(Photo courtesy of St. Louis Rams)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
In 1949, Paul “Tank” Younger stood outside the ramshackle old building that served as the railroad stop in Grambling, La., listening to the final words of advice his coach Eddie Robinson would give him before he headed off to change pro football history. They were not exactly encouraging.
“He told me, ‘You have to remember, if you fail, there’s no telling when another black athlete from a black college will get a chance to play pro football,’ ” Younger once recalled. “‘You were voted black college player of the year. If you go up there and you don’t make it, they’ll say we took the best you have, and he didn’t make it. You have to concentrate and be dedicated and make it.’
“I left school with the attitude that I couldn’t fail. I saw some tough days, but I hung in there.”
Tank Younger did much more than that. He became, along with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, the Jackie Robinsons of the NFL. Washington and Strode actually integrated pro football a year before Robinson broke the color line in major-league baseball in 1947, while Younger, who arrived two years later, was the first player signed by the NFL from a historically black college.
A legendary college player who began his career at Grambling at tackle but kept running over defenders by sneaking into running-back drills often enough that Robinson finally shifted him to the backfield, Younger scored 60 collegiate touchdowns before signing with the Los Angeles Rams for $6,000 as an undrafted free agent.
Younger ran as his nickname suggests. He was a sledgehammer who made up one-third of what would became known as the ”Bull Elephant” backfield, running alongside fellow 225-pound fullbacks “Deacon” Dan Towler and Dick Hoerner. He ran and played defense the way Eddie Robinson had pleaded for him to. He played every play as if the guy across from him had stolen his living room set.
“When Tank made the team with the Rams, (then-coach Clark) Shaughnessy used to call him Big Boy, because he was 235 pounds,” recalled Rick Smith the long-time PR director of the Rams and the San Diego Chargers, where he worked with Younger after he became a trailblazer again in the front office.
“I remember they were playing a preseason game in Omaha, the squad was getting ready to be cut, and he lost his shoes or he left his shoes or he had a pair of shoes that didn’t fit,” Smith once told the Los Angeles Times. “He was in a great deal of pain, and his foot was bleeding. But he didn’t come out of the game, because he knew if he came out of the game he’d be history.”
Instead he made the team and then made history while opening the door for one of the deepest mines of football talent ever found: The historically black colleges (HBCU). They gave pro football the likes of Hall-of-Famers Deacon Jones, Willie Davis, Jerry Rice, Willie Brown, Walter Payton, Art Shell and hundreds more. Certainly, they might have made it any way, but someone had to open the door — and it took a battering Ram to do it.
Who better than a Ram named “Tank?”
”I don’t know if I felt like a trailblazer, but I experienced some of the same things Robinson experienced,” Younger once said, referring to Jackie Robinson. “We played in a couple football games down in the south my rookie year, and we stayed in different hotels and things of that nature. I guess I was willing to do a lot of things to achieve my goal, and my goal was to be a football player in the NFL.”
That was the case for 10 years, nine with the Rams and his final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, during which he would make the Pro Bowl four times, become the first African-American to play in an NFL All-Star Game, the first to play in a second such game and the first to play in a third.
He rushed for 3,640 yards and 35 touchdowns during his career while also intercepting three passes, making the Pro Bowl as a running back one year and as a linebacker the next. He averaged 51 minutes per game during the 1951 season when the Rams won the league title, one of four times they reached the championship game while Tank Younger was toting the ball.
After his retirement, Younger worked in private business and as a part-time … then in 1967 a full-time … scout for the Rams before becoming the first black assistant general manager in NFL history when he ascended to that position in 1975 with the Chargers. Tank Younger would hold that post for 12 years before returning to the Rams’ front office in 1987 until his retirement in 1995.
Yet despite all he accomplished in the NFL he has never been nominated for debate by the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame selection committee. Part of the reason is that the numbers he compiled in the 1950s, when a league season was only 12 games, pale in comparison to today’s. What does not are both his accomplishments on the field and the trailblazing nature of his career — both as a player and in the front office.
“I’m proud of it,” Younger once jokingly said of his accomplishments. “There’s nothing like being the first in anything–unless it’s the soup line.”