National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell comments about the career accomplishments of John Wooten at the recent Fritz Pollard Alliance’s annual “Johnnie Cochran Salute to Excellence” event back on March 16 2021. Goodell was one of the speakers at the event and took the opportunity to acknowledge some of the many, many milestones connected to the recently retired Chairman of the FPA. Wooten, who has been affiliated with the NFL in some capacity for over six decades, is a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a “Contributor” (see video below)
In the modern era of Major League Baseball, it’s difficult to fathom that in the 50s and 60s, some of their premier performers were of African American decent. Carryovers from the Negro Leagues were such stars as Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson (all Hall of Fame members) just to name a few who matriculated over to offer their talents to MLB. Just prior to the 50s, icon Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier when he became the first Black player in the game during the 1947 campaign, signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Among the migrants was a 19-year old prospect from the Indianapolis Clowns by the name of Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron.
All of the aforementioned Negro League alums were power hitters, great defensive players, excellent base runners and had a certain “swag” to their approach. That was not necessarily the case with Aaron. The Mobile, Alabama native had so mastered the game of baseball that he was sometimes accused of loafing (by baseball broadcasters) or not giving his maximum effort. In reality it was quite the contrary. Part of it could perhaps be attributed to his even keel-type personality that was not necessarily the flamboyant style such as Mays or the charisma of Banks who was tabbed as “Mr Cub” during his illustrious career in the “Windy City”. Another part of the misinterpretation of “The Hammer” was that his knowledge of the game was such that he was usually properly positioned on defense (no requirement for diving catches) and rarely fooled at the plate due to his thorough homework of opposing pitchers and at times made it look easy. Consequently, Aaron skill-set was ranked amongst the best in the game with his less colorful and steady approach.
Aaron’s career trajectory was comprised of consistent productivity that spanned from 1954-1976. He deposited 30 or more home runs (15) times, drove home 90 plus runners (16) times, scored over 100 runs (15) times and batted over .300 on (14) occasions. Of course he’s best known for his 755 career home runs surpassing the previous standard of the 714 established by the immortal Babe Ruth during segregation (Barry Bonds eclipsed Aaron’s record with 762 during the steroid era). All told, “The Hammer” is MLB’s all-time leader in RBI (2297), total base (6856), career extra bases (1477) and career all-star appearances (25). Adding to his mind boggling stats are his 3771 hits and career .305 batting average. “The Hammer” was said to have been reluctant to move back to the south when the Milwaukee Braves uprooted to Atlanta in 1966. Former civil rights activists such as Andrew Young, Dr Martin L. King Jr and others persuaded him otherwise to utilized his high profile to positively impact the community outside of the baseball diamond. He and wife Billye established the Chasing the Dream Foundation where they have awarded hundreds of college scholarships to deserving minority students. Aaron was inducted in the MLB Hall of Fame in 1982.
During the 1974 season, Aaron commanded the attention of the baseball world when he smashed his 715th career home run. I caught up with his former teammate Dusty Baker (currently the Houston Astros skipper) as he reflected on that historic moment. (see video below)
While recently organizing my closet, I crossed paths with some interesting hats accumulated over the years in my coverage of some of the major sporting events along the way. Even during routine circumstances, yours truly has always been known to don some sort of hat to compliment my casual wardrobe. Consequently, I accrued the moniker of “Mad Hatter” by a grouping of my colleagues and for whatever reason it seemed to have gained traction and stuck. With this being the backdrop, gravitating back to the closet organizing, as I lifted each of the hats I quickly realized that there were individual stories connected that merited sharing with consumers of my presentations. Initially my thought process was to capsulize the headwear and compose a single narrative. But as they continued to multiply, the executive decision was to compile a series to accommodate the increasing number of hats. Without further adieu, let’s begin with two mega boxing events from the 90s featuring two dynamic heavyweight of that era, “Big George” Foreman and Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield.
Ironically, both Foreman and Holyfield lived and trained in Houston, Tx during the aforementioned time period. George of course as well chronicled, was raised in the rugged Fifth Ward area of H-Town and maintained a residence in his hometown. Although Evander only lived in Houston part-time, he would spend extended excursions whenever he would begin his training regiment for any of his upcoming bouts. As a reporter of the “sweet science”, it was a deluxe experience to witness the “Real Deal” in his blue collar workout venue just west of downtown. And on many occasions, drive up to north Houston to take in “Big George’s” training at the complex that he owned approximately 20 minutes up the road on the same evening.
