Hunt Helped Open The Door For Many Black Football Players

By Jason Whitlock
Updated: December 15, 2006

KANSAS CITY — In the confines of this space, there’s no way to detail all the reasons we owe Lamar Hunt thanks. I’ll try to detail just one, the one that means the most to me.

Lamar Hunt knocked down doors for black football players. He was a different kind of Branch Rickey. Without Hunt and his idea of a rebel professional football league, the NFL may never have embraced the idea of a Mike Singletary at middle linebacker, a Warren Moon at quarterback, a Herm Edwards as head coach and a mediocre MAC football player as a brash-talking sports columnist.

Yeah, Lamar Hunt’s influence as an equal-opportunity-maker runs deep.

“I tell guys all the time that the best thing that ever happened to black football players is Lamar Hunt starting the AFL,” former Chiefs great Bobby Bell said. “It opened things wide open for black players. Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego and Houston, they all had black players. Lamar didn’t care whether you were black or green. He liked good players.”

Hunt, 74 and the owner of the Chiefs, passed away Wednesday evening from complications of prostate cancer. In his lifetime, he accomplished many great things, including giving the Super Bowl its name. I’ll remember Hunt for seeing the value in black players, befriending those players, recognizing their full humanity and giving them an opportunity to excel off the field, too.

“Lamar was one of my dearest friends,” said Bell, who played linebacker for the Super Bowl Chiefs. “This guy was so personable. I got letters from him all the time, handwritten letters. I called him at the hospital after Thanksgiving, and I never even told him my name. He was like, ‘Hey, I’m going downstairs to work on my long-snapping.’ I used to long-snap. He knew who I was just by the sound of my voice, and he was joking and apologizing for not being here when I turned on the lights at the Plaza. He was apologizing to me. That’s the kind of guy Lamar was.”

Lamar was the kind of guy who started eight black players on his defense in the 1960s — when some NFL teams didn’t have eight black players on their entire roster.

“You didn’t see that in college, and I think we were the only ones doing that in professional football,” Willie Lanier said.

Yeah, Lamar was the kind of guy who started Lanier at middle linebacker, too.

“That was a big deal then,” Bell said, “because back then a black guy wasn’t supposed to call signals for the defense. That was like playing quarterback. We weren’t supposed to do that.”

And Lanier probably wasn’t supposed to be KC’s middle linebacker. He and Jim Lynch were both selected in the second round of the draft. Lynch, an All-American from Notre Dame, was the 47th pick. Lanier, from tiny, all-black Morgan State, was the 50th pick.

“I give Mr. Hunt and coach Stram credit for creating a true level playing field and letting Jim and I compete for the position,” Lanier said Thursday. “It was interesting to see an organization that was just concerned with winning and not worried about who came from which university with all of the awards.”

After suffering a head injury in his rookie season, Lanier won the middle-linebacker job in 1968 and put together a Hall of Fame career. Lynch was moved to outside linebacker.

Hunt, Hank Stram and trusted scout Lloyd Wells specialized in scouting players from historically black colleges and signing them to the Chiefs. Lanier, Otis Taylor and Buck Buchanan all hailed from HBCU’s.

Hunt’s AFL quickly caught up to the NFL because of the junior league’s embrace of black players. It was a wise business move, and a move that allows players such as Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Ray Lewis, Steve McNair and countless other players to earn millions of dollars playing positions that used to be reserved for whites.

I just hope players around the league recognize the debt owed to Hunt. He opened doors. He was a pioneer. He facilitated black progress.

It’s no surprise that Herm Edwards is the head coach here. Hunt and Carl Peterson planted the coaching seeds in Edwards, enrolling him in the league’s minority development program after his playing career.

Edwards blossomed as an assistant coach in Tampa. He had a strong five-year run in New York as a head coach, and then Hunt and Peterson treated Edwards like family when things in New York turned sour.

Herm paid his dues, played the game, and Hunt and Peterson let him in the club. That’s the way the system is supposed to work when people remove their prejudices.

I can’t help but respect and appreciate that about Mr. Hunt. He seemed to see limitless potential in everyone, and his outlook served him well. He will be missed and remembered.