IRMO -- Marion Reeves is a builder.
Reeves still can recall his father's lectures. Society always will need builders, Roland Reeves would tell his son.
When Marion Reeves, 58, smooths concrete at jobs in Columbia these days, you wonder if the people around him know of his past.
Reeves, also a pastor, like his father, reflected on the question for a moment in his modest office a few steps from his Sunday pulpit at Pleasant Springs AME Church in Irmo.
"Some people know," Reeves said. "I don't tell people things. Sometimes people heard I went to Clemson. It's a shock to some."
It is fitting that Reeves is in the masonry business. Forty years ago this fall, he laid his most important foundation when he became the first black football player at Clemson.
The case of George Webster
In the spring of 1975, Reeves and then-retired Clemson coach Frank Howard sat together in a campus sauna with a visitor, George Webster.
A pro football star, Webster was rehabilitating his injured knee at Clemson. Webster was born and raised in nearby Anderson, but could not play football at Clemson. He had the talent, but there was a catch. Clemson had never signed a black player.
"(Howard) said at that time he wanted Webster," Reeves said. "But he said, 'They would have rode me out of town on a rail.' Those were his words."
Before Reeves and others built an edifice of equality in college football, it was players like Webster who began opening eyes and hammering chunks out of the color barrier.
To play college football, Webster traveled north to Michigan State, where he helped lead the Spartans to their last national title, in 1966.
Michigan State was one of the first power-conference schools to fully integrate. By the early 1960s, Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty had his assistants scouring the South for talent. Former Michigan State assistant Hank Bullough was responsible for recruiting Atlanta.
“We used to take a couple assistants south every year and we had (coaching) clinics,” Bullough said. “But of course blacks couldn’t come in the same room so we’d have special clinics for them. This guy walks up and said ‘Duffy, I got a great football player and I want you to have him.’”
The player was Webster.
“Duff told me to call Frank Howard,” Bullough said. “(Howard) said ‘if I could take one this is the one I would take.’ That’s how we got him.”
Daugherty also traded for players.
When a Michigan State recruit named Joe Namath failed to qualify, Daugherty told Alabama coach Bear Bryant about the quarterback creating a sort of trade where Bryant recommended a black prep star in Virginia.
“(Daugherty) just saw some injustice being done,” Bullough said. “Back in the early 50s that’s when we were playing a lot of black kids and no one else did. Even the ones up North weren’t playing them.”
Soon, other Northern schools began to follow Michigan State’s lead.
At historically black colleges in the South, players like Bob Hayes (Florida A&M) went on to star in the NFL. Nearly every black college produced an NFL Hall of Famer.
Reeves sometimes wonders what could have been had the doors been opened sooner.
Today’s SEC, ACC and Texas-based schools won 39 percent of consensus national championships in a three-decade span prior to integration from the 1940s to 60s. Since 1980, and full integration of rosters, the SEC, ACC and Texas schools have accounted for 58 percent of national titles.
“My first year (at Clemson), talent-wise, we couldn’t hold a candle to S.C. State,” he recalled. “It was a sad thing you could play at a school above the Mason-Dixon Line but you weren’t qualified to play at a school below it.”
Clemson's Branch Rickey
In 1963, Darryl Hill at Maryland became the Atlantic Coast Conference's first black football player.
Kentucky was the first Southeastern Conference school to break the color barrier, in 1966.
At Clemson's athletic council meeting in April 1967, school President Robert C. Edwards stressed the "absolute necessity of our recruiting student athletes on a non- discriminatory basis."
Under Edwards, Clemson became the first white college in South Carolina to admit a black student when Charleston native Harvey Gantt enrolled in January 1963. While Clemson delayed admitting Gantt, Edwards worked behind the scenes to make plans for Gantt's enrollment.
When Hill became the first black ACC player to play in Death Valley, in November 1963, Hill's mother was denied entrance at the gate. Edwards escorted her to the president's box.
On the field, Hill was greeted with "less than a polite welcoming in the stands," according to Clemson historian Jerry Reel. Edwards went to the field, commandeered the microphone from the head cheerleader and admonished the crowd, saying, "We are gentle folks, these are our guests."
