By Evin Demirel
In spring 1969, Hiram McBeth broke new ground by becoming the first African American in a varsity-level football game at the University of Arkansas. Few believed McBeth, who had played guard at Pine Bluff’s Townsend High School at 5-feet nine-inches and 142 pounds, had the grit to walk on to the mighty Razorbacks.
But as a freshman, McBeth put on nearly 40 pounds and met Darrell Brown, who’d become the first black Razorback in 1965, on the intramural football field. Despite Brown’s own harsh experiences as a pioneer, he encouraged McBeth to try out for the team. McBeth later recounted that Hog assistant coach Hootie Ingram was also especially encouraging. The experiment soon paid off when McBeth got into the 1969 red-white spring scrimmage in Little Rock*, where he made a touchdown-saving tackle.
“I wasn’t supposed to be playing for the Razorbacks. I wasn’t supposed to be good enough,” he recently said in a telephone interview. “I wasn’t the best, but I was good. When I went out, I just wanted to show the whites I deserved to be there.”
In following years, McBeth joined the “B” team on the varsity level. He got his first regular season action in a 1970 rout of a Wichita State football program playing its first game after a plane crash which killed 14 of its players and its head coach. Although he never earned a letter, he recalled his time fondly. Over the years, McBeth befriended stars like Chuck Dicus and Bill Montgomery, and said the fans’ ‘Pig soooie’ calls sent chills down his spine.
That isn’t to say everything was perfect. In a 1985 interview with Rick Joslin of the Pine Bluff News, McBeth said a couple teammates hit him especially hard in practice and called him the n-word. He also said his coaches’ intolerance for his afro disappointed him. He recalled: “I’ll never forget one day one of them telling me to get that, well, I can’t say what he called it — but to get my hair cut so it would cut down on my wind resistance. And I had a reasonably short haircut.”
Like Darrell Brown before him, McBeth also became a lawyer. Around the time he entered the University of Arkansas law school in 1974, he started a new contact sport: rugby. There, too, he started out as the only black player, but again did not mind. McBeth said: “I still wanted to play sports, and that was the closest thing to football… I still wanted to kick some butt.”
*The University of Arkansas would play two red-white football scrimmages during spring football practice in April. McBeth said that during his career the first would be held in Little Rock, and the second in Fayetteville.
Sports historian Evin Demirel is the author of African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks & Other Forgotten Stories. The book is now available at major bookstores. For more information, visit heritageofsports.com.