Hunt Saw Talent, Not Color

By Rick Gosselin
Updated: December 17, 2006

Willie Lanier

Willie Lanier

DALLAS — Lamar Hunt has been enshrined in eight Halls of Fame. He should be in a ninth.

Hunt is in the Pro Football and Kansas City Chiefs Halls of Fame, the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame, the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Missouri and Texas Sports Halls of Fame, and the Kansas City and Texas Business Halls of Fame.

Hunt, who passed away Wednesday of complications due to cancer, should be in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Hall of Fame as well for his contribution to the integration of pro football.

Hunt’s AFL team was drafting players from SWAC schools Grambling, Jackson State, Prairie View and Southern long before the NFL realized or accepted their talents. Hunt truly was color blind in his bid to build a championship football team.

“Lamar Hunt meant opportunity, equality of opportunity and hope for a positive outcome, because coming out of school when I did 39 years ago, there were question marks about all of those things,” said former Chiefs linebacker Willie Lanier, who graduated from tiny Morgan State in 1967.

By forming the AFL in 1960, Hunt created eight more pro football teams and, initially, 280 more jobs for players. That forced teams to look beyond the Big Ten, Pac-8, SEC and Southwest Conference for talent to stock their rosters.

Hunt’s Chiefs were among the teams looking the hardest.

In 1963, Kansas City became the first team in pro football history to use the first overall pick of a draft on a player from a small black college – defensive tackle Buck Buchanan of Grambling. The New York Giants drafted Buchanan in the 19th round that same year.

Buchanan was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

In 1965, the Chiefs claimed wide receivers Otis Taylor from Prairie View, Frank Pitts from Southern and Gloster Richardson from Jackson State, all in the first seven rounds of the AFL draft. Over in the NFL draft, the Eagles took Taylor in the 15th round, the Bears took Pitts 16th and Richardson went undrafted.

In the 1969 season, when the Chiefs shocked the Minnesota Vikings to win the Super Bowl, Taylor, Pitts and Richardson were the team’s three wide receivers. All started for the Chiefs, all posted 100-yard receiving games that season, and Taylor stunned the Vikings with a 46-yard, game-sealing touchdown catch in Super Bowl IV.

In 1967, the Chiefs used their two second-round draft picks on middle linebackers Jim Lynch of Notre Dame and Lanier. There had never been a black middle linebacker in pro football history, so his small-school background and the sport’s history were working against Lanier when he arrived in Kansas City.

But Lanier knew he’d get a fair shot with the Chiefs the day he signed his contract. That summer, Lanier won the starting middle linebacker spot in training camp, and the Chiefs moved Lynch to the outside.

“After first meeting Lamar in 1967, I observed and came to know someone who was as balanced a man as I’ve ever met in terms of how he related to people,” Lanier said. “He did not have a hierarchical structure. He dealt with everyone the same. Many of us aren’t used to being around people like that.”

Nineteen years later, Lanier became the first black middle linebacker inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In addition to Buchanan, Lanier and the three wide receivers, the Super Bowl IV champions featured starters from Southern (running back Robert Holmes), Bishop (cornerback Emmitt Thomas), Prairie View (safety Jim Kearney) and Tennessee State (cornerback Jim Marsalis).

And that was just one AFL team. There were eight teams in all.

“By forming the American Football League, Lamar created more job opportunities for the talent, regardless where it came from,” Lanier said. “Eugene Upshaw came out [Texas A&I] at a time [1967] when the only black offensive lineman in the NFL was Jim Parker. When I came in, there were no black middle linebackers.

“If there’s no American Football League, where would Upshaw have gone? Where would I have gone? Or Art Shell [Maryland-Eastern Shore] the next year? The jobs wouldn’t have been there for us.”

Upshaw is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So is Shell. So are AFL alums Willie Brown (Grambling) and Larry Little (Bethune Cookman).

All because one man had a vision. A color-blind vision.