Monday, January 16, 2012

1 Man Against the Machine

On this 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I want to tell the story I first heard just a few months ago of one man against the machine. I’m not talking about Martin Luther King, Jr.; I’m talking about a man King inspired. His name is Darrell Brown from the little town of Horatio in southwest Arkansas. Darrell is a black man, and in the fall of 1965 he headed up Highway 71 to Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas. There were only a few black students on campus in those days, and there were zero black students in the university’s athletic programs. (I’m not picking on the University here. You know how I love my alma mater. But what was true of Arkansas at the time was true of the entire Southwest Conference, Southeast Conference, and Atlantic Coast Conference. Blacks were not welcome in those athletic programs. That was the reality of that era of our history.) And Brown, who had heard Martin Luther King encourage black folks in the south to do their part, decided that his part would be to break the racial barrier in the Razorback football program—to be one man against the machine.

Having attended a poor black-only school near Horatio, Brown had never played organized football in school. But he had the body for it: 5’11” and 190 pounds—which was pretty good size for college football players in that era. So when it was time for walk-ons to report, Brown showed up to get his uniform. The equipment manager didn’t know what to do when Brown stood before him, so he told Brown to come back the next day. Brown did and got a uniform. But that’s about all he got. He got no playbook and he got no respect. And other than getting an earful of racial slurs, he was given the silent treatment by the team. A couple of assistant coaches showed minor support, but the head coach never met Brown or said one word to him.

On the first day of practice, the coach sent Brown back to return a kickoff, and it didn’t dawn on Brown until the ball was in the air that he had no blockers. It was less like football and more like the playground game called kill the man with ball. And that’s what the eleven did. “They were good at gang-tackling,” said Brown. This happened over and over. Brown felt like he was essentially a tackling dummy on the team. It was obvious that his coaches and teammates were trying to wear him out and run him off. But Brown followed the encouragement of his hero, Martin Luther King, Jr., and hung in there, taking a beating nearly every day. In those days, freshman were ineligible to play for the varsity, and in spite of having no playbook, Brown did play a few plays in the freshman games—which is pretty amazing in its own right.

He endured the season and though no one told him when the reporting day was for the next season, Brown showed up. Aside from finding a friend or two, Brown was treated the same in season two that he had been in season one. During practice in season two, Brown sustained serious hand and knee injuries for which he was offered no attention from the trainers or medical staff. He had to limp off the field by himself and drag himself to the student infirmary to receive care. That was that for Brown’s football playing days at the University of Arkansas. But it was his injuries, not his guts or a lack of determination, that kept him from returning to the field. Brown’s attempt to be a one-man integration movement for southern college football was over.

Brown didn’t give up on his studies, however. He graduated from the University and also completed law school. He served as a lawyer until his retirement a few years ago. After the treatment Brown received during his days at the University, he held a grudge for a very long time. During football season he couldn’t even root for his home state team and alma mater. But that has mellowed over the years, in part because his daughter received a track scholarship and his son attended law school there. Brown witnessed the changes across the years at the University that created widening opportunities for blacks. And something else factored into his change of heart: “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.” Brown began to forgive and he started reconnecting with the University once again. In fact, this past October, Darrell Brown was honored in the center of Razorback Stadium (the scene of so much previous abuse) during halftime of the Auburn game when he was named the University of Arkansas Football Trailblazer.

In 1970, Jon Richardson from Little Rock was the first black Razorback recruit in the school’s history. I remember that very well, and that’s a distinction that belongs only to Richardson. But Darrell Brown was the first black man to wear the uniform.

And on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I want you to hear his story and give thanks for the opportunities created and progress made for blacks and other minorities in our society. And I also want to remind you that those opportunities and progress sadly came at the great cost of heroic pioneers like the famous Martin Luther King, Jr. and a young man you’ve never heard of named Darrell Brown from tiny Horatio, Arkansas, who dared to be one man against the machine.

If you want to read much more about Brown’s story, you can find it her in a story by Dan Wetzel on Yahoo Sports:

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