He didn’t know it, but Hill was the right person for the time.
“I wasn’t totally oblivious to what I was doing, but I didn’t have as full an understanding of the impact it was having,” he said. “I do now.”
Hill’s story — the District native and Gonzaga alum also was the first black football player to play on the freshman team at the Naval Academy before transferring to Maryland — reminds us of sports’ potential to improve society. And that’s something as worthy of celebrating as any big play.
Maryland will honor Hill, who enrolled at College Park 50 years ago, on the field before Saturday’s home game against North Carolina State. There aren’t enough days on the calendar, though, to give all the sports civil rights trailblazers the spotlight moments they deserve.
They were athletes who pushed for equality on and off the field, usually at great personal risk. Inspired by Jackie Robinson, who shattered Major League Baseball’s color ceiling in 1947, they believed many more victories were possible. Emboldened by the powerful words of then-new voices such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, those men and women were unafraid to challenge long-standing traditions that excluded African Americans from the best society had to offer.
Their legacy is seen throughout sports today, both in diversity on the field and in the front office.
“I wouldn’t be in my position without people like Darryl,” said Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, who is African American.
Hill’s willingness to be among the first players to challenge the unwritten rule of no African Americans in the ACC “was the first step in kids being able to stay in the South and attend the college of their choice,” he said. “You start from there, and it just leads to more opportunities in different places. But it has to start somewhere. You have to have people who know something is wrong and stand up to it.”
In the turbulent ’60s, many African American athletes shared Hill’s view.
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali spoke out about racial inequality and the Vietnam War, and lost about four years of his boxing career after being convicted of draft evasion. Jim Brown was the NFL’s best player and Bill Russell was the NBA’s top winner. They were leaders in using their celebrity as athletes in social activism.
In 1960, track star Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics, but refused to participate in celebrations in her honor unless African Americans and whites could attend, which wasn’t the way things were done then in her home state of Tennessee. A parade and banquet for Rudolph were the first integrated events in her home town. She would go on to become a civil rights campaigner.