By Teresa Varley
Steelers.com

 

 

Bill Nunn has played basketball with those who broke racial barriers. He has written about those who have broken the same type of barriers. And he helped break barriers himself.

 

 

Nunn, a member of the Steelers scouting department, grew up in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh. He attended Westinghouse High School, the same school where his father became the first African-American football player years earlier. And even by the time he got there, only about 15 percent of the school's enrollment was African-American.

 

 

Unlike his father, Nunn pursued basketball at Westinghouse. He had planned to stay close to home after graduation, possibly play at Duquesne University, but World War II made it impossible for the school to field a team. So he decided on Long Island University, a chance to step into a new culture and do what he wanted.

 

 

The problem was, his father William G. Nunn wanted something different, and in this case father did know best.

 

 

"My father called and told me I am not ready for New York and I need to go to a black school for at least two years because I knew nothing about my race and I needed to learn about black history," said Nunn. "There were no black teachers in the city of Pittsburgh at that time. He wanted me to go to a black school for two years.

 

 

"I told him I wanted to go to Long Island and I didn't want to go to a black school. He then asked me where was I going to live. I wasn't quite ready for that one. He told me if I lived at home I would have to get a job and start paying to live there."

 

 

So Nunn went out into the working world, but not for long. He soon realized that school was the best bet for him and headed to a college where he could learn about his African-American heritage, West Virginia State.

 

 

It was at West Virginia State where Nunn would play with Chuck Cooper, the first African-American to be drafted by an NBA team, and Earl Lloyd, taken in the same draft class in 1950 but the first African-American to actually play in a game.

 

 

"I really played basketball with two of the first three guys who made it to the NBA," said Nunn.

 

 

After college the Globetrotters wanted to sign Nunn. While it was intriguing, traveling on a bus with their full schedule was not something that appealed to him. Instead, he followed in his father's footsteps and joined the staff of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation's top African-American newspapers, becoming a member of the sports staff under Wendell Smith.

 

 

"It wasn't one of the first, but at the time it was the largest black newspapers," said Nunn. "It was the Pittsburgh Courier, but really it was a national newspaper. We had 17 different editions. We had our Detroit edition, Florida, one in New York. What we would do is have certain stories that ran nationally, but then we would localize it to a degree."


With Smith at the helm of the department he used his columns to campaign for the desegregation of Major League Baseball, something that Nunn was proud to be a part of as well.

 

"We campaigned at the Courier about integrating living conditions in the South during spring training, which is one of the reasons why the Dodgers ended up with Dodgertown where everybody stays," said Nunn. "When the black players went south for spring training they stayed in black neighborhoods. They couldn't stay in the same hotel as the other players. We fought that and helped break some of that stuff down."

 

It wasn't just the athletes who faced that segregation. Nunn himself faced it when traveling to the south to cover spring training and other sports.

 

"I would go down there and have to get on buses and go to the back," said Nunn. "I was at spring training camp and got on the bus early one morning with the white driver. I sat near the front and we got to talking and I kind of dozed off. When I woke up all of the blacks were in the back and the whites were in the front all around me. I asked him if I should move, and he told me to stay there. One time I was going to South Carolina with some soldiers. We got to talking. We were going to the same place and we were going to get a cab together. But the cab driver couldn't take me. The same thing used to happen even at the hotels. It would even happen in Washington, D.C." 

 

After he was at the Courier for two years, Smith left and Nunn took over as sports editor. He worked closely with baseball superstar Jackie Robinson, penning a column for the Courier titled Jackie Robinson Says, where he would turn Robinson's thoughts into exceptional columns.

Nunn also took over the duties of selecting a black All-American team for the Courier.

 

 

"That was the only exposure that the players from the black schools got," he said. 'There was a guy from the Chicago Defender that picked an All-American team too, but theirs faded. We would have a banquet in Pittsburgh and bring the guys to Pittsburgh and have the black national champion, player of the year, coach of the year."

 

 

It was his penchant for finding talent and bringing it to the forefront that helped him land where he is today. Nunn joined the Steelers on a part-time basis in 1967 in their scouting department and then came on board full-time for the 1970 season under Chuck Noll.

 

 

He was one of the first African-American scouts in the NFL and Art Rooney, Jr, who headed up the scouting department then, had concerns when he was sent out to scout schools, especially the predominately white ones. But Nunn never had a problem.

 

 

"Chuck always said he wanted me going everywhere," said Nunn. "Art was concerned about my treatment at white schools. I wasn't that concerned, but Art was a little reluctant. But my treatment at the schools was really good. Blacks were starting to go to these schools in small degrees so it was becoming more common. They were very cordial."

 

Nunn used his background as a journalist to build relationships with college coaches like Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes, coaches he could sit down and have conversations with instead of just being a scout standing on the sideline watching practice.

 

But it was his knowledge of the African-American schools that helped him find some of the diamonds in the rough, players who hadn't found their way onto the Steelers roster until Nunn pushed hard for them.

 

One of the shining stars that Nunn brought to the team was wide receiver John Stallworth from Alabama A&M, the team's fourth-round draft pick in their incredible class of 1974.

 

"Bill Nunn just went on and on about him," said Noll. "I hadn't seen him at all. But Bill was one of those guys when he was high on somebody, you had to listen."

 

 

And while Noll listened to Nunn, there were times when they didn't agree as well. But they had a close relationship, one built on respect and football knowledge.

 

 

"Chuck Noll was the guy who really made me feel comfortable as far as scouting," said Nunn. "We didn't agree on Mel Blount. I thought Mel should have been a safety because he was so tall. Chuck went and got film and said he was going to play corner. What I didn't take into consideration was the bump. Mel could control it.

 

"Chuck and I used to get into it. He told me don't worry about all the things, just find athletes and it's our job as coaches to teach them. I knew I could spot athletes, but there were a number of guys who couldn't."

 

Nunn was an integral part of bringing talent to the team that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s, but as the late 80s rolled around, he decided it was time to call it quits. He officially retired in 1987.


"I was going to retire two years earlier than that," said Nunn. "I was spending so much time on the road and flying everywhere. They told me they would cut back, and the first year they did. The second year they asked me to go back to the old schedule. We were almost into the season so I said I would do it and then retire."

 

A funny thing happened on the way to the rest and relaxation that follows retirement. Dan Rooney convinced him to stay on, even in a part-time basis. And as a result, 20 years after he called it quits, he still comes to the Steelers office on a regular basis as a part of the scouting department and one of the few to now have five Super Bowl rings.

 

He doesn't go out on the road and scout schools, but he intently studies film and offers his opinion on prospects, an opinion that is just as valued today as it was back in the 70s.

 

"It was the best thing I could have done," said the 82-year old Nunn about remaining with the team. "I might have been dead by now. It has given me a little something to do. I just told Dan this week that I am really through. He told me I wasn't going anywhere. But during the winter, what would I be doing if I wasn't here."