Hinton, Williams blazed trail for LSU football

A strange voice boomed through the interstate telephone line: “Lora, this is Gov. John J. McKeithen of Loos-i-ana. We have a fine school down here — and a good football team. Why don’t you come down and give us a visit?’’

That conversation heralded a new day in LSU football. It’s now four decades since Lora Hinton and Mike Williams became the first black football players at LSU.

A hot commodity from Chesapeake, Va., Hinton, in a scenario that in retrospect seems almost pre-ordained, was the first to sign — belatedly — an athletic grant-in-aid with LSU in 1971.

Williams, of Covington, would be the second, and he would immediately make his presence felt. At a time when freshmen were ineligible, Williams started every game as a sophomore cornerback in 1972, making dramatic plays and eventually being selected All-Southeastern Conference and All-America.

The two forge a startling contrast with the LSU teams of today that is startling. Four decades ago, there were two black faces on an LSU squad of more than 60 bodies; today, nearly 70 percent of the LSU football team is black.

In the early ’70s, times were changing.

The issue of color for the pair in sports today isn’t so much black and white as it is purple and gold.

Hinton for years has stayed close to LSU football by working as a marshal for games at Tiger Stadium. Hinton, who is a regional representative for a national food outlet and who remained in Louisiana after his playing days, said with a faraway look in his eyes, “Saturday nights in Tiger Stadium is hard to leave. Really hard.’’

Weeks after this season’s Alabama game, it’s still a sore subject for Williams. Wearing an LSU sweatshirt at his home in Covington, he said disgustedly: “We should have beaten Bama. We were the better team that night!’’

These aren’t simply LSU trailblazers. They are intensely loyal, happy with the memories of their time and experience there, engaged with Tigers football — LSU zealots, purple and gold through and through.

Because of time, place and circumstance, neither was born to be a Tiger.

Author Michael Oriard, in his book “Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football From the Sixties to the BCS Era,” points out: “At the end of the 1960s, football was not yet indelibly black. In 1968 about a quarter of the players in the NFL were African-Americans (about the same as in Major League Baseball, with the NBA at 50 percent).

“The college game had marquee black players like O.J. Simpson and Leroy Keyes, to be sure, but after two decades of gradual change, few Northern teams were even as integrated as the NFL, and the South barely had begun to desegregate its football programs. But big-time college football was on the verge of a dramatic racial transformation.’’

When the 1960s opened, no school in the South or border areas had integrated athletic programs — not in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southwest Conference or the SEC. It began changing in fringe states to the South — first at Maryland, in Texas with SMU and Baylor, and Kentucky and Tennessee in the SEC.

A decade later, there were still inroads to be made in the SEC, where half the schools still had not brought in black athletes, and at LSU, where progress had been made — but not in football. There’s a dichotomy in tracking racial progress at LSU, which accepted black students as far back as 1953 and black athletes in the late ’60s but no black football players until 1971, one of the last SEC schools to do so.

By the time Hinton and Williams reported to the Tigers, LSU already had black athletes competing in track, basketball, baseball, wrestling and gymnastics. Few, perhaps, but they were there.

Charlie McClendon’s football regime was not oblivious to the coming change.

The staff was on alert to find the right trailblazer, one who could handle the pressure. Some of his staff members said McClendon had sought the counsel of coaching friends like Woody Hayes and Duffy Daugherty about the matter, and they felt LSU’s first black football player would be under a microscope.

Against all odds, that would be Hinton.

Hinton had schools up and down the East Coast vying for his name on an athletic grant-in-aid, despite the fact he had not played his senior season at Great Bridge High School because of a knee injury. But his potential — as a student and a player — was so great that major programs were willing to take a chance.

The Wildcats under coach Billy O’Brien were a regular stop for college recruiters, and one of Hinton’s teammates, tight end Chuck Mamoudis, had recently signed with LSU. Here’s where fate seemed to step in.

Mamoudis’ mother was originally from New Orleans and had moved to Chesapeake a couple years before. Mamoudis’ brother, visiting the family in Virginia, was present at a New Year’s Eve party, which Hinton also attended and in which his exploits were a hot topic of conversation.

Hearing of this potential, Mamoudis’ brother eagerly said he knew someone who knew McKeithen, then heavily involved with LSU football, and would let him know of Hinton.

Thinking no more of it, Hinton was stunned a few days later when he received the call from the governor. It changed his life — and LSU football.

Williams was just as much of a long shot, even though he grew up just 50 miles from Tiger Stadium. Doug Hamley, responsible for recruiting that area of the state, tried to sell the Covington High running back/defensive back on LSU in 1970, when he watched Williams shut out an all-state quarterback.

“Coach, I’m just a junior. I’m not ready for college ball yet,’’ Williams told Hamley.

LSU didn’t come back. A year later, Tulane and most of the state schools tried to lure Williams. He eventually signed with Southeastern Louisiana to be close to home — and his girlfriend.

Then, at the Louisiana All-Star football game, played in July in Tiger Stadium, Hamley and another assistant coach, Don “Scooter’’ Purvis, talked to Williams again. They told him SLU was in a different conference from LSU and, according to rules of the day, he still could sign with the Tigers.

Williams asked for the rest of the weekend to think it over. That Monday, he called Hamley and told him he was coming.

Being the football team’s first black players — and among a distinct minority in the school as a whole — wasn’t a major concern for Hinton or Williams.

