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Ground Breakers
ALEXANDER WOLFF
November 07, 2005
Long after Jackie Robinson smashed the color barrier in baseball, these Southern college football pioneers desegregated a more violent sport, in a more violent place, at a more violent time
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November 07, 2005

Ground Breakers

Long after Jackie Robinson smashed the color barrier in baseball, these Southern college football pioneers desegregated a more violent sport, in a more violent place, at a more violent time

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The following spring Smith left Wake and football for good. He organized lunch counter sit-ins in Greenville, served with distinction in Vietnam and, after collecting three degrees at the University of Massachusetts, joined Emerson College in Boston as an administrator. "Wake's decision to integrate was less about social justice than athletic prowess, and nobody should confuse the two," he says today. "That experience showed me the value placed on my life. Without sports, it was clear I had no value. So I chose to assert my humanity in another way."

Growing up in Greenville, Smith had watched one day as his name came up on local TV during an interview with Clemson coach Frank Howard. " Coach Howard," the host said, " Wake Forest has recruited colored people like Billy Smith, who they say is faster than greased lightning."

Smith still recalls Howard's response: "I'll never have a nigra at Clemson."

Darryl hill, the ACC's first black player, remembers Frank Howard too--remembers the feeling, while kicking practice extra points before Maryland's game at Clemson in November 1963, of Howard's eyes boring in on him. For nearly 10 unbroken minutes, arms folded and cigar smoldering, Howard stood on the field at Clemson's Death Valley, steps from Hill, fixing him with a glare. Moments before kickoff a Maryland assistant coach told Hill, a sophomore wideout and kicker from Washington, D.C., that his mother was stranded outside the stadium because no ticket taker would let her in. Hill scurried under the stands to plead on her behalf, to no avail. He was on the verge of changing out of his uniform to escort his mother back home when Clemson president Robert Edwards showed up and invited her to be a guest in his box. Hill used the vapors of those indignities as fuel, catching a school-record 10 passes that day in a Maryland loss.

Hill recalls subtle gestures of respect, even support, from such white rivals as South Carolina's Dan Reeves, Wake Forest's Brian Piccolo and Duke's Mike Curtis. It was the fans who most often trafficked in venom, like those at South Carolina who, after Maryland ran out to a 13--0 halftime lead thanks in part to a 19-yard touchdown run by Hill, invaded the field during the intermission, throwing rocks and tomatoes, as the Terrapins swung their helmets to protect themselves on their way to the locker room.

Hill had arrived in College Park with several advantages. He was light-skinned, and he had already twice integrated a football team, as a plebe player at Navy, from which he had transferred to Maryland, and at D.C.'s Gonzaga High. "That's good," he replied after hearing out Lee Corso, the Maryland assistant tasked with recruiting him. "But you forgot what conference you're playing in."

Corso didn't blink. "We think you're the guy to do it."

"It all made sense," Hill says today. "I was the right guy. I wasn't afraid."

Moreover, Hill could count plenty of teammates who came from the Northeast, including a tailback and linebacker named Jerry Fishman. A Jew from Connecticut, Fishman quickly realized that Hill had a head for numbers and cut a deal with him: Get me through economics class, and I'll get you through your redshirt season." Fishman roomed with Hill on the road and came to relish his role as Hill's protector. After a South Carolina fan poured a drink on Hill's head during the riot in Columbia, Fishman pulled the man from the stands and walloped him with his helmet. At Wake Forest, after Hill was knocked woozy by a cheap shot, the sideline medics refused to administer oxygen, so Fishman ripped the mask from them and did it. In Durham to play Duke, a dozen Terps, including Hill, sat down at a whites-only lunch counter. "We don't serve colored people," the soda jerk told them.

"We didn't order colored people," Fishman replied, leaning in. "We ordered milk shakes." He swept the dishes from the counter onto the floor as the team exited.

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