I’m pulling for wide receiver Chad Williams in training camp with the Arizona Cardinals this summer.
Also halfback Tarik Cohen in camp with the Chicago Bears, defensive tackle Grover Stewart in camp with the Indianapolis Colts and offensive tackle Jylan Ware in camp with the Oakland Raiders.
They are the vestiges of what was once one of the NFL’s greatest talent suppliers – the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). But the pipeline has become a trickle. Williams is from Grambling, Cohen from North Carolina A&T, Stewart from Albany State and Ware from Alabama State. All were mid-to-late round picks.
The HBCU provided opportunity for talented black players in the once-segregated South to play football. And did they ever. They produced 31 Pro Football Hall of Famers, including eight members of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team.
Buck Buchanan became the first player from the HBCU chosen first overall when the Kansas City Chiefs claimed him in the 1963 AFL draft out of Grambling. His Kansas City teammate, Willie Lanier, became the first black middle linebacker in NFL history out of Morgan State – and also the first black middle linebacker enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Walter Payton became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher out of Jackson State (since passed by Emmitt Smith) and Jerry Rice the all-time leading receiver out of Mississippi Valley State. Deacon Jones preceded Rice at Mississippi Valley – then Mississippi Vocational — and invented the football term “sack.” Then he collected 174 of them, third most in NFL history.
It was the HBCU that helped tip the balance of power from the NFL to the AFL in the 1960s.
Because the established NFL was still the favored league of the big-school players in the 1960s, the AFL had to dig a little deeper in its scouting. That search took them into the South where the AFL struck gold with the HBCU players. Art Shell (Maryland Eastern Shore) and Willie Brown (Grambling) paved Hall-of-Fame careers with the Oakland Raiders.
But the Kansas City Chiefs had the jump on everyone in both leagues. Owner Lamar Hunt was a visionary. He hired an African-American scout, Lloyd Wells, who knew the HBCU schools and their players. In Super Bowl IV, the final game ever played by an AFL team, the Chiefs started eight players from the HBCU and shocked the heavily-favored NFC champion Minnesota Vikings, 23-7.
All three of the wide receivers for the Chiefs that day were HBCU products: Otis Taylor (Prairie View), Frank Pitts (Southern) and Gloster Richardson (Jackson State). Taylor even caught the 46-yard touchdown pass that broke the game open. Three of the starting defensive backs were HBCU products: Emmitt Thomas (Bishop), James Marsalis (Tennessee State) and Jim Kearney (Prairie View).
Halfback Robert Holmes (Southern) also started against the Vikings, as did Hall-of-Famers Buchanan and Lanier. Three other HBCU defensive backs came off the Kansas City bench: Willie Mitchell (Tennessee State), Goldie Sellers (Grambling) and Ceasar Belser (Arkansas AM&N).
“By forming the American Football League, Lamar created more job opportunities for the talent, regardless where it came from,” Lanier said. “Eugene Upshaw came out of Texas A&I (in 1967) when the only black offensive lineman in the NFL was Jim Parker. When I came in, there were no black middle linebackers.
“If there’s no American Football League, where would Upshaw have gone? Where would I have gone? Or Art Shell the next year? The jobs wouldn’t have been there for us.”
Hall-of-Fame general manager Ron Wolf broke into the AFL with the Raiders in 1963 as a scout.
“We made sure we covered the schools that were producing the players,” Wolf said. “Since our chief competition was San Diego, Kansas City and Denver, it was obvious we had to go to those (HBCU) schools. They (Chargers, Chiefs, Broncos) were – so that made those schools a focal point for us. The HBCU schools were very important to the AFL because of the quality of performer emerging from there.”
The AFL and NFL merged in 1970, and the Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the three franchises shuttled off to the AFL to balance out the two conferences. The Steelers quickly adopted the HBCU philosophy of their new AFL brethren on the way to their four Super Bowls that decade, aggressively mining the Southern black schools. Pittsburgh hired its own African-American scout, Bill Nunn, who opened the talent-flow tap from the HBCU.
The Steelers found cornerback Mel Blount at Southern and wide receiver John Stallworth at Alabama A&M. Both have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Blount joined Lanier on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team.
Defensive end L.C. Greenwood arrived from Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He became an NFL all-decade selection for the 1970s. Ernie Holmes (Texas Southern) started at tackle on that Steel Curtain defensive line and safety Donnie Shell (South Carolina State) has been a Hall-of-Fame finalist with his 51 career interceptions.
Not one of those players was a first-round draft pick. Blount was a third-rounder, Stallworth a fourth, Holmes an eighth, Greenwood a 10th and Shell signed as an undrafted college free agent. But the HBCU soon moved out of the bargain bin.
