When someone is referred to as the “Jackie Robinson” of their particular vocation, it means that person suffered through some of the worst pain and humiliation that human nature can summon up – hate – and managed to not only survive to succeed.
It usually means they knocked down a door closed to them and others before, and kept it open for others to follow.
Darryl Hill is referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of Southern college football,” and 50 years ago Tuesday, on Sept. 10, 1963, he knocked down one of the last remaining doors of discrimination in sports when, at the University of Maryland, he became the first African-American to play football for a major school in the South.
“It’s humbling for me to be referred to that way,” Hill, 69, said. “Jackie was a great icon in America and sports. There are some similarities. At the time college football in the South was just as segregated as baseball had been, and this was 16 years later.
“I can remember watching the National Guard on television that year escorting African-American students on campus, and the [Clemson] coach, Frank Howard, said, “They can make us admit these Negros, but they can’t make me play them on my team, nor will we play against teams with Negros or let them set foot in our football stadium.’”
Hill was a local sports star growing up in Washington in a family that had already made its mark in the community. His father, Kermit, owned and operated Hill’s Transfer Company, one of the nation’s largest African-American-owned commercial trucking companies. His great-grandfather was the first person of color to be hired by the District Fire Department.
Hill became the first African-American to play football at Gonzaga High School and led his team to the 1959 City Championship. He attended Xavier University on a football scholarship, but in 1961 received a congressional appointment to the Naval Academy.
But Hill opted out of Navy in 1962, and, looking for a new school, was recruited by then-Terps assistant coach Lee Corso. Maryland was a member of the ACC, and this would be new ground for a school competing against big-time Southern college football schools.
“Maryland turned out to be the perfect place for this to happen,” Hill said. “It was hard enough to play there. It would have been really difficult to do it at a school that didn’t want you. I didn’t have any issues on campus being accepted as a student, and that went a long way to helping me. Maryland playing in a school in a southern conference gave me the opportunity to play in the South without a school begrudging me being there, and the administration was fully behind me down to the coaches.”
He wasn’t embraced with open arms, he found out later.
“Some members of the Board of Trustees were up in arms about the news that I was being given a scholarship to play football,” Hill said. “Parts of Maryland are very much the South when you get away from Washington. School president Wilson Elkins told the board that they couldn’t vote against it. It wasn’t within their rights to do so. He said it was the responsibility of the president, and if you don’t like it, come see me at contract time.
“The coaches were all behind me,” Hill said. “And I didn’t have any teammate issues, Most of my teammates were from New Jersey or Pennsylvania and had already played with African-American teammates. It was the right fit, and it might have been several years before another school took a shot like this.”
After this historic first game 50 years ago against North Carolina State, Hill went on to be one of the Terps’ top receivers that season. He finished the year with 43 catches, five short of the ACC record.
Hill continued knocking down doors throughout his life. He became a successful businessman in a number of ventures, not only in the United States but in Russia and China as well. Now he is chairman of the Kids Play USA Foundation, which is dedicated to removing the financial barriers from youth sports.
“I’ve dedicated my 50th anniversary to work against the economic discrimination kids are now facing in sports,” Hill said. “This covers all races. Some sports are prohibitively expensive for families now. Sometimes it’s not how good you are or how hard you work. It’s can your daddy write the check? There’s something inherently wrong with that. We can’t go backwards.”
You can’t go backwards after this: after Hill enrolled at Maryland, Clemson threatened to leave the ACC. The coach, Howard, threatened to pull out of the game there if Hill came. Hill’s mother, Palestine, was refused entry to the stadium and had to be privately brought in by Clemson president Robert Edwards to his private box.
It was Jackie Robinson-like.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com