Alan Dell

Lincoln Legend Eugene Hart arguably Manatee County’s best running back

Lincoln Memorial High running back Eugene Hart is shown during his senior season in 1967.
Lincoln Memorial High running back Eugene Hart is shown during his senior season in 1967. PROVIDED PHOTO

In our series honoring the Lincoln Legends, it was impossible to name every person who deserves special recognition, but we would be remiss not to mention Eugene Hart.

He was Peter Warrick before there was a Peter Warrick. He was Tommie Frazier before there was a Tommie Frazier.

At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Hart could run circles around opponents on the football field and dazzle you on the basketball court. There wasn’t another like him around these parts until Warrick came along about 30 years later and led Southeast to state titles in football and basketball.

To many who watched him run the football for Lincoln during the segregation days, Hart is Manatee County’s all-time best running back. He was also an elite defensive back who some say is the all-time county leader in career interceptions, although there is no official count.

It’s hard to compare eras, but it’s easy to see special talent.

The 1967 Lincoln High graduate is unofficially the county’s career rushing leader with more than 6,000 yards and holds the county public school single game record with seven touchdowns.

Manatee High’s Shevin Wiggins is the official county career rushing leader with 4,451 yards and is the first person from the county to be named Mr. Florida Football (1993).

Their numbers are strikingly similar. Hart averaged 9.5 yards per carry and scored 59 career touchdowns. Wiggins averaged 8.9 yards and notched 62 career touchdowns.

Hart was also a huge threat catching passes out of the backfield, snagging 30 passes for 696 yards his senior year.

“He was the most awesome athlete I’ve ever seen, better than O.J. Simpson,” says Ray Bellamy, who broke the color barrier for major college football in the Southeast when he signed with Miami in 1966 out of Lincoln.

Henry Lawrence, a 13-year NFL veteran with three Super Bowl rings, says Hart was better than any running back he played against during this professional career.

“He could do everything. He would run, make great cuts and had moves that no one has created yet,” Lawrence says.”He would score four or five touchdowns and get a couple of interceptions in most games.”

Eddie Shannon was Hart’s head coach at Lincoln and an assistant with Manatee when Wiggins played. He doesn’t like to compare former players, but he can’t hide his excitement over Hart.

“Hart was the best running back I’ve ever coached. He had all kinds of moves, and nobody could touch his speed,” Shannon said. “Shevin (Wiggins) was a great running back, but the time he played was different. When we played the all black schools, the speed on the field was everywhere. One game, Hart ran a kickoff back for a touchdown and it was called back on a penalty. He ran the next one back for another touchdown, and it was called back, and then he returned a third one for a touchdown.”

The county has had many great running backs, and we can debate the merits of each one, but the one thing Hart and his Lincoln teammates did was open the doors for the future players to come when they crushed the barriers that were keeping African-American players out of the big-time college football programs in the South.

Hart tragically died in a car accident in 1993. In high school, he was recruited by the big three schools in Florida and Nebraska but settled on Texas Southern, some say, because of grades and others because he didn’t get the publicity that he would’ve received today.

From everything we know about Hart, if he were alive today he gladly embrace a legacy that he helped others get ahead after coming from an era when the odds were stacked against black athletes.

It’s one of the things that makes the Lincoln Legends so special. They stuck together and always went out of their way to make things easier for those who followed them.

“I always felt I had an advantage over other athletes because of the players that came before me at Lincoln,” Bellamy says. “I didn’t know anything about football when I first started playing as a freshman. But I used to watch guys like Melvin Rutledge and James Green, and I learned from them. I took what I saw from all those players who preceded me and brought it to another level. I had to do something a little better because of the knowledge they gave me.”

That’s the way it was for the Lincoln Legends.