An ‘Impactful Experience’ Then And Now

The following article was written by John Frierson for To view the original article, click here.

Chuck Kinnebrew leaned in Tuesday afternoon, elbows on his knees and eyes up at his audience, and said it all in a nutshell: 50 years ago, when Kinnebrew and four other bold and pioneering African-American young men signed on to join the Georgia football team, they were paving the very path they’d have to traverse.

Seated at the front of Georgia’s team meeting room were Kinnebrew, Horace King, Larry West and Clarence Pope, four of the first five African-American football players at Georgia. The only man absent was their teammate Richard Appleby, an Athens native and Clarke Central High School graduate like King and Pope, who now lives in Hawaii.

The four men were speaking that afternoon to the football team’s leadership group, young African-American men whose world on and off the field is in so many ways much different from what King, West, Kinnebrew, Pope and Appleby experienced when they arrived on campus in 1971.

“We didn’t have anybody to talk to us the way we’re here talking to you,” Kinnebrew said.

Talking with the players for about 30 minutes, the four pioneers discussed some of their experiences integrating the football program. There were challenges, they said, but they knew how important it was that they succeed in the classroom as well as on the field.

“If we didn’t do it, we would have proved a lot of people right that didn’t think we could do it,” West said.

The players lived in McWhorter Hall, with King and West rooming together, likewise Pope and Kinnebrew, and Appleby was with another teammate. Dooley and the coaches had high standards for all the players, but the five African-American players held each other the most accountable.

One way they did that was through something they called “rat court.” They laughed as they talked about how if somebody was slipping up in some fashion, the other four would get on him and make sure he got headed in the right direction again. The five had a tight bond and nothing was off limits, be it football, academics, dating — they knew how important it was that they succeed and they weren’t going to let one another down.

“We challenged that person to make sure they clearly understood that what they did was inappropriate,” Kinnebrew said in a recent interview. “We tried to create a standard of behavior that allowed us to be role models because we didn’t want people to see us as the black dumb jocks. 

“We carried ourselves with a high degree of confidence but also with a ton of humility.”

More than anything, though, they talked to the leadership group about how important it was for the current players to think about their futures, about life after football — whether the NFL is in their future or not — and about leaving the program better than they found it so that the next generation can build on what they did.

When things go wrong, Pope said, “what have you got to fall (back) on? What you fall on is what you prepare for.”

“It’s about setting a foundation” for the rest of your life, West said. “That’s what you’re doing, as well, you’re participating in paving the road.”

Just like they did so many years ago.

King, a running back, spent nine seasons with the Detroit Lions before going on to a long career with General Motors. Kinnebrew has been a successful executive with DuPont, Home Depot and Floor & Decor, while West also had a successful career and is a pastor in the Washington, D.C. area. Pope, as he pointed out Tuesday, has lived in Athens his whole life. He was a firefighter in Athens-Clarke County for many years and is also a pastor at a local church.

As late as 1966, according to the book “Integrating the Gridiron” by Lane Demas, no African-American student-athlete participated in any sport in the SEC. That changed soon after across the conference. At Georgia, Maxie Foster, a track athlete, became the first African-American to compete for the Bulldogs, in 1968.

Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss all had integrated football teams in 1972, according to Demas’ book. Football coach Vince Dooley signed King, West, Kinnebrew and Appleby in December 1970 and Pope joined the team as a walk-on. Freshmen were ineligible back then so they played on the freshman team in 1971 and suited up for real in 1972.

Dooley had actually signed another African-American player the year before, James King out of Huntsville, Ala., according to an Athens Banner-Herald Dec. 14, 1970 article on King and Appleby’s signing, but King opted not to come to Georgia. The following year, Dooley and his staff brought in five from within the state: the three from Athens, Kinnebrew from Rome and West from Albany.

“It was certainly time, if not past time, to open it up to African-Americans,” Dooley said recently. “They were five players that we thought were good players that could certainly fit into the program, and three of them happened to be in Athens.

“I tried to assure them that they would be treated right and properly,” Dooley added. “In fact, I think I told Larry West, and I probably told all of them at one time or another, that I would treat them just like I treat my son.”

West remembers visiting the campus as a recruit and meeting Dooley for the first time.

“He used to have all the new recruits come to his house for a dinner and it was interesting because he seemed to know something about everybody, and he recognized everybody when you walked up,” West said. “He could call you by name, so I know that there was some intention on his part to not only get to know you but to already know something about you.”

The four football pioneers on campus Tuesday participated in several events during the University of Georgia’s celebration of Black History Month. They met with coach Kirby Smart and the team and watched the Bulldogs do some conditioning — seeing football players doing yoga may have been a first for them. Later, they spoke to the leadership group and led a discussion with the First and Ten Workshop. They also attended the Mary Frances Early College of Education naming ceremony. Early was the first African-American to earn a degree from UGA, a master’s in music education in 1962.

A decade after Early earned her master’s, the first African-American football players took the field for Georgia. King well remembers scoring his first touchdown — the first Georgia touchdown ever scored by an African-American. (Later in his career, on a halfback pass, he became the first to throw for a touchdown.)

After the game, King said he told a reporter that, “‘I was just trying to help them win.’ And it wasn’t until I read those words in the paper that it crossed my mind that I helped them win and I am part of ‘them.’ That was a team and from that day forward I was a Georgia Bulldog and I didn’t spend any more time worrying about color barriers or anything.

“I was a Georgia Bulldog and I was going to do the best I could to be the best one that I could while I was there.”

At the time that they signed with Georgia, the players knew that they were the trailblazers, the pioneers, the first men through the door. It wasn’t the first time, either. Kinnebrew said he had been among the first African-Americans on several team in Rome, West had the same experience in Albany and Pope, King and Appleby were part of the first group to play at Clarke Central.

Being the first at Georgia was their reality back when they got to campus in 1971, with its ups and downs. And like they told the players on Tuesday, you have to think about the future.

“We knew for sure that how we managed that situation would influence what happened after us,” Kinnebrew said. “We were very cognizant of the position that we were placed in and we felt the responsibility to maintain and manage ourselves accordingly.”

Now, nearly half a century later, their experiences and the significance of what they did mean a great deal to each of them. They received a huge ovation last fall when they were honored on the field during the Missouri game.

“It really brings a smile to my face to know that we made that kind of contribution,” West said.

“After my time there, leaving Georgia, I realized what an impactful experience it was,” King said. “When it was all said and done, it was a wonderful, great experience and it’s something that I will cherish and hold deep and dear, close to me, for the rest of my life.”


Posted on

March 4, 2020

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