Both had been among the first black students at their high schools, which helped. And it wasn’t as if there were just a few black students at LSU; there were hundreds.

“We didn’t all just hang out with each other,’’ Williams said. “I met a black woman not long ago who went to LSU at the same time as me. We had never met. Lora and me weren’t alone at LSU.’’

As far as relationships with white students, both had the attitude that, if anyone didn’t want to be around them, then don’t come around. That seldom happened. And they felt then, and now, that LSU supported them fully.

Hinton recalled an incident on his recruiting trip when linebacker Warren Capone and offensive lineman Tyler Lafauci took him out. Entering a bar, a Baton Rouge policeman prevented the 17-year-old Hinton from following his friends. The others came back, argued with the officer, then said they were all leaving.

“We went out and got some pizza,’’ Hinton said. “Had a great time, too.’’

Hinton did have one ugly moment. It came during the recruiting process, when he says a coach from a northern school said to his mother, “ ‘All right, let him go down there to be knifed or something.’ My momma freaked out, didn’t want me to go,” Hinton said. “But I did want to go, and finally she let me.’’

The worst incident Williams can recall came at a restaurant in Jackson, Miss., where LSU was having a Friday night meal before a game with Ole Miss. While everyone else was being served steak, Williams got a lump of fat on his plate.

When it was pointed out to McClendon, the coach picked up the plate, brought it to the manager and told him unless Williams got what he ordered, the entire party — more than a hundred people — was leaving.

A steak and salad were hustled over almost instantly. “It was good, too,” Williams recalled. “Real good.”

Hinton and Williams say — insist, really — there was never an untoward incident or moment where they were made to feel unwelcome at LSU, by their teammates, by the student body or by the fans. That’s in contrast to stories elsewhere as to how pioneering black athletes were treated.

Nobody who lives in Louisiana could believe it is a utopia in race relations. But since LSU already had black athletes in other sports — or perhaps because it had been four years since Nat Worthington at Kentucky, then Lester McClain a year later at Tennessee broke the color line in the SEC — some of the outrageous rancor may have peaked. But Hinton and Williams staunchly maintain their LSU experiences were positive.

“Look, times change, people change,” Williams said.

Asked pointedly about any distasteful experiences at LSU, Hinton answered, “Quite to the contrary. What I got out of LSU was great experiences and great friends for life.’’

“I think they all looked out for us at LSU,” Williams said. “I know this: Coach Charlie McClendon was as fair a man as could be. We were treated pretty bad on the football practice field, but we all were.”

That bad knee hindered Hinton throughout his LSU career. He redshirted as a sophomore in ’72, then became a three-year letterman who contributed to the team, but not to the extent his potential indicated.

“Lora was really a great prospect,” then-assistant coach Lynn LeBlanc said. “We could see it from time to time, but that doggone knee never let him get to where he could have been.”

Williams, on the other hand, was an instant sensation. How good was he?

“He really was one of the great Tigers,” recalled Purvis, his position coach. “One of the best I ever had.”

It should be noted Purvis also coached Williams’ predecessor, three-time All-American Tommy Casanova.

Williams held down a cornerback spot from the opening game of his LSU career. In the 10th game of the ’72 season, he pulled off one of the storied plays in Tigers annals.

In a driving rainstorm, described by Dan Hardesty of the Baton Rouge State-Times as “the wettest game in all of LSU history,’’ the Tigers made one of nine field goal attempts in a struggle at Florida. In that lake of a football field, Gators speedster Nat More caught a screen pass at the Florida 20-yard line, then splashed down the sideline. Williams gave chase and caught Moore 79 yards downfield at the LSU 1.

On the next play, the soggy football was fumbled, and Williams recovered to salvage a 3-3 tie.

“When I looked at the film, I couldn’t believe what I did, either,’’ Williams said. “Moore was about a 9.3 sprinter. I was about 9.8. But I kept gaining and gaining ... until somehow I caught him.

“People still ask me about that play.’’

As opposed to the football field, Williams had some missteps in life. He played nine seasons with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers and somewhere along the line got involved in drugs.

“It overtook my thinking,” he said in his home in Covington, where he lives on his NFL pension. “I thought I could handle it. I couldn’t.”

Williams spent years in incarceration — and even more years regretting his decisions. None of his LSU coaches could believe it was the shy, retiring player they knew.

“He was a good, responsible kid,” LeBlanc said.

“He was conscientious, responsible,” said Jack Salter, his high school coach. “Mike was the kind who was always first to practice, last to leave, always did the right thing, always wanted to know what he was supposed to do. Then he’d do it. It was hard to believe that he of all people would do something so wrong.

“On the other hand, he made a mistake, and I don’t know of anyone who could say they haven’t.”

Hinton and Williams were trailblazers, to be sure, especially for youngsters in the black community, who saw them as pioneers who cleared the way. The memory of what it meant to others brings a tear to Williams’ eye when he remembers one moment.

Just retired from his NFL career, Williams was one of the luminaries at a preseason 1984 LSU fan gathering. Almost immediately as his name was announced, the arms of two notable young Tigers wrapped around him. They belonged to Dalton Hilliard, who would finish his college career as LSU’s all-purpose yards record-holder, and Eric Martin, an All-American receiver.

“If it weren’t for you, Mike, we wouldn’t be at LSU,” Hilliard uttered earnestly.

“That was a long time ago,” Williams said, “but it still touches me when I think about it.”