This week in college football history

On September 10, 1963, Darryl Hill, a wide receiver for the University of Maryland, became the first African-American to play football in the Atlantic Coast Conference, thus beginning the process of integrating big-time college football in the South. Hill’s debut came at College Park against North Carolina State. Thom Loverro, in the Washington Times, recalls this landmark event and the larger story around it.

Hill played freshman football for the Naval Academy, then a major program. But Hill decided he didn’t want a career in Navy. Maryland coach Tom Nugent had persuaded the University to integrate its football program. Lee Corso, then a Maryland assistant, persuaded Hill to become the ACC’s Jackie Robinson.

Attending Maryland wasn’t problematic, per se. The school was integrated and the football team recruited most of its football players from states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. They were thus used to playing football with Blacks. Hill recalls that his teammates were almost universally supportive.

Playing in the ACC was another matter. In those days, every school in the conference except for Maryland was located in Dixie. Maryland’s seven conference opponents were; Virginia, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Duke, South Carolina, and Clemson.

Hill received death threats before a game against South Carolina, but Clemson was the most problematic opponent. Its iconic coach Frank Howard declared: “They can make us admit these Negros, but they can’t make me play them on my team, nor will we play against teams with Negros or let them set foot in our football stadium.”

Hill did play at Clemson’s stadium — known as Death Valley. But African-Americans weren’t admitted to watch the game.

Nearly 50 years later, Hill received a huge ovation at Clemson from a crowd of 85,000.

But change at Clemson wasn’t that long in coming; it began with Hill’s first appearance. He recalls that the college president, Dr. Robert Edwards, invited Hill’s mother to sit with him during the game. He also hosted her at his home because she couldn’t find decent accommodations.

Afterwards, says Hill, Edwards ordered all of the “whites only” signs removed from campus.

By 1970, Howard was gone. In the late 1970s, Clemson won the national championship with a team full of Black players.

In the late 1960s black college football players began breaking through at football programs in Deep South conferences. Diminutive wide receiver Jerry Levias broke the color barrier in the Southwest Conference for SMU in 1966. The next year Nat Northington of Kentucky integrated SEC football.

The same year at the University of Alabama, Bear Bryant allowed several Blacks to participate in spring practice as “walk-ons,” but none every played for the Crimson Tide. In 1969, Wilbur Jackson became Alabama’s first scholarship player.

As for Hill, he became one of the top receivers in the ACC. During his first game at Clemson, he broke the ACC record for receptions in a game. This was after coach Howard had stood near him during the pre-game, smoking a cigar and glaring at the player while he was practicing catching punts.

Not every rival competitor was rude to Hill, however. In fact, Hill recalls little or no overt hostility from players. And at Wake Forest, team captain Brian Piccolo (of “Brian’s Song” fame) personally apologized to Hill for the behavior of Demon Deacons fans.

I remember Hill for a play he made in a game against Air Force. If memory serves after 50 years, Hill caught a pass just before the final gun, broke several tackles, and reached the end-zone for the game-winning touchdown.

Hill went on to have considerable success in business. In addition, President Nixon appointed him co-chairman of the National Minority Purchasing Council. These days, he’s the chairman of Kids Play USA Foundation whose mission is to remove the financial barriers from youth sports.

Success, it seems, followed Darryl Hill around more persistently than racism, as vicious as some of it was.

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