Bill Nunn Jr. went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week in the same way that he lived – humble and full of praise for others.
The NFL will replay the induction ceremony for nine posthumous inductees on Saturday night, and it will show several video clips of the Steelers scout talking about how the team did “pretty well” in 1974 when it drafted five future Hall-of-Famers. He gives much of the credit, too, as he often did, to Coach Chuck Noll for developing the players Nunn discovered.
What felt unexpected about Wednesday night’s event in Canton was seeing Nunn immortalized in a bronze bust that the Hall reassured us will last for at least 40,000 years. When future generations look back at the NFL’s origin story, it will forever include Nunn’s remarkable contributions to identify Black college players who had gone unnoticed. The men drafted this weekend, and in future years, will know on whose shoulders they stand.
I will remain forever grateful to Nunn for taking a chance on meeting me and then spending hours to open up and share some of his many stories. We last talked the day before he suffered a stroke in the Steelers’ draft room before dying a week later on the eve of the 2014 NFL selection day. He talked then about how everyone is born and everyone dies – and half the stuff in between we try to forget.
I’m glad that forever now, we will have a place to remember the deeds Nunn quietly contributed to journalism, to Black culture across America, to the game of football and to the countless lives he touched. Including mine.
Whether Bill Nunn Jr. makes the Pro Football Hall of Fame or not, he surely led a life of adventure, overcoming challenges and making the most of the opportunities around him. Any one of these highlights below would be remarkable for most of us, but he lived them all.
And, above all, he lived a life of love. On the same day the Pro Football Hall of Fame selected him as a finalist in the contributor category for the Class of 2021, his widow, Frances, passed away. As with so much about Nunn’s life, you can’t make up this stuff.
Home: Nunn grows up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which is the center of Black life in the city. His father works as managing editor for one of the nation’s largest Black newspapers, the Pittsburgh Courier, with a dozen editions all around the United States. Athletes and entertainers who cannot stay in public hotels end up in the home: Joe Louis, Count Basie, Stepin Fetchit, etc.
Basketball: Nunn plays in high school with the first Black player drafted by the NBA, Chuck Cooper, and he plays in college (an HBCU, West Virginia State) with the first Black to play in an NBA game, Earl Lloyd (due to a quirk of scheduling, Lloyd played before Cooper). When he graduates college, Nunn has options to try out for the NY Knicks and become the league’s first black player, to join the Harlem Globetrotters, or to become a newspaper reporter. Nunn takes the path he believes will bring him the most money and fame – becoming a newspaper reporter (if only this was still true).
Journalism: Nunn joins the Pittsburgh Courier as a sports reporter, and one of his first assignments is to cover the Negro leagues’ East-West all-star game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. After Jackie Robinson and other stars go to MLB, the Negro leagues start into decline and Nunn catches the end of it. He works at the newspaper with Wendell Smith, the reporter who convinced Branch Rickey to integrate baseball and who then traveled everywhere with Robinson in his first year (Smith is the character in the movie 42 who reports from the stands with a typewriter on his lap). At first, Nunn sits in the stands to cover the first black players in Major League Baseball too. Eventually, he beomes the first Black reporter to sit in the press box at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.
Baseball: After the Pirates win the 1960 World Series, Nunn is in the locker room with right fielder Roberto Clemente, who’s angry because he thinks (with some justification) that the sports reporters passed him over for MVP because of his dark skin and Spanish speaking. As a Puerto Rican, Clemente speaks only broken English – and he never thought of himself as Black until he came to the United States (FWIW, Clemente plays as big a role for Latino ballplayers as Robinson does for Black ones). Nunn agrees to drive Clemente to the airport and escorts him out of the locker room by a back door. Clemente carries a trophy he received as the fans’ favorite player, and when he steps outside, the crowds mob him. By the time they get to the car, Clemente is beaming about how much the fans love him.
Segregation: The following spring, Nunn covers the Pirates at their training camp in Florida. He knows that while the white players will stay with their families at a beachfront hotel in Bradenton, the Black players, including Clemente, must stay in a private home across town on their own. They don’t eat with the team and they cannot socialize with the team. Nunn writes a series of stories exposing the hypocrisy of how players throughout baseball face deep discrimination during spring training. It leads to major reforms with teams threatening to leave their host cities throughout the South unless Black and white players can be together. This leads to the creation of Dodgertown and other places where the teams can control the treatment of their players, despite segregation rules throughout the South.
HBCU Football: Nunn eventually takes over the job of creating the Pittsburgh Courier’s Black College All-America Team. He travels more than 12,000 miles each fall, flying and driving through the deep South to see as many games and players as possible. Most often, he ends up staying on campus with the college president, athletic director or coaches. Each campus is like a world on its own just for Black people – with parties, dinners and sporting events that are not open to whites. Nunn starts identifying players before they reach the NFL, such as Paul “Tank” Younger, a running back at Lousiana’s Grambling University, who goes on to become the league’s first HBCU star with the LA Rams.
