Brown recognized as Arkansas football trailblazer
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 he 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 national 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 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.
So the Arkansas football coaches ran the drill again.
And when that one was over, Brown stood up once more. And another, after which Brown peeled himself off the ground.
“They ran that drill anytime they wanted,” he said.
And if it wasn’t the kickoff drill that season, it was some other bone-jarring event where he’d get double- or triple-teamed, or a post-practice, coach-mandated wrestling match against someone with 60 pounds on him, or whatever else the Razorbacks could dream up that might pound his thick shoulders so hard that the realization he was not wanted might get pounded into his thick skull.
No matter how hard they hit, no matter how hard they tried, Darrell Brown kept standing up.
The old Philco Radio at Tommie and Snowie Brown’s small home in Horatio used to cackle with the booming voice of Dr. King. Darrell, more often than not, was sitting right there taking in every syllable. King’s message of non-violent social change spoke powerfully to the young Brown, who understood the struggle would be long and arduous.
“I was glued to him,” Brown said. “I thought he was not only eloquent but spoke words that had great substance to me. I never met him, but I felt like we had a personal relationship.”
Brown never played organized football growing up. His segregated Sevier County Training School wasn’t just an academic wasteland. It had no athletic fields or equipment or teams. He was a gifted athlete but was left to the shot put and discus. Well, sort of.
“My shot put was a big rock,” he said. “My discus was a flat rock.”
Brown would get the chance to slip on football pads just once, the summer after graduation when he took part in a local exhibition fundraiser called the Blubber Bowl. It pitted recent grads (the supposedly out-of-shape “blubber” guys) against some current high school players in nearby De Queen, Ark.
From this humble start, Brown realized the world was suddenly opening up for him. Freedoms and possibilities that blacks had never enjoyed were now being offered. He was college material – class valedictorian even though he’d skipped a grade – and wanted no limits.
“I wanted to go to a white school,” he said. “I said, ‘Now’s my chance to do what everyone else can do.’ “
The 101st Airborne escorting nine black students into Little Rock Central High School in 1957 is the enduring image of integration in Arkansas. The University of Arkansas law school, however, welcomed its first black student without incident or litigation in 1948. When Brown was accepted to UA, he found 11 other black faces in the undergraduate ranks.
Just attending Arkansas wasn’t enough. The separate-but-equal charade was over, and he wanted to take advantage of a campus that was modern and fantastic in ways he could hardly envision coming from his rural, second-class system.
That included not just a football team but a nationally powerful football team.
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Brown wanted to play if only because now, at least in theory, he could. He was strong from working summers at a sawmill, and this sport was tough, fast, physical – made for him. The Blubber Bowl had whetted his appetite.
He also knew what it would mean far beyond this campus if a black man suited up for the Hogs. King was always talking about doing your part. Brown took those sermons to heart. Here was an opportunity begging to be taken. If not him, who? If not now, when?
Crazy as it may have been, Darrell Brown believed he was uniquely qualified to finally integrate college sports in the South.
All he needed was a chance.
Brown still can see the expression of the man behind the equipment counter. The two made eye contact as Brown, gulping up some strength, stepped forward.
“My name is Darrell Brown, and I want to play football for the Arkansas Razorbacks,” Brown recalls saying.
“He just sort of looked at me.”
Brown begins to laugh at retelling the story because he knows as scared and uncertain as he was, the equipment guy was probably even more scared and more uncertain.
“He said, ‘OK,’ and then he went in back,” Brown said. “I stood there for 20, 30 minutes. I don’t know what was going on back there, but I can imagine. He finally came out and said, ‘Come back tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do.’”
He returned the next day.
“They issued me a helmet and pads and everything,” Brown said. “I don’t think they knew what to do. It’s kind of funny. The guy pointed toward the locker room and said, ‘Go put this uniform on.’”
Brown walked into the locker room and found an empty spot. He said he heard the place buzzing with whispers but not a single negative word. He may have been distracted, of course. The Blubber Bowl was his only experience putting pads on, and no one just slips into a football uniform the first few times.
He tried to play it cool. He needed to look like he knew what he was doing, like he somehow belonged and wasn’t just some black guy who had never played trying to join the all-white defending national champs.
“A couple guys finally came over and said, ‘Where are you from? Where did you play football?’ ” Brown said. “I said I played football in De Queen, Arkansas. It was sort of true. It just wasn’t high school football that I played. I had played in that one Blubber Bowl there.”