GEORGE FOREMAN vs GERRY COONEY HAT – January 15 1990
George Foreman’s encounter against Gerry Cooney took place in Atlantic City, New Jersey at their convention center on the Boardwalk. This contest represented a threshold fight for George in that he was in the third year of his unlikely comeback following his 10-year absence from the sport. Cooney a tall, hard punching southpaw from Long Island, N.Y. had an impressive 28-2, 24 KOs record and was clearly the biggest test to date for the 16-year removed ex-champion. The lanky, yet powerful slugger had once challenged titlist Larry Holmes, taking the “Easton Assassin” deep into their scheduled 15 round affair and leading on all judge’s scorecards before Holmes settled things with a knockout in the 13th round. While gradually building credibility during his comeback, Foreman fought 19 bouts with 18 KOs heading into the Cooney bout but none of those previous opponents posed the kind of threat as the Irishman. When it was all said and done, the cheeseburger-eating master pitchman did Houston proud by disposing of the area favorite in a brutal second round knockout. Cooney’s style was tailor made for the sledge-hammer punching Foreman and most of we witnesses were relieved to see the Long Islander able to walk out of the ring upright and not on a stretcher.
EVANDER HOLYFIELD vs MICHAEL MOORER HAT – April 22 1994
The undisputed champion Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield vs challenger Michael Moorer bout transpired in the spring of 1994, representing the champ’s first title defense since re-capturing the crown from nemesis Riddick Bowe. Having an opportunity to know Evander somewhat, the “Real Deal” was an easy guy to cheer for even in my unbiased position as a journalist. To my knowledge, he was one of the early pugilists to regiment his training while bringing in specialists from former 8-time Mr Olympiad Lee Haney for strength conditioning to incorporating aerobics just to name a few. As an athlete, he never took his success for granted and although wasn’t a natural heavyweight, Evander was committed to not allow anyone in his profession to outwork him; that he did control. Anatomically Moorer was similar to Holyfield in that the southpaw was also a highly accomplished light-heavyweight who was forced to move up to the heavier division for premium opportunities. Moreover, the power-punching Detroit Kronk Gym product was undefeated at 34-0, 30 KOs and had the arrogance of a fighter who walked around with a chip on his shoulder. Moorer would prevail, unseating Holyfield with a 12-round majority decision in a stunning upset. Adding to the drama was the hospitalization of Evander shortly following the contest, diagnosed with heart and rotator cuff issues that led to his brief retirement from the game. Fortunately, he would return once cleared medically and would remain a force in the heavyweight division for duration of the decade.
Without a shadow of a doubt, no collegiate football coach did more with less than former Grambling State University icon, Eddie G. Robinson. Based in a small and rural northern Louisiana town, Grambling State University is lodged within a community where agriculture is the primary way of life in Grambling, La of Lincoln Parish. Based on the 2010 US Census, the population registered at slightly under 5,000 residents.
“The Lighter Side of Eddie Robinson”
How could a gentleman with limited resources, at the helm of a modest sized historically Black institution of higher learning post an impressive 408-165-15 record with 9 Black National Football Championships, 45 winning seasons and 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles. And get this, more than 200 of his players that he coached went on to play professional football. Included in his resume is the first Black QB to start a Super Bowl in Doug Williams (who broke most of the existing passing standards in SB XXII), four Pro Football Hall of Fame members (Buck Buchanan, Willie Brown, Charlie Joiner and Willie Davis) and James “Shack” Harris (the first Black QB to begin the season as a starting signal caller in pro football).
Personally, I had the pleasure of crossing paths with the legendary college football coach in the late 80s as a journalist, during the time Coach Rob was several decades into his hall of fame career but still quite viable and arguably still in his prime. As skilled as he was as the leader of young men on the gridiron, Coach was equally adept at delivering on the banquet circuit where he frequently was the mouthpiece of not only Grambling football but the HBCU product in general. For those of the many, many admirers of Coach Eddie G. Robinson who may not have been privy to his lighter side, oh yes, he did have the knack for telling a good story or two at the podium.
Pro Football Hall of Fame member Michael Strahan talks with veteran sports broadcaster Lenny Moon about his lone season of playing with fellow HOFamer Lawrence “LT” Taylor. Both defensive stalwarts played their entire careers with the New York Giants with “LT’s” (1981-93) and Strahan’s (1993-2007) paths crossed during Taylor’s final NFL campaign and Mike’s rookie pro season. Both prolific edge rushers were dominant performers of their respective eras and led their New York Giants to several Super Bowl Championships (XXI, XXV & XLII).
Taylor was the NFL MVP in 1986 and is a member of the “NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team. “LT” was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999. Strahan earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2001 and is a member of the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. The Texas Southern University product was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014. (See video below)
Historically, the St Louis Cardinals have been one of Major League Baseball’s storied franchises. Certainly, during the 1960’s St Louis became the team to beat in the National League earning three appearances in the World Series (1964, 1967 and 1968) while winning those first two. Spearheading the charge were two of the greatest players the game has ever witnessed. One an intimidating fireballer that literally changed the game from the way he dominated from the hill. The other, a multi-talented speedster that raised the bar on the artistic way of exploiting opposing defenses and altering the concentration level of pitchers and catchers. Both were born the same year (1939) and ironically this duo recently passed within one month of the other.
