Local hero makes headlines, leaves legacy

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By Alice Du Pont

The African-American fabric is woven with many threads. There is no one episode or event that defines the history of a people, but it is rather a mixture of all the parts that make up the whole.

As the first man of color from Quincy to play professional football, Mack Lee Hill put the city's name in front of national television audiences on many Sunday afternoons. As a running back, Hill compiled an impressive record in the two years he played the sport before his life was cut short.

While a student at Carter-Parramore High School, Hill played football and basketball, and ran track. Good academics, hard work, discipline and loyalty combined to help Hill earn a scholarship to Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.

His loyalty extended off the field as well. Florida A & M University legendary football coach Jake Gaither is said to have recruited Hill, but he didn't recruit his friend and teammate Louis Hightower. Hill wouldn't go to FAMU without Hightower, and decided to attend Southern University, a school that was willing to take them both.

It was in high school that Hill earned his nickname "The Truck." As the story goes, a "strong man" came to the campus as a fundraiser. Students who wanted to see the man pull a truck could pay 10 cents to witness the event. When the man finished, Hill left the stands, tied the rope around his waist and pulled the truck, too. But he wasn't a showoff. Clarence Tennell, who attended high school with Hill, said he was a quiet guy who played football very well.

After graduating from college, Hill signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1964 as a free agent. The signing bonus was $300. The small bonus and the questions about the abilities of a 5-foot, 10-inch, 225-pound running back didn't dampen Hill's tenacity. After all, he came from a small black college and from an even smaller town where professional athletes, especially football players, weren’t even a dream.

"The Quincy native came into the summer training camp as just another body, but in Hill's case, the body was a lethal weapon. It took Coach Hank Stram a short look in a scrimmage session to see Mack Lee had potential. He brought him along slowly, then gave Hill a start in an exhibition (game). Mack Lee Hill proceeded to run over tacklers with reckless abandon and was one of three rookies to make the Chiefs’ 34-man roster for the start of the American Football League season," wrote Bill Richardson, a Kansas City sportswriter, in 1964.

In his first year he became the team's second leading rusher with 567 yards and four touchdowns on 105 carries. In 1965 the team outlook for Hill was good, and team officials planned on his contributions to the team.

"Not all is gloom in the Chiefs’ camp. There are some bright spots. For instance, there's Mack Lee Hill, the sensational running back from Southern University, a virtual unknown quantity in preseason camp last year, was an instant success once he got the call early in mid-season. Fans in Kansas City will tell you Hill is the most exciting runner in pro football. He has a style of running all his own, which combines complete recklessness with utter disregard for would-be tacklers," a quote published in the September 1965 Kansas Citian, an organization magazine.

The plans by team officials for Hill, however, never reached their full potential.

"In his second year with the team my father suffered a knee injury. He died on the operating table from complications following an operation to repair ruptured knee ligaments in his right knee. He was 25 years old," Marzell Hill, Mack Lee's only son, said.

Each year, Hill attends the team’s awards banquet. The Mack Lee Hill Rookie of the Year Award is presented to a first-year player, based on hard work and commitment.

"In his lifetime, Mack Lee Hill accomplished what the rest of us still strive for. He earned the complete loyalty of all those who played with him and who knew him," said professional player Lenny Dawson during one of those banquets.

Marzell Hill was 4 years old when his father died and he doesn't remember a lot about him. He recalled one Sunday afternoon when he was outside playing in the dirt and his grandmother, Elma Hill, called him inside.

"She said, 'Come on in and see your daddy play,' and I remember saying to her that I didn't want to come inside, I wanted to play in the dirt," he said.

Hill said he wasn't bitter that his father died early. A strong male family support system that included his grandfather, M.L. Hill, as well as uncles, cousins and local coaches who knew his father, stood in the gap.

The Mack Lee Hill Scholarship has been established at the Capital City Bank in Quincy for local athletes. Two scholarships, one male and one female, are awarded annually to high school seniors whose essay, "How Athletics Influenced My Life," is judged best.

The quiet legacy of Mack Lee Hill on and off the gridiron has touched untold lives from Florida to Louisiana to Missouri and beyond. Small children from Princeton, N.J. to Bangor, Maine, as well as presidents of multi-million dollar companies, wrote to Hill in his lifetime to say they loved him for his prowess on the field and for his quiet and gentle manner off the field.