109th army-navy game

'I'm used to being the first,' says pioneering black player recognized by Barack Obama for his contributions

December 05, 2008|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,

When a college football player first scores a touchdown before the home fans, it should be a moment of unfettered joy, of promise fulfilled.

For Darryl Hill, who integrated the U.S. Naval Academy's football program, then became the ACC's first black football player, it was more complicated.

After he caught his first touchdown pass at the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium, the traditional cannon shot sounded. Hill threw up his arms and discarded the ball in fright. He had been told by school officials that someone had threatened to shoot him from the top of the stands. So all he could think was, "They got me."

It's easy for him to look back after 45 years - after a distinguished football career, after the many tributes to his courage, after a successful business career that took him to California, Siberia and China - and laugh at that moment.

But put yourself in the shoes of a teenager who has been told he's a target, and it's not so funny. It reminds you that in 1963, you couldn't just be a kid who wanted to play ball. Not if you were black.

Hill clung to his basic desire to compete throughout that season. It kept him sane as he listened to the vicious taunts from crowds in the Atlantic Coast Conference's southern outposts. In fact, Hill played his best games in the worst environments.

"I think I was more determined when I played down [South]," said Hill, now 65 and the director of major gifts for the UM Athletic Department. "I understood that just like Jackie [Robinson], all eyes were on me, and if I failed, it might happen eventually, but it might be set back several years."

Hill's story is a major part of the HBO documentary Breaking the Huddle, which tells the story of college football's integration and will debut Dec. 16.

"Most Terp fans have probably never heard of Darryl Hill," said his former teammate, Jerry Fishman. "But he opened the door for thousands of black athletes in the South."

Hill grew up in Northeast Washington. His father's trucking business served white customers but other than the occasional brush with one of them, he rarely encountered whites. That changed when he enrolled at Gonzaga for high school. There, for the first of many times, he was one of a small group of black students in a sea of white faces.

The precocious Hill skipped two grades, so he was only 15 years old and 155 pounds as a senior at Gonzaga. His age and size didn't stop him from making All-Metro as a speedy halfback but diminished his appeal to recruiters. And he had no designs on shattering racial barriers.

"It never crossed my mind," he said. "I assumed I was going to play at a northern college that was accepting. Nobody talked about anything else. It was an accepted way of life, and it didn't bother me."

The great black players of the day either went north or played for traditionally black colleges. Hill signed with Xavier in Cincinnati, where he starred on the freshman team.

He thought his life was going just fine when his mother asked him to fulfill a longtime dream of hers. Without his knowledge, she had spent the year finagling an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. She wanted her son to help integrate one of the nation's most prestigious institutions. If the appointment came through, she asked, would he take it?

Sure, he said, though not without reservations. As he sorted the mail in his dorm one day, he found the letter from President John F. Kennedy. Report to Annapolis at 8 a.m. on June 28, 1961, it said.

When he arrived, he was one of 12 blacks among 4,000 midshipmen. Hill encountered rampant institutional racism at the Academy. All the cooks were black, all the stewards Filipino. Nowhere did he glimpse any sign that a black man could achieve great success. Hill didn't say much about it then but it unsettled him: "That's part of the reason I left."

Football offered a respite. Hill went out for the freshman team along with about 400 other plebes. The coaches handed helmets and pads to about 350 and sent the others, including Hill, off to the side. Among the padless hopefuls was a tall string bean who could whip passes accurately on a dead run. "Hi," he said to Hill. "My name is Roger Staubach."

"Well, Roger," Hill recalls saying, "you ain't bad."

The budding superstar quarterback was ahead of his time on equality. "Roger never understood what the problem was," Hill said. "To him it was, 'Why is this an issue?' "

No one from the Academy had contacted Hill about playing football. No one had said a word about his becoming the school's first black player. But the coaches knew about him and expected great things.

Former Heisman Trophy winner Joe Bellino was the coach of a powerhouse freshman squad, and Staubach and Hill proved to be his greatest weapons. The football world, at least, felt like a meritocracy in which speed and shiftiness were all Hill needed. And boy, did he have those.

"He was playing with a future Hall-of-Famer," ex-teammate Fishman said. "And he was the big deal."

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