Eventually, Brown got his pads on properly.
“Where do I go next?” he asked.
Brown doesn’t recall anyone saying a word to him on the field that day. Not a coach. Not a player. It was still preseason so the drills were mostly agility ones. He just got in line with other players his size – the running backs – and followed along.
When practice ended, no one said anything, either. He just went back into the locker room like everyone else, took off his pads and left them in an empty locker. Then he showed up the next day.
“It was two or three weeks before anyone talked to me,” he said.
As the fall air of 1965 turned from hot and humid to cool and crisp Brown recognized the football program was trying to push him out. There was physical punishment in practice, humiliating acts such as not issuing him a playbook and a general mood of hostility. It was day after day, week after week.
“They hoped I would go away, just quit,” he said. “But I kept thinking, ‘No, not today.’”
Players and assistant coaches freely used racial slurs, a fact denied by none of Brown’s half-dozen teammates interviewed. Some even recalled chants and catcalls. And there was always the kickoff drill to knock him down.
That said, at least two assistant coaches were at times supportive, Brown said. He felt so alone and facing such a daunting challenge, even the slightest hint of encouragement would lift him up. He said he never once spoke with Frank Broyles, so he has no idea his personal views but believed he oversaw everything. The university, citing Broyles’ age of 86, declined to make him available for an interview.
While many players were openly against him, Brown said some treated him well.
“He was a good person, he practiced hard and he played hard,” said Terry Don Phillips, a teammate, now athletic director at Clemson and a person Brown distinctly remembers for his kindness at the time. “And I remember later I had [a] psychology [class] with him and I remember thinking, ‘Boy, this guy is a heck of a lot smarter than I am.’
“I thought he was very much respected,” Phillips continued, “although I understand the perspective of my recollection may be different than his.”
Freshmen were ineligible in 1965, but Arkansas had a team called the “Shoats” that played a handful of games. Brown saw action in a couple of them, even if he didn’t know the plays or where to run. At least, he figured, he was on the field.
When the season ended, he turned in his pads like everyone else. No one invited him back for his sophomore year. No one let him know when to report the following summer. No one said anything.
Brown didn’t care. He was battered and bruised and exhausted. He was also about to be eligible for the varsity. He hadn’t taken a season full of whippings to give up now. His against-all-odds integration of college football in the South was at hand.
The first time David Hargis laid eyes on Darrell Brown he couldn’t believe the sight. Hargis was a defensive end from Warren, Ark., and had heard a black player was trying to make the team. It was now the fall of 1966. Hargis was a freshman and Brown a sophomore when they ran into each other outside the locker room.
Brown was coming off the field after another session serving as a tackling dummy.
“He was beaten to a pulp,” Hargis said. “He was carrying himself in disarray. There were grass stains all over his uniform and some blood on it. … But he was smiling. He was laughing.”
The head-down, mouth-shut plan wasn’t easy.
“It was slowly chipping away at me,” Brown said. “It slowly started to bother me. I could take a lot, but I didn’t know how long I could hold my peace.”
During preseason practice that year Hargis recalls the hearing chants all the way over on the freshman field. “It was, ‘Get the n-word, get the n-word,’ ” Hargis said. He watched in horror at the punishing kickoff drill. He saw the indifference of coaches. He’d seen blacks back home treated terribly. At a young age, Hargis had vowed to be different.
“I told him to hang in there,” Hargis said. “I couldn’t do much, but I did what I could. It was wrong what was going on. It wasn’t perceived to be wrong at the time, but it was wrong. I knew it.”
Three weeks into practice, during one drill, Brown jammed his thumb and tore the cartilage. He howled in pain. No trainer came to him. They never did. Brown tried to block out the pain until his knee bent awkwardly during a hitting drill, causing a sprain and some torn cartilage. He hobbled to the side, again, he said, without a trainer paying him any mind.
For the first time he was not just hurt, he was injured. He couldn’t stand up. His thumb was killing him. His knee was beginning to swell. Practice ended with no one asking his condition. There was no medical attention. Brown limped to the locker room, undressed and eventually hauled himself up the hill to the campus infirmary for treatment. It was the only place that would see him.
The doctor said he couldn’t play football for a while.
“The world started crumbling in on me,” Brown said. “My dream was coming apart. I was recounting everything that happened to me, from the first day until the last one I walked off. I was sad. I was angry. I was bitter and disappointed in me and at the coaches. I didn’t share my frustrations with other people, but I realized it was affecting my studies.
