Barriers made to be broken
Oct. 25, 2006
By Tom D'Angelo
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
They weren't looking for trouble. That was never the purpose when Darryl Hill and his teammates would walk into a restaurant or a hotel in the Deep South more than four decades ago.
But for Hill, the first black football player in ACC history, groundbreakers are often viewed as troublemakers, so he was a prime target. Wearing their University of Maryland varsity sweaters one afternoon before a game, Hill was among several players who sat down at the counter in a restaurant 1n 1963 in downtown Durham, N.C.
"We don't serve colored people," the soda jerk barked.
Linebacker Jerry Fishman spoke up.
"We didn't order colored people," Fishman said.
Fishman, now a retired personal injury attorney living in Boca Raton, then swept his arm over the counter, sending dishes and glasses crashing to the floor.
"I never took all of that stuff all that seriously," said Hill, who works as a fund-raiser for his alma mater. "I look at bias and discrimination as the discriminator's problem. I always felt they had the weakness, and I had the advantage."
Hill, 63, isn't mentioned in the same breath as Jackie Robinson, but his contribution in helping to break down racial barriers in sports is similarly important.
Hill was a pioneer on three fronts, integrating football at Gonzaga High in Washington, D.C., at the Naval Academy where he played for one season and at Maryland, where he was a wide receiver who had an easier time overcoming opponents than the bigots who taunted him at every stop in the Southeast.
"The ultimate thing you take from it is perseverance, and being a young black man you can identify with that more than anything," said Florida State tailback Lorenzo Booker, whose Seminoles will play Saturday at Maryland, on the same field where Hill broke the conference's color barrier. "If it wasn't for Darryl Hill or Jackie Robinson, would I be here right now playing at Florida State?"
Hill may never have had that chance if it were not for two former Seminoles -- one a graduate and the other a coach.
Lee Corso, ESPN's college football analyst and a former Florida State quarterback, was working for Tom Nugent as an assistant at Maryland in the early 1960s. Nugent, who coached at Florida State from 1953-58, moved to Maryland in 1959.
Nugent always had aspired to sign a black player, but once said Tallahassee was not the place because "back then, the head of the Ku Klux Klan lived in Tallahassee. You'd come to your car and there'd be a notice on it announcing a Klan meeting that night."
But Nugent, who died in January at 92, thought the right place would be at College Park, Md. He told Corso to find a black recruit who qualified athletically and academically.
"We knew it was the right thing," said Corso, who was given the assignment because he was the youngest assistant. "When you do the right things, sometimes you have to take some abuse. It took a lot of nerve on his part."
Corso remembered a player he saw in the Maryland-Navy freshman game and heard he was thinking of transferring. Maryland won that high-scoring game, but two Navy players stood out -- quarterback Roger Staubach and his favorite receiver, Hill.
"Darryl was a big part of the Academy. He was there at the forefront of great change in our country," Staubach said. "To me it was disappointing we weren't more integrated as a team. People talked about it and Darryl being singled out, he just wanted to be a great football player.
"It was disappointing losing him."
When he was approached by Corso, Hill was considering several Northern football powers of the day -- Notre Dame, Penn State, Syracuse and some Big Ten schools.
His response to Maryland's initial offer: "I'm no Jackie Robinson. I just want to play football."
When Hill arrived at College Park in 1962, about 32 African-Americans were among the 35,000 students on campus. The fledgling civil rights movement was becoming forceful and volatile, including the Freedom Riders, James Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
Hill befriended a young activist by the name of Stokely Carmichael, who at the time was at Howard University in Washington and later became leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party.
"At the time I was more into being an athlete than being a groundbreaker," Hill said. "Being a groundbreaker was incidental to playing football. Not that I minded. I just had the typical young man's focus on athletic goals."
Hill quickly bonded with Fishman, who, more than any other teammate, understood the ugliness of discrimination.
Fishman was the only Jewish player on the team, and he and Hill became roommates, developing a friendship that is going strong 44 years later.
"People weren't ashamed to call you a Jew or a nigger," Fishman said. "And people didn't bat an eye if they heard it."
Fishman was a rough, emotional player who has been blamed for ending the Maryland-Navy rivalry when he twice raised his middle finger toward the Naval Brigade of Midshipmen during the 1964 game. Navy officials were so incensed they would not renew the contract following the 1965 game. The series finally resumed 40 years later.
Hill was the quiet one, always in Fishman's shadow like the little brother being protected by the big brother.
"In the classroom he would stand up for me and on the sidewalks I would stand up for him," Fishman said.
Hill sat out in 1962 and played in his historic first game in 1963 at home against N.C. State, a 36-14 Maryland loss. Hill fumbled the opening kickoff -- he recovered -- and emerged as Maryland's top receiver. The Terrapins then traveled to South Carolina for their first road game. During Hill's recruitment, South Carolina and Clemson threatened to boycott if Maryland signed a black player, but the schools relented.
Several days before the game, Nugent received a call from someone who said they would shoot him during the game. On game day, the Confederate flag was flying and National Guardsmen surrounded the field.
South Carolina won 21-13, but fans attacked Hill and his teammates.
Said Fishman: "It made the Miami riot look like a tea party. I saw a couple of heads get really cracked wide open and blood was splattered."
Ugly incidents followed, but few came on the field. Fishman, a co-captain, made sure to warn opponents before the game about going after Hill.
"On occasion they would say something like, 'We're going to get Hill,' " Fishman said about facing opposing captains for the coin flip. "I'd say, 'You want to lose the quarterback for a receiver? It's not worth it. But that's your choice.' "
The final road game in 1963 was at Clemson, which was coached by the legendary Frank Howard. By then, Hill was a hero among African-Americans in many Southern towns and his fans gathered on a hill outside the stadium to watch him play.
When Hill came out to warm up, Howard, smoking his trademark cigar, walked within 10 feet of Hill and stared him down.
"He didn't say anything," Hill said. "He looked like an old Southern sheriff."
Moments later, Hill was told that his mother would not be allowed to enter the stadium. Still wearing his uniform, Hill rushed to her side and was ready to take her home when Clemson President Robert Edwards stepped in and escorted Palestine Hill to his private box. She later spent the night at the Edwards family home before driving back to Washington.
Hill finished the season with 43 catches, five short of the school record. The next season, Hill's senior year, he injured his leg in the second game and played sparingly. He was passed over in the NFL Draft but signed a free-agent contract with the AFL's New York Jets, though he never played in the pros.
Then, in 1965, Maryland signed three more black football players.
After a successful business career, Hill was contacted by Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen in 2000, who asked Hill if he would be interested in returning to his alma mater.
"Like everybody else today, we have a large population of African-Americans and one of the things that helps a lot of these kids is to have role models," Friedgen said. "Not only was Darryl the first African-American to play in the ACC, he was a very successful businessman.
"This is a guy who went through all the things he went through here and dealt with a totally different time than our kids can even relate to."
Hill now shares his experiences with Maryland players.
"It's hard to relate to something that you can't feel or touch," Hill said. "We knew that slavery happened but we can't feel it. It's astonishing because it hasn't been taught to them like slavery. They can't believe it happened in such recent times."