Hill opened door to ACC

Updated: February 15, 2007, 7:17 PM ET
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

No African-American athlete had played for a service academy. No African-American athlete had played in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Activists were literally dying fighting for civil rights in an era that most young people today have no idea about. That is why Black History Month is so important. We put history in the face of young people who make assumptions about entitlements for which others sacrificed.

It is strange how society makes people famous. This story is mainly about Darryl Hill, who most readers will not know. Playing a crucial role in his life and the history made by Hill was a young assistant coach who is now a media megastar with ESPN. Another was a white player for Wake Forest who later made such a warm and dramatic display of his openness on race that a movie was made about his life and death.

Hill made history when he enrolled at the Naval Academy in 1961. He started at halfback on the academy's freshman football team, catching passes from Roger Staubach, but it was not long before Hill realized life in the Navy was not for him. Before he left in 1962, he had a great game against the Maryland freshman team. At that time, Maryland had an assistant coach named Lee Corso who asked Hill to become a Terrapin.

Darryl Hill
University of Maryland AthleticsDarryl Hill with some of his teammates at Maryland.
Hill had Notre Dame and Penn State on his radar screen but he never thought about playing in the South. Hill told Corso: "You must have forgotten that you're in the ACC." Corso responded: "We've decided you're the guy we'd like to have to break the racial barrier in the ACC. If you don't do it now, it might be another three or four years before it happens again." That was a challenge and a heavy burden on Hill.

Was Hill the right person? He already had been the only African-American football student-athlete at Navy and at his high school. While that experience would be helpful at Maryland, it was not the same because he would have to play opponents in the Deep South. Nonetheless, Hill liked Maryland's wide-open passing game. In 1962, Hill enrolled at Maryland, about to become the ACC's first African-American athlete.

The University of South Carolina and Clemson University vowed not to play against an integrated Terrapin team in their home stadium. Hill didn't like it, but thought he knew why.

"Southern college football at the time was king," he said. "There were no other football teams. In the South, fans were really attached to their teams, fervently so. They worshipped the game of football and the stadiums were their temples. So to have an African-American in their temple, it desecrated it for them."

Like all transfers, Hill sat out the first year, making for a difficult transition on Maryland's campus, where he received a chilly reception. There were only 32 African-American students on the College Park campus. Those 32, along with teammates, became the nucleus of his social life.

His teammates bought into the mission and were helpful in Hill's move to the team. The team refused to stay in hotels that would not accommodate Hill. The hotels where they stayed had to screen his phone calls after some threatened to aim their high-powered rifles at him during the game. The team would not eat in restaurants that would not serve him. Jerry Fishman, a 230-pound middle linebacker, threw his plate of food to the ground when the team was walking out of a diner because it refused to serve Hill.

It all came to a head in his second game, which was in Columbia, S.C., where Maryland was scheduled to play against South Carolina. The game that had been threatened to never be played was taking place. Hill put the Terrapins ahead with a 13-yard touchdown run. By the half, Maryland led 13-0, outraging Gamecocks fans. On the way to the locker room, one of them dumped a drink on Hill. Fishman reached into the stands and smashed the man with his helmet.

"I never had an opposing player be disrespectful," Hill said. "But the fans were nasty. They had racial cheers and they would throw stuff at you. I told Jerry, 'If a riot breaks out, at least you can blend in with the rest of the players.' I would have nowhere to go."

Darryl Hill
University of Maryland AthleticsHill broke the color barrier in the ACC.
The chilly reception in College Park turned warm after Maryland (0-4) hosted the undefeated Air Force Falcons. It was 14-14 with seconds remaining. Hill caught a touchdown pass early in the game. As the clock ticked down, Hill caught a pass in the middle of the field, eluded two tacklers and dove from the 5-yard line into the end zone. Maryland students poured onto the field, making Hill one of them for the first time.

"My hometown's attitude changed," Hill said. "They warmed up to me soon after that."

But the road games were rough. In spite of Clemson's threat not to play an integrated team, Hill entered Clemson's stadium on game day.

In those days, African-American fans were sent to watch the game from outside the stadium on a mound of dirt. Before the start of the game, Hill found out that his mother was refused entrance. Palestine Hill had been told not to travel alone if Darryl's father could not leave his business that day to accompany her. Hill's father could not make it to watch his son play, but his mother traveled alone anyway and attempted to go inside the stadium with her ticket. Hill was ready to leave the team and escort his mother safely back home. But Robert C. Edwards, then-Clemson president, invited her to watch the game from his box. Hill's mom was a teacher, and she and President Edwards began a friendship that lasted for years.

During warm-ups before a game at Wake Forest, Hill was the target of racist remarks and taunts. Brian Piccolo, who later played in the NFL and became the subject of the movie "Brian's Song," was Wake Forest's captain. That day Piccolo showed the crowd a preview of his feelings on race which would later be depicted in the movie about his profound friendship with the great African-American running back Gale Sayers. In a remarkable gesture for that era, Piccolo walked over to Hill and apologized for the fans' racist behavior. Piccolo put his arm around Hill and led him toward the Wake Forest fans, silencing their taunts. Hill recognized Piccolo as a hero long before America did.

Darryl Hill
University of Maryland AthleticsHill felt that by playing football, he was involved in the civil rights movement.
Hill was a quiet celebrity in the African-American community. Often invited to visit local black colleges, Hill was once approached by Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Carmichael wanted him to get involved in protests. Hill convinced him he was involved in the civil rights movement by playing football. He fought a lonely battle. Not until his senior year was another African-American football player recruited.

Hill broke his foot that year and was never drafted by the NFL. After a brief time with the New York Jets, Hill realized he had no future in pro football and went back to school. Ultimately he earned a master's degree in economics at Southern Illinois University. Having left sports, he was ready to enter the business world.

As an entrepreneur, his vision went global and he set up businesses in Russia and China. Back home, Hill led the Metropolitan Washington Business Resource Center and the Greater Washington Business Center. Then he went to California and started the Pacific Energy Corporation, an energy-management company.

Nearly four decades after he entered Maryland, Hill was approached by football coach Ralph Friedgen, who asked him about returning as an administrator. Hill, now 63, became Maryland's director of major gifts. "It's wonderful," he said. "I'm doing a lot for a university that's done a lot for me."

Maryland gave Hill the chance to be a pioneer for other African-American athletes in the ACC.

Corso, the assistant who helped get him there, is before ESPN audiences on college football Saturdays. Viewers discover Piccolo on late-night reruns of "Brian's Song." Many people know their names.

Yet like other figures who made history, most could not tell you who Hill is. But the seven African-American ACC basketball coaches, Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, the nearly 58 percent of African-American ACC football players and 67 percent of African-American ACC basketball players should all salute this lesser-known giant who paved the way for them to work and play without having to encounter the in-your-face racism Hill endured.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 10 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport. Horacio Ruiz, a DeVos graduate assistant, contributed to this article.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com