Legendary Clemson football player, Catawba leader Buck George dies

ROCK HILL — Buck George could run like the wind.

He was a record-setting halfback at Clemson University in the early 1950s, but it is his courage and character that will live on.

George, a longtime leader of the York County-based Catawba Indian Nation, died Sunday. He was 81.

George changed Clemson and football in South Carolina forever when he broke the color line as the first non-white player to suit up for the Tigers – 20 years before Marion Reeves became the first African-American to play there in 1971.

After growing up in Rock Hill’s old mill hill neighborhood, he played football at Clemson just years after Catawbas were granted U.S. citizenship but before they had the right to vote. He was Tigers’ captain in 1954.

Through his body and his brain, George smashed stereotypes just as he smashed through opposing defenses.

Evans George Jr. was his real name, but he was called “Buck” almost all his life. As assistant chief of the Catawba Indian Nation for more than three decades, he demanded of all he met – from national leaders to people he met on the street – that his people be treated with the same dignity and respect as others.

George was instrumental in the tribe’s gaining state and federal recognition during his time as a tribal leader, said former Catawba Chief Gilbert Blue, who was chief for more than 35 years. George was assistant chief for 33 of those years. “Buck George was his whole life an advocate for Native Americans.

“I will miss him as a friend, and the Catawba people will miss him.”

For more than 50 years, George held football records at Clemson, where he was a running back from 1951 to 1954. He was the first to run for more than 200 yards in a game. His run of 90 yards against Furman in 1951 is still the Clemson record for longest run from scrimmage and one of the longest plays in team history, said Tim Bourret, Clemson’s sports information director.

“Buck George was a terrific wingback for Frank Howard’s teams of the early 1950s,” Bourret said. “He was very fast in his day, and he used that talent to have a record-setting career. I know Clemson fans who go back to the 1950s still remember his 90-yard run vs. Furman.

“There weren’t as many games in those days as there are today, so it is tough to compare total yardage. But his 5.33 yards-per-rush is still eighth in Clemson history. He was a loyal Clemson graduate … today we remember a great Clemson man.”

George had many nicknames during his playing days, including the “Rock Hill Rocket” and ”The Vanishing American.” But he was still a Native American playing on an otherwise all-white team, and that attracted unfavorable nicknames that were based on his race and his heritage.

He was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1955, but a knee injury suffered at the end of his senior season at Clemson kept him out of the professional ranks. With a degree in textiles in hand, George went to work at the Rock Hill Celanese plant for four decades, retiring as one of the plant’s most beloved and respected supervisors.

George was voted into the York County Sports Hall of Fame in 1999, and just last month was given a key to the city of Rock Hill for his decades-long dedication to the city’s parks and recreation department.

He was briefly the Catawbas’ chief after Blue retired and before Donald Rodgers took over in 2007. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the tribe was seeking federal recognition, George was a key negotiator and executive committee member who met with leaders from the White House to the halls of Congress before a settlement agreement was reached in 1993.

The Catawbas remain South Carolina’s sole federally recognized Indian tribe.

George spent decades trying to improve the lives of the Catawba people, said current Catawba Chief Bill Harris.

“Buck George stayed involved in the affairs of his people his entire adult life,” he said.

Dr. Wenonah George Haire, a Rock Hill dentist, has run the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project for more than 20 years, working to keep vibrant the Catawba way of life that her father held so dear.

“People have asked me all my life, ‘Are you Buck George’s daughter?’” Haire said. “I was always honored to say that I was.”

Even though many people might know Buck George best for his football exploits at Clemson, she said, his character as a father and a Catawba was what many in York County will always treasure.

“He was an even better man than a football player.”

By Andrew Dys

adys@heraldonline.comDecember 23, 2013