“I said, ‘Let’s refocus. Let me get into something I can make a difference, where they can’t deny me the opportunity. Let me go to law school.’ “
That’s when he decided he was done with football. The Arkansas Razorbacks, it turned out, had beaten him. The one-player Southern football integration movement was over.
Darrell Brown, the man, was just getting started.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, just across the Mississippi River from Arkansas. Brown was crushed. He was a junior then. In the wake of King’s death, a new movement took shape, and Brown became more militant in his opposition to racism.
By December 1969, Brown had moved onto UA’s law school and had become affiliated with a group called the Black Americans for Democracy. Arkansas football was as big as ever. Four years after Brown tried to walk on, Broyles even recruited his first black scholarship player, Jon Richardson from Little Rock. (In 1966, Jerry LeVias became the first scholarship black player at SMU).
To end the season, the second-ranked Razorbacks were set to play host to No. 1 Texas in what was being dubbed “The Game of the Century.” President Nixon was going to attend.
Brown planned on being there, too, only as part of a protest. He and about two-dozen others were set to storm the field in the middle of the game and stage an act of civil disobedience against the school’s playing of the song “Dixie.”
On the Friday night before the game, the group protested the pep rally, where they were jeered and harassed. Afterward they planned to meet up at the off-campus apartment of one of the leaders. Brown got separated from the group and didn’t have a ride. He decided to run there.
“I was jogging along and a car came up and I remember hearing a pop,” Brown said. “I just kept jogging until I started feeling something funny in my right knee. I stopped and realized I’d been shot. I hadn’t been shot before, so I didn’t know what was happening.”
Brown managed to make it to the apartment as the knee began to burn. He was taken to the hospital by future judge and local civil-rights icon Wendell Griffen. The planned protest at the football game was cancelled out of fear of violence.
No one was ever arrested. The knee still hurts sometimes.
For nearly two decades, Brown all but blocked the University of Arkansas from his memory. He hated the place. He hated the memories. Once he graduated from UA law school, he set up a practice in Little Rock and vowed to never look back. He began raising a family. He became a noted trial attorney, leaving other lawyers in awe at his ability to produce riveting closing arguments and witness examinations without the benefits of notes.
“I prepared harder than they did,” Brown said. “If the other attorney prepared for eight or nine hours, I prepared for 35 or 40.”
Then in the mid-to-late 1990s his daughter Deedee became a high school track star. Soon colleges from across the country were coming to recruit her, offering full rides, including the school up in Fayetteville.
And that’s when Darrell Brown had to decide whether he could forgive the University of Arkansas for the treatment of him. A treatment the school couldn’t remember and he couldn’t forget.
“You know where the Bible says, ‘Love your enemy” or ‘Pray for your enemy’?” Brown says. “It took me a long time to understand what that meant. You don’t have to love them. You do have to appreciate God’s creation. And you can pray their ways can change because you impacted them. So my hatred took a back seat to that.”
With that, Brown began to forgive.
“I’m still working on some of it,” he said. “I can forgive, but it’s hard to forget.”
Maybe it was when the track coach, sitting in their home on a recruiting visit, spoke of a new era at the school. Maybe it was returning to campus for meets and seeing his daughter seize the school’s opportunities like he once did. Maybe it was just being back in Fayetteville, an undeniably beautiful place. All he knows is somewhere in there he began to feel some Razorback pride again.
Brown had shared some of his story with his children, which included his oldest son, Darrell Jr., and youngest, Derick. He never told all of it.
“I never wanted my kids to use that as a crutch,” Darrell said.
It wasn’t until one day after class when a professor stopped Deedee and asked if she was Darrell Brown’s daughter. The professor knew the tale of the onetime walk-on, and that’s when the full story came out.
“Until then it didn’t completely register how serious a situation it had been,” Deedee said. “I think he blocked a lot of it out. And he never wanted it to deter me from making a decision, from closing off an option. I remember I called him that night and said, ‘Dad, why didn’t you tell me?’ “
The truth was, Darrell Brown couldn’t tell much of the story without breaking down in tears, something he didn’t want his teenage daughter to see. He still can’t do it.
After Deedee’s freshman year, Darrell Jr. followed his father’s trail to the UA law school. The thaw continued. Brown even began supporting the Razorbacks football team. Deedee, who became a two-time All-American, eventually married a football player, Marcus Campbell.
