Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tank Younger, Eddie Robinson and James Harris and the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Tank Younger, Eddie Robinson and James Harris and the 1964 Civil Rights Act

By Evan Weiner

(New York, N. Y.) -- About 19 years ago, Eddie Robinson was holding court at a hotel off of Route 17 in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey talking about his 50-year career as the football coach at Grambling University and about two players in particular, Tank Younger and James Harris. Younger was one of Robinson's first great players and yet there was a question of whether he could land a job in the National Football League with the Los Angeles Rams in 1949 because of the color of his skin. Harris was a quarterback with skill, but there was a question about his ability to become an NFL quarterback. It also had to do with his skin color.

In 2010, there is once again talk about race in the United States. The latest salvo was caused by a media that is far too sloppy in a rush to produce "Good TV" or "Good radio" in an effort to keep viewers and listeners attention from commercial to commercial. A doctored video of a speech by former Department of Agricultural employee Shirley Sherrod that was circulated by conservative blogger Andrew Beirtbart unleashed the usual cable TV news discussion about race which featured the usual talking heads "debating" the subject in a far than less scholarly fashion.

Radio and TV bookers should pay attention to history and talk to people who experienced life before and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 instead of rounded up the unusual suspects that are herded into the cable TV news studio to give their viewpoint which is usually designed to bolster ratings than be reviewed by future generations as a matter of public record.

Higher ratings mean higher ad revenue for the cable TV news channels although most of the operation is funded by cable subscribers who are forced to pay for the channels whether they want the or not if the consumer wants the basic expanded tier. The news networks are bundled by multiple systems operators thanks in part to the Cable Act of 1984 which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

Why cable TV news outlets and the rest of the fourth estate take Breitbart and his ilk from both sides of the aisle seriously is a question that can only be answered by editors and TV executives. But it has a lot to do with a media psychology that people will watch or listen to or read about train wrecks instead of a well reasoned conversation. A lot of opinion makers in radio seem to have a commonality, abuse problems whether it is drugs, alcohol, gambling, sexual harassment allegations, libel charges or jail time. They also call people names acting like a bully knowing that they are safe in a studio and it is a one way conversation that is controlled by the talk show host. The discourse would never be tolerated in elementary school with the student who emulated a talk show host being brought into the principal's office facing possible suspension.

Americans expect more out of a fifth grader's behavior than a radio talk show host.

The talk show host's instructions from upper management is to go after disgruntled listeners who are angry with their life, their job, their spouse, their kids and anything else and get them even angrier. These are the people that media executives, particularly in radio, have hired to be opinion makers. Whether people liked William Buckley's politics or not, Buckley was always civil in his discussions except with Gore Vidal. Buckley was not alone in being polite and civil.

Eddie Robinson coached Grambling University's football team between 1941 and 1997. He died three years ago. In that hotel room back in 1991, Robinson talked about Younger who played before the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964 and of Harris who had the ability to play in the NFL in 1968, four years after the law was passed. He spoke about the NFL reluctant to have a black quarterback on the team because Negros, blacks and African Americans were not smart enough to play quarterback in the NFL.

Tank Younger was the guy that really needed to make it according to Robinson in 1949. If Younger failed, the NFL might not have taken a chance with a player from a predominantly black college.

The National Football League had no Negro, black or African-American players between 1933 and 1945. One of the conditions attached to the Rams franchise move from Cleveland to the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1946 was that the Rams hire Negro players. The rival All American Football Conference did hire Negro players in 1946.

Younger was selected as the Black College Player of the Year in 1948 but he wasn't drafted by any NFL teams. He was signed as a free agent by Los Angeles.

"Younger was the first one, we had a time with him. They didn't want to give him. it was a matter of about six thousand and a coach told me, he said Eddie it would be better if you let us pay him four, because there is going to be a lot of great guys in camp and it might be between Tank and a guy who is making six and they would go ahead and keep Tank," said Robinson. "I said you give him the six and if he doesn't show you, cut him. The coach didn't want to do that but Tank made it. It was only because we spent all day talking about just giving him the chance to play and if he wasn't worth the six-thousand dollars he didn't need to be in the league He was our first football player to make the NFL and I guess when Tank left Grambling, he was in the best shape of any football player. He practiced all summer, he'd run the sprints, he caught the passes and he had done everything.

"And when we carried Tank, back in those days was real popular. We carried Tank to the train that stopped and one of the kids asked Tank, 'you think you are going to make it?' he said if they are playing football. If they are playing basketball, I probably won't make it.

"Sometimes you think about what might have happened if Tank hadn't made it. He opened it up and since that time the people from the NFL teams have always been coming to our campus."

A decade later, the Cleveland Browns took an offensive lineman named Willie Davis. Cleveland didn't think too much of his ability and let him go. Davis went to Green Bay where Vince Lombardi turned him into a defensive end and that was the start of not only a successful football career but a highly decorated business career for the player who was not good enough in Cleveland. Davis owned radio station and served on many board of directors after his playing days ended in 1969. Davis is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The American Football League paid close attention to Grambling and the traditional black colleges with the Kansas City Chiefs leading the way. Kansas City took one of Robinson's stars, Buck Buchanan with the first pick of the 1963 AFL draft. To illustrate the difference between the leagues, Buchanan was a 19th round selection by the New York Giants. The AFL showed a willingness to sign black players while Congress literarily had to force Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall to hire in black player in 1962.

