ATHENS — Former Albany resident Larry West made history 50 years ago when he joined four other young men known as “The Five,” the first Black student-athletes to play football at the University of Georgia.
But being part of the integration of the Bulldogs was far from the first time West had blazed a trail.
West, now a minister in Washington D.C., joined Richard Appleby, Chuck Kinnebrew, Horace King and Clarence Pope as Georgia’s first football players to break the color barrier, and “The Five,” as they were known, will be honored Saturday at No. 2 Georgia’s 7 p.m. SEC showdown with South Carolina in Athens.
“The Five” will be introduced in a pregame ceremony on Dooley Field and the celebration will include the unveiling of a monument at Sanford Stadium to mark the milestone event of the football team’s integration.
“We realized the significance of what was going down,” said West during a Zoom conference earlier this week hosted by the UGA Athletics Association. “But this was not necessarily our first involvement. I was the first African-American to enter into middle school in Albany and one of the first on the football team at Albany High School. So going to the University of Georgia and being a first was just a continuation.”
West, a defensive back who played at Georgia from 1971 to 1974, said that his upbringing in Albany provided him with a unique outlook on coming to Athens, adding it he felt it was important that he and his colleagues were thought of as more than football players.
“In my childhood, growing up in a home that was filled with civil rights participants, activators and leaders, (enrolling at Georgia) was a natural progression for me,” he said. “And quite frankly I never really thought about integrating. I thought about going up and being that student-athlete, putting forth the best foot we possibly could to show that we’re not just athletes — we’re human beings that have set goals and have ambitions and (we) wanted to show forth that there was more to these persons than just football players.”
When asked if he ever harbored concerns that he and his teammates wouldn’t be accepted by the team, the university and the community, West said that “The Five” stuck together with little worry about the outcome.
“It was a positive thought process, which is why we came together as a group and established some performance rules for ourselves within our group,” he said. “We didn’t want to let each other down. It was not a part of our vocabulary or our definition. I don’t believe any of us thought about if it would not work. We were going to make sure that it did work.”
With a host of colleges interested in their services, West and his teammates (three of whom — Appleby, King and Pope — hailed from Athens) had options besides Georgia, but West said he was encouraged by supporters in Albany to take advantage of coach Vince Dooley’s offer.
“The people in Albany, the supporters in Albany had a real impact on me and on my decision to attend the University of Georgia,” said West, who recorded five interceptions in his career, including one for a 75-yard touchdown return in 1972. “There were many, many other scholarship offers that I had to entertain, but the one thought that the parents of some friends said, perhaps in jest, ‘Man you’ve got an opportunity to get a scholarship at the University of Georgia? Man, I would take that!’
“That statement had an impact on me because those friends were a part of the Caucasian persuasion, but yet they had an interest. No one had pushed them into having an interest in Larry West, but they did have a personal interest, and it showed through my three years of being in high school with their children. They supported (me) all three years. It was very much a part of my decision making to go to the University of Georgia.”
It did not hurt that Dooley himself made an important promise to West should he decide to enroll at UGA.
“For me, I had a number of choices,” he said. “I was very fortunate in that area. A number of schools were looking to attract me and there was a visit from coach Dooley to Albany to visit me and my folks. He made a statement that really impacted me.
“He said, ‘Larry if you come to the University of Georgia, I will treat you just as if you were my own son.’ Even though I didn’t make any gestures at that point, that statement resonated with me. And beyond just the supporters in Albany that gave me their indication and their influence, that statement helped me to put more weight on the UGA’s scholarship offer.”
While West and Pope became ministers (and Pope was also a firefighter in Athens for years), King spent nine years in the NFL and like Appleby and Kinnebrew found success in the business world.
Although integration would have eventually found its way to Georgia’s football team (the university itself had been integrated for 10 years when “The Five” came along), West said he believed he and his teammates were “the right people at the right time” and he’s pleased to have been able to help throw open the doors for African-American student-athletes.
“A great foundation, I believe, had already been set with the five of us coming,” he said. “I think it epitomizes what guys now can really look to. Because not only did one of us succeed in going to the higher echelon of football and playing in the NFL for nine years as Horace did, I believe the rest of us have had some measure of success in life after football. And I’m grateful again for the university’s willingness to recognize it.”