Hidden talent at the NFL draft

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Photo credit: Pittsburgh Steelers.

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.

Many NFL insiders knew about “Mean” Joe Greene… Read the rest here.

A plaque honoring scout Bill Nunn Jr. hangs outside the Steelers' draft room on Pittsburgh's South Side. Photo credit: Andrew Conte.

A plaque honoring scout Bill Nunn Jr. hangs outside the Steelers’ draft room on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Photo credit: Andrew Conte.

No confetti falls at NFL combine

Steelers scout Mark Gorscak at the NFL combine.

Steelers scout Mark Gorscak at the NFL combine.

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.

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.

Cam Newton, black quarterback

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

Talking about race & ‘The Color’

Ironically, we rarely talk about race whenever reporters interview me about The Color of Sundays. But Lynne Hayes Freeland set a new standard when she talked with me for her weekly program on KDKA-TV, Pittsburgh’s CBS affiliate.

You can check out the full interview herehttp://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/show/lynne-hayes-freeland-show/video-3333246-lynne-hayes-freeland/

Me hanging out with Lynne Hayes Freeland.

Me hanging out with Lynne Hayes Freeland.

You can find the book at Barnes & Noble stores, online at Amazon.com, at lots of local retailers or directly through me

Give ‘The Color’ for Christmas!

Updated Front CoverA personalized copy of The Color of Sundays makes a terrific holiday gift!

One of my favorite memories from the first book, Breakaway, was seeing all of the Twitter messages on Christmas morning from people who received the book as a gift. Let’s do it again.

Personalized copies of The Color of Sundays are $35 (which includes shipping and tax). Send your order request to TheColorofSundays@gmail.com. Please include information about how you want the book to be inscribed and your shipping address. We will work out the rest of the details.

— Andy

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City Paper’s take on The Color of Sundays

Author event — 6 p.m., Thursday, 10/29 @ Point Park University. Registration: https://colorofsundays.eventbrite.com

Pittsburgh City Paper has a great take on The Color of Sundays… The reporter Jodi DiPerna took the time to read the book, talk with me and understand the nuances of the narrative. Check out the full review here.

CityPaper“Pure football fans will learn how Nunn found key pieces of those dynastic Steelers teams…

“But the book is also about race in America and race in sports. It’s about the Pittsburgh Courier. And it is about the segregated era of the NFL (1934 to 1946), an era that many fans are unaware of and that the NFL is happy to keep swept under the carpet.” 

Author event: From Civil Rights to the Super Bowl

Updated Front CoverI 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

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‘His impact on the Steelers is immense… ‘

BN at Forbes FieldThe 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…

Samuel Black

Samuel Black

“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.”

Launch Party — 6 p.m., Tuesday, Oct 6 at the Clark Bar & Grill

ESPN’s John Clayton on “The Color”

Launch Party for The Color of Sundays: 6 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 6 at the Clark Bar

John Clayton, ESPN senior NFL writer and comentator

John Clayton, ESPN senior NFL writer and comentator

Whenever I was interviewing Bill Nunn Jr., he often talked about that “former Pittsburgh Press reporter with the glasses who works for ESPN.” It didn’t take me long to figure out he meant John Clayton, the network’s senior NFL writer and commentator, known as “The Professor” for his brainy takes on the game. (Check out this ESPN commercial for the “real” Clayton.)

While he was still a student at Churchill Area High School, Clayton started covering sports. And he was covering Steelers training camp as early as 1972 for the St. Mary’s Pennsylvania Daily Press. He joined ESPN in 1995 and has been inducted into the writers’ wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Few people in the industry work harder.

As a former newsman and football legend, Nunn had a deep appreciation for Clayton. So when I finished the book, it was important for me to get Clayton’s take on The Color of Sundays. After reading the book on a short turn-around (during the start of NFL training camps), Clayton offered up these thoughts…

“As a young reporter, I learned a lot of football from Bill Nunn Jr. His story, The Color of Sundays, is a must-read history lesson on how sports can overcome racism. Bill was ahead of his time in getting great players of color into the NFL.”

It means a lot to me that the people who knew Nunn professionally appreciated the way I told his story. When I saw this quote, I knew I had hit the mark.

ESPN captures another side of "The Professor" John Clayton in a tongue-in-cheek commercial.

ESPN captures another side of John Clayton in this tongue-in-cheek commercial about “The Professor.”

The Color of Sundays: Draft day at Three Rivers Stadium

Presales of The Color of Sundays have started, in advance of the Oct. 1 publication date. We are working to set up several signings and lecture events around Western Pennsylvania. Details to come. Soon, I think.

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This is one of my favorite photos from researching the book. It’s a rare shot from The Pittsburgh Steelers archives. From the draft room at Three Rivers Stadium. Bill Nunn Jr, on the left. Dick Haley, director of player personnel (and father of Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley). V. Tim Rooney, a nephew of the chief, standing. And Art Rooney Jr., team vice president.

Here’s another shot. The original wooden draft tables are still in use at Steelers headquarters on the South Side. And, yes, they are pockmarked with burns from cigarettes and cigars. Where could that have come from?

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