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Race and the Razorbacks

They honored Darrell Brown on Saturday night at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

It was another smart move on the part of University of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long.

Like so many in this state, I grew up thinking that Jon Richardson was the first black football player at Arkansas.

I never knew the story of Darrell Brown.

If you have time to read a lengthy story, I urge you to look up Dan Wetzel’s feature on Brown for Yahoo Sports. It’s a fantastic piece of writing.

Here’s a taste: “The first time Darrell Brown went to receive a kickoff during a practice many thought he had no divine right to participate in, he naively believed it was his big chance.

“‘I thought they were trying to see how good I was,’ he said.

“It was the fall of 1965, and Brown was college football’s most improbable player, a non-recruited, inexperienced black man trying to break a regional color barrier. He was one of just a dozen black students at the University of Arkansas and wasn’t interested in trying to change the world by sitting in at a segregated lunch counter.

“No, Darrell Brown was trying to crash the hallowed roster of Frank Broyles’ Razorbacks and in the process integrate college football in the South all by himself.

“His fellow black students thought he was crazy. Many whites were stunned he would even consider it. It wasn’t just Arkansas that was still all white and happy to keep it that way; it was the entire Southwest, Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences.

“Here was Darrell Brown at practice, though, a walk-on with the legendary Broyles, fresh off his 1964 title, perched up on some scaffolding at the adjacent varsity field, capable of seeing it all.

“And here, Brown figured, was his opportunity. Catch the kick, race his powerful 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame around some defenders and there could be no denying him. Even amid the craggy hills of Fayetteville, that practice field was presumed to be level.

“‘I didn’t know any different,’ Brown said. ‘I didn’t think to even notice.’

“He failed to recognize this was a full-contact ‘drill,’ one that called for 11 players on the kick team and just one on the return: him, the black guy.

“Until he fielded the kick and began to run up the field, Brown failed to realize no blockers stood in front of him, he hadn’t a prayer in the world.

“This was kill-the-man-with-the ball, 11-on-1 violence assured.

“‘They were good at gang tackling,’ he said. ‘Especially me.’

“When the pile eventually relented, Brown did what he had learned to do in the face of any setback growing up in little Horatio, Ark. He did what his proud schoolteacher mother and janitor father had taught him. He did what his hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, preached at the time. He did what came naturally to a man whose trailblazing life would come to be defined by superhuman determination.

“He stood up. And said nothing.”

The story of this Horatio native who tried to integrate college sports in the South is compelling.

Brown, 63, lives back on a farm in Horatio these days. He told Wetzel: “For the university to finally acknowledge I tried and for a particular reason I didn’t get the opportunity, it’s a major thing. All these years later, it’s a major, major thing.”

Moves such as this one — recognizing what Brown tried to accomplish — make me appreciate Long’s leadership.

If you ask Razorback fans about Long’s most important achievement since becoming athletic director almost four years ago, most of them likely will say it was the hiring of Bobby Petrino as head football coach.

I think it’s the hiring of Mike Anderson as head basketball coach regardless of how Anderson’s teams perform on the court (and I think they’ll perform well).

Let me explain.

Prior to Anderson’s hiring, a wound still existed in our state — a wound caused by the events that followed Nolan Richardson’s departure from the university. The mere act of giving Anderson the job helped heal that wound.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m working on an Anderson profile for the November issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

Here’s part of that story: “In a place where love of the Razorbacks has always transcended sports, Anderson inherits a far better situation than he had inherited at Missouri. Arkansas has tradition, a fan base that understands and appreciates basketball more than the fans at any SEC school outside Kentucky and one of the finest arenas in the country.

“‘We just might surprise a few folks this season,’ Anderson says as he walks briskly from his office for a photo shoot downstairs in the Razorback dressing room.

“While Anderson won’t describe himself as a healer, he doesn’t mind noting that he’s a tie that binds the basketball program’s past to its future.

“‘The fans recognize me as one of their own,’ he says. ‘I’m a tie to the former players. I’m a tie to Coach Richardson, who was my mentor. We can now bring all of that back together.’

“Indeed, Anderson has reached out to former players, and they’ve agreed to support the program financially and otherwise. Anderson also has kept up a heavy travel schedule across the state since March in an effort to reignite the basketball flames. When he saw 5,000 people in the stands that Saturday morning when his hiring was formally announced, he knew he had made the right decision.

“‘It showed just how passionate Razorback fans are,’ he says. ‘They were greeting us with open arms. It told me I was in a place where they love college basketball. I had told my assistants how special Razorback fans are. This proved it. I’m not going to be content until we have 20,000 of them back in here for every home game.’

“Crowds at Walton Arena fell to an all-time low of 12,022 last season, down from the 20,134 the school averaged during its national championship season.

“Even though Anderson is an Alabama native who attended college at the University of Tulsa, there was a lot of talk that day about ‘coming home.’

“‘Welcome home’ said the signs that were sprinkled throughout the arena.

“‘When a Razorback wants to come home and the university wants him to come home, it’s a match made in heaven,’ said David Gearhart, the chancellor of the Fayetteville campus.”

Anderson is a native of Birmingham. Ala., and proud of it. Little Rock had been ground zero for the civil rights movement in 1957, but Birmingham took on that role for much of the 1960s.

It was a Sunday — Sept. 15, 1963 to be exact — when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham.

Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank Cash and Robert Chambliss were members of the United Klans of America. They placed a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church.

The bomb exploded at 10:22 a.m. as 26 children were walking into a basement assembly room. The explosion blew a hole in the church’s rear wall and destroyed all but one-stained glass window, which showed Jesus leading a group of children.

Four black girls were killed — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Welsey, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were their names.

Twenty-two others were injured. It marked a turning point in the civil rights movement and helped galvanize support for what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Mike Anderson was only 3 years old when that bomb exploded in his hometown.

He was only 13 when Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the segregationist strongman who had ruled Birmingham from 1937-52 and 1957-63 as commissioner of public safety, died.

Anderson, however, grew up steeped in the history of the civil rights movement. No, he doesn’t carry the anger that had burned in Nolan Richardson since Richardson was raised in the barrio of El Paso. But Anderson understands what made Richardson seethe.

Growing up in Birmingham gave Anderson a strong foundation — a sense of history and place. He won’t talk much about it, but that sense of history allows him to grasp his current role in healing festering wounds in Arkansas.

Having been Richardson’s loyal assistant for 17 years, he understands the past and how it affects the present. He’s a son of the deep South who is at home now in the Ozarks.

Anderson, who led a Hog call on the field last Saturday night as 72,000 of his closest friends joined in, would understand Darrell Brown’s feelings better than most.

Anderson admitted to me when he visited last week that he had hoped to be chosen to replace Richardson “because of what had taken place here and all the time I had spent here. No one knew the program better than I did.”

He then hastened to add that “deep down my gut told me it wasn’t going to happen.”

It didn’t, but things worked out. He had the chance to go home to Birmingham and experience success at UAB before his next stop at Missouri.

Now, Jeff Long has brought him to a place he also considers home.

There’s still work to be done in healing certain wounds, but Mike Anderson is indeed the tie that binds. Like Jeff Long, he’s the right man at the right time for Arkansas.

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