On Tuesday, Jan. 19, the Pro Football Hall of Fame Board of Selectors met virtually to debate and then vote for the men who will make up the Class of 2021, and the results of that day-long session are to be announced this Saturday, the night before Super Bowl LV, during the broadcast of the NFL Honors Show on CBS.
One of the items of business was a yay or nay vote on Bill Nunn in the Hall of Fame’s Contributor category. A bylaws change to the selection process was instituted in August 2014 by which a Contributor – defined as an individual who has “made outstanding contributions to professional football in capacities other than playing or coaching” – will automatically be included among the annual list of finalists for election.
Many of Nunn’s credentials for that designation are etched on the Lombardi Trophies won by the Pittsburgh Steelers during his decades spent working in the team’s personnel department, but the “outstanding contributions to professional football in capacities other than playing or coaching” that Nunn made actually go back decades before he agreed to Dan Rooney’s offer to join the Steelers organization in 1967 as a part-time scout.
* * * * *
It was Friday, Jan. 6, 1967, and thanks to Bill Nunn Pittsburgh was the hub of the football world because that night at the Hilton Hotel the Pittsburgh Courier All-America Football Banquet was being held to honor the 1966 Black College All-America Team. Nunn had yet to draw a single paycheck as an NFL employee, but he already had ushered a handful of players into the league who would go on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and that handful didn’t include a man who started as a player and then rose to become the first African-American executive for an NFL team.
Morgan State’s Roosevelt Brown, Grambling’s Willie Davis, Mississippi Vocational’s David “Deacon” Jones, Grambling’s Junius “Buck” Buchanan, and Morgan State’s Leroy Kelly were some of the 1950s-1960s alumni of Nunn’s Black College All-America Teams who eventually would get busts in Canton, and Grambling’s Tank Younger was the man who went from playing fullback for two NFL teams from 1949-58 to becoming an assistant general manager with the San Diego Chargers in 1975.
And being honored that night as part of Nunn’s 1966 All-America team were Tennessee A&I’s Claude Humphrey and Morgan State’s Willie Lanier, both of whom eventually were inducted into the Hall of Fame as well.
But Nunn’s efforts were more about providing opportunity than populating the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and at the time of the celebration of the 1966 Pittsburgh Courier All-America Team, there were 38 of Nunn’s All-Americans earning paychecks in either the NFL or the AFL, and with the help of the exposure he provided they had reached the summit of the sport from colleges such as Mississippi Vocational, Johnson C. Smith, North Carolina Central, St. Augustine, Maryland State, Prairie View, and North Carolina A&T, along with the more “traditional” Black College powers such as Grambling, Morgan State, Jackson State, and Southern.
Included in the group of 38 were Otis Taylor, Ernie Ladd, Roger Brown, and Johnny Sample.
Taylor, a 6-foot-3 flanker from Prairie View, who could be called the prototype for the big, fast, physical wide receivers who currently populate the NFL. A fourth-round pick in the 1964 AFL Draft by Kansas City, Taylor was voted to three Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro twice during an 11-year career during which he averaged 17.8 yards on 410 career catches that were good for 57 touchdowns. Taylor had 1,297 receiving yards during a 14-game season in 1966 and 1,110 receiving yards in a 14-game season in 1971, and contributed six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
Ladd was a 6-2, 290-pound defensive lineman from Grambling, who was voted to four Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro teams during his career with San Diego of the AFL; Brown, a defensive tackle from Maryland State played 138 games over 10 seasons with the Lions and Rams and made the Pro Bowl four times and first-team All-Pro twice; and Sample, a Maryland State cornerback, finished with 41 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries in 125 games, and he was part of two NFL Championship teams with Baltimore and also helped the Jets upset those Colts in Super Bowl III.
In all, 13 of those 38 Courier alumni would combine for 18 Pro Bowl appearances, eight All-Pro selections, and ultimately were part of eight NFL or AFL Championship teams.