Hurler Bob Gibson spent 17 seasons (all with St Louis) as the ace of the Red Birds staff, and evolved into one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game. The 9-time all-star accrued a 251-174 record with 3117 strikeouts and a career 2.91 earned run averaged. The former versatile athlete who once played for the Harlem Globetrotters, was a 9-time Gold Glove winner to go along with his two Cy Young Awards signifying the top pitcher in baseball. Gibson peaked during the 1968 season when he posted a season not seen in MLB before or since. That campaign saw Gibson take the hill for the Cards on 34 occasions and posted a whopping 28 complete games. His 22-9 record does not nearly tell the story of his lack of run support that season. Gibby bewildered opponents by tossing 13 shutouts and a microscopic 1.12 ERA (major league record). That equates to less than 1.5 runs per 9 innings. That very next season, MLB lowered the mound to provide more of an advantage for hitters. Gibson is a member of Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team and was unanimously inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.
The son of a sharecropper, Lou Brock was born in El Dorado, Arkansas and raised in Collinston, La (24 miles NW of Monroe). Brock penetrated the national baseball radar screen by leading Southern University-Baton Rouge, La to the 1960 NAIA National Baseball Championship while posting an impressive .500 batting average for the season. The 19-yr MLB veteran was originally drafted by the Chicago Cubs where he spent his first 3 1/2 seasons before being traded to St Louis in the middle of the 1964 season. Once he donned the red uniform of the Cardinals, he blossomed into one of the league’s premier talents. Brock ignited a sub-.500 team to an eventual World Series champion by hitting .348 and stealing 33 bases to close out that season. They would go on to defeat the favored New York Yankees in the Fall Classic to punctuate their comeback campaign.
Although a crafty, linedrive-type hitter that safely swatted 3023 base knocks, Brock will always be known for his legs and intelligence on the base paths. The 6-time all-star led the National League in steals in 8 of 9 years from (1966-74). He exhibited his consistency on the bases by pilfering 50 or more stolen bases 9 times. The postseason was another area where the former Southern Jaguar excelled where his .391 World Series batting average and 14 stolen bases are records for players that participated in at least 20 games. Brock’s 118 stolen bases in a single season were a MLB record until protégé Rickey Henderson came along to re-establish the standard of 130 in 1982. Brock’s career stolen base record of 892 was also eclipsed by Rickey’s current standard of 1406. Baseball Hall of Fame came calling in 1985 when he was inducted on the first ballot.
The year was 1964, when a then 22-year old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr ascended to the top of the world of sports when he defeated a heavily favored veteran Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the globe. The Louisville, Ky native would not convey the image of the conventional traditional Black athlete from the outset. His extreme confidence and brashness was not the composite package that America, if not the entire free world had witnessed from such a platform before him.
One might surmise that his demeanor was influenced by the turbulent decade of the 60’s in this country, where historical social unrest dominated the landscape. Sure there were high profile Black athletes that made there mark prior to Muhammad Ali. Legends such as boxing champions Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, professional baseball’s Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens from the 1936 Olympics along with Ali’s contemporaries Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Jim Brown. Well anyone that’s even remotely studied the career of the self proclaimed “The Greatest”, would clearly recognize that Ali had more impact on the 60’s than the decade could have possibly had on him. For that younger follower of sports, let’s place this theme in perspective.
During the time that the world was being introduced to this handsome, extroverted heavyweight champion of the world that was not hesitant to proclaim to anyone that was listening how pretty that he was, it was not fashionable for a Black athlete to be heard without being spoken to. The same year that Ali earned his title, the Civil Rights Act would finally be signed later on the calendar of 1964. This was before the Voting Rights Act had been legislated (1965) or the Fair Housing Act (1968) were signed into law. During the era of African Americans fight to elevate our status from second class citizenship, Ali was lifting the image of an entire race while becoming the most recognizable person on the planet. Once he became champion when the spotlight of world would follow the champion, he officially dropped his birth name (or slave name as he stated) from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.
By this time, just as many American boxing fans would pay to see him lose as to cheer him to victory. This would only fuel his performances that would evolve to predicting the round he would stop his opponent in the ring along with penning poetic narratives that would accompany his events. When he refused the military draft in 1967 and stripped of his title for over 3 years (as an undefeated champion), his legend grew larger when he took advantage of his legal fight with the U.S. government and his exile to lecture colleges nationwide. He opened eyes by stating “I have no quarrel with the Viet Namese, it’s in America where I’m called the “N” word”. Instead of ostracizing the champ, he became larger than life. When his boxing license was restored, Ali would win the world championship two more times before retiring in 1981. Ali’s boxing career was the launching of high profile athletes utilizing their platform for issues much larger than sports.
