.
Forty years after that first call from the University of Maryland football program, Darryl Hill received another. This time the caller was Ralph Friedgen, Maryland’s current coach. Friedgen had a favor to ask.
“I heard you were back in town,” he said to Hill, “and I wondered if you’d have time to come by and talk to my kids about your playing days and what you went through.”
Several days later Hill found himself in the University of Maryland football locker room for the first time in 3 1/2 decades. Now, two-thirds of the players there were African American.
“I told them about 1963,” he says, “about the away games at Clemson and South Carolina, and what it was like walking around some of those Southern towns.”
Afterward, junior cornerback Domonique Foxworth, said: “I probably wouldn’t be here had it not been for [Hill], because where we’ve come is almost like a 360. He paved the way. For us, it’s only football, but he had to face life obstacles. Football means nothing when you face what he had to face.”
John Greenya is the author of Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story.
John Greenya is the author of Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story.