PHOTO: The movie Brian’s Song celebrated the friendship between Brian Piccolo (right) and Gale Sayers (left) of the Chicago Bears, but Piccolo’s more courageous stand was on a 1963 afternoon while playing for Wake Forest. He stood up to racists to defend Maryland ground-breaker Darryl Hill.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
A fan shouting racial slurs at an African American athlete was repulsive but far from unprecedented. Adding to the shame, though, was no one intervened at the Duke-Brigham Young women’s volleyball match last week in Provo, Utah.
A day later, BYU officials released a statement, apologizing for the verbal abuse Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson endured. They explained the offending fan was banned from future events. They added the guilty person seated in the student section wasn’t a student.
That, though, is inconsequential. And it was too little, too late. The ugly American should have been escorted immediately out of the arena.
The moment called for a person like a Brian Piccolo in 1963 at the Maryland-Wake Forest college football game in Winston-Salem, N.C. This is a story not enough Americans know. There aren’t enough people with the character of a Brian Piccolo, a Townsend Clarke in 1966 or an Alice Marble in 1950.
They stood up while others around them remained silent. And it took more courage to stand up in their time than it does in 2022.
In the 1963 season, Maryland’s Darryl Hill broke the color line in Atlantic Coast Conference football (before the school joined the Big Ten). When the Terrapins traveled to Wake Forest for an October 18 game, Hill was greeted during warmups with racial slurs from the crowd.
Piccolo, a white Wake Forest running back, went over to the Maryland side of the field. He put his arm around Hill. Then, he walked with Hill around the field with him to quiet the stunned racists in the crowd.
Yes, the same Brian Piccolo from the TV movie “Brian’s Song.” Piccolo supported Black teammate Gale Sayers when he recovered from a knee injury, and Sayers was at Piccolo’s side when he died from cancer. It’s a tender story, and moments told on film tend to gain more attention. But Piccolo’s proudest moment, sans a movie to spread the story, arguably was standing up to a crowd of racists to defend Darryl Hill.
Another moment was Clarke in 1966 at the Army-Tennessee college football game in Memphis.
At practice the week of Army West Point’s trip for an October 29 date in the segregated South, Clarke, who was Army’s a senior team captain and All-American linebacker, pulled sophomore Gary Steele aside. Steele finished the season as West Point’s first Black football letterman.
As Steele recalled, “Towny said, ‘You know, we’re playing at Tennessee this week. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.’ It had not registered with me what it meant to play in the South.”
Steele continued recounting the conversation, with Clarke using Steele’s nickname.
“Gummy, look, this your first game in the South. It’s different down there. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but as team captain I want you to know we’ve got your back. We are one with you and you are one with us.”
More than a half-century later, Steele, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, recounts the story with respect dripping from his words.
“That’s leadership,” he said.
Another moment outside college sports was provided by Alice Marble in tennis. This is a timely story to tell with 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams competing in what is expected to be her final appearance in the U.S. Open.
Before Williams, an African American, there was Althea Gibson, the first African American, male or female, to win a Grand Slam tournament. Gibson won the 1956 French Open and swept Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in both 1957 and 1958.
But before Gibson could win a major, she needed admission to the tournament. While others remained silent, Marble, a four-time U.S. Open champion (1936, 1938, 1939, 1940) and two-time Wimbledon winner (1938 and 1939), stood up to clear that road.
Marble took on the all-white U.S. Lawn Tennis Association’s unwritten ban of Black athletes in an article she wrote for American Lawn Tennis magazine’s July 1, 1950, issue. The USTLA, properly shamed by one of its legends, caved. Two months later, Gibson broke the color barrier in the 1950 U.S. Open.
But all these years later, American racial progress remains plagued by backlashes. We’ve come a long way from Althea Gibson to Serena Williams, but in the words of Martin Luther King, which are sadly still appropriate more than a half century later, we still have a long way to go.
Last week in Provo, Utah, Rachel Richardson was left alone to endure America’s ugly side. Duke’s Black Student Alliance plans to provide her support with attendance at the Blue Devils’ Friday afternoon match against East Tennessee State that opens the weekend Duke Invitational.
The rest of the sports world needs to do more than shrug its shoulders. We should ask, where was a Brian Piccolo, a Townsend Clarke or an Alice Marble with the character to stand up for Rachel Richardson?
Tom Shanahan is the author of the “Raye of Light, Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans and the integration of college football.” He tells the stories of Darryl Hill, Gary Steele and other college football pioneers in his upcoming book, “The Right Thing To Do, Duffy and the True 1960s Pioneers, North and South.
Click here to purchase Raye of Light from August Publications.