Football

Catawba Football: Hill Set Records, Broke Boundaries at Catawba

By Mike London, Salisbury Post, salisburypost.com

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Ike Hill's statistics dominate the Catawba record book four decades after he played, but his impact goes beyond numbers. Hill was Catawba's first black football player when he arrived in the fall of 1965, and he's prouder of his ground-breaking than his ground-gaining.

Hill was a three-sport star at Winston-Salem's all-black Atkins High, but he was best as a quarterback. The doors at Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conference schools were shut to black athletes, but 35 colleges, including Michigan State and Purdue, expressed interest in Hill, whose best friend, Herm Gilliam, went to Purdue, played on a Final Four team and made the NBA.

The son of an insurance executive, Hill had solid grades and board scores and could have gone anywhere in the Northeast or Midwest without making waves. But he zeroed in on Catawba because it was close to home and because the time was right for a pioneer.

"I wanted to be the first black on campus -- that was very important to me, and I hoped to open the door for others," Hill said. "I also had visions of playing at the next level, and knew I wasn't big enough (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) to make it as a pro quarterback. But Catawba was talking about switching me to receiver."

Football assistant Don Maphis and basketball coach Sam Moir, who realized landing Hill could change the future of Catawba athletics, handled the recruiting pitch. When he arrived in Salisbury, Hill never had played with or against a white football player or shared a classroom with a white student. His early social life consisted of listening to records in his room, but head football coach Harvey Stratton became a second father to him and teammates were accepting. That was especially true after it became obvious Hill's electrifying speed would be a difference-maker.

His teammates learned Hill went by "Ike," because his given name, Talmadge, was tough to pronounce and because some believed he bore a resemblance to former president Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower. "For the most part, I felt at home," said Hill, who sometimes drove past Ku Klux Klan rallies when he took the backroads home to Winston-Salem. "Everything went pretty well except for a few crazy profs."

The first time Hill touched the ball as a college player was the opening game of the 1965 season against Mars Hill. The speedy halfback fielded a punt and sped 80 yards for the game's only touchdown.

The only racial incident his freshman year came when Catawba traveled to face Frederick College in Portsmouth, Va. Stratton handled it. When he was told blacks weren't allowed on Frederick's field, Stratton replied there would be one black playing for Catawba or there would be no game. Catawba won 42-7.

Hill wasn't eligible in 1966. He didn't flunk out, but a couple of those "crazy profs" gave him low marks and his grades weren't good enough for football eligibility. He spent the year working at a department store in Winston-Salem, going to night school at High Point and fending off a second round of offers from Big Ten schools. Hill told suitors he still intended to graduate from Catawba, and he would make good on that vow in 1970.

In 1967, Hill shook off the rust and caught 37 passes. In 1968, Catawba was 2-8, but Hill had an incredible junior season. On opening day at Carson-Newman, Hill had 10 catches for 215 yards, still the school record for receiving yards in a game.

On Sept. 12, in a 38-35 loss to Western Carolina, Hill put on one of the finest individual shows in Catawba history. He had no rushing attempts, but he set a school all-purpose yardage record (371) that still stands. He had 10 catches for 177 yards and 194 yards in kickoff and punt returns. He scored one of his four TDs on a 72-yard punt return.

"The Western Carolina game I remember because I played it with a hip pointer," Hill said. "They had to give me a shot at halftime. They broke off a needle in me, but I played the second half."

Hill had 136 yards and three touchdowns against Guilford, but like most of his efforts that year, it came in a losing cause. He finished with 57 catches for 833 yards and scored 15 TDs.

Hill's senior year, Catawba forfeited three victories and was officially 2-8. Hill was a bright spot. He caught 42 passes and made the All-Carolinas Conference team for the second time.

Hill's final career numbers are staggering. He remains Catawba's all-time leader in all-purpose yards with 5,565. He's still the school's all-time leader in punt returns (883 yards) and is second in kickoff return yardage (1,600).

Hill's receiving marks have been eclipsed, but he was Catawba's first 2,000-yard receiver and his 151 catches still rank fifth on the all-time list. He rushed for 993 yards and even completed a few passes, most notably a TD toss to Drew Buie in 1967 on a fake field goal. Hill scored 33 touchdowns and 210 points.

Hill was drafted in the ninth round by the Raiders in 1970 but made his NFL debut with the Buffalo Bills after Oakland waived him. Hill's versatility was his greatest asset in college, but it was something of a curse in the pros. There was constant debate whether Hill would be best as a cornerback or receiver, and he was shuttled between those positions by different teams.

His return skills were unquestioned and earned him roster spots with the Bills, Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins. His final year in the NFL was 1976, and he spent most of it on Injured Reserve with a broken hand.

Hill scored five NFL touchdowns -- two on receptions, two on punt returns and one on a 95-yard kickoff return. His last TD came with the Bears in 1974, when he pulled in a pass against Detroit at Soldiers Field. Hill's best year for receptions was 10 with the 1973 Bears, and he was the Bears' leader in punt returns in 1973 and 1974.

"My versatility was what kept me going, but I would have liked to have gotten a real chance as a receiver," Hill said. "My return skills kept me in the league, but being a return man can get you labeled as a specialist."

Hill joined a lumber company after his NFL career and has been there three decades. He lives in Oak Park, Ill., near Chicago, the city where he had his best NFL days.

Hill's NFL career was good. His Catawba football career was fantastic. But his legacy is exactly what he wanted all along. He's remembered most for being first.

This is the third of five stories on professional football players from Catawba who were invited back to this year's Homecoming.

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November 1

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