Five Pittsburgh Steelers will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 7-8. Four of them — Troy Polamalu, Bill Cowher, Donnie Shell and Alan Faneca — were already famous.
The last Steeler, Bill Nunn, is not nearly so well-known. Yet Nunn had more influence over pro football than even Cowher, who coached the Steelers for 15 seasons.
Nunn was a newspaperman who became one of the Steelers greatest finds. The team hired him as a part-time scout in 1967 based on his vast knowledge of Black players at schools that often were overlooked in the Jim Crow era. He became a full-time scout in 1969, when Chuck Noll was hired as the Steelers head coach.
Nunn remained in the Steelers scouting department until his death in 2014 at age 89, though he had stopped flying and attending games in 1987. He broke down the talent on film in the latter stages of his career.
Nunn spent the first part of his working life as sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, then a national Black newspaper with a circulation of 400,000. He covered Historically Black Colleges and Universities in an era when most of the press and much of the NFL ignored them, always to their detriment.
In the early 1960s, Nunn reported from the Florida A&M campus in Tallahassee that the Rattlers had an end named Bob Hayes who was so fast no one could cover him. Some claimed the columnist was trying to be provocative. Then Hayes won the 1964 Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters, and he anchored America’s 4-by-100 relay team to a second gold medal.
Nunn saw Hayes as a football player who happened to be the world’s fastest human. A seventh-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys in 1965, Hayes went on to a hall-of-fame career in the NFL.
Even as Hayes emerged, segregation remained deep and destructive. Football powerhouses such as Alabama, Texas and LSU would not recruit Black players.
Bigotry meant many terrific players ended up at smaller, unheralded schools that Nunn wrote about for the Courier. Grambling, Morgan State, Southern University and Tennessee State were among the historically Black institutions whose football teams were rich in talent.
The Steelers were a team stuck in pro football’s basement from their founding in 1933 through the ‘60s. Dan Rooney, whose dad, Art, founded the team, realized a fine talent evaluator worked across town at the Courier.
Dan Rooney hired Nunn with one requirement. Rooney made clear Nunn was not a minority scout who would be shoehorned into a small role. Nunn would travel everywhere and evaluate thousands of players.
A lanky man with a gravelly voice and an easy style, Nunn made people feel comfortable on every campus he visited. In turn, he quickly gained Noll’s trust with his thorough evaluations of players.
Noll in 1969 used a 10th-round draft choice on L.C. Greenwood of Arkansas AM&N. Greenwood became a star on the defensive line led by Joe Greene. They won four Super Bowls together.
Mel Blount of Southern University, a third-round selection in 1970, was a cornerback so physical that the NFL changed its rule on pass coverage to make the game easier for receivers. Coaches still call it the Blount Rule.
Nunn believed John Stallworth of Alabama A&M was the most talented receiver in the 1974 draft. The Steelers chose a more publicized pass catcher, Lynn Swann of Southern California, in the first round. Stallworth was still on the board in Round 4, when the Steelers selected him.
Stallworth and Swann both became hall-of-fame players. So did Shell, a fearless defensive back from South Carolina State, who was signed as a free agent that same year.
In an interview two decades ago, Nunn told me he became upset with Noll only once. Nunn in 1972 rated rifle-armed Joe Gilliam of Tennessee State as the best quarterback in the draft. The coach didn’t seem to listen.
Nunn agonized as 272 players were drafted before the Steelers picked Gilliam in the 11th round.
Gilliam in 1974 became the Steelers starter by beating out Terry Bradshaw, who was the first overall pick in the 1970 draft. Gilliam squandered his chance. He became addicted to narcotics and lost the job back to Bradshaw, who would quarterback the Steelers to their first Super Bowl victory that season.
For all of Nunn’s success, he wasn’t even the most publicized member of his family.
His late son, also named Bill Nunn, was an actor. The younger Nunn played Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do The Right Thing. The actor also had roles in Glory, Sister Act, Spider-Man and dozens more films and television shows.
Bill Nunn the football scout was never recognized in a crowd. Bill Nunn the actor drew crowds.
The elder Nunn was content keeping a low profile. His column turned him into a Steeler, and he helped make his team a six-time Super Bowl champion.