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2017 NFL Draft

Locker Room Talk: HBCU players once were common in the pro football draft

Between 1967 and 1972, 365 HBCU players were selected

When I spoke with Willie Lanier about his pro football draft experience earlier this week, he reminded me that 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of his being drafted. This was the 50th anniversary of a journey that would eventually lead him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Who knew?

Whoever really knows?

Big schools, small schools — each year, players fail to make rosters or manage to beat the odds.

In 1967, Lanier was a senior at Morgan State College in Baltimore.

He was a guard on offense and a ferocious but cerebral middle linebacker on defense. “I was on campus, probably in class or in the dorm,” Lanier told me. “The draft wasn’t on radio. In fact, I don’t remember how I found out I’d been drafted.”

Lanier was drafted in the second round by the Kansas City Chiefs of the American Football League. He was the 50th player taken. Jim Lynch, the All-American middle linebacker from Notre Dame, was drafted No. 48 and was immediately projected as the starter. Lanier played so well that he forced the Chiefs to move the more heralded Lynch to outside linebacker.

I reached out to Lanier because of all the well-deserved attention being paid to Tarik Cohen, the talented running back from North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro.

The source of the celebration surrounding Cohen is that he’s one of what’s now a rare breed: a drafted player from one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Cohen was drafted in the fourth round by the Chicago Bears.

This was not always so.

From 1967, when Lanier was drafted, to 1972, my draft year (I wasn’t drafted), 365 players from HBCUs were drafted.

By 1967, black colleges had established themselves as the secret weapon in the American Football League’s bold and ultimately successful challenge to the National Football League. The NFL had drafted players from small schools, but the league would not begin to embrace the HBCU football community until 1949, when the Los Angeles Rams signed Grambling’s Tank Younger as a free agent.

The AFL feasted on the rich talent pool of HBCU players. When the new league opened for business in 1960, HBCUs were willing partners, eager to satisfy the AFL’s demand for top-notch players. In 1963, Grambling’s Buck Buchanan was the first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs.

“Thank God for the AFL,” Lanier said. “If it wasn’t for the AFL, we wouldn’t be talking about anything. You have to have somewhere to work. Without the AFL, you would never have heard from a lot of us.”

Lanier, like a number of HBCU players, would end up in Canton, Ohio.

What I find interesting is how the conversation around HBCU football has changed between the era in which Lanier was drafted and today, when HBCU players are rarely seen on NFL draft day.

During the golden era, roughly between 1963 and 1976, there was an atmosphere of expectation, almost entitlement, among HBCU players. Today, we celebrate the novelty of a Tarik Cohen because of the rarity of HBCU players being drafted.

“When I got to Morgan, guys were being drafted all the time,” recalled Mark Washington, a teammate of Lanier’s at Morgan State.

Washington, two years younger than Lanier, was disappointed when he was drafted in the 13th round of the 1970 draft. That year, Washington’s teammate, Raymond Chester, was the Oakland Raiders’ first pick. Another teammate, Ara Person, was drafted in the third round by the Baltimore Colts.

Kenny Burrough, the Texas Southern wide receiver whom Washington played against, was the New Orleans Saints’ first pick.

“I had a lot of guys to compare myself with because so many were getting drafted — a lot of defensive backs I felt I outperformed,” said Washington, who played defensive back. He wound up playing 10 NFL seasons, which included playing on three Super Bowl teams for the Dallas Cowboys.

When Kansas City selected Lanier in 1967, 51 other players from HBCU programs were also drafted. The number jumped to 68 a year later.

However, for Lanier, there was still a major barrier to break: Most of the players from HBCUs, and most black players in general, were defensive linemen, defensive backs, wide receivers or running backs. Middle linebacker — along with offensive guard, quarterback and free safety — was still one of the whites-only positions in pro football.

It sounds absurd today, as black players now play every position on the field. But in Lanier’s era, these positions were reserved for white players by white coaches and front-office executives because they were the so-called “thinking” positions.

Because of these attitudes, Lanier did not expect to be a high-round selection. “My expectation was that it would not be high because there was no one playing the position at the time who looked like me,” Lanier told me.

Will Robinson, a scout for the Detroit Lions, told Lanier that he had written a report to the team saying he thought Lanier would be the equal of Dick Butkus, the legendary Chicago Bears middle linebacker.

“With him saying that about me, I began to look at myself differently,” Lanier said. “I put myself in a different context. Will Robinson gave me a new reference point.”

Perhaps the most enlightening pre-draft moment came when Lanier met Sam Huff, who was finishing his Hall of Fame career with Washington. Lanier met Huff at RFK Stadium during a pre-draft workout.

“When I met Sam Huff, I was able to look at his height versus my height, his build versus my build. My construction was markedly better,” Lanier said. Lanier knew he had a speed and quickness edge as well, besides being younger than Huff.

“My meeting Sam said to me, ‘If he can play, I can play,’ ” Lanier recalled.

Lanier played 11 NFL seasons, helping Kansas City win league and conference championships and a Super Bowl. Lanier was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1986.

One of the most poignant moments of February’s Super Bowl unfolded when the NFL introduced Hall of Fame members from HBCUs. The list was stunning. Many of the NFL’s biggest and brightest stars, many of the game’s pillars, were products of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.

“It was an incredible experience to be part of that,” Lanier said. “I think it was eye-opening to a lot of football fans who had no idea so many of the great players they watched played at black colleges.”

And many fans probably wondered: What happened? How did the deluge of players from HBCUs become a trickle?

“Of course it was integration,” Lanier said. “It’s purely integration.”

That’s a column for another day, although Lanier is confident that there could be a renaissance in HBCU football.

The flow may never return to the levels of the golden age. However, at a time when exploitation, especially of black college players, is being highlighted, HBCUs can help their cause by accenting their founding mission.

“I think historically black colleges need to do a better job of selling the full proposition of what you gain from attending an HBCU,” Lanier said. “The benefit that many of us had going to historically black colleges was that we earned a meaningful degree, and we had the quality and ability to be more than just that narrow slice of something dealing with sport.

“I have felt that too many young men who went to these large programs got the benefit of a great athletic program but didn’t get the full benefit of the institution.”

At first glance, the distance between Willie Lanier, 71, and Tarik Cohen, 21, seems too great to forge a comparison. Lanier has completed his NFL journey, while Cohen is beginning his.

But look closer. Lanier was a middle linebacker at a time when blacks weren’t considered smart enough to play the position. Cohen is a 5-foot-6 running back who scouts say played against inferior competition.

Lanier and Cohen share a timeless bond and a legacy for overcoming that defines the HBCU experience: tenacity of purpose and achieving more with less, often at historic levels.
From 1967 to 1972, 350 players were drafted from HBCUs. Twelve schools produced double-digit numbers.

School Draftees
Alcorn State 23
Arkansas-Pine Bluff 12
Florida A&M 13
Grambling State 38
Jackson State 28
Morgan State 18
Prairie View 14
South Carolina State 16
Southern 29
Tennessee State 34
Texas Southern 23
Tuskegee 12

Liner Notes

Research by Matt Willis, Senior Researcher, ESPN Stats & Info

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.