In a May 12, 1967, letter to a Clemson official, Edwards wrote: "I am aware that we have investigated a significant number of prospective student athletes who are members of the Negro race, but the fact remains that we have thus far been unsuccessful in recruiting one. … I consider it to be imperative that we expand our efforts."
A year before Reeves arrived, basketball player Craig Mobley became Clemson's first black athlete. But it wasn't until Howard retired that Clemson signed a black football player.
"You had guys that wanted to do things, they just couldn't without repercussions," Reeves said. "I believe (Howard) understood things were changing."
Tom Bass served as an assistant coach under Howard and his successor, Hootie Ingram.
"I think (Howard) was afraid of what the alumni would think," Bass said. "Coach Howard wasn't a racist, he would have loved to recruit African-Americans. He just never did take that first step. If he would have taken that first step he could have gotten the school behind him and the people behind him."
Ingram replaced Howard in 1970 and that spring began recruiting an Irmo High star named Marion Reeves.
Breaking the barrier
What triggers memories for Reeves, a cornerback, is cool fall air and the smell of fresh cut lawns. He thinks of the two-a-day practices. He thinks of the two interceptions he made against South Carolina in 1971. He thinks of the knee injury in his senior year that he believes truncated his NFL career.
Reeves remembers lying awake the night before his first game at Clemson, on Sept. 11, 1971, against Kentucky. He was not in fear of the reception from the fans. No, Reeves was worried about playing.
"I remember running down the hill," Reeves said. "I was on the kickoff team and going down that field it was like you are running on air, like you are not touching the ground."
And with that kickoff, the color barrier around Clemson football was broken, and broken gracefully, as Reeves recalls no racial taunts or disturbances.
Two years earlier, Reeves thought he was headed to Orangeburg to play football at South Carolina State. He had no thoughts of being the first black player at Clemson or dreams of playing at a major conference program.
But on a spring day in 1970, Clemson assistant coach Doug Shively was in the office of Irmo coach Earnest Nivens watching film of a running back prospect. That's when Shively noticed Reeves making play after play.
Ingram said he was just looking for a football player. But in seeking the program's first black player, Bass said the staff was looking for more than an athlete.
"We felt like the first African-American we brought in had to be successful in the classroom and everything else for everything to go smooth," Bass said.
Reeves signed and arrived in the fall of 1970.
Reeves said he heard the "N-word" directed at him from a teammate only once. But Reeves said "you only remember the good things." The good things like meeting his wife, Patricia, on the campus that he still loves. The same campus from where one of his four children, daughter LaChanda Canty, also graduated.
"Everyone was apprehensive until we got to know each other," Reeves said. "I spent a lot of my free time with black students on campus, playing cards. … They took me under their wing to keep from being lonely. You were close, because circumstances dictate you be close."
During a period of despair, Reeves asked long-time Clemson assistant trainer Herman McGee, also black and perhaps the first real trailblazer at Clemson, how he had made it so many years at Clemson.
"He had more respect from the players than probably the coaches did," Reeves said. "He and I talked a lot. I asked him. 'How did you make it? How did you endure?' He said 'You do.' "
Reeves said he never had any sense that he was a trailblazer or thought about his place in history.
"I just know more about the Lord than I did then," Reeves said. "I see now that everything I went through was by design by Him. You always wonder -- why Marion Reeves? You understand now it was in a greater plan. I was just an 18-year-old that enjoyed playing football."
The title Reeves built
On Jan. 1, 1982, 11 seasons after Reeves' first game at Clemson, the Tigers won their only national championship with a black quarterback, Homer Jordan, throwing the game's key touchdown pass to a black wide receiver, Perry Tuttle.
"What if we hadn't been able to recruit Jeff Davis, William Perry and all of those that would have gone out of state?" Bass said.
After Reeves paved the path, Clemson's recruiting included more and more blacks in the 1970s. Across the South, integration of athletic programs helped change the balance of power in college football.
"We laid the groundwork," Reeves said. "Recruiting grew and built after that. When guys from the early years sit around and talk, we talk about the foundation."