Gala: Initially the Black College All-Americans simply appear in the newspaper, but Nunn gets the idea to host the players for a gala event each fall. At the first dinner in 1964, the coach of Prairie View A&M calls out the Steelers’ owner Art Rooney and other whites for refusing to let Black athletes play quarterback; his star quarterback, Jimmy Kearney, was drafted by the Detroit Lions but forced to play defensive back. The Steelers a year earlier had drafted Roy Curry but also refused to let him play quarterback; Rooney said afterwards that the moment opened his eyes to the injustice. In 1971, Nunn invited Cassius Clay to attend, knowing the boxer had just changed his name to Muhammad Ali and had been convicted for objecting to the Vietnam War draft over a religious exemption. Ali strode across the plush red carpet, shook hands with the athletes, praised them and then challenged anyone who felt “bad” enough to swing at him. None did.
Civil Rights: As Nunn travels throughout the South to watch HBCU football games, Civil Rights events happen all around him, like the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi and the Christmastime Klan murders of Harry and Harriette Moore, Civil Rights workers near Orlando, Fla. These situations create awkward moments, like when Nunn visits Mississippi Vocational College for the first time in 1956: He meets up with a Black friend whose white father operates as the biggest bootlegger in a dry county. In the place where Till was murdered for catcalling a white woman, Nunn ends up months later riding in the front seat of a white man’s car next to his wife – and that turned out to be acceptable.
Steelers: The Rooney family decides in 1965 to hire Nunn – but he has no interest in coming to work for the Steelers. Nunn says the team never welcomed him into its press box, never paid attention to the Courier’s Black College All-Americans and never reached out to him before. He tells Dan Rooney the team will never be a winner. But the Rooneys say they are sincere, and Nunn gives them a year to prove it. He ultimately agrees to join the team as a scout and helps the Steelers take steps toward integration such as stopping identifying scouted players by race and housing new players by color at training camp.
Scouting: Nunn visits Alabama A&M in 1974 to see receiver John Stallworth, along with a group of other white scouts. Stallworth has a terrible showing, running on a wet grass with a sore knee. When the scouts go to leave, Nunn feigns an illness and stays behind, walking over to Stallworth’s dorm room as soon as the others left. Nunn knew from his HBCU contacts that Stallworth had the potential to play in the NFL, and he wanted to see him run again. Later, Nunn visited the athletic director and borrowed all of the film on Stallworth, keeping it until after the draft. The sleight of hand allows the Steelers to pick up the receiver in a later round, contributing to an epic draft class.
Draft: Nunn prevented a lot of players from falling through the NFL’s cracks by giving them a shot to play in the league. The 1974 draft set the standard when the Steelers chose four future hall-of-famers with their first five picks: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. Then after the draft ended, Nunn received a call from the coach at South Carolina State, an HBCU: Could he take another look at a safety named Donnie Shell? Nunn ultimately signed Shell, who also went on to be inducted into the hall of fame. Nunn ultimately discovered many HBCU players who the Steelers drafted in the late rounds – or didn’t draft at all but signed as free agents – and who went on to win multiple Super Bowl championships.
Super Bowl: The Steelers reach the championship game for the first time in the 1974 season for Super Bowl IX. Even before they arrive at Tulane University’s dilapidated stadium for the game, it’s easy to see Nunn’s influence all over the team: More than half the players are Black, and half of them come from HBCUs. These players, on both side of the ball, figure prominently into the win, launching the team’s dynasty of four championships in six years. The crowning moment comes in Super Bowl XIV, when Stallworth makes a 73-yard touchdown reception that seals the victory over the LA Rams.
Epilogue: At age 89, more than two decades after his official retirement, Nunn still goes to the Steelers offices every day during draft season to meet with scouts. A week before the draft, Nunn slumps over in his seat after suffering a stroke; he dies a week later on the eve of the draft. The team pulls out its old draft tables, with the wooden surfaces pockmarked by burns from Nunn’s cigarettes and Art Rooney Jr.’s cigars. The scouts leave an open seat for Nunn. Throughout the NFL, Nunn’s legacy lives on with a scouting fellowship in his name, and indirectly through the Rooney Rule, named for Dan Rooney, which requires teams to interview Black candidates for coaching positions.
Before speaking at Comcast’s Diversity and Inclusion Council event at the Roberto Clemente Museum, they asked me to talk a little about why diversity matters. My book The Color of Sundays tracks the racial integration of the National Football League through the Civil Rights Era, and I make the case that the team’s colorblind approach to player scouting resulted in its championship successes.
