As a child, David Cutcliffe's love of football was pure. By the time he reached Banks High School, though, the football field no longer just housed a conflict between two teams. This was Birmingham in the 1960s, and Cutcliffe's hometown was torn by racial tension.
Cutcliffe found himself caught in a conflict that predated him, outlives him and, eventually, helped shape him as a football coach.
"When you grow up in the most segregated city in the South, you've got to take sides one way or the other," said Paige Cutcliffe, David Cutcliffe's brother. "Our family took sides that it's wrong, and we've been fighting that battle ever since."
Fifty years later, David Cutcliffe's squad-and the head coach himself-might be fundamentally different if he hadn't lived through what his brother called an "apartheid city."
Cutcliffe might not recruit the same way if he hadn't played in the first integrated high school football game in Alabama. He and his wife might not have adopted a black son if he hadn't witnessed a race riot in his high school gymnasium. He might not place such an emphasis on faith if his Catholic mother hadn't shoved him into the basement when the Ku Klux Klan marched the streets of Birmingham.
For Cutcliffe, what happened in his middle-class home in a poorer area of Birmingham was as formative as his time on the field or fiddling with football cards when the lights were supposed to be out.
"One of the things I do well is take my past experiences and benefit young people I'm working with," Cutcliffe said. "Those past experiences and sharing them-it's a part of who I am. I'm proud of being from the state of Alabama, I'm proud of my background and my past, but all of us have certain things that aren't so pretty back there."
The most segregated city
Growing up in Birmingham, Cutcliffe knew who Martin Luther King Jr. was. It would have been hard not to. King had been in a Birmingham jail in 1963, and the man who killed King five years later, James Earl Ray, pawned the gun at a Birmingham shop not far from Cutcliffe's home. Cutcliffe never saw King. He never saw Ray, either, even though he was scared of the "bad man on the loose."
He didn't have to see either figure to understand what they stood for, though. He had seen enough of that.
The Ku Klux Klan marched often in the city, and one night, when Cutcliffe was just a child, his mother led him down to their basement filled with cinder blocks and dirt. He rarely ventured down there-only when tornadoes swirled and the Klan started to march.
"It was never a good time when you were down there," he said. "The Ku Klux Klan was marching, and I didn't really know what the Ku Klux Klan was. I just knew they were scary people in white sheets. Never saw any of them, but the image of it scared me to death."
His brother got a little closer.
As a fifth-grader, Paige Cutcliffe went to spend the night in a hotel that his friend owned. In the back of the hotel was a big city park, and because it was a Friday night, the 10-year-olds did what 10-year-olds do: They went to play in the backyard. There, they saw the Ku Klux Klan about to burn a cross in the park across the creek, so they snuck down to get a closer look before scampering back across.
The Cutcliffes, who were Catholic, knew that the Ku Klux Klan targeted three types of people-blacks, Jews and Catholics. That connection allowed them to relate better to black people in the city.
"It scared the bejesus out of us," Paige Cutcliffe said. "We felt like we had 'Catholic' written across our head, and they would've snapped us up in a heartbeat."
Seeing the Ku Klux Klan in action was rare, but other manifestations of prejudice were more common. Firehoses in the park. Divided fountains and restrooms in David Cutcliffe's father's grocery. Four little girls killed in a church bombing. Cheering in the streets after John F. Kennedy's death.
Cutcliffe's childhood was set against the backdrop of what was commonly called the most segregated city in America.
"You've got to remember, it was a scary place," Paige Cutcliffe said. "People who didn't experience it don't really understand the depth. Those of us who could see-it could have easily turned into a Kosovo. You seen pictures of what Sarajevo looked like? It was the same kind of thing."
And David Cutcliffe soon learned that football wasn't an outlet for escape, not when two of the city's greatest passions-football and race-collided on one September night in 1969.
Between the lines
The bus is shaking, rocks are flying through the window, and Cutcliffe has ducked his head into his helmet for protection. Banks High School had just gone on the road to beat Phillips High School 15-14, but the Phillips crowd, predominantly black, felt it had been cheated out of a victory, and the fans didn't want to let the Banks players leave. After they tipped the bus in both directions, the fans fired rocks and forced the high school players to slip into their helmets for protection from stones and shattering windows.
"It was pretty brutal," said Cutcliffe, a sophomore at the time. "That's a product of racial tension-that's what I would call that."
The win at Phillips came during his senior year, two seasons after Cutcliffe had played in the first integrated football game in Alabama high school history. On Sept. 4, 1969, Parker High School came to Legion Field in Birmingham to play Banks, and more than 20,000 people showed up to watch. The fans were divided by a fence behind the end zones-blacks on one side, whites on the other.
