In a lot of ways, Bill Nunn should be considered a pioneer.
Pioneer is certainly an appropriate way to view someone who will be part of the 11-member inaugural class of the Black College Football Hall of Fame. But typical of Nunn, he said he plans to use this honor to bring some recognition to the men he believes were the true pioneers.
In conjunction with Black History Month, the induction ceremony for the inaugural class of the Black College Football Hall of Fame will be held on Saturday at the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta. Former NFL coach Jon Gruden will serve as master of ceremonies, with Falcons owner Arthur Blank and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young as the honorary chairmen.
Joining Nunn in this inaugural class are Buck Buchanan, a defensive end at Grambling State from 1959-63; Willie Gallimore, a running back from Florida A&M from 1953-56; David “Deacon” Jones, a defensive end at South Carolina State from 1958-60; Willie Lanier, a linebacker at Morgan State from 1963-67; Walter Payton, a running back at Jackson State from 1971-74; Jerry Rice, a wide receiver at Mississippi Valley State from 1981-84; Ben Stevenson, a running back at Tuskegee from 1923-30; Paul “Tank” Younger, a running back at Grambling State from 1945-48; Alonzo “Jake” Gaither, a coach at Florida A&M from 1945-69; and Eddie Robinson, a coach at Grambling State from 1941-97.
Bill Nunn said he is honored to be a part of this distinguished group, but he also understands why he – a journalist and then a scout with the Pittsburgh Steelers – was included.
“My feeling is that so much of what I did to be a part of this was done when I was with the newspaper (The Pittsburgh Courier),” said Nunn. “Getting to the Steelers, of course, also was due to the newspaper. Having dealt with black colleges for most of my newspaper life, I feel good about that. I picked the Black College All-America football team starting in 1950, and the last one I took part in was in 1974 when I was a scout here and we drafted John Stallworth. So as a result, I felt very good about being a part of that.”
It first needs to be understood the degree of influence that The Pittsburgh Courier had. Once the country’s preeminent African-American newspaper, the Courier’s circulation reached 400,000, with readers all over the country, and it had branch offices in New York City, Detroit, Los Angeles and Atlanta, in addition to its home in Pittsburgh. Nunn’s father – Bill Nunn Sr. – was the editor-in-chief of The Pittsburgh Courier, and he worked there for almost 50 years before retiring sometime in the mid-1960s. Nunn Jr. was the sports editor, and later the managing editor, at the newspaper.
“The Courier was a crusading paper,” said Nunn. “We fought against what we called ‘injustices,’ and not only in sports, but also in the workplace, in the educational system and so on. As a result, I was just proud I was a part of that newspaper. What happened with the Courier, though, was that because we were a crusading newspaper, it affected us with advertising. We could get the beer advertisements and things like that, but the big department stores and some of the big companies wouldn’t advertise because we were fighting against job discrimination, and many of those things were happening at some of those places.”
During the era when The Pittsburgh Courier flourished, Nunn traveled to cover the best football game played between black colleges each weekend, and then at the end of the season he selected what was the definitive Black College Football All-America team. It was a selection committee of one.
“But there were guys who were in front of me at the Courier who did a lot of good work, too,” said Nunn. “One of them was Wendell Smith, who went on to be very involved with the Jackie Robinson story as he integrated Major League Baseball. Smith was with Jackie when he was training for that, and my father actually was the first guy to pick the Courier All-America football team, and he was followed by Ches Washington and then myself. They were the pioneers.
“To me, this is an honor because you get a chance to talk about the guys who didn’t get an opportunity to play in the National Football League. By me going in, I can be someone who can reflect on those particular guys – both the coaches and players.”
Through Nunn’s work – first at The Pittsburgh Courier and later for the Steelers – many football players from black colleges got an opportunity to play professionally. The late Wellington Mara, at the time the owner of the New York Football Giants, once used his team’s pick in the 27th round of the 1952 NFL Draft on Roosevelt Brown, a tackle from Morgan State College. Mara held a copy of the Courier’s All-America team Nunn had picked in his hand when he pointed to Brown’s name and told his people, “Take this guy.”
Roosevelt Brown went to the Giants as a 20-year-old, where he quickly won a starting job. He held it for 13 seasons, was named an All-Pro for eight straight seasons (1956-63) and in 1975 became just the second offensive lineman to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That was an example of Nunn the sports editor’s influence. The Steelers 1974 team photo is an example of the influence he had on the NFL.
The 1974 Steelers ended their season by winning Super Bowl IX, and on the roster for the first championship game in franchise history were 11 players from black colleges – QB Joe Gilliam, S Glen Edwards, S Donnie Shell, RB Steve Davis, WR Frank Lewis, CB Mel Blount, G Sam Davis, DE Jim Wolf, DT Ernie Holmes, DE L.C. Greenwood and WR John Stallworth.
“With the success we had with the number of ballplayers from black colleges, I think it opened the eyes of a lot of other teams,” said Nunn. “With the attitude of Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll, it opened the eyes of a lot of people, and I like to think I was a part of that. When I came into this job (with the Steelers), with Chuck having been a late-round draft choice himself who made it in the NFL – we always talked about just finding athletes and giving them a chance to develop – and some of the late-rounders that we had who made it in the league, especially in the early 1970s, were from black colleges.
“To me, (the 1974 Steelers) had to open things up. Then you add the Joe Greenes and Dwight Whites and the rest of them who didn’t go to what were considered black colleges, do you think that opened up some eyes? I don’t think there was a team in the league that could match that number. That says it all about the Steelers organization.”
And it says a lot about why Bill Nunn is a deserving part of the inaugural class of the Black College Football Hall of Fame.