Breaking the Huddle: HBO's Powerful Look at the Integration of College Football
That last part is important: For all the progress that the civil rights movement made in the 1960s, Alabama only integrated its football team in the 1970s because it was necessary, not because it was right.
But while Alabama was late to accept integration, other football programs made progress. One of this story's key players, although he's mentioned in Breaking the Huddle only briefly, is Lee Corso. Most of the fans who watch him in his current role as an ESPN commentator are unaware that it was Corso, at the time an assistant coach at Maryland, who spearheaded the recruiting of the first African-American player in any of those previously all-white conferences.
That player, Darryl Hill, is featured prominently in Breaking the Huddle, and as he gives a matter-of-fact account of his memories, almost half a century later, we see just how much he overcame.
"One of the toughest places I played was Clemson University," Hill says. "You know, 50,000 drunk southern gentlemen are waiting to see this brother come out on the field. Not a black person in the stands anywhere. The black people had to sit outside the stadium on a red, dirt hill called 'Nigger Hill.' And that's where they watched the game. Talk about double-teamed, I was triple-teamed. Every time I look up there and see these black people sitting on this dirt hill, I said, I'm gonna show these folks. Well, I caught 10 balls, which set an ACC single-game pass-catching record which stood for a long time. And I can remember they came down from the hill, when the game was over, to the bus -- and were congratulating me. And that was a good feeling."
The stories of the men like Hill, who played in the South and faced virulent racism, are intertwined with the stories of men like Bubba Smith, who grew up in Texas but had to go north to Michigan State to play big-time football. The Spartans' coach, Duffy Daugherty, recognized the value of recruiting black players from the South, and he never had a player better than Smith, a defensive lineman who starred on teams that went a combined 19-1-1 in his junior and senior seasons, and who was the first pick in the 1967 NFL draft.
Smith's senior season, which culminated with a 10-10 tie against Notre Dame, represented a major shift in power in college football, as the Fighting Irish and Spartans finished first and second in the AP poll, while undefeated and untied Alabama finished third. The AP voters recognized that Alabama's 11-0 record, built in a segregated Southeastern Conference, was inferior to the 9-0-1 records of Notre Dame and Michigan State, which played with and against the best athletes in the land, regardless of skin color.
But while Alabama coach Bear Bryant was still claiming he could find no black players who were both athletically and academically qualified to play at Alabama, other Southern coaches were showing the courage that Bryant lacked. Southern Methodist coach Hayden Fry offered Jerry LeVias a scholarship in 1965, and in 1966 LeVias became the first black player in the Southwest Conference.
LeVias was a great player at SMU, and Breaking the Huddle shows highlight footage of a spectacular 89-yard punt return against Texas Christian. But LeVias says that to this day, he can't celebrate that touchdown. He was motivated to score it because a few plays earlier, a Texas Christian player spat in his face.
"That's the worst touchdown because it broke me," LeVias says. "I did it out of hate, not for the love of the game. And that hate kind of carried me on a little bit and changed my whole personality. That's the first time I've ever really hated white people. I think it crippled me. I'm still healing. Still healing 40 years later."
Late in the documentary, we're introduced to Kentucky linebacker Wilbur Hackett, who was the first African-American captain of an SEC team. Playing for Kentucky at a time when many SEC schools still didn't have black players, Hackett is one of the most significant players in the history of college football. Hackett is now an SEC official, and he became a YouTube star this season when he had an on-field collision with South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia. The resulting video was amusing, but it would be a shame if that's what Hackett is most remembered for. Breaking the Huddle puts Hackett in his proper historical place.
If the documentary has a weakness, it's in the portrayal of Bryant, who is praised for eventually integrating the Crimson Tide. But does Bryant really deserve praise for integrating Alabama football, or does he deserve condemnation for waiting so long to do it? Bryant had been the state's most popular man in the 1960s -- a decade when Governor George Wallace symbolically blocked the entrance to the University, a decade when Martin Luther King called Birmingham "as segregated as Johannesburg" and a decade when four little girls were murdered in a church bombing. Where was Bryant then?
Bryant spent the 1960s focusing on football, and not concerning himself with advancing civil rights. The burden of doing both fell on men like Cunningham, Hill, Corso, Daugherty, Smith, Fry, LeVias and Hackett. They are this story's heroes.
Breaking the Huddle debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday, December 16, on HBO and will re-air for the next month.