The Inspiration of the Football Huddle
I saw my first professional football game at age twelve, when the Los Angeles Rams were playing in the Coliseum. This experience fueled my dream of one day playing pro football. I wanted to be like my heroes-quarterbacks Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin and halfback Kenny Washington, who became one of the first African Americans to play in the NFL.
Playing sports taught me early that nothing great happens without discipline, perspiration and inspiration. My inspiration came one day when, as a freshman at Occidental College, Coach Payton Jordan called me into his office. "Jack," he said, "I watched you play at Fairfax (High School, Los Angeles) and now here at Occidental. You've got great potential. You should know, confidentially, that if you work hard, real hard, you can reach the NFL someday." I walked out of his office on cloud nine, promising myself I would work harder than ever. I wasn't going to let down Coach Jordan, or myself.
Years later, I learned that Coach Jordan had the same "confidential" talk with most of his players, but it didn't matter. He had inspired not only me; he inspired the whole team. We were all for playing under Coach Jordan, and because of that extra measure my dream came true: I was drafted out of Occidental by the Detroit Lions. I was a seventeenth-round pick, but it didn't matter. I had my chance to prove myself in pro football.
For me, I saw it as a case of putting in the effort and achieving my boyhood dream. I saw clearly, though, that it wasn't an even playing field. The American dream of equal opportunity didn't exist for everyone. My African-American teammates dealt with the ignorant, hateful attitudes of many people, which meant they were treated unfairly. This prejudice was at odds with what was good for our nation and our declaration of equity and freedom of opportunity.
In 1961, when I was quarterback and captain of the San Diego Chargers, we were scheduled to play the Oilers in Houston for the AFL Championship. Traditionally, the night before the game, Coach Sid Gilman took the entire team to a movie. Shortly after we sat down in our seats, I noticed that Paul Lowe, Ernie Wright, Ernie Ladd and Charlie McNeil were missing. I asked around and discovered they had been sent to the "blacks-only" balcony. When I told Coach Gilman, he stood immediately and said, "Gather the team. Get all the guys. We're out of here." In a silent, powerful demonstration of our belief in equality, living and working as a team, we walked out as a team. I was very proud of Coach Gilman, but so much more needed to be done.
Four years later, after I had joined the Buffalo Bills and been elected captain, we were at the 1965 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans. Our black teammates had trouble getting a taxi or even basic service at restaurants. Here: again, the wisdom of team unity, and, admittedly, the popularity of pro football, gave us the leverage needed t o combat discrimination. We discussed the situation at our team meeting and agreed to boycott the game as a statement against the racial climate in the city. As a result, the game was moved to Houston, which by that time had made progress toward more equal treatment in public accommodations. This was the first boycott of a city by any professional sporting event in history.
We didn't tolerate bigotry on the field, either. Any difference in race, creed and class immediately dissolved in the common aim of a team win. Divisiveness only weakens a team. It has no place in a huddle, on or off the field.
Every team requires unity. A team has to move as one unit, one force, with each person understanding and assisting the roles of his teammates. If the team doesn't do this, whatever the reason, it goes down in defeat. You win or lose as a team, as a family. A successful team walks onto the field with issues of race, religion and all societal pressures ratcheted down to inconsequential by the strength of common goals.
That became the case in 1947 when Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, informed his team that he was bringing Jackie Robinson up from the minors-the first black man to play in the majors. Rickey wanted Robinson's talent at the plate and his speed on the base paths. Some players circulated a petition stating they would not take the field with a black man. Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers shortstop and team captain, refused to sign and tore up the petition, effectively putting an end to a stupid and ignorant idea that was wrong, as well as bad for the team.
Reese showed his character many times that season. Atone point, he'd had enough of the fans heckling, spitting and throwing things at Robinson. During a game in Cincinnati Pee Wee walked over to Jackie, put his arm around him and there they stood. They stared down the crowd until the stadium was near silent. Then the game resumed. Robinson may have been the first black man to play major-league baseball, but more important to Pee Wee was, "He's a Dodger, our teammate."
The power of one man or one woman doing the right thing for the right reason, and at the right time, is the greatest influence in our society. Individually, we may not be captains of our teams, but we are always captains of our own souls and collectively the soul of America. The soul of America rests in our hands, as we seek reconciliation and racial healing in America at the dawn of this exciting new century.