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.