Cam Newton is black.
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.
But Newton has a point. As much as we want Continue reading
I will be talking at Point Park University on the evening of Oct. 29 about the Steelers’ secret strategy for finding black players that other teams could not see. This will be a chance for me to tell about the process of writing The Color of Sundays and to put the story into the context of the times. Bill Nunn Jr. lived at an interesting time — and he had a front-row seat. Also, I expect to have at least a couple of special guests in the audience.
When: 6 p.m., Thursday, Oct 29
Where: Point Park University’s Lawrence Hall, Room 200
Registration required: https://colorofsundays.eventbrite.com
While The Color of Sundays is definitely a football story, it also has strong themes tied to the history of American Civil Rights and the role of the Pittsburgh Courier, as the nation’s voice for black Americans during much of the 20th Century.
That larger story comes out in my conversation with Paul Guggenheimer, the host of Essential Pittsburgh, a daily talk show on 90.5 WESA-FM, Pittsburgh’s NPR station. He really wanted to know a lot more about Bill Nunn Jr.’s early years, his motivations and the challenges he and other blacks faced.
It’s definitely one of my favorite interviews so far. You can listen to it here.
The Westinghouse High School basketball team with Bill Nunn Jr., top row, third from the right. Teammate Chuck Cooper, first row, second from right, went on to become the first black player drafted into the NBA.
The challenge of writing about history is making the information as accurate as possible — but also relevant to a contemporary audience.
When I first thought about doing this book, I started out by meeting with Samuel Black, the director of African-American Programs at Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz History Center. He had put together a detailed exhibit on the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper and that gave me a lot of insight.
It was important to me, then, to get his take on the finished product. I sent Sam an advanced copy of The Color of Sundays, and here’s what he had to say…
“It was a great read because I am a fan of Bill Nunn Jr. … His impact on the Steelers is immense and I am glad you were able to get inside that history and bring it out. This book reveals a man’s journey through 20th Century American sports – highlighting Black College football and the professional ranks as well. His quiet journalism and eye on society helped to integrate much of professional sports and paved the way for open opportunities for players, coaches, and front office staff.”
It’s time to exorcise some demons with the launch of my new book, The Color of Sundays, at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct 6. We’re taking it to the Clark Bar & Grill.
Not just because they once let my friends dance on the bar top. Or because they make a go-to turkey club sandwich. But because the Clark Bar is part of our DNA as Pittsburghers.
Don’t believe me? Sure there was always the Clark candy bar and the iconic neon sign on top of the factory. I have spent a good chunk of my life toiling away in that building, where the Tribune-Review makes its home.
But for a greater reason than any of that, it was at the Clark Bar where we truly agonized as Pittsburgh Pirates fans. Before the agony, fans piled into the bar on October 14, 1992, and celebrated as the Pirates took a 2-0 lead in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. CBS television panned across the jubilant crowd…
And then, as Doug Drabek handed the ball over to Stan Belinda, and as Sid Bream stretched out his bum knee at first base, the Clark Bar became a spiritual place. I was not there that night but looking at these images I feel like we all were there that night.
So when we gather on Tuesday, October 6, 2015, it will be the eve of the National League playoffs. We will celebrate the launch of my book. And we will cast out the demons of so many years ago!
Hope to see you there. The event is free and open to the public. I will be selling and signing books at a discounted price.
We really need to rally around Essential Pittsburgh, the daily talk show on WESA 90.5 FM, the local NPR affiliate. The show serves a critical and unique role by giving airtime to important issues for local residents.
The station was gracious (daring?) enough to let me guest host again today. We had three terrific segments looking at…
— Whether it makes sense to move up Pennsylvania’s primary in presidential years. Charlie Gerow makes the strong case that the state should go for it — and take in the additional money and attention that would follow. Bill Green argues against. They actually get pretty hot at one point and I get to play traffic cop.
— Independent book stores fighting back. I talk with my new friend Susan Hans O’Connor, who has taken over the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley. Susan has a rich history in the book industry and she’s doing a terrific job of making a strong case for the relevancy of small, independent booksellers.
— The Braddock High School football team of the 1950s. Spoiler alert: The team goes five years without a loss. It’s a pretty incredible story. And author Greg Nichols sets the team’s successes against the backdrop of what was then the largest strike in the steel industry’s history. The book is a fun read. And I got Greg to talk a little about how he recreates scenes that took place a half-century ago.
Steelers scout Bill Nunn Jr. was gracious about spending time with me over the past few years. Actually, he wasn’t. Not always. Often, he wanted to know why I cared so much about his story. His personal story.
My answer was always the same: Because he lived such an interesting life. He lived an eternity before the Steelers ever discovered him. Grew up with famous black entertainers and athletes coming to his home. Starred at Westinghouse High School and West Virginia State University — next to the first black men in the NBA.
Nunn had a shot at breaking that barrier too. But in a move that only made me love him more, he chose newspapers over professional basketball. Sure, it was a different time. But still. An ink wretch. Like me.
The rest of the story Steelers fans know. Here’s my take on the man who died Tuesday. He witnessed history — and made it.
Portrait of Bill Nunn Jr. seated at desk with documents and typewriter, possibly in Pittsburgh Courier Newspaper office, c. 1950-1960 Heinz Family Fund © Teenie Harris Archive, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
Bill Nunn Jr., a black sports reporter for The Pittsburgh Courier, still could not sit in the press box at Forbes Field three years after Jackie Robinson started for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Continue reading