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Hardaway relates Tech experience

Published: Sunday, February 07, 1999

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Avalanche-Journal is recognizing Black History Month with a series of articles about local and area sports figures.

When he goes to work or the park or the corner drug store these days, Danny Hardaway pretty well blends in with the crowd. He's an average, working-class American who probably doesn't get much more than a glance from most folks.

But there was a time regrettably not long ago when Hardaway stood out like an ebony island in an ivory sea. There was a time when he was anything but average. There was a time when he stood virtually alone.

In February 1967, Hardaway became the first African-American to sign a athletic scholarship with Texas Tech. Many have followed but Hardaway, who signed to play football for the Red Raiders, forever will be the first the one who broke the color barrier.

''Being the first African-American to get a scholarship there, I guess I was kind of anxious initially,'' Hardaway said Tuesday from his home in Aurora, Colo. ''It was also the first time I ever had a white roommate. It was different, but I was brought up as an army brat. I could deal with it.

''Maybe that's why they (Tech) chose me. I had a background in a white school that had a large black population. They probably felt I could answer the challenge without too many problems. Racism was certainly around. I'm not going to fool myself about that. But I was kind of sheltered from most of that. I'm sure a lot of people didn't like the idea of me being around, but I didn't see a lot of it not in my face, so to speak.''

Hardaway, who came to Tech as a wide receiver but played running back in college, was born in Memphis, Tenn. The family later moved to Lawton, Okla., where Hardaway attended Lawton Douglass High, and later, integrated Lawton High.

Hardaway excelled in both basketball and football in high school. During his senior season at Lawton, he caught 55 passes for 996 yards and also scored on a 75-yard kickoff return.

But the 6-foot-3, 205-pound athlete perhaps was recruited by Tech as much for his personality and demeanor as anything else. He was and still is an affable sort who speaks calmly and intelligently while focusing on the positive and ignoring the negatives.

''I remember he was a real likable young man,'' John Conley said of Hardaway. Conley was an assistant football coach at Tech from 1961-74 and the school's athletic director from 1980-85.

''I remember him very well as being the first, the only black Red Raider. I really liked the young man. He was a good guy. I don't remember one single incident where there was a problem. I'd say he handled it very well,'' Conley said.

''I remember he was on the campus radio. He was a disc jockey. I guess he was pretty good. I remember his opening. I'd listen to him driving to work or whatever and he'd say, 'Good morning, Lubbock ... this is your only black Red Raider.' He was a good guy and a good player.''

Somewhat surprisingly, Hardaway himself remembers few racially charged problems during his days in Lubbock. Teammates and coaches, rather than objecting to his presence, sought to protect him.

JT King was the head football coach when Hardaway came to Lubbock, and he was recruited by assistant coach Burl Bartlett. Hardaway played one season for the Tech freshmen team (NCAA rules prevented freshmen from playing on the varsity in those days) and lettered for the Raiders in 1969-70.

''There were a few things that happened,'' said Hardaway, who now trains and manages medical couriers for Quest Diagnostics. ''I just kind of tried to ignore it. I'm sure that some whites didn't like the idea of me being there. But I generally got it when I went to another school. I didn't get a lot of it at Jones Stadium or on campus. But I used to get some snide remarks and some racial slurs when we visited other campuses.

''I enjoyed the (Tech) campus. I enjoyed the coaching staff that I came in with, coach Bartlett and coach JT King. I think he (King) was the one who picked me. I also got along really well with Grant Teaff because he was the running backs coach at the time. I enjoyed the whole experience. I enjoyed the locals in Lubbock, the people in the black community as well as the white community.''

Given the times and the attitude of many people throughout the South, Hardaway believes the treatment he received in Lubbock wasn't much different than he would have gotten in Oklahoma, where colleges already had opened their doors to black athletes.

''If I'd just been a regular old Joe, it probably would have been worse even back in Lawton,'' he said. ''I don't think Oklahoma was as bad as some parts of south Texas or East Texas. I came from Memphis, Tennessee, and that was even worse, yet. Oklahoma was a lot better than Tennessee, the Deep South.

''I know a lot of people in Lubbock and West Texas weren't crazy about me being at Tech. The coaching staff and other players kind of sheltered me from that. But I wasn't naive. I knew how a lot of people felt about me, but I couldn't care less. I was there to do a job, get an education and do something I enjoyed.''

Oddly enough, Hardaway picked Tech over Oklahoma and Minnesota because the Raiders' offense was more pass-oriented. But shortly after arriving in Lubbock, Hardaway was switched from wide receiver to running back.

At the time, Hardaway didn't really think of himself as a pioneering barrier-breaker. But as the years have gone by, he has grown to appreciate the role he played in opening doors for others to follow.

''I think I made a difference,'' said Hardaway, who helped recruit African-Americans Gene Knolle and Greg Lowery to the Tech basketball team. ''There have been a lot of African-Americans after me. They've had all-Americans, all-conference guys and everything in between. There's a lot of people who got an opportunity because of the door I opened. That's one thing I'm proud of.

''When you look back, gosh, it wasn't that long ago. It should have happened before that, like it did in the Big Ten and the Big Eight and some schools in California. I guess the Southwest Conference was a little slower. I think I was the third one in the Southwest Conference. Jerry Levias was the first at SMU, and I think there was another one at TCU.''

Hardaway led Tech with 483 rushing yards and 1969 and was a part-time starter in 1970, Jim Carlen's first year as head coach. But that would prove to be the end of Hardaway's playing career on the South Plains. He and Carlen had a falling out, and Hardaway returned to Lawton and played his senior season at Cameron University.

''I had problems with coach Carlen,'' Hardaway said. ''I guess he didn't feel I should be getting all the praise and attention I was getting. He took number 44 away from me, and I had been very proud to wear the jersey Donny Anderson wore. That was the first thing. He gave me number 31. I also got into some problems, academically, and he basically turned his back on me and didn't work with me or help me the way I thought he would.

''There were other things, too. They changed the offense in a way that wasn't appealing to me. It came down to whether I wanted to stay there and not play ball or transfer for my last year. I still wanted to play pro ball, so I chose the transfer route.''

Despite the unhappy ending, though, Hardaway seems to have no regrets about his experience at Tech.

''I try to get back there every now and then,'' he said. ''I was there several years ago for homecoming. I'll forever be a Red Raider. I always watch them when they're on (television) ... football and basketball, women's basketball, baseball, track, whatever. I'll be a Red Raider until I die.''

Hardaway did have a brief professional career, playing with the New England Patriots in the NFL and the Houston Gamblers in the USFL before a severe ankle injury. He settled in Colorado and went into sales and marketing. In the future, he hopes to open his own business.

''Things have changed a lot, I will say that,'' Hardaway said. ''But they still haven't changed enough in certain areas. We still have racist people. We're getting better all the time, but we still have a ways to go. With the emergence of skinheads and everything, it seems like we're kind of reverting back to the '50s and '60s.

''It would be sad if we allow that to happen, at least to decent people. But I think more and more, people aren't going to allow that sort of feeling to fester and be permitted to go on. As a people, both black and white, we're getting better. Hopefully, I was a part of that in some minor way, way back when.''

Sam Scott can be contacted at 766-8733 or sscott@windmill.net