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An Appreciation

Willie Brown was among talented HBCU players who changed the NFL

The AFL gave black players such as the Oakland Raiders defensive back the chance to play

Willie Brown made it his mission to be a living history lesson on the meaning of the Oakland Raiders and the golden age of historically black college football.

One couldn’t be separated from the other, and Brown, who died Tuesday at 78, never tried to separate them. He embodied the evolution of pro football.

Brown imparted it eagerly some four years ago, in January 2016, as he chatted up fans, reporters and then-Raiders players Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper during the public practices at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu. Former 49ers safety and then-NFL vice president of operations Merton Hanks looked on approvingly as Mack and Cooper soaked up knowledge just from being near Brown.

We have young guys at practice, at combines, at minicamps. Let’s introduce them to the great Willie Brown,’’ Hanks told the Sporting News then. “Tell them how he came out of Grambling when NFL teams didn’t want to sign him, what he had to endure.

“Those type of legacy pieces, we can’t allow those things to be lost.”

It’s common knowledge that starting with its inception in the 1960 season, the upstart American Football League reached parity with the NFL with blinding speed because it aggressively recruited players from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that the NFL was overlooking. Those players also were the ones every major football program in the South barred from competition, leaving them with HBCUs as their best or only option.

Eddie Robinson and his Grambling program were far from a well-kept secret – Tank Younger had carried the banner as early as 1949 – but at the time the new league was born, the NFL was barely embracing African American talent from predominantly white schools, much less tapping the rich vein at black schools.

Oakland Raiders secondary coach Willie Brown (right) gives advice to a young player.

Digital First Media Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images

“The AFL came in and said, ‘Hey, we don’t care what color you are, we want you to play in the American Football League,’ and that’s when things took off for the black players,” Brown said in Hawaii. ”[NFL] scouts didn’t come to Grambling, Texas Southern, Prairie View, all the black schools, looking for talent.”

The NFL did not draft Brown when he came out of Grambling in 1963, but in fairness, the AFL didn’t either. However, he signed with the Denver Broncos and starred for them for three years, was traded to the Raiders and led their gradual rise to power in the final AFL years and throughout the 1970s in the NFL.

He was part of a rare class of pro football players. Of the 30 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who played all or parts of their college careers at black schools, he’s one of nine whose careers began in the AFL, and one of five (including Buck Buchanan, Art Shell, Larry Little and Emmitt Thomas) who came in before the NFL merger and the first common draft in 1967.

Ponder that ratio, considering the NFL itself enforced its “gentlemen’s agreement” barring black players for 13 years in the 1930s and ’40s, and that the older league’s teams still dragged their feet enough that Washington was all-white when the 1960s dawned.

Several of Brown’s teammates in Denver and Oakland were from HBCUs, and so were his opponents. The AFL, Brown said, “really did a number on the NFL.’’

It was so obvious, Raiders teammate Raymond Chester – a Morgan State product who starred in their legendary 1968 victory over Grambling at Yankee Stadium – pointed out in 2016 that the HBCU alums in the AFL “called ourselves the old Negro League.”

Willie Lanier, also a Morgan State product, broke new ground in the 1960s as one of the first black middle linebackers in pro football. He noted this week that even as a student who was focused on earning his degree, it was impossible to overlook how much more the AFL paid attention to black college players than the NFL. He observed it was “fully restricted. We knew there was still segregation happening.”

“It’s like any business,’’ Lanier told The Undefeated. “You’re starting out, you’re aiming to beat out your competition, and you’re trying to shift the narrative. There was an abundance of players the NFL was just passing over year after year. That’s a lot of talent in places you’re not accustomed to looking.”

Plenty of them were already in the new league by the time Brown arrived, and even more by 1967, when Lanier was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. The Raiders and Chiefs were ahead of the curve even by AFL standards, and it’s an easy connection to make between that and the fact those two teams were in three of the four pre-merger Super Bowls. The Chiefs franchise also won the 1962 AFL title while in its original home city of Dallas before moving to Kansas City.

Willie Brown (left) of the Oakland Raiders poses with his Hall of Fame bust circa the 1980s.

Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

In 1999, Brown was ranked No. 50 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, making him the highest-ranking Raiders player. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

The Black College Football Hall of Fame, in its 11th year of operation, is still inducting waves of players from that era. Brown got his due in its third class in 2012, while Chester, still waiting for his call from the pro football hall, made it in 2018. The 2019 class added two more with AFL pedigrees, Maryland State’s Emerson Boozer of the Jets team that won the AFL its first Super Bowl, and Rich “Tombstone” Jackson of the Broncos and Southern, long considered one of the biggest oversights in Canton, Ohio.

Lanier is on the board of trustees for the black college hall of fame (and a member), and relishes their role in highlighting the time in history where the face of pro football changed. The hall, he said, is “putting those players in the forefront of being appreciated and acknowledged for what they did.’’

Grambling players, understandably, are never shy about preaching the gospel of their coach and the legacy of the program he built. Brown did it simultaneously with his imparting of the Raiders way throughout his post-playing career years with the franchise. For 10 years, he was an assistant coach and, later, for 25 years when the team returned from Los Angeles, in various roles that kept him close to owner Al Davis, then, after his death, his son Mark, and the players.

At this particular 2016 Pro Bowl, Cooper talked about the pleasure of learning who came before him on the Raiders, men like Brown, and how the newcomers could earn the right to, he said, “put our pictures on the wall, along with the older guys.”

The irony of Cooper’s fascination with absorbing knowledge from Brown, the Grambling guy who couldn’t get a look from the NFL, is that Cooper played college ball at Alabama, which famously didn’t integrate its program until 1971, nine years into Brown’s career.

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture.