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AFL opened doors for players from the historically black colleges

  • By Ken Rappoport Special to NFL.com
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With the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs, Willie Lanier of Morgan State became a Hall of Fame middle linebacker.


Note: The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, "THE LITTLE LEAGUE THAT COULD: How the AFL changed the NFL forever." The book will be published by Rowman-Littlefield and is due out in 2010.

Lionel Taylor had played a partial season for the NFL's Chicago Bears in 1959 when he was cut by George Halas.

"When I was released, Halas said he had players from bigger schools he had to keep, so I left," Taylor recalled. "He was telling me I was a good football player, but I was the one getting on a Trailways bus back home."

No matter. Taylor joined the Denver Broncos of the newly established AFL and went on to a spectacular career. He was the first AFL receiver to catch 100 passes in one season, led the league in receptions for the first six years of its existence and retired as the AFL's all-time leading receiver with 567 catches.

Without the AFL, Taylor probably would have a different story to tell.

As a black football player, the doors were open wider for him in the AFL than the NFL, according to Taylor.

"When I was with Chicago, there were four black players with the Bears. But most teams in the AFL had quite a few black players, a lot more than the NFL teams."

The NFL did most of its recruiting at the bigger schools from the major conferences, which were virtually all white.

The AFL did the same. But the new league also aggressively recruited the talent in historically smaller black colleges, while the NFL was generally not as active in this area.

"It opened the doors for the black athlete, say what you want to say," said Taylor, who played at little-known New Mexico Highlands. "It was a gigantic step.

"The NFL didn't have to go to those smaller schools. The AFL went after those players because they wanted to and they needed to."

Lamar Hunt, just as he was a trailblazer in starting the AFL, also made it a point to hire a scout, Lloyd Wells, who concentrated strictly on the smaller black colleges.

"Lamar had gone to any game that was in the Cotton Bowl, and Grambling would play in the Cotton Bowl every year with other black colleges," said Jack Steadman, Hunt's top business executive. "Lamar felt there were some great, great players that were overlooked because they were black."

One of them: Abner Haynes from North Texas State. Another, Elbert Dubenion from Bluffton College. Still another, Willie Lanier from Morgan State.

The Kansas City Chiefs were among the most active in recruiting black athletes. By 1966, Kansas City's starting lineup featured eight blacks among the 22 players.

In a comparison between the teams in Super Bowl IV, the official game program showed Kansas City with 19 black players and Minnesota with 10.

"We really focused on scouting the black colleges," Steadman said. "We found some real talent out of those colleges. I think that started it more than anything. It was just looking for talent. It wasn't a point of, 'Well, we're going to bring in black players,' it was a point of finding players who could compete and play well."

Lanier knew he had come to the right place in Kansas City when he was given a fair shot by Hank Stram at middle linebacker, a so-called "thinking man's" position generally thought to be off-limits to blacks.

"Hank said, 'If you are the best, you will be our middle linebacker,'" recalled quarterback Len Dawson. "Willie and the black players appreciated that thinking."

In open competition against Notre Dame's Jim Lynch, Lanier won the job and became the first black middle linebacker in pro football.

There were other firsts for black players in pro football, thanks to the AFL:

» Gene Mingo of the Denver Broncos, pro football's first black field goal kicker.

» Grambling's Buck Buchanan, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was pro football's first black No. 1 overall draft choice when selected by Kansas City in 1963. (By comparison, the New York Giants waited until the 19th round to selection Buchanan, the 265th pick in the NFL draft).

» Marlin Briscoe of Denver, the first starting black quarterback in the modern era.

"There was a rumor that there was an unwritten law in the NFL: no more than five black players (per team)," said Chargers lineman Ron Mix. "I don't know if it was true or not, but there weren't that many black players in the NFL on each team. Clearly, the NFL was not making any effort to bring in black players. In the AFL, they were just color blind.

"They couldn't afford not to be color blind. They needed to bring in the best talent. I wasn't part of any decision-making process, but I could only look at what the end result was: There were far more black players per team in the AFL than there was in the NFL."

Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall may have been part of the reason for that. One of the NFL's more influential figures, he refused to sign a black player until he was pressured by the Kennedy administration in 1962.

The NFL wasn't completely oblivious to the great black football talent in America.

"We were aware of these players, too," said Mike Brown, son of the legendary Browns owner, Paul Brown. "You have to remember that I come from a background where we had Marion Motley, who played briefly at Nevada, in Cleveland. We had Willie Davis, whom we traded to Green Bay. He was from Grambling.

"I know the AFL teams were all aware (of the black players). But to argue they were more aware of them than the NFL teams may be to some degree a self-serving statement."

Among other NFL teams, the Dallas Cowboys were fairly active in scouting the smaller black schools for football talent.

"We hired Dick Mansperger, who went to all these black schools and we got a bunch of guys from Morgan State, Elizabeth City Teachers College, Johnson C. Smith, those kind of schools," said longtime Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt. "And these were very good players. It was kind of an unmined gold mine."

Judging by statistics from a variety of sources, the AFL apparently dug deeper in these mines.

"The opening up of the lines to those schools was a big move for the black players," Taylor said. "That was a great contribution to the sport and to the black athletes. I didn't talk much about it back then, but I was proud of it and knew it was there, that the doors were open much more in the AFL than they were in the NFL."

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