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John Wooten: A forgotten activist and hero

Fritz Pollard Alliance co-founder has fought the good fight since the ’60s

As John Wooten turns over leadership of the Fritz Pollard Alliance to new executive director Rod Graves, it’s an opportunity to reflect on Wooten’s legacy and his unique impact on pro football. At every stage of his football career — as an All-Pro player, player agent, pioneering front-office executive and Fritz Pollard Alliance co-founder — Wooten has led by example and provided a message of hope.

1960s Player-Activist: Breaking Barriers on and off the Field

In recent years, attention has rightfully focused on NFL players taking activist stands on key issues such as inequities in the criminal justice system. Wooten and NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who were best friends, provided a template for this activism in the 1960s.

After a collegiate Hall of Fame career at the University of Colorado, Wooten was drafted in 1959 by Cleveland, which was a perfect landing spot for him. The Browns’ legendary head coach, Paul Brown, had been ahead of the curve in pushing the league to desegregate. In 1946, he signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis, the NFL’s first African American players since the league had expurgated all African Americans, including Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard years earlier.

Cleveland Browns guard John Wooten (No. 60) blocking for Leroy Kelly

While most NFL teams had integrated by 1959 (the Washington club resisted until 1962, when pressure from the Kennedy administration forced it to integrate), there was still massive resistance to African American players playing so-called “thinking positions,” such as interior offensive line, middle linebacker and quarterback. One of the most visible and unique “thinking positions” in pro football was being one of Paul Brown’s messenger guards, relaying the plays from Brown and understanding the schemes well enough to explain the plan to teammates in the huddle.

Wooten earned Brown’s trust, becoming the first black messenger guard and, in doing so, becoming a key link in the chain to overcome positional segregation in the NFL. It created an empowering and inspirational message. The beneficiaries? Among others, quarterback James “Shack” Harris, Doug Williams and Warren Moon — the first African American quarterbacks in the league to start a game, win the Super Bowl MVP award and be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, respectively.

During their playing days, Wooten and Brown created the Black Economic Union, which fought for African American empowerment and caught the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When King triumphantly attended the White House ceremony where President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he brought Wooten with him as a trusted player-activist. Wooten has channeled the teachings of King ever since and has helped champion the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s effort to register NFL players to vote.

When Muhammad Ali faced prison time as a conscientious objector during the ill-advised Vietnam War, Wooten organized the leading athlete-activists at the time, including NBA stars Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the NFL’s Brown and Bobby Mitchell, to meet with and support Ali. Playing football was not enough for Wooten. He felt a need to push society to be better.

An NFL executive with and Three Super Bowl Rings

While many NFL players end their careers struggling to reinvent themselves, Wooten shot off the field like a rocket. He became an agent and soon won the leading college prospects over with his holistic approach to representation. By 1973, he was the leading agent in the NFL, signing seven players who became first-round draft picks. This is a record that stands today.

Within two years, Dallas Cowboys executives and future Pro Football Hall of Famers Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt recruited Wooten to be on their staff because they recognized he was an extraordinary talent evaluator. Wooten became a scout and discovered overlooked players at small historically black colleges and universities. He soon rose to director of player personnel and became an integral part of the historic Cowboys dynasty of the 1970s that went to the playoffs every year, winning two Super Bowls. Wooten then catalyzed the Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s by orchestrating what many believe to be the greatest trade in NFL history: the Herschel Walker trade to the Vikings for three first-round picks, three second-round picks and a host of other players. With the bushel of draft picks in hand, Wooten pulled the trigger on trading up with the Steelers to land future Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith.

From there, Wooten became vice president of player personnel for the Eagles and, in doing so, became the highest-ranking African American executive in the league at that time. And after success there, sparking the careers of future Super Bowl-winning head coaches Jon Gruden and Sean Payton, Wooten joined the Baltimore Ravens’ front office, where he worked closely with Ozzie Newsome to set in motion the Ravens’ first championship campaign. Notwithstanding all of his success, Wooten’s most meaningful accomplishment was around the corner.

Leader of the Fritz Pollard Alliance

On Sept. 30, 2002, the late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and Cyrus Mehri released the ground-breaking report Black Coaches in the NFL: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities. The report revealed, through statistical analysis, that the few African American head coaches in NFL history won far more games and went to the playoffs twice as often as their white counterparts. The report contained a solution: a fair competition proposal mandating that NFL owners agree to interview at least one minority candidate before selecting a head coach.

Wooten helped convince the league that it needed to change and pushed it to implement the fair competition resolution, known now as the Rooney Rule in honor of former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who became an internal champion of the concept among owners.

That offseason, just after the Rooney Rule was implemented, Wooten called a meeting at the NFL combine for minority coaches, scouts and front-office executives to discuss creating an organization. Ten attendees would have been a success, but people came by the dozens. Ultimately there were more than 100 people crowded into a small room exploring the concept of an affinity group to advocate for minority coaches, scouts and front-office executives.

The first reaction was that “heads were going to roll” if they pursued such an initiative. Fear filled the room. Then longtime NFL assistant coach Terry Robiskie stood up near the front of the room and declared, “If heads are going to roll, let my head roll,” as he dragged his hand across his throat. Moments later, former NFL defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell stood up and said the same thing. The room that Wooten organized was suddenly filled not only with hope but also with electric energy, and Wooten emphasized, “If we work together, we will never be stopped.” Head coach Tony Dungy concluded by calling on everyone to follow the plan of action.

This meeting gave birth to the Fritz Pollard Alliance, and Wooten rightfully took the helm as chairman. For 15 years, he canvassed his network on every team and developed a Ready List of minority candidates for every football position, from head coach down to entry-level quality control assistant and from scouts up to general manager, tweaking it year-round. He watched every game played every week and assessed the strengths and weaknesses of every team and every front office. Many NFL head coaches routinely called him after games to solicit his critiques, which he candidly provided.

While the Rooney Rule has seen its ups and downs, it has been successful largely because of Wooten’s efforts and has been extended to the front office and to game-day officials, ultimately changing the complexion of the league.

Over the past 15 years, NFL owners selected a minority head coach 22 times, compared with only four times in the previous 15 years. And since 2007, 10 NFL Super Bowl clubs have been led by a minority head coach or general manager, such as head coaches Dungy, Lovie Smith, Jim Caldwell and Ron Rivera and general managers Rod Graves, Jerry Reese and Ozzie Newsome.

The rule has also won over the country, even during these divisive times. An early 2019 ESPN poll of NFL fans reveals that nearly 70% of NFL fans support or strongly support the Rooney Rule and only 9% strongly oppose it, illustrating a rare example of national unity on an issue of race. Moreover, entities as far-ranging as the state of Oregon, England’s Football Association and Goldman Sachs have adopted versions of the Rooney Rule, spreading opportunity around the globe.

None of this would have been possible without Wooten.

The NFL’s highest-ranking African American league executive, Minnesota Vikings chief operating officer Kevin Warren, sums up Wooten’s impact well:

“He has done so much to help so many people in this league. He’s one of those folks who has dedicated himself his entire life to make the game better for everyone involved. If there were a Mount Rushmore for those type of folks, he would be one of the people who would be on the side of the mountain.”

As we in the Fritz Pollard Alliance move forward, we know we cannot replace John Wooten. He is truly irreplaceable. But we also know he has built a strong foundation for us, and America’s Messenger Guard’s message of hope, fairness and equal opportunity endures.