Since I published my book, "Rising SONS: The History of Football at Southern Oregon University" in August, I have been asked more than once who I would crown the greatest athlete on the gridiron. Without much thought, it's Claude Hines. Stats weren't kept when Claude arrived in Ashland late in the football season in 1928 and when he departed Southern Oregon in 1932, but one can imagine, he put up some numbers as both a runner and a passer. I would even go further and say Hines might even be the best athlete in school history, period. He was a four-sport star who was fast and dynamic on the playing fields. But to ask those who witnessed his feats either by watching or playing with him, it went beyond just his physical abilities.
Not a lot is known about Hines before coming to Ashland other than he was raised by his grandmother in Baker, Oregon, at the time, the largest city between Salt Lake City, Utah and Portland. Hines was black. So the story goes, he and his grandmother were two of just a handful of black people in Baker in the 1920s. Yet, in interviews with him before he passed away in 1985, none of that seemed to affect him. He was always a step faster, and could throw the ball a little further than his peers. Hines was carefree, positive and happy, which endeared him to his neighbors. He could sing, write poetry, dance, draw, laugh and would give the shirt off his back. In high school, he was a dynamic athlete. Before we heard about segregation, Hines went to Baker High School and become the school's best athlete. So goes the story, he was offered a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, but declined because it was too far from home. Instead, former Baker School Superintendent Julius Churchill, the president of Southern Oregon State Normal School, offered to help Hines come to Ashland.
He arrived late and during a time when the football team was mourning the death of its star player, Max Newsom. In fact, it was Hines who would fill Newsom's role in Roy McNeal's offense. Seeing that Hines could huck a pumpkin-sized football nearly the length of the field, McNeal altered his offense from a power running game, to throw in some passing. Off the field, Hines attended classes with the rest of the students. He was not allowed to live on campus, so Churchill set him up with a room above a restaurant near the plaza. Hines got up early every morning and cleaned the facility to pay for his room and board. According to those who knew Hines, he was a beloved figure in Ashland and on campus. Imagine that? A black man at perhaps the peak of racism in the United States, able to go to school and play sports with white kids.
In my book, I don't go into much detail about Hines, other than he was one of the stars for the football team from 1928 to 1932. I did make mention of his race and the struggles he endeared when Southern Oregon traveled, most notably when the team ventured into Monmouth.
This is where I am deeply proud of my alma mater. Rooted in its history, SOU has always prided itself on its diversity. Meaning it didn't matter what color you were, what your sexual orientation was or if you were wealthy or poor, you are a human being. I saw this myself as a student from 1993 to 1998. Ashland is also a unique city in that it stays close to its roots. Big box stores and growth are not in the cards. Generations of family are there and downtown is littered with small, locally owned shops. While 13 miles north, the Klu Klux Klan marched in the streets of Medford, Hines was comfortable and safe every day he resided in Ashland.
When Roy McNeal called ahead to let a hotel or restaurant know he had a black player, often times he was told Southern Oregon would not be welcomed. He would simply hang up the phone and continue to call until someone said it was ok. McNeal always had issues when the team traveled to Monmouth to play rival Western Oregon. The team would have to eat and sleep outside of town. But that was not the worst part. McNeal would stand on the sidelines and watch his star player get brutalized with cheap shots. He was speared in the groin against Chico State so badly that affected him for the rest of the season. Hines took elbows to his face. Was spit on. Called names. Kicked. Punched. Booed. And yet, he always got up off the turf or hardwood and went back to his position. During an especially hostile contest against Western Oregon where Hines was brutalized repeatedly, McNeal had enough. He canceled all contests with the school in Monmouth for two years.
Someone told me I should write a book about Hines. I know the great Rachel Bachman profiled him in the mid-2000s when she was a reporter for The Oregonian. A lot of the info she collected, which included interviews with people in Baker, I used in my book. But the reality is, it would be a hellva research. Hines, from what I gather, never married nor had kids. I did interview several people who knew him, but there really is not a lot to complete a book. Probably what should happen is the college should tell his story more often and be proud of it because it really is remarkable. The first time I saw the name Claude Hines was when I was an undergrad playing football at SOU and saw his plaque hanging in old McNeal Hall. The bio showed an old picture of Hines in his football uniform with a quote from a teammate claiming he could throw a football 100 yards. Obviously that caught my attention and maybe he could, but it's probably more lore than fact. As we go forward in time, Hines' legacy will continue to fade. New generations will see the plaque and do as I did, and say "wow!" But there is more to Hines than his ability to huck a football, and that is what truly makes me say, "wow!"
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