Book review: "The Color of Sundays"

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It ends up being the story of a man told through stories about the man.

The subtitle of "The Color of Sundays," the book authored by Andrew Conte, is: "The Secret Strategy That Built the Steelers' Dynasty," but it's really about Bill Nunn Jr. Conte's book is about how Nunn became the man he was, and how that man was able to effect real change in the National Football League and thereby provide an opportunity at a professional career for many men who otherwise may have been excluded because of the color of their skin.

Bill Nunn is one of the most significant men ever to be involved in the scouting aspect of professional football, and his skill at this job is evident in the names etched on those six Lombardi trophies on display at the Steelers practice facility. Conte tells some of that story, but the real value of his effort is the context of the time in America when Nunn was growing into manhood.

Particularly illuminating was the story of the first Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight, on June 18, 1941. Conn was a Pittsburgh guy, and therefore a hero in all of the city's Irish homes. Nunn's family lived in one of those Pittsburgh neighborhoods, too, but to a black boy at a time when boxing was the rare sport that didn't discriminate against black men, Joe Louis was the hero.

"Each time Louis defended his title, blacks, it seemed, had more to lose than gain from the outcome," writes Conte. "Louis had emerged as a black hero. But if Louis went down to a white challenger, many blacks would see it as a setback for them all."

This was the reality of Bill Nunn's childhood. He was the son of William G. Nunn Sr., an editor at The Pittsburgh Courier during an era when it was one of the most influential black newspapers in America, and the father made sure the son grew up with an understanding of race relations in America.

During its heyday, The Pittsburgh 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. William G. Nunn Sr. was the editor-in-chief of The Pittsburgh Courier, and he worked there for almost 30-plus years before retiring in the mid-1960s. Bill Nunn worked at the newspaper as the sports editor, and later as the managing editor.

"The Courier was a crusading paper," recalled Mr. Nunn in 2010. "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."

Conte devotes a good portion of his book to chronicling Nunn's career as a sportswriter. It was an era when Nunn wasn't permitted to sit in his hometown press box at Forbes Field unless one of the two Major League teams playing the game had a black player on their roster. It was an era when segregation was the rule throughout college football, especially in the South, which is what set the stage for Nunn's greatest contribution to sports.

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. Having been schooled in the business by his father; by Wendell Smith, who was with Jackie Robinson daily as he integrated Major League Baseball; and by Chester L. Washington, who started at the Courier as a stenographer before working his way up to sports editor and then leaving to become a publisher who created a 13-newspaper alliance, Bill Nunn's influence in sports grew to be significant.

One such example of that influence came in 1952, when Wellington Mara, at the time the owner of the New York Football Giants, instructed his team to use its pick in the 27th round of that NFL Draft on Roosevelt Brown, a tackle from Morgan State College. The story goes that Mara held in his hand a copy of The Pittsburgh Courier's All-America team that Mr. Nunn had picked 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.

Conte tells these stories as a prologue to the stories Steelers fans will recognize and enjoy.

"Sitting in his dorm room at Alabama A&M University, John Stallworth no longer wondered just whether he would have a shot at playing in the National Football League," writes Conte. "After falling at least a step too slow when he ran the 40-yard dash for a group of professional scouts that morning, the senior wideout sat on his dorm room bed questioning whether he even belonged on the next level … Just then Stallworth heard a knock at the door. When he answered it, Bill Nunn Jr. stood in the hallway. Of all the scouts on campus that day, no one mattered more."

That begins the story of how the Steelers landed Stallworth as part of their 1974 draft that would add four Hall of Fame players and therefore become the best one in NFL history. But it also is a part of the story of how Nunn's work in championing black college football – first as a sportswriter and then as an NFL scout – changed a league and ultimately provided opportunities to men who wouldn't have gotten them otherwise.

"The Steelers' championship (after winning Super Bowl IX) validated what Nunn and black college athletic directors, presidents, and fans had believed for generations: Given a chance their athletes could compete with the best in the world," writes Conte. "Sam Davis, Glen Edwards, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Ernie Holmes, Frank Lewis, John Stallworth. These men played not only for themselves but for the countless black men who perhaps could have stood with them – if they had been given an opportunity to try out for a professional football team."

The book concludes with Nunn being buried next to his parents and across a path from Robert L. Vann, The Pittsburgh Courier's founding publisher, with the Steelers' dedicating a bench at Saint Vincent College where Nunn had watched training camp practices during his later years, and with the NFL announcing the creation of the Nunn-Wooten Scouting Fellowship, a program designed to teach former players, regardless of color, how to become professional scouts.

"By this retelling," writes Conte, "I hope that Nunn's legacy will, in the words of Steelers' Coach Mike Tomlin, 'live on in the stories told, lessons taught and wisdom shared with those of us who remain.'"

(Andrew Conte's book, "The Color of Sundays," is available at the Steelers Pro Shop World Headquarters online store -- SHOP.STEELERS.COM -- or at any of the Steelers retail locations: Heinz Field, Grove City Premium Outlets, Pittsburgh Mills Mall, South Hills Village Mall, and Westmoreland Mall.)

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