Now that we’ve entered our third decade of the 21st Century, and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re witnessing similar activity from contemporary athletes that are utilizing their respective platforms to enhance social awareness. Leading the way is the National Basketball Association which is approximately 75% Black, coupled with a globally popular product and world-wide social media accessibility, they have fully realized their leverage in the modern scheme of things. When they speak, people around the world listen. In the 21st Century, NBA players are the most visible athletes in the world, and to their credit they have evolved to effectively utilize their muscle to impact communities from whence they came. As opposed to be resigned to “shut up and dribble”, they are demanding social change such as police reform, voter education, justice for the murders of unarmed Blacks by police among other pertinent social issues. Modern day Black NBA athletes are also realizing that billionaire owners are accruing their wealth on the labor of their extraordinary athletic prowess. In essence it has always been a partnership (one can’t succeed without the other) but not necessarily executed as such. In the spirit of Muhammad Ali, these athletes are carving new paths in the sports arena and along the way, the status quo might become a little uncomfortable.
Reflecting on the highly charged 1968 Olympic Games during the turbulent 60s, one could only anticipate that at some point during this exhibition of the world’s greatest athletes on this global stage, fireworks were inevitable. These games were staged in the midst of a decade that witnessed the assassinations of Dr Martin L King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and both Kennedy brothers John and Robert. Major US cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and others were burning as a result of the aforementioned murders as well as police brutality, social injustice and other fundamental issues that are prevalent even 50 plus years later. Added to this toxic climate, the unpopular Viet Nam War was being met with strong resistance on a national scale adding to the tension.
There was serious discussion that the Black athletes that qualified to compete in the Olympic Games would not participate. Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Jabbar) the top amateur roundballer in the country, if not the world, opted not to make the trip. This of course predated the NBA stars assuming the reins of Olympic dominance in the Games. Alcindor’s withdrawal created a tremendous void while making a resounding statement in the process. The climate also included the recent signings of the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Fair Housing Act (1968) the result of years of successful protesting.
Enter Tommy Smith and John Carlos, two of the USA premier sprinters. Although they are on record as realizing the career risk involved prior to their decision, they steadfastly moved forward with the historic demonstration. Although representing the USA royally by adding to their country’s medal total, they were banned from the Games and ostracized from being gainfully employed upon their return home. The courage and commitment by Smith and Carlos symbolized the athletes of that era that were willing to sacrifice for a mission that was larger than any personal gain.
Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson talks with veteran sports broadcaster Lenny Moon about the evolution of SMU’s vaunted Pony Express featuring he and Craig James. Additionally, the 6-3, 220 upright style speedster discusses his breaking the NFL single season rushing record eclipsing O.J. Simpson 2003 with the standard setting 2105.
When the sports bar conversation centers around the NBA’s greatest athlete, most would concur that the selection would quickly be settled with the Michael Jordan resolution. With all due respect, “MJ” would be safe if the criteria centers around the ability to dominate for a sustained period of time while adding the optimal amount of flair to his presentation. But if the conversation is expanded to discussing the game’s biggest winner in NBA history then a different sheriff has to be implemented by the name of Bill Russell.
For those roundball fans born during the evolution of Jordan’s Nike “JumpMan” era, perhaps those individuals receive a pass. The flip side of this equation creates a “teachable” moment that bridges the two eras. William Felton Russell was a 6-10 low post wizard that revolutionized the game of basketball on multiple levels. The Oakland, Ca native utilized his vast mental capability to directly impact the flow of a basketball game from the defensive end of the court that led to higher percentage baskets for his offense. Bill has exhibited an uncanny ability to win at every conceivable level. Not only were his team usually the last one standing, but the Celtic star willingly accepted the leadership role while amassing unprecedented success.
The long and the short of the narrative pertaining to the greatest winner in the history of American team sports is the author of 11 championships during his 13 total seasons as the integral component is Bill Russell. He led his team to eight consecutive NBA titles (1959-66) in addition to leading his team to two NCAA titles (1955 & 56) and the anchor on the 1956 USA Olympic basketball championship. With all due respect, Jordan outdistanced himself from all of his contemporaries by leading his Chicago teams to two separate “3-peats” (1991-93 & 1996-98). The Wilmington, NC native procured the NBA Finals MVP during each of the aforementioned titles. We will not go into the hypothetical discussion about eras that neither legendary player had control. But what we do know is that the facts are the litmus test. Leading your team to championships in 85% of the seasons that you participated at the games’ highest level (won two as a player/coach in 1968 & 69) then the numbers easily provide the conclusion. In this author’s humble opinion, Mr Russell is the greatest winner in American team sports.