Inside Conditions…The canonization of Bill Nunn

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When writers reflect on or memorialize the passing of luminaries, they usually say something corny and dated like; “I don’t know where to begin.” That is certainly not true in this case.  The question for me is where do I end?

I could write until my fingers drop off and I could stick my pen in my mouth and continue to write especially when it comes to Bill Nunn Jr., the man that I admired more than anyone else I have ever met in the world of sports.

On Tuesday May 6, 2014 the sun set on the horizon of the life of William Nunn Jr.  His start in athletics was at Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh. After graduation he was a standout basketball player at West Virginia State and later helped to remove racial barriers from the NBA.  He initially entered journalism as a sports writer. He was promoted to sports editor and eventually became the managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier.

During his tenure the newspaper continued to be one of the most influential Black Publications in the United States. As I said a few years ago;” Bill Nunn was one of the primary and legendary “stone masons” who became invaluable to building and maintaining the professional football legacy of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The iconic owners of the Steelers, the Rooney family, are credited and rightly so with having the patience to financially gut it out with what was formerly viewed as one of the most futile collections of athletes along with being one of the most incompetent franchises in the history of professional sports.

In August of 2012 I reflected on the Steelers history as they completed their first public scrimmage of that year’s training camp at Latrobe Area High School. I walked around the grounds of St. Vincent College which serves as the training camp home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. During that little stroll something occurred to me. It was eerily quiet on this pristine campus dedicated to Saint Vincent.

To all untrained observers this might even be a place that the Gods might take a wink or two of sleep.  I said then and I will repeat it to any willing ear that there was no way that any ordinary person could have stumbled upon that magnificent and sanctified piece of ground called St. Vincent’s thinking that it served as the training proving ground for gladiators preparing to compete in what might be categorized as; “the most violent team sport” in the world.

I said that the game of professional football can be described as surreal and “other-worldly.” Football was and is spiritual, yet carnal. Football is deep, yet shallow, happy and sad, with Mt. Everest type highs and Hades type lows.This is where I make my case for the canonization of William Nunn.

One of the definitions to be nominated for sainthood by the modern day church is the performance of miracles by the nominated individuals. The act of canonization is reserved to the and occurs at the conclusion of a long process requiring extensive proof that the person proposed for canonization lived and died in such an exemplary and holy way that he or she is worthy to be recognized as a saint.

Jim Litke Super Bowl Football

In this Jan. 20, 1980, file photo, Los Angeles Rams running back Wendell Tyler (26) is thrown for 4-yard loss by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert (58) as Steelers; L.C. Greenwood (68), Gary Dunn (67) and Joe Greene (75) during first quarter of Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/File)

Everyone in the professional football world knows that in 1969, the Pittsburgh Steelers were without a doubt the most inept group of athletes to strap on their shoulder pads, yet in a ten year period of drafting by Bill Nunn Jr. and coaching by Steelers Head Coach Charles Henry “Chuck” Noll, Pittsburgh won 4 Super Bowls in 10 seasons, 1969-1979.  That in itself was a miracle and should automatically qualify St. Bill.

Secondly was how he lived his life. For example in 1995 I interviewed Pirates outfielder Al Martin.  Prior to the interview, there were several rumors floating about regarding his alleged infidelity.  I called Mr. Nunn and asked him this question.  “Should I run with this story?  Then he asked me a question; “is this story going to make a difference in the amount of zeros on your paycheck?” I don’t think so.”  I answered.  “Do you think that it will have a negative effect on his paycheck in the future?” I nodded my head yes.  “Well, you decide.” He said. This was in 1995.

In February of 2000 the Pirates traded Al Martin to the San Diego Padres’.  In March of 2000 according to SI.com, “[The Padres] low-key spring training turned bizarre when Al Martin was accused of being a bigamist and charged with exchanging punches with a woman who claims she became his wife in a Las Vegas wedding. Martin [and his wife] Shawn Haggerty-Martin were arrested on assault charges late Monday night. The police report contained accusations of bigamy, threats with a gun and a wedding that Martin admits attending but didn’t think was real.”

I saw Mr. Nunn a few months later and he said; “now aren’t you glad that you left that alone?”  I just smiled; he always knew the right thing to do.

Nunn spent over 4 decades in the NFL as a scout and is considered by many, (especially me) as being one of the best if not the best talent evaluators’ in the history of the NFL.  The times of him having to drink from “colored only” water fountains and having to stay in shacks disguised as “hotels” for Negroes only did not deter him from seeking excellence and becoming a liberator for the Black colleges and the athletes that attended the schools.

He liberated me. I have always been in the press box with all races.  There was no “colored only” hotels and water fountains for me.  He went where no man dared go, no that’s not right. He went where no men wanted to go to seek and nurture greatness. He spent many Saturday afternoons taking in games at Grambling, Southern, Florida A&M and Tuskegee; Black colleges where scouts had no desire to visit or even acknowledge.

Bill Nunn Jr.found greatness at the bottom of the barrel when everyone else had put the barrel out to be picked up by the trash man.

“My feeling is that so much of what I did to be a part of this was done when I was with the newspaper,” Nunn said when inducted into the Black College Hall of Fame. “Getting to the Steelers, of course, also was due to the newspaper. Having dealt with black colleges for most of my newspaper life, I feel good about that. I picked the Black College All-America football team starting in 1950, and the last one I took part in was in 1974 when I was a scout here and we drafted John Stallworth. So as a result, I felt very good about being a part of that.”

I have to stop now not because I want to but because my heart is hurting.  I have cried about a dozen times.  Pray for me that I will be alright.

Adam Ragle from Clear Channel sent me a text asking; “are you alright?”  I answered; “I’m trying.”

There was no one before William Nunn Jr. and there will certainly be no one to follow him.  He transformed a team, a city, a country, a world; last but not least, he transformed me.

Mr. Nunn you may rest in peace, but I am certain that now that you are no longer here, I don’t see how I can.  Thank you for making me a better man and the world a better place.

(Two sources for this story were AP and SI.com)

Aubrey Bruce can be reached at: abruce@newpittsburghcourier.com or
412.583.6741

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