But two players, both Hall of Famers, stand above the others in terms of the level of Nunn’s influence with the Black Colleges to be able to unearth detailed information on these prospects and then the trust NFL teams had with his scouting of the players’ athletic abilities and his judgment of them as the kind of people who would do the work to turn their potential into production.
In chronological order, we begin with Roosevelt Brown, an offensive lineman from Morgan State who was on Nunn’s 1952 All-America Team. Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Dave Anderson wrote about Brown’s path to the Football Giants in the Jan. 16, 1975 editions of The New York Times:
“During the NFL Draft of 1953, the Giants were wondering what to do on the 26th round. At the time, scouting was not even organized, much less computerized. The extent of some teams’ search was the various All-America teams. Someone in the Giants’ delegation, not even (owner) Wellington Mara remembers who, noticed the Black College All-America Team selected by the Pittsburgh Courier, a Black weekly newspaper.
“‘Here’s a guy,'” said that forgotten man of history. “‘Roosevelt Brown, a tackle at Morgan State.'”
Mara took it from there. Holding a copy of the Courier that contained Nunn’s All-America Team, he told his people, “Take this guy.”
Back to Anderson. “His available statistics were impressive – 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds. He was the 318th player selected that year when there were only 12 teams. He signed a Giants contract for $3,000, with no bonus, and received a train ticket to their training camp at Gustavus Adolphus College in the Minnesota woods. He left Charlottesville, Va., with a cardboard suitcase, an umbrella, and a box lunch.
“‘My momma made me take the umbrella to keep the rain off me so I wouldn’t catch cold,’ he recalled yesterday. ‘And she packed me a lunch of fried chicken and potato salad because she didn’t trust train food.'”
Roosevelt Brown went to the Giants as a 19-year-old, because after kindergarten he was placed in third grade instead of first grade, and he continued to progress through school two years ahead of his time. Brown quickly won a starting job with the Giants, and he held it for 13 seasons. He was voted an All-Pro for eight straight years (1956-63) and in 1975 became just the second pure offensive lineman to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1961, Nunn alerted the Los Angeles Rams about a defensive end who had been on the 1959 Courier All-America Team but apparently dropped off the face of the earth in 1960. David Jones, who would come to be known, and feared by NFL quarterbacks, as “Deacon,” played during the 1960 season for Mississippi Vocational College. It seemed that after the 1958 season, Jones had his football scholarship to South Carolina State revoked because he had taken part in a civil rights protest. After a year of inactivity, Mississippi Vocational offered a scholarship that Jones accepted, but conditions at the school were such that Jones and his African-American teammates slept on cots in the opposing team’s gym on road trips because motels and hotels refused them admittance.
It was typical of Nunn that he would know about the rare athletic ability and the true nature of a man who had been struggling against racism in the pursuit of a career as a professional athlete. The Rams investigated Nunn’s tip and invested a 14th-round pick in that draft in a player who became arguably the most feared pass-rusher in NFL history.
Deacon Jones played 14 NFL seasons, and he missed just five of a possible 196 regular season games. Jones was a unanimous All-Pro defensive end for the six seasons from 1965-70; he played in seven straight Pro Bowls, from 1965-1971, and was selected to an eighth in 1973. As a member of the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line, Jones is the man who first used the term “sack” to describe tackling a quarterback as he is attempting to pass.
Jones was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1980. Because the NFL didn’t recognize a sack as an official statistic until 1982, Jones’ career total is unofficial, but NFL historian John Turney, after a detailed review of game film, put Jones’ sack total at 173.5 in 191 career games.
It’s appropriate to refer to it as Nunn’s Black College All-America Team, and to recognize the annual event as Nunn’s Pittsburgh Courier All-America Football Banquet, because Bill Nunn did all of the work. He traveled to the games, scouted the players, picked the team by soliciting opinions from coaches who trusted him implicitly and other sports writers who covered the circuit, and he put together the banquet. His job title may have been Pittsburgh Courier Sports Editor, but he had been out-performing those four words for decades.
