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Another home run for HBO

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2008

HBO has won enough awards to fill several trophy cases for its sports documentaries, and the latest is one of its best - high praise indeed.

"Breaking the Huddle: The Integration of College Football," which premieres on the cable network Tuesday night, covers far more than gridiron matters. It also reflects the intense struggle for civil rights that dominated much of the 1960s and changed the nation's culture.

Paul "Bear" Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach, is prominently featured. So, too, is Darryl Hill, a Maryland receiver who broke the ACC's color barrier in 1963.

As narrator Liev Schreiber notes, there were no black players at the beginning of the decade in the South's three major conferences: ACC, SEC and Southwest. By 1972, every significant program in the region had integrated its classrooms and football team.

It wasn't easy. Hill, a product of the District's Gonzaga High School and now a fundraiser for Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, was reluctant to accept when Terrapins assistant coach Lee Corso offered him a scholarship, saying, "You know, I wanna play some football. I don't know about being Jackie Robinson."

Hill was strongly supported at Maryland by linebacker Jerry Fishman, his roommate. Recalls Fishman: "He being the only black and me being the only Jew, we used to call ourselves 'The Onlys.'"

At one point, Hill says, he was approached by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leaders Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown to lead demonstrations on the College Park campus. When Hill refused, Brown "called me a punk. I slammed him into the wall, and Carmichael had to get between us."

Hill speaks about playing a game at Clemson with "50,000 drunk Southern gentlemen waiting to see this brother come out on the field. ... The black people had to sit outside the stadium on a red dirt hill. ... Every time I looked up there and saw these people, I said, 'There's something wrong with this picture. This has got to be fixed.'"

Hill caught an ACC-record 10 passes that day.

According to legend, Bryant supposedly was convinced Alabama needed to recruit black players after Southern Cal's Sam Cunningham ran wild as the Trojans routed the Tide 42-21 in 1970. Says Cunningham, laughing: "The scuttlebutt on the street was that Sam Cunningham did more for integration than Martin Luther King."

The documentary, produced by Ross Greenburg and Rick Bernstein, claims Bryant already had made the decision and invited the Trojans to Tuscaloosa to prove his point. After the game. HBO says, Bryant congratulated USC coach John McKay and added, "You'll never know what a big favor you did me."

HBO presents assorted historians, journalists and former players in the one-hour program. Jerry LeVias, who integrated the Southwest Conference at SMU, describes how he returned to the bench crying after a white opponent taunted him and spit in his face.

"Are you going to let a guy like that help defeat us?" SMU coach Hayden Fry asked LeVias. The player replied, "Coach, I'm going to run this [subsequent] punt back all the way." And so he did, with an 89-yard sprint for the winning touchdown.

Yet LeVias took no joy in that dramatic accomplishment because "I did it out of hate, not for the love of the game. ... That's the first time I ever really hated white people. I think it crippled me. I'm still healing 40 years later."

Younger viewers will find it hard to understand why the issue of whites and blacks attending school together was such a volatile issue in the South nearly five decades ago. That makes the documentary valuable and fascinating as an educational device, too.

Some years later, we learn, a man asked Bear Bryant - an enduring symbol of Southern football supremacy, how many black players he had on his squad.

Bryant's answer perhaps was one for the ages: "I don't have any black players. I don't have any white players. I just have players."