Georgia football honors ‘The Five’ on 50th anniversary of integration

ATHENS – It’s hard to believe it has been 50 years. Then again, it’s hard to believe it has been only 50 years.

Those are among many sentiments shared by “The Five.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Georgia Bulldogs integrating their football team. Coach Vince Dooley brought in five Black players in 1971, four signees and a walk-on. Richard Appleby, Chuck Kinnebrew, Horace King, Clarence Pope and Larry West -- or “The Five,” as they have come to be called -- will be honored at Sanford Stadium in pregame ceremonies before Saturday’s game against South Carolina.

Three of the five trailblazers participated in a video conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon to share some anecdotes and discuss what it was like then and how they feel about where things are now. The fact that the call zipped past an hour before UGA moderator Claude Felton had to halt the proceedings without all the questions being asked and answered is a testament to the liveliness of the discussion.

In summary, it was hard, it was wonderful and these proud men wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“I’m just very thankful,” said Kinnebrew, a defensive lineman from Rome. “Fifty years is a long time, and a lot has occurred over that period of time. I’m glad to see that the university is moving in the direction that it’s moving in across the board with diversity, equity and inclusion. But it doesn’t seem like 50 years.”

Said King, a running back from Athens: “For me it has been both short and long. I’ve been trying to wrap my hands around all this after all this time has passed. … Thinking through that time and how I lived each day, though I was from Athens, it was like I had moved to another town far away, because of how big that university was and how busy I was trying to be the best student-athlete that I could be. I’m just thankful I had that opportunity.”

That also was important to West, a defensive back who had five career interceptions, including a 75-yard return for a touchdown in 1972. He now is pastor of a church in Washington, D.C.

“I’m grateful that we’ve been able to show that we were more than just football players,” West said Tuesday. “We were human beings who set goals and objectives and had ambitions and, of course, led lives that we hope made the university joyful, proud and excited about our accomplishments.

“Again, I believe we were the right five at the right time to be able to do the things that needed to be done and to make contributions to society in which we live. Thank God that the university had a role to play in that.”

Appleby is a former tight end who is better known for his one touchdown pass (to defeat Florida in 1975) than the 48 career catches he had. He, King and Pope were all teammates on the first integrated team at Athens’ Clarke Central High School. Pope, a linebacker, walked on, eventually earned a scholarship and became a starter by his senior season.

All five former players are expected to be in attendance Saturday. The highlight of the day will be the unveiling of a monument on Reed Plaza marking the 1971 milestone of integration.

In addition, there is a new exhibit at UGA’s Special Collections Library in the Russell Building called “Not Only for Ourselves: The Integration of UGA Athletics.” Some of those exhibits are available online.

The Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications has produced a documentary titled “The First Five” that soon will be available for viewing on georgiadogs.com and the Grady College’s YouTube page.

The adulation and attention has been a bit mind-blowing for these men, who have gone about their lives as mostly ordinary, productive citizens. But it has never been lost on them the importance of what they were doing.

“I grew up in a home in Albany, Ga., where the people were very involved in the civil rights movement,” West said. “And that in and of itself had an impact with me. But we knew the five of us, coming together, was going to be impactful because we were the first.”

The fact is, being first was a way of life for all of these men at that time. All of them were in the first integrated classes at their respective middle schools and high schools.

“This was not my first rodeo from an integration standpoint,” Kinnebrew said. “I was from Rome, Ga., and we were integrating just about every aspect of life you could think of. By the time I got to Athens, Ga., I clearly understood why I was there: to get an education and to play football. Fear was not an option.”

The experience was not without some drama. The players met some resistance from a faction of their fellow UGA students.

“One of my most disappointing moments when I showed up on the University of Georgia campus was a hangman’s noose and Dixie flag was hung out there in front of the building,” King said. “That kind of singed a little bit, but it wasn’t anything new growing up in Athens. … Quitting was not an option.”

The Five actually weren’t the first athletes to integrate UGA athletics. A young man named Ken Dious walked on with the football team in the spring of 1966, but chose not to stick with it. He became a lawyer and a pillar of the community in Athens. The next year, James Hurley actually made the team and appears in the 1967 team photo. But he transferred to Vanderbilt before fall classes began and became one of the first three players to integrate that school’s football program.

Maxie Foster ran track on a partial scholarship in 1968, and Ronnie Hogue became the first Black athlete to receive a full scholarship when he signed to play basketball with the Bulldogs in 1969. John King, an all-state fullback from Toney, Ala., signed with the Bulldogs to considerable fanfare in February 1970. But he had a change of heart and never enrolled, opting to attend Minnesota instead. He rushed for more than 1,100 yards as a junior and became the Gophers’ MVP.

No, it wasn’t until 1971, when freshmen still weren’t eligible to play, that The Five showed up as a group, stuck with the program and graduated. There was strength in their number, which was part of Dooley’s ploy to make it work this time for Georgia.

“I knew there had been some black players to try out for that football team. But my thought is they all showed up individually, alone,” said King, who became the first Black player to score a touchdown for the Bulldogs. “Without a support system around them, they didn’t make it. I think Vince had seen that process happen, and that’s why a group was brought in, and we all showed up together. Thus, The Five.”

Said Kinnebrew: “Sometimes it wasn’t easy. If we didn’t have the camaraderie and a group amongst ourselves, it probably would have been harder. … We realized it was about more than just football. It was critical that we go and graduate, and none of us ever got in trouble.”

All three men stressed that Dooley was highly influential in their decision to come to UGA.

“During recruiting, when he came to my house to visit, he made a statement that really impacted me,” West said. “He said, ‘If you come to the University of Georgia, I’ll treat you as if you’re my own son.’ That statement influenced me tremendously.”

West said Dooley makes a point to visit him every time he’s in D.C.

Saturday is not the first time that The Five have been feted. They were honored on the field 20 years ago on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of their arrival. And this past year, coach Kirby Smart invited them come to the football complex to meet with the team. That was at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement and social unrest throughout the country.

“The head coach and the administration here has taken some steps to get more minorities involved,” King said. “There are not a lot of black head coaches in the game, but there are a lot of people ready to step into those positions. So we’re here having a celebration for 50 years since we showed up on the Georgia campus. One day maybe it won’t have to be recognized so much. … Progress is being made, but nothing is ever fast enough.”