Correction: An earlier version of this column described Darryl Hill as the first black football player at the Naval Academy. Hill was the first black player to participate in a football game for Navy, on the plebe (freshman) team in 1961, but Maurice E. ”Mo” Clark was the first African American on the plebe team’s roster, in 1955. In 1964, Calvin Huey became the first black player to compete in a varsity game for Navy.
Darryl Hill never intended to become a civil rights pioneer. He just wanted to get a good education and play football. But it was the early 1960s and the country needed to change, so Hill accepted Maryland’s offer to help knock down at least one door.
The Atlantic Coast Conference had been off-limits to African Americans until Hill courageously lined up at wide receiver for the Terrapins in their 1963 home opener against North Carolina State. His determination to play that season — despite enduring death threats, racist chants and even attacks by fans at the end of one game in South Carolina — led to the end of college football’s color barrier throughout the South.
He didn’t know it, but Hill was the right person for the time.
“I wasn’t totally oblivious to what I was doing, but I didn’t have as full an understanding of the impact it was having,” he said. “I do now.”
Hill’s story — the District native and Gonzaga alum also was the first black football player to play on the freshman team at the Naval Academy before transferring to Maryland — reminds us of sports’ potential to improve society. And that’s something as worthy of celebrating as any big play.
Maryland will honor Hill, who enrolled at College Park 50 years ago, on the field before Saturday’s home game against North Carolina State. There aren’t enough days on the calendar, though, to give all the sports civil rights trailblazers the spotlight moments they deserve.
They were athletes who pushed for equality on and off the field, usually at great personal risk. Inspired by Jackie Robinson, who shattered Major League Baseball’s color ceiling in 1947, they believed many more victories were possible. Emboldened by the powerful words of then-new voices such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, those men and women were unafraid to challenge long-standing traditions that excluded African Americans from the best society had to offer.
Their legacy is seen throughout sports today, both in diversity on the field and in the front office.
“I wouldn’t be in my position without people like Darryl,” said Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, who is African American.
Hill’s willingness to be among the first players to challenge the unwritten rule of no African Americans in the ACC “was the first step in kids being able to stay in the South and attend the college of their choice,” he said. “You start from there, and it just leads to more opportunities in different places. But it has to start somewhere. You have to have people who know something is wrong and stand up to it.”
In the turbulent ’60s, many African American athletes shared Hill’s view.
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali spoke out about racial inequality and the Vietnam War, and lost about four years of his boxing career after being convicted of draft evasion. Jim Brown was the NFL’s best player and Bill Russell was the NBA’s top winner. They were leaders in using their celebrity as athletes in social activism.
In 1960, track star Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics, but refused to participate in celebrations in her honor unless African Americans and whites could attend, which wasn’t the way things were done then in her home state of Tennessee. A parade and banquet for Rudolph were the first integrated events in her home town. She would go on to become a civil rights campaigner.
Ali, Brown, Russell, Rudolph — they were all high-profile sports figures in the movement as the decade began. Many of us in the African American community who aren’t old enough to have experienced those events (myself included) learned about them from older relatives and friends. They also shared stories about athletes who took stands on college campuses, joining rallies and sit-ins to protest the racial injustice of the day. Ultimately, the pressure they applied contributed to tearing down walls. Hill got his opportunity because Maryland was tired of being a football doormat.
The program was in a long decline when the coaching staff, which included future ESPN analyst Lee Corso, decided it would be a good idea to expand its recruiting base with African American players.
“But they needed someone who was a good student, who had a good attitude and good temperament,” Hill said. “They needed the right guy, so to speak, because they knew they were taking a risk. If they got the wrong guy, you wouldn’t have seen another [African American player] at Maryland for a long time.”
Although Hill did well academically and in football at the Naval Academy (he was a standout wideout on the freshman team led by future NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach), he decided the regimen of the Navy wasn’t for him. Hill impressed Corso, who led the Terrapins’ freshman team to a victory over Navy in 1961, and Corso recruited Hill after he decided to transfer, selling him on the idea of a prominent role on the team and, as it turned out, history.
“There are no words to describe the pathfinder he was,” Corso said.
Following a strong junior year, Hill missed most of his senior season because of an injury. He briefly was a member of the New York Jets practice squad before becoming a highly successful entrepreneur, who had a variety of business interests in companies in California, Russia and China.
Now semi-retired (Hill is forming a foundation to make youth sports more accessible to low-income children) and his football career a fading memory, Hill, 68, continues to inspire African American athletes.
“A lot of guys wouldn’t have gotten a college degree, or at least as good of a college degree as the one from the University of Maryland, if it wasn’t for Darryl breaking down that barrier,” said Dominique Foxworth, president of the NFL Players Association. “But it’s more than just a barrier being broken down. It is a platform for a lot of guys to have great success.”
That’s what trailblazers are supposed to do, and the ’60s produced many like Hill. So the next time you cheer for today’s African American sports superstars, just stop for a minute and remember the pioneers who paved their way.
For columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.