"I knew Lloyd Wells (the magazine photographer/football scout with Kansas City who uncovered many talented black players), the guy with Otis Taylor. (Don) Klosterman (the Chiefs General Manager) was one of top persons at that time and he was friendly with Lloyd Wells and all of those people. They would come over to Grambling and have a great session."

Kansas City had Buchanan, Taylor and a host of black college players and by 1966, Kansas City had a Super Bowl.

Robinson had another Hall of Fame caliber player too who signed as a free agent with an American Football League team in Willie Brown. Willie Brown signed with Houston and was cut, he went to Denver and ended up with Al Davis in Oakland and became a great player.

Robinson was turning out players but the NFL still had an unwritten rule about black quarterbacks. The NFL had none in the 1960s. The last black quarterback was Willie Thrower who took a few snaps for the Chicago Bears in a game on October 8, 1953 against San Francisco. Chicago lost and Thrower was just three for eight in passing for 27 yards. Thrower led Michigan State to a national college championship in 1952. He was ignored by the 12 NFL teams in the 1953 draft and signed a deal with Chicago as a free agent.

There were just a little more than a dozen black players in the NFL in 1953. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney voted against moving the New York Yankees to Dallas for the 1952 season because Rooney was feared for the safety of black players in Dallas. That was the NFL back in the 1950s.

NFL coaches also didn't think to quote the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball executive in an interview on ABC's Nightline in April 6, 1987 that blacks "did not have some of the necessities" to be a quarterback, center or middle linebacker in football. In 1987, Campanis was talking about why there were no black managers or general managers in Major League Baseball at the time. He could have easily been talking about the NFL of the 1950s as well.

In 1962 Sandy Stephens was drafted by the NFL's Cleveland Browns and the AFL's New York Titans. Stephens was a great quarterback for the University of Minnesota and finished fourth in the 1961 Heisman Trophy balloting but neither the Browns (who took him in the second round) or the Titans (he was the fifth player selected in the AFL Draft) wanted him as a quarterback. He ended up with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes.

In the late 1960s, a number of years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, there was still the question. Why weren't there any black quarterbacks in the NFL? Robinson thought he had a guy that could be an NFL starter in Harris but the "necessities" issue was a problem.

While Harris was a senior at Grambling in 1968, the AFL finally had a black starting quarterback in Denver as Marlin Briscoe took snaps for the Broncos. But the NFL still had not had a black field general (quarterbacks used to call plays on the field) since 1953.

"I wanted whatever it was to try to change whatever I needed or whatever could change in football," said Robinson. "You know they came to me and said the black quarterback didn't have the mentality to make it in the league. Then I know Howard Cosell and he had always been a friend of mine and asked me to be on the (TV) program when I came up here (New York). I did. I was afraid he was going to ask a lot of questions that might embarrass me but I knew he really didn't want to embarrass me but he promised he wouldn't and the first question he asked me he said, “Eddie, after you have been in the game for the great number of years you have coached, do you feel you have the ability that you can train a quarterback who play, lead a team, in the NFL? Nobody had done it before.

"I told him yeah. Yeah, I can do it, I think I can do it. I told him I knew he was going to ask me a question like that. But I got on the airplane, I went straight back to Louisiana. We were recruiting James Harris (1964). I went to James Harris and got James up after I got off the airplane and his mother and I told them we wanted him to be the first quarterback to start in the NFL. The first requirement was graduating. If you have a diploma, you have some kind of intelligence. He did and we got him."

Robinson was right about Harris although Harris was just a mid-level draft choice by the Buffalo Bills in the 1969 combined AFL-NFL Draft. Harris was Buffalo's starter on opening day in 1969. Ironically Denver sent Briscoe to Buffalo where he switched positions and became a wide receiver catching balls thrown by Harris.

Harris had an up and down NFL career with Buffalo, Los Angeles and San Diego. He was the first black quarterback ever to start a conference championship game in 1974 and was the MVP of the 1974 Pro Bowl Game. He has had a long career in football and among the titles he has held was the Vice President of Player Personnel of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Robinson had one other quarterback who made history. Doug Williams was the first black quarterback ever to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory in Washington's win over Denver in Super Bowl XXII. Williams was the Most Valuable Player of the game.

Rand Paul and Andrew Breitbart reignited a discussion of race relations in America this year. Breitbart should not have gotten as far as he did with his doctored video but today's journalism is long on sensationalism and short on explanations especially on the cable news networks or talk radio, two mediums that give carnival barkers a bad name. If cable TV and the radio talkers want to really do a service, there are still plenty of people around who can tell them stories from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s instead of the rabble rousers who present one sided arguments on radio or the fabricated "debates" on cable news which are all designed to keep the attention of the aging core demographic of sixty years and older so that they listen or watch long enough to hear some commercial for some pill to relieve some pain.

Evan Weiner is an award winning radio-TV commentator and columnist who lecturers on "The Politics of Sports Business" and can be reached at

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