Curious about the changing selection of photos appearing behind former NFL executive Scott Pioli during his appearances on NFL Network? Each image is from a framed cover of a sports magazine, chosen to highlight some of the lesser-known stories from football history that deserve to be widely told. For example, Pioli has focused this season on featuring some of the greats associated with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) who have not been given their due.
Below, Pioli digs into the story of a Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle who nearly slipped through the cracks simply because he attended Morgan State in the 1950s: Roosevelt Brown.
Who is the biggest steal in NFL draft history? It's a question that surfaces every year around draft time, and fans generally drop a name from their childhood or an era during their lifetime, most often players selected in the last few decades. One I'm familiar with is the guy drafted 199th overall in the 2000 NFL Draft ...
Today, though, I'm throwing Roosevelt "Rosey" Brown's name in the bucket.
Let's set the stage. Brown played collegiately at Morgan State in Baltimore in the early 1950s. It was a time when players from schools in the CIAA and other HBCUs were still living in Jim Crow America, and sadly, the NFL reflected our country and was part of a society that marginalized Black players and applied a different standard of opportunity and treatment to them. When Brown arrived at Morgan State, the school was a member of the CIAA, which was then known as the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association. (During Brown's years at Morgan State, the CIAA was renamed the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, and the conference is still around today. However, Morgan State now competes in the MEAC: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.)
Earning all-conference honors as an offensive tackle in 1951 and '52, Brown was also named to the Pittsburgh Courier's All-America team following the 1952 season. The Courier was an African-American weekly newspaper and the bible of black college football scouting. The Courier named its first-ever national championship team in 1920 and its first All-America team five years later, in 1925. The All-America selections appeared in major African-American newspaper publications nationwide, and it was through the Courier that NFL teams -- and, later, AFL teams -- began scouting players at HBCUs.
After his years at Morgan State, Brown was selected in the 27th round (as the 321st overall pick) by the New York Giants in the 1953 NFL Draft. A true sleeper pick, Brown quickly made the team and became the Giants' starting left tackle, a job he held for 13 seasons. The lifetime Giant was a nine-time Pro Bowler and a six-time All-Pro, and he helped the franchise win an NFL championship in 1956. Enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975, he became only the second player to be elected to the Hall on the excellence of his offensive line play alone. After his playing years, Brown went on to work as a coach and later a scout until his death in 2004.
As a New Yorker growing up with a father from the Bronx, I was expected to know the Giants' history as well as I knew my schoolwork, and as you might expect, my knowledge of the franchise's history was far greater than my grasp on 10th-grade geometry. Truthfully, football history has been far more useful in the my life. (I tried telling my teachers back then, but they just wouldn't listen.) My father, a blue-collar worker, loved the Giants and Rosey Brown, gravitating to linemen: "The grunts that do the dirty work," as he'd say. Thus, I knew about Brown as a kid and read about his college career at Morgan State. Though I never got to see him play, I remember studying the backs of football cards and making the Morgan State connection to some of my favorite players: Willie Lanier, Leroy Kelly, Raymond Chester and John "Frenchy" Fuqua. I took special care of their cards, because they went to the same school as Brown -- and yes, I still have those cards today.
My education regarding Morgan State football runs deep, thanks to my relationships with Lanier and William C. Rhoden. As a kid, I thought Lanier was fascinating as a physical, tough, tackling machine who also routinely showed up on highlight reels making interceptions as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. He was the player who gave me a visual example of someone who "quarterbacked the defense." Years later, when I became the Chiefs' general manager, I was fortunate enough to get to know Lanier on a personal level, and he remains a friend and thoughtful voice in my life. He's not only one of the smartest football minds I've ever known -- he's one of the smartest people and best teachers I've ever met.
Rhoden, with whom I've spoken just a handful of times, was a member of the 1968 Morgan State team that beat Grambling State in the annual "Whitney Young Classic" at Yankee Stadium. He's gone on to become an award-winning author and sports columnist for the New York Times, writing about the intersection of race and sports. It's his work that constantly forces me to think much more deeply about a subject I've studied for decades. His role as a writer and educator continues through The Undefeated's Rhoden Fellows Initiative, a training program for journalists from HBCUs.
Morgan State's widespread roots have long lived in the background of our sport, but it's time we celebrate this HBCU for providing the NFL with rich talent.