Banks pounded Parker 55-6, outgaining the visitors 399-47 in yards and 22-4 in first downs. The next day, The Birmingham News called the beatdown a "formal initiation into the newly enlarged city high school football family." The story never mentioned something Cutcliffe still remembers: That night was probably the first time some players on that field had touched a member of another race, he said.
Cutcliffe, though, was unlike some of his teammates. He wasn't fearful of the Parker players, nor was the game the first time he had ever interacted with blacks. As a child, his house sat on the edge of Birmingham and Cutcliffe would walk down to Five Mile Creek, through black neighborhoods, and develop friendships with black kids before it was acceptable.
Cutcliffe wasn't raised to ignore black children or burn crosses in the park. His mother banned the N-word from their home-"If you'd have used the N-word in our house, you would have paid the price," Paige Cutcliffe said-and it was Frances Cutcliffe who set the tone for racial tolerance.
"She never finished high school. My daddy didn't, either," Paige Cutcliffe said. "But my mother, like Mark Twain said, she never let schooling get in the way of her education. She was well-read, understood people and it just wasn't an issue at our house. That did make a big, huge difference."
"I don't know if liberal's the right word, but they were good, right people," David Cutcliffe said of his parents. "They treated people regardless of race, ethnicity, all the same. My mother was far beyond her years, so I had a different perspective."
Still, Cutcliffe has his regrets looking back. Instead of protesting intolerance, he stayed silent. He was young, and he talked about it with his friends, but he wishes he had done more. As an adult-and as the head football coach of a Division-I football school in the American South-he eventually would have his chance.
Translating the past
Cutcliffe isn't afraid to talk about race. He's talked about it with Marcus Hilliard, his 22-year-old adopted son, and he doesn't back down from discussing race with recruits, either. It's not something he brings up, but if his conversation with a family turns to race--as it often did during the presidential election-he relays his experience growing up in the South, and how it changed him.
Families of some of Duke's recruits ask Cutcliffe what it was like to live in Birmingham in the 1960s, and he tells them. Once, he mentioned to a parent that some blacks refused to stand for the National Anthem because they didn't feel that they were a part of the country. One signee's parent said that her father was one of those people and it had always bothered her. It was a shared feeling that had nothing to do with football, but everything to do with the way Cutcliffe might treat a player once he's in the program.
Cutcliffe's comfort in talking to anyone extends past Wallace Wade Stadium all the way to Oneonta, Ala., a small town near Birmingham. Cutcliffe visited his brother, Paige, for Christmas, and he went to the local barbershop, where Paige Cutcliffe introduced him to Pat and Jim, two local barbers. They are now coming to Duke for the Blue Devils' spring game April 18.
"You just learn, first-hand, to take people for who they are, not what they do, and certainly not the color of their skin," Cutcliffe said. "But most importantly, forget color. The biggest prejudices come in appearance, come in level of occupation, come in where you live or what you drive. That's a greater prejudice than skin color. I think that probably taught me and helped me succeed-to treat people for what they are. They're human beings. We are all created equal, and I think living in that era made me very prominently think about that as a kid."
When he was the head coach at Ole Miss, Cutcliffe and Rod Barnes, the school's head basketball coach, stuck their necks out and endorsed a new Mississippi flag that wasn't based on the Confederate flag. The fact that the Rebel faithful waved Confederate flags didn't help either coach in recruiting, but Cutcliffe also felt it was wrong on a moral level, just as his mother had taught him. The stance was unpopular, and Cutcliffe received death threats for his endorsement.
He doesn't see any of that type of intolerance at Duke. Almost 40 years after playing in the game that broke the color barrier in the most segregated city in the country, Cutcliffe doesn't put any stock in discussing diversity as a statistic.
"I don't have any idea who's white, black," he said. "I used to probably be able to tell you.... If someone asked me how many whites did you have start last year, I'd have to totally go back and think, who's white?"
He's no longer in that Deep South, and he's no longer living in the 1960s, even though there are subtle reminders of his past every now and then.
On a small flight of stairs near the weight room on the ground level of Yoh Football Center, Cutcliffe sits and stares at an old newspaper article. He reads about Banks' 55-6 win over Parker-he thought it was 77-6, but he swears he won another game 77-6-and he sits, silent, for 10 seconds.
"That is awesome," he says in a hushed, contemplative tone, reflecting on what he's seen since.
And then, in the raised tenor he brings out to break melancholy: "That's history, brother!"
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