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April 28, 2011

Five Pioneers

Before there was Horace King, Chuck Kinnebrew, Clarence Pope, Larry West, and Richard Appleby, James Hurley had become the first African American to play football at Georgia.

"Dad, why don't the Bulldogs have a black assistant coach," I recall asking something on that order some time during the early '80s.  My father answered by indicating that it hadn't been that long before that blacks didn't even play football for Georgia. 

I remember like it was yesterday, envisioning a Georgia team without a Lindsay Scott, "Meat Cleaver" Weaver, Jimmy Payne, Freddie Gilbert, Clarence Kay and, of course, Herschel Walker.  My father - a sociology professor at UGA since 1968, who had been on campus when the first black athletes arrived at the school - dolefully added, "Pat, that's just how it was back then." 

I struggled to visualize "it" - no African Americans playing football for Georgia - and particularly since "back then" had only been approximately a decade beforehand.  Since that very moment a little less than 30 years ago, I've had a rather keen and building interest in the integration of college football in the South, particularly at UGA.

This fall will mark the 40th anniversary of when Georgia's first group of signed black football players took the field between the hedges for the very first time.  You've all likely heard it a number of times before - how these "pioneers" began playing for the Bulldogs in the early '70s and the rest, as they say, is history.

Unfortunately, most of what has been written (including and admittedly by yours truly in a couple of my books) regarding such a historical movement omits (often conveniently) the actual difficulties and hardships these players encountered with their arrival to UGA.

Leading up to this football season, I'll post a few more entries regarding Georgia football's "Five Pioneers" while making an attempt to touch on some of their struggles and the tremendous impact they made on the program.

I'm no longer the appalled young boy who couldn't understand why black players, at any point in time, couldn't play with the whites.  As difficult as it is to acknowledge and accept, that is just how it was back then - a slow integration of southern college athletics that mirrored social life in the South at the time.

In the fall of 1972, Georgia was among the last of three (along with Ole Miss and LSU) SEC schools to play black players on their varsity football teams.  However, UGA was one of the first in the conference, along with Kentucky (football), Tennessee (track & field), and Vanderbilt (basketball), to feature black athletes of any varsity sport when Harry Sims and James Hurley were part of the Bulldogs' 1968 track team.  

Hurley, from Atlanta, had walked-on Georgia's football team earlier that fall, made the junior varsity squad (Photo of '67 JV team), and would start at defensive end.  The following season, he was awarded the Bill Mundy Award for having the highest academic average on the entire team. 

Hurley was never given a spot on the Bulldogs' varsity because "the competition was too keen," according to freshman coach John Donaldson in November of 1971.  Hurley transferred to Vanderbilt, where he was awarded a scholarship and lettered in 1970.

Nearly a year before Horace King, Chuck Kinnebrew, Clarence Pope, Larry West, and Richard Appleby signed with Georgia in December of 1970, fullback-linebacker John King, from Toney, AL, was the initial African American to receive a football scholarship from the school. However, just prior to the start of fall practice in 1970, King suddenly informed the Bulldog coaching staff he had decided to transfer to the University of Minnesota.

Subsequently, King would rush for the 7th-most yards in Golden Gopher history from 1971-1973, including nearly 1,200 as a junior in '72 when he was named the team's MVP.  (Photo of John King - a Bulldog for all of a few months.) 

When the first group of black freshmen finally signed with the Georgia football team only four decades ago, the question was immediately raised why it took the school so long to recruit African-American athletes. The football coaching staff indicated that it had been trying to do so for years; however, according to The Red and Black, the coaches "just couldn't find any that could get in school."

"It's not that black athletes haven't been approached before," said Donaldson.  "They have, but most of them couldn't make the team for academic reasons."

However, around the same time as the coach's reasoning, athletics director Joel Eaves curiously explained, "I think [UGA was] just cautious.  We were just not sure how it would work out."  Eaves added that the athletic department had been specifically cautious about "the mixing and the fact that we're in a section that was slow in integrating."

Such cautiousness, or unwillingness, ceased with the impactful signing of the five players. The change of the racial composition of Georgia football was promptly reflected in the school's student body, including when the Redcoat Band decided to no longer play "Dixie" by the 1974 season. Still, this was met with much protest as some white students wanted the "song of the South" to be played so badly that they resorted to violence. (Photo of Georgia fans and their flags from 1975 home game)

Notwithstanding, by the 1980 football season, nearly half of Georgia's football team was made up of African Americans. Influential in the Bulldogs' run to a national championship were all the aforementioned black heroes of mine as a child, particularly, the legendary Herschel Walker.

In 1957, Atlanta Journal columnist Jim Minter openly attacked a state bill that proposed a ban of integrated athletics and other social activities. The proposal was even endorsed by Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin, explaining that he was against "Negroes and white folks playing any type of sport together."

Twenty-three years later after the Bulldogs won the 1980 national title, the same Atlanta writer again shared his feelings on integrated athletics in the state.  Referring to the Warren Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling while celebrating Georgia's championship, Minter ironically declared, "Thank God for Earl Warren."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Patrick, great article: one of your best. I learned a great deal from reading it. Look forward to reading more related pieces.
Old Dawg