When the NFL celebrates the 50th Super Bowl this coming season, it shouldn’t overlook the cultural storyline that has perhaps had a bigger impact on pro football than the game itself.
Few, if any, talked or wrote about it at the time in a setting where the media atmosphere was infinitely more subdued than it is today and the focus was on the groundbreaking significance of the game. But history now tells us Super Bowl I was the watershed moment in the African-American football player’s long, difficult struggle for acceptance. It was the catalyst for a paradigm shift that has overtaken the sport.
When Vince Lombardi was named coach of the Packers in January 1959, he inherited one veteran black player: defensive end Nate Borden. The other black player on the Packers’ 1958 roster of 35, Len Ford, was booted off the team the Saturday morning before the final game.
Two years into the job, Lombardi won his first NFL championship with five black players on a roster of 36. Two of them were starters: Willie Davis and Willie Wood.
The makeup of the Packers’ roster, at the time, was more or less the norm.
The New York Giants, the team the Packers beat in the 1961 title game, had three black starters. Detroit, the Baltimore Colts and Chicago Bears, the three teams that finished behind the Packers in the Western Conference, had three, four and four black starters, respectively.
Now, let’s fast forward to Super Bowl I. The Packers and Chiefs each had eight black starters. The NFL didn’t record defensive starters in its championship games until 1961, but it was likely the most black starters ever.
For comparison sake, in the 1963 NFL championship, when representatives of America’s two largest cities faced off, the Giants and Bears, only seven of the 44 starters were black. The next year when Cleveland beat the Colts, eight of the 44 starters were black.
Change was coming slowly to the NFL, but it came at a much faster pace in Green Bay.
As the Packers slipped into decline after winning back-to-back titles in ‘61 and ’62, Lombardi retooled his roster. And he did it indiscriminately.
Between his 1962 and ’65 championship teams, Lombardi replaced almost half his starters, including six of 11 on defense.
By 1966, Lombardi was starting six black players on defense. Four started in the Pro Bowl following Super Bowl I. The next year, when the Packers won their third straight NFL championship – something no team had done previously or has done since under a playoff format – five of the six started in the Pro Bowl.
In 1961, Lombardi had drafted Herb Adderley, a two-way back from Michigan State, in the first round. In what was then a 14-team NFL, Adderley was one of only four black players picked in Round 1. Two of the other three were taken by the same team, San Francisco.
In 1963, Lombardi drafted linebacker Dave Robinson, one of only two black players selected among the 14 first-round picks. Again, the 49ers drafted the other.
Adderley and Robinson were two of the Packers’ five Pro Bowl starters on defense and eventually were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Among the others, Davis and Wood also are in the Hall of Fame. Bob Jeter was a two-time Pro Bowl pick.
Let’s go back and look at the three conference rivals, all with back-alley defensive units, that were the Packers fiercest competition in 1961: the Colts, Bears and Lions. In 1966, they still had only eight black defensive starters among them, a mere four more than they had five years earlier.
Things were different in the upstart America Football League. Founded in 1960, its teams were drafting and signing players from wherever they could find them. And they found no more fertile ground than the historic black colleges of the segregated South. That’s how the AFL caught up so quickly.
The teams that did the best job of mining those small schools were its best by the end of the decade: the Chiefs, Oakland and New York Jets. The first six AFL champions had a total of 12 players from black colleges; its first three champions to play in the Super Bowl had 23, including nine on the 1966 Chiefs.
Buck Buchanan, the Chiefs’ future Hall of Fame defensive tackle, was from Grambling. Otis Taylor, their big-play receiver, was from Prairie View A&M. Another of the three Hall of Famers on that team is Bobby Bell, a black linebacker who was the equal of the Packers’ Robinson.
Into the 1960s, linebackers were viewed much like quarterbacks. The prevailing school of thought among coaches and scouts was that black players weren’t smart enough to play the position.
When Robinson started for the Packers in the 1965 NFL championship, he might have been the first of his color to start at linebacker in a title game. Two others, Rommie Loudd (1960 Los Angeles Chargers) and Frank Buncom (1964-65 San Diego Chargers), had started in AFL title games.
In 1966, Bart Starr had his best season as a pro. He won the Associated Press MVP award for the regular season and was named MVP of Super Bowl I. He was the consummate poised and studious field general, winner of more NFL championships than any other quarterback and a future Hall of Famer.
But the Packers were not a quarterback centric team under Lombardi. Few people in the 1960s, not even Lombardi, compared Starr to Johnny Unitas in terms of talent and greatness.
In truth, when the Packers won their three straight titles under Lombardi from 1965-67, their offense often struggled. It ranked 12th, eighth and ninth in total yards in an NFL that grew during that timeframe from 14 to 16 teams.
The Packers won their trifecta with one of the great defenses in NFL history: One that ranked third, third and first in yards allowed. And in the two years they finished third, they were first in scoring defense by wide margins.
Let the record show here that by Super Bowl I Jim Brown had already retired, Lenny Moore and John Mackey had helped create and become lasting prototypes at the newly named positions of flanker and tight end, and Roosevelt Brown and Jim Parker had distinguished themselves over 10-year spans as two of the greatest offensive linemen ever.
But that’s part of the point. The NFL had opened its doors to black stars after World War II, but the pool of black players grew slowly. In Super Bowl I, not every black player was abundantly talented. The rosters of the Packers and Chiefs were dotted with merely good, solid black players given a fair shot by a color blind Lombardi and a fair-minded Chiefs hierarchy.
Today, more than two-thirds of NFL players are African-American.
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