The following appeared under Bill Nunn’s byline in the Dec. 23, 1961 national edition of the Courier:
“Selecting an All-America football team is never easy, but the balloting for the 30th annual Courier ‘Dream Team’ turned out to be the closest in the history of the selections … One look at this year’s all-star aggregation leaves no doubt this is a team with everything. Big, smart, fast and mature, this is a group that every coaches goes to sleep dreaming about. But only on a team of this type could such a dream materialize.”
And it was mainly through Nunn’s All-America Team that many players attending Black Colleges got a chance to live their dreams of a career in the National Football League.
“I remember in 1967-1968,” said Mel Blount, a defensive back at Southern at the time, “and Bill Nunn who was working for The Pittsburgh Courier, every year he had The Pittsburgh Courier All-Americans and that was a big thing for players who were in the historical Black Colleges because that was all the recognition we were getting. And so I remember Bill Nunn coming to Southern University. So yes I was at the Bill Nunn banquet, which is what I called it, but it was really the Pittsburgh Courier All-America Banquet, and Bill Nunn was a writer then for the Pittsburgh Courier. We were getting recognition through that paper so it was very important. Then when Bill Nunn came on campus, everybody knew there was an NFL scout on campus. It was something that made us proud because we knew that they were interested in the talent we had in those colleges.”
In February 2010, in conjunction with Black History Month that year, Bill Nunn was part of the inaugural class inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame. The other members of that inaugural class included genuine legends of the sport, from Deacon Jones and Willie Lanier and Walter Payton and Tank Younger, to Coach Eddie Robinson of Grambling. In Nunn’s mind, the primary reason he was included was because of his work with The Pittsburgh Courier.
“My feeling is that so much of what I did to be a part of this was done when I was with the newspaper (The Pittsburgh Courier),” said Nunn in 2010 after being notified of his spot in the Black College Football Hall of Fame. “Getting to the Steelers, of course, also was due to the newspaper. Having dealt with black colleges for most of my newspaper life, I feel good about that. I picked the Black College All-America football team starting in 1950, and the last one I took part in was in 1974 when I was a scout (for the Steelers) and we drafted John Stallworth. So as a result, I felt very good about being a part of that.”
During its heyday, The Pittsburgh Courier’s circulation reached 400,000, with readers all over the country, and it had branch offices in New York City, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, in addition to its home in Pittsburgh. William G. Nunn Sr. was the editor-in-chief of The Pittsburgh Courier, and he worked there for almost 30-plus years before retiring in the mid-1960s. Bill Nunn worked at the newspaper as the sports editor, and later the managing editor.
“The Courier was a crusading paper,” recalled Nunn. “We fought against what we called ‘injustices,’ and not only in sports, but also in the workplace, in the educational system, and so on. As a result, I was just proud I was a part of that newspaper. What happened with the Courier, though, was that because we were a crusading newspaper, it affected us with advertising. We could get the beer advertisements and things like that, but the big department stores and some of the big companies wouldn’t advertise because we were fighting against job discrimination, and many of those things were happening at some of those places.”
During the era when The Pittsburgh Courier flourished, Nunn traveled to cover the best football game played between Black Colleges each weekend, and then at the end of the season he selected what was the definitive Black College Football All-America team. It was a selection committee of one, and his Having been schooled in the business by his father; by Wendell Smith, who was with Jackie Robinson daily as he integrated Major League Baseball; and by Chester L. Washington, who started at the Courier as a stenographer before working his way up to sports editor and then leaving to become a publisher who created a 13-newspaper alliance, Nunn’s influence in sports grew to be significant.
“When I worked in sports for the Courier, some of my stories were in The Sporting News and the NCAA (publications),” said Nunn. “I covered so many of the major things, particularly with boxing. I covered Archie Moore, Floyd Patterson, Ezzard Charles. I also was putting together the Black College All-America Football Team, and so I had a lot of contacts at the black schools.”
Those contacts opened doors for many who otherwise would have been overlooked by the NFL, and those players who took advantage of those opened doors helped make the NFL the powerhouse it is today. All of it thanks to Bill Nunn.