The circle of life seemed to culminate on a fine spring day in 2002, when within a couple hours two of Brown’s children graduated. “My chest was out to here with pride,” he said Derick is now pursuing a doctorate at the school.
That evening, Brown reserved the Razorback Room at the Catfish Hole, a local institution. Forty or so people filled it up, and Brown stood and tried to express what it all meant.
There was the family legacy of never quitting. The irony of a school that did everything it could to keep him from playing paying for the education of his daughter. And there was his own son graduating from the same law school that that he was shot while attending.
It was everything, all at once, delivered with the precision and power of a trial attorney.
“Everybody in the place was bawling,” Deedee said. “No one made it through that.”
Especially not Darrell Brown, who choked up repeatedly.
“Now that I’m older,” Deedee said, “it means even more. Hearing the stories of what he endured. He created a great life for us.
“That man … I’m telling you, I’m proud of that man.”
It was around that time that Darrell Brown decided to attend an Arkansas football function in Little Rock. Frank Broyles had retired from coaching but was the school’s athletic director and scheduled to attend.
Brown’s place in history had been mostly forgotten. His name wasn’t listed in the school media guide; since he never played a varsity down, he never lettered. To most Razorback fans, Jon Richardson was known as the school’s first black player. While some in the media, notably Wally Hall, the longtime sports columnist at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, accurately noted Brown’s time as a walk-on, few knew the depth of the story.
It was like he never existed.
“What he did was absolutely courageous,” Hargis said, “and he never got any credit for it.”
That night at the football function, Brown walked up to Broyles. The coach had never spoken to him during his time as a player. After all these years Broyles understandably shook Brown’s hand like it was their first meeting.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” Brown recalls saying.
“No,” Broyles responded.
“I’m Darrell Brown.”
“You were the first,” Broyles said.
“Yes, sir, I was the first.”
That was the conversation, according to Brown. That Broyles didn’t apologize or even offer a specific recognition wasn’t a surprise to Brown. He never expected such a thing.
The memories can rile him up. The question of how so many adults could be so cruel can keep him up. Yet he’s worked hard at not holding a grudge against the people involved, Broyles included, who in later years made many progressive hires and moves to help blacks in the state.
“In his mind he knows what happened,” Brown said. “He knows what I went through. I don’t have to paint that picture.”
In 2006, Darrell Brown was living on an 80-acre farm, complete with personal fishing pond, back in Horatio. He’d moved home to help take of his aging mother, now 97, and an aunt, who passed away earlier this year at 98. His law firm was dealing at the time with disbarment procedure over what state bar association documents deemed “misappropriated funds” involving a medical malpractice case. Brown believed it was more as a clerical error but acknowledged that money that should have been sent out wasn’t. He took full responsibility and paid the money back.
Rather than challenge the disbarment, he closed his practice in Little Rock, concentrated on life in Horatio and opened a trial consulting business that he operates to this day.
“I don’t agree with it but the buck stop stops with me,” said Brown, now 63. “My life is full of ups and downs.”
He received a phone call in 2006 from a man named Rus Bradburd, who was in the process of writing “Forty Minutes of Hell,” the acclaimed biography about former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson.
Richardson had told Bradburd the story. Now Bradburd wanted to tell everyone. Brown was initially reluctant to talk. Over ensuing phone calls, a trust was built. Brown wound up telling it all, his chapter in the book eventually opening eyes across the state of Arkansas.
Some of those were inside the Arkansas athletic department, including the school’s current athletic director Jeff Long and associate AD Eric Wood. In 2011, they launched the Razorback Trailblazers to recognize former student-athletes that helped integrate their sport, a way to bridge a painful past with a hopeful present.
On Saturday, at halftime of the Hogs game against defending national champion Auburn, in front of a likely overflow crowd of about 74,000, Darrell Brown will be named the football Trailblazer. Forty-five years later, he’ll walk out into the middle of Reynolds Razorback Stadium, a place he desperately sought as a player and later a protester.
“They’re even going to escort me onto the field,” he said.
Family and friends will surround him. Old teammates and new fans will cheer. The school plans to present him a trophy. Brown expects to be crying. Again. “No chance he makes it without crying,” Deedee said.
The whole thing still hurts him. This, he says, is important though.
“For the university to finally acknowledge I tried and for a particular reason I didn’t get the opportunity, it’s a major thing,” Brown said.
“All these years later, it’s a major, major thing.”