Payton became the fourth overall selection of the 1976 draft. Green Bay made defensive end Ezra Johnson a first-round pick out of Morris Brown in 1977 and Tampa Bay tabbed Grambling quarterback Doug Williams with the 17th overall choice in 1978. Williams would go on to become the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
Cornerbacks Roynell Young (Alcorn State) and Rod Hill (Kentucky State) … plus Rice … became first-round picks in the 1980s and Robert Massey (North Carolina Central), Terry Williams (Bethune Cookman) , Donald Evans (Winston-Salem), Jackie Walker (Jackson State), Isaac Holt (Alcorn State), Chris Burkett (Jackson State), Booker Reese (Bethune Cookman), Curtis Green (Alabama State) and Perry Harrington (Jackson State) all became second-rounders.
The HBCU has produced a Hall of Famer as recently as 1993 when the New York Giants drafted Texas Southern defensive end Michael Strahan in the second round. His pass rush helped the Giants win two Super Bowls, and Strahan finds himself ninth on the all-time sack list with 141 ½.
As the walls of segregation crumbled in the 1970s, the recruitment of the African-American athlete heightened across the major-college ranks. That thinned out the talent pool for the HBCU. The last first-round pick from an HBCU came in 2008 when the Arizona Cardinals drafted cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with the 16th overall pick out of Tennessee State.
Morgan State has produced three Hall of Famers: Lanier, Leroy Kelly and Roosevelt Brown. But the Bears have not had a player drafted since 2003. Jackson State also has produced three Hall of Famers: Payton, Jackie Slater and Lem Barney. But the Tigers haven’t had a player drafted since 2008. Alcorn State hasn’t had a player drafted since wide receiver Donald Driver in 1999, and Mississippi Valley State hasn’t had a player selected since Ron Humphrey in 1992.
Tight end Shannon Sharpe came out of Savannah State as a seventh-round pick of the Denver Broncos in 1990. He won three Super Bowls, went to eight Pro Bowls, was voted to the NFL’s 1990s all-decade team and now has a bust in Canton. But Savannah State hasn’t had a player drafted by the NFL since Sharpe.
Bishop College closed its doors in 1988, and Maryland Eastern Shore doesn’t even field a football team any more. The HBCU are no longer the fertile recruitment ground that they were in the 1960s, 1970s and even into the 1980s.
Which is why it’s on the likes of Williams, Cohen, Stewart and Ware to carry on the HBCU tradition. Williams was a third-round pick, Cohen and Stewart both fourths and Ware a seventh. Williams caught 90 passes for 1,337 yards and 11 touchdowns a year ago and Cohen rushed for 1,688 yards and 18 touchdowns. Stewart collected 27 sacks in his career and Ware was a three-year starter.
There’s too much tradition for the HBCU to become a forgotten page in the history of professional football.
Here’s the all-time All-HBCU football team:
(Position, Player, HBCU, NFL career note)
QB—Doug Williams, Grambling, Super Bowl MVP
HB—Walter Payton, Jackson State, Hall of Fame
FB—Marion Motley, Cleveland, Hall of Fame
WR—Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State, Hall of Fame
WR—Bob Hayes, Florida A&M, Hall of Fame
TE—Shannon Sharpe, Savannah State, Hall of Fame
OT–Art Shell, Maryland Eastern Shore, Hall of Fame
OT—Roosevelt Brown, Morgan State, Hall of Fame
G—Larry Little, Bethune Cookman, Hall of Fame
G–Doug Wilkerson, North Carolina Central, 3 Pro Bowls
C—Dwight Wheeler, Tennessee State, 9 NFL seasons
DE—Deacon Jones, Mississippi Vocational, Hall of Fame
DE—Willie Davis, Grambling, Hall of Fame
DT—Buck Buchanan, Grambling, Hall of Fame
DT—Roger Brown, Maryland Eastern Shore, 6 Pro Bowls
LB—Willie Lanier, Morgan State, Hall of Fame
LB—Harry Carson, South Carolina State, Hall of Fame
LB—Robert Brazile, Jackson State, 1970s NFL all-decade team
CB—Mel Blount, Southern, Hall of Fame
CB—Willie Brown, Grambling, Hall of Fame
S—Ken Houston, Prairie View, Hall of Fame
S—Donnie Shell, South Carolina State, 51 career interceptions
P—Greg Coleman, Florida A&M, Minnesota’s 40th anniversary team
KR—John Taylor, Delaware State, 1980s NFL all-decade team
Kick Blocker—Albert Lewis, Grambling, 11 blocked kicks
ST Ace—Kenny Gant, Albany State, 2 Super Bowl rings with Dallas