After watching the NFL Network replaying Super Bowl I in its entirety last week, I was shocked by the difference between the NFL then and the NFL now. Just to make sure, I kept pressing rewind on the remote. While African-American players comprise nearly 70 percent of current rosters around the league, well, let's just say that wasn't the case 49 years ago.
The broadcast of the Super Bowl was the first such airing of the game since the Green Bay Packers extended their dynasty by crushing the Kansas City Chiefs in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1967. The NFL Network even showed the pregame introductions of the offenses, and white player after white player for Vince Lombardi's legendary Packers ran toward the camera after his name was called. In fact, the only black players starting for Green Bay on offense that day were tight end Marv Fleming and running back Elijah Pitts, and Pitts was only in the lineup because usual starter, Paul Hornung, was injured.
Hornung wasn't black either.
The scene triggered two initial thoughts: 1) It's amazing how far the league has come regarding black players on and off the field, and 2) something weird was happening in the league back then.
"There was a time when we, as black players, truly felt that there was a quota system in the NFL," said John Wooten, 79, a Pro Bowl blocking guard for the great Jim Brown during their stretch in the 1960s with the Cleveland Browns. Not only that, Wooten ranks among the most significant persons in NFL history. Actually, I should say sports history.
As the spirit of the 30th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday remains with us, it is a pleasant reminder that Wooten played a large part in pushing America toward a fairer NFL. As the founder and the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, Wooten is as responsible as anybody for the 13-year-old Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for coaching and front office jobs. It's mostly worked (while still allowing that there's plenty of room for improvement). Tony Dungy, Herm Edwards and Marvin Lewis were the only black coaches at the start of the Rooney Rule; there are five now. Twice, the rule has helped the NFL produce seven black coaches during a given season (2006 and 2011), and the league has gone from zero black general managers in 2000 to six at the present.
"The NFL is in a better place today than it was (during the 1960s and before that), and I think Dr. King would be very pleased with what we're doing, and how we're going about doing it," said Wooten, who now lives in Arlington, Texas, with his wife, Juanita. Wooten knew Dr. King, and he consulted with him. They first met in 1966 in Cleveland, where Wooten joined the Civil Rights icon and others to strategize about ways to get Carl Stokes successfully elected as the first black mayor of a major city.
Wooten was an all-state football and basketball player in New Mexico and became so prolific on the offensive line for the University of Colorado that he reached the College Football Hall of Fame. Wooten then joined the Cleveland Browns in 1959. And in an era of socially conscious athletes, it is fitting that he blocked for Jim Brown, who led the league in rushing six times along the way to an NFL championship in 1964 and a victory shy of another one the next year.
But there's a bigger point: Brown and Wooten were just as impressive without shoulder pads. They were disciples of principle, and they showed as much when they ignored critics by joining athletes such as Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in 1967 to rally around Muhammad Ali when the heavyweight champion of the world was ridiculed by many for his stance against the Vietnam War.
So Dr. King, traveling to Cleveland in 1966 for that Stokes rally, found the 6-foot-2 and 235-pound Wooten as a willing participant for the Civil Rights movement.
Well, for the most part.
"When I had the chance to talk to Dr. King one on one, I explained to him that the reason why some of us as African-American athletes hadn't joined the marches in the past was because I, for one, wouldn't have restraint if somebody spit on me or poured syrup on my head or something of that nature," Wooten said. "I told Dr. King that I would end up fighting in those situations, and as a result, that would hurt his cause."
Hours later, the private conversations between Wooten and Dr. King increased, since the Browns' veteran player became Dr. King's designated driver to the Cleveland airport. King was running late for his flight, and there was no such thing as an interstate back then to zip you from one place to the other in a hurry in northeastern Ohio. Wooten took back roads. Lots of them.
After they got to the airport on time and in one piece, Wooten said Dr. King leaned over from the passenger's seat to whisper, "I'll say this for you, John. You really can drive."
Wooten laughed, but he turned serious when he recalled his sessions with Dr. King and Brown in Chicago on other Civil Rights matters during the last few years of Dr. King's life. "And I just have to tell you this, especially since I'm not into hero worshipping," Wooten said. "I've been around John F. Kennedy and other presidents. I've visited the White House for signings and all of that. But when you were around Dr. King, it was a totally different air about it. You could feel it. You knew there would be an impact from being with him."
For Wooten, those Dr. King experiences raised his long-time goal even higher, which was to become more than just a great professional athlete. He spent 17 years as the Director of Pro Scouting for the Dallas Cowboys through 1991, when they were enjoying their longest run as America's Team. He later became an accomplished front office executive for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Baltimore Ravens. Then he retired from the NFL in 2002, only to un-retire for his ongoing role with the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
Wooten is so respected in NFL circles that, when he approached then-league commissioner Paul Tagliabue with the idea of working in partnership with the NFL through his organization to get more minorities involved in decision-making roles, there was little resistance.
It didn't hurt that Wooten presented the NFL with an air-tight case, and he was joined by Civil Rights attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri. They mentioned that, after the 2001 season, Dungy was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite turning the historically troubled franchise into a consistent winner. They also pointed out that Dennis Green was let go by the Minnesota Vikings after his only losing season following a decade of winning ones. Plus, they had plenty of data showing that black coaches were more susceptible to getting fired than their white counterparts.
That is, if they were even hired in the first place.
"Johnnie Cochran made it clear during a press conference that, 'If the NFL isn't willing to negotiate, then we must litigate,'" Wooten said. "But I give credit to Commissioner Tagliabue. To this day, we at the Fritz Pollard Alliance have an award named after him. The reason is because he could have fought us in court, and the NFL would have won, because we didn't have the money to take it all the way through the process. We realized that."
In contrast, Tagliabue and the NFL owners realized Wooten, Cochran, Mehri and their supporters were right in their observations.
Does this mean that things are perfect these days when it comes to blacks seeking prominent NFL positions? Nope, because for every Mike Tomlin, who got hired to coach a franchise such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, there are many more like Hue Jackson, who had to settle for the Browns, which is a team that not even Bill Belichick could make decent.
Worse, there still are just a handful of African-American offensive and defensive coordinators, which is a key pipeline to head coaching jobs.
"We have a ways to go, but we're moving in the right direction," Wooten said. "When we started (in 2003), there were eight, maybe nine game-day officials. Today there are over 55, maybe 60. So don't think that we're not standing up to the fight anymore. We've seen changes."
For verification, check one of the replays of Super Bowl I, and don't miss the pregame introductions.