LITTLE ROCK — Talking to delay boredom on the treadmill, the conversation at the gym bounced around from golf to old friends to current events.
This day, one of the kibitzers mused about a poll to determine the greatest Arkansas-born athlete and how some worthy folks were excluded because of the social climate when we were in high school.
One man mentioned Eddie Miles and Elijah Pitts and somebody else contributed Bobby Mitchell, superb athletes who had no chance to play on a big stage in Arkansas because of their skin color.
In those days, dime stores in downtown Little Rock had separate water fountains for “white” and “colored” and I’m ashamed to admit being a wide-eyed sophomore who watched from afar as six blacks were denied access to North Little Rock High School.
Long forgotten, those details bubbled up while reviewing credentials of the Razorbacks most likely to be added to the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame during the next 24 months or so.
For skill and significance, offensive guard Leotis Harris is high on the list.
He was a sophomore when Arkansas averaged a school record 320.3 yards per game and won a share of the SWC championship and a senior when the Razorbacks completed an 11-1 season with an Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma.
After his senior season, Harris became the Razorbacks’ first black All-American football player.
“It’s a great legacy for me and my family, and for African-Americans period,” he said in 2010.
Miles, Pitts, Mitchell and others would have been stars at Arkansas, but the SWC did not have an African-American football player on scholarship until Jerry Levias entered SMU in 1965. Jon Richardson broke the barrier at Arkansas, playing in 1970-72.
Years before the climate began to change, Miles, Pitts, Mitchell, and other Arkansas-born African-Americans succeeded at the professional level.
Growing up, I heard about Miles, who played at Jones High School, maybe then two miles from campus. Even when all-black schools received little media attention, word got around about a shooter who averaged 18, 25, 30, and 32 points per game in an era when a three-pointer included a free throw.
Recruited by about 50 schools, Miles chose Seattle University because NBA All-Star Elgin Baylor played there. Seventh in the nation in scoring his senior year and the fourth pick in the 1963 draft, Miles averaged more than 13 points per game during nine years in the NBA before a career-ending injury.
Pitts came along earlier and I don’t remember knowing the Arkansas connection until he lined up at running back for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s. Born in Mayflower, he played at Little Rock’s Philander Smith College, a school that dropped football soon after Pitts departed.
Green Bay drafted him in 1961 after hearing about him and acquiring a game film from what is now Arkansas-Pine Bluff. During Pitts’ decade at Green Bay, the Packers won five NFL championships and two Super Bowls. He scored twice in the first Super Bowl and is in the Packers’ Hall of Fame.
Mitchell left Hot Springs for the University of Illinois in the 1950s and I learned of his roots because he was in the Cleveland backfield with my favorite player, Jim Brown.
Mitchell, who held the world record in the hurdles for a few days in 1958 and had an eye on the 1960 Olympics, opted for football when Cleveland coach Paul Brown offered him $7,000.
He averaged a club record 5.4 yards per carry at Cleveland and caught a team-high 45 passes in 1960. From an Arkansas perspective, it is ironic that he became Washington’s first African-American player in 1962. Moved to wide receiver, he led the league with 72 catches in his first of seven seasons in Washington. Inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1983, his career totals include 521 receptions and 91 touchdowns, including eight on kick returns.
Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.