I am available for more speaking opportunities like this, with details here.
Many thanks to Josephine Posti at Comcast for inviting me to be part of this important discussion!
In truly one of the highlights of my career, The New Pittsburgh Courier asked me to write a short column about Bill Nunn Jr. and why I wrote about him in The Color of Sundays. It’s in this week’s edition. We’re excited to see Nunn get inducted this weekend into the Steelers’ Hall of Honor.
Everyone focuses on the drama of the NFL’s first round but the real magic happens in the late rounds. The Steelers have been better than almost anyone at finding talented players in the late rounds. I penned this blog post for my publisher Blue River Press…
Championships are made in the late rounds.
Everyone knows about the first-round picks, the guys sitting in the green room waiting for their name to be called. The only suspense centers on what team exactly will choose them — not whether anyone will.
This was Bill Nunn Jr.’s time of year. He sat in the stands to watch the Super Bowl, but he sat at the center of the Steelers’ operations in the weeks leading up to the NFL draft. The NFL combine taking place in Indianapolis this week remains a highlight of the scouting year. I wrote this blog post below for my publisher Blue River Press.
BTW, be sure to watch for Steelers scout Mark Gorscak on the NFL Network. He runs the 40-yard-dash and plays a starring role each year. For all of my Red Devils friends, Mark graduated from Dickinson in 1979.
Everyone sees the confetti falling on the Super Bowl winner – but few notice where championship teams begin.
The process takes place in quiet, distant moments when NFL scouts start looking for talented athletes. Most use timers, measuring sticks and notepads to evaluate college players across the country. But the best scouts also have an eye for talent, an ability to detect qualities that cannot be measured.
Bill Nunn Jr., with stopwatch in hand, evaluates players for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972. Courtesy of the Steelers.
The Steelers’ Bill Nunn Jr. worried about today’s scouts. They’re all too connected, he said. They travel in packs. They look at the collegiate rankings. They have a better sense than ever before what other scouts are seeing and thinking. By comparing notes and looking at online evaluations, these scouts can fall into the trap of looking only at the same players as other scouts. In a effort to avoid the embarrassment of missing a player that others are following, they overlook the player no one else sees.
Nunn boasted that he often spent a week or longer on the road without checking in. No calls to the office. No calls home. No email, Internet or social media either, of course.
Instead, he traveled the country using his own eye – and his unparalleled contacts – to find undiscovered talent. Alone, he had to determine which men had the potential to play in the NFL. Even if a college player could run, jump and tackle, Nunn had to figure out whether he had the hunger and desire for the game. Or whether he had distractions that could keep him from reaching his full potential. For sure there were many failures, but history shows that Nunn ranks among the greatest ever in this ability.
To me, Nunn’s greatest discoveries were not the L.C. Greenwoods or the John Stallworths. Those were players that others had noticed too; Nunn was just better at evaluating their true worth.
Instead, his greatest finds were Sam Davis from Allen University, Glen Edwards from Florida A&M and Donnie Shell from South Carolina State University. All three were undrafted free agents from historically black colleges and universities. If Nunn had not discovered them – and the Steelers given them a chance – they likely would have stopped playing football. Instead, they combined to win 10 Super Bowl rings.
And everyone saw the confetti falling on their shoulders.
And for all of my Pittsburgh Red Devil peeps, I’ll be speaking at an alumni club function later this month: Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville/Bloomfield. Register here.
Andrew Conte ’93’s second book delves into the moments that shaped Pittsburgh Steelers’ history, both on the field and in the back room, and led the Steel City to four Super Bowl victories. The Color of Sundays tells the story of how Bill Nunn Jr., Art Rooney and the Steelers’ front office reshaped the franchise. Nunn’s strategy was simple: Scout talent where many other teams had failed, and bring in players from historically black colleges and universities. This period in Steelers history was instrumental in the building of the Steel Curtain defense, as well as the integration of important offensive picks, including the future Hall of Famer John Stallworth. Today the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of pro football’s most successful and prestigious franchises, thanks to the Steelers’ front office having its sights squarely focused on the future.
Normally, these days, one wouldn’t make that distinction about the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback. But he brought up the issue himself recently, questioning whether football fans are ready: “I’m an African-American quarterback. That may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”
Of course, he’s not the first. Charles Follis became the first black professional football player in 1904. Fritz Pollard in the 1920s played on the league’s first championship team and then served as the league’s first black coach. Willie Thrower became the league’s first black quarterback with the Chicago Bears in 1953. And, of course, Doug Williams, of Grambling fame, became the Super Bowl XXII MVP in 1988 with the Washington Redskins.