First black player in ACC paved way for equality

Updated: December 13, 2008, 4:04 PM ET
Associated Press

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Darryl Hill's love of football came with a price: abuse, hatred and death threats.

Such was the cost for breaking the racial barrier in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1963. It is only now -- the prejudice still clear in his mind -- that Hill realizes the importance of his sacrifices.

"People tell me some of the things I did may have been an element in equality for African-Americans," he said. "They say I created an equal playing field for college athletics."

Barack Obama would argue that Hill's courage transcended college sports. The president-elect recently sent Hill a personal letter, thanking him for being a "pioneer" in the "long struggle" to eradicate prejudice in this country.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would see an African-American as president. Not in my lifetime," said the 65-year-old Hill. "Maybe I had something to do with that."

Hill's struggle at Maryland is a significant chapter in the HBO documentary "Breaking the Huddle," which tells the story of college football's integration in the South. It is scheduled to debut Tuesday.

"We have to realize where we came from to realize where we are in 2008," said Ross Greenburg, executive producer and president of HBO Sports. "When we started this project, we had no way of knowing America would elect an African-American to be president. That makes this program even more striking."

The United States was vastly different 45 years ago when Lee Corso, then coach of the Maryland freshman team, asked Hill to play football for the Terrapins.

"I said, 'Lee, you must have forgotten what conference you play in," Hill recalled. "Corso said, 'Well, that's the point."

Hill was the only black player at his high school, and was the first African-American player at Navy before he left the academy after his freshman year upon deciding he didn't want to serve in the military.

"I was a running back, and wanted to transfer to schools with a great running back tradition like Syracuse, Ohio State or Penn State," Hill recalled. "But others in the black community encouraged me to go to Maryland, and I came to the realization that I was probably the right guy. I had played at all-white schools, and I had a temperament like Jackie Robinson (who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947). I wasn't going to let it bother me."

Hill had no idea what he was getting into.

He spent his first year at Maryland playing for the scout team, having been forced to sit out a season because of NCAA transfer rules.

"He had to prove himself every day," said Jerry Fishman, then a running back for Maryland. "On the scout team, he was meat for the lions."

Fishman, the only Jewish player on the team, was also subjected to prejudice at the school. From that common bond, Hill and Fishman became friends and roommates.

Fishman remembers a game at South Carolina when fans pelted the Terrapins with drinks and whiskey bottles at halftime. During a game at Wake Forest, Hill was knocked unconscious by what Fishman called a "blindside hit that came so late we were already huddling up for the next play."

Hill lay on the sideline next to two men in charge of an oxygen tank. They refused to put the mask to his face. Fishman grabbed it from their hands and did it himself.

"It was a crazy time," Fishman said.

In his first game at Clemson, Hill realized all the black fans had to watch the game on a dirt mound outside the stadium. His mother was refused entry to the stadium, although she eventually was escorted by school president Robert Edwards, who seated her in the presidential box.

"That was one of the times I was angry about the whole scenario," Hill said. "So I pulled up my britches and said, 'I'm going to show them."

He set an ACC record with 10 catches.

Hill was one of only a handful of black students among Maryland's 30,000 undergraduates. Two years later, the Terrapins' Billy Jones, during the 1965-66 season, became the first African-American basketball player in the ACC.

Hill is now a member of the Terrapin Hall of Fame and works for the school as a major fundraiser, but it doesn't take much to remind Hill what it was like to be the only black man on the football field.

Hill was standing on the sideline next to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis last year when a cannon went off to celebrate a Maryland touchdown.

Hill nearly jumped into Lewis' arms. The cannon shot took Hill back to 1963. Before his first home game, Hill received a frightening phone call in his dorm.

"I was told that if I went out on the field, someone in the rafters with a high-powered rifle would kill me," he recalled.

Hill scored a touchdown that day, and cannon fire immediately marked the occasion.

"I thought they shot me. I threw the ball up in the air," Hill said. "I never did get used to that cannon."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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