Willie Davis was one of the NFL's strongest, quickest, and most agile defensive linemen and a team captain who helped Vince Lombardi's Packers win five championships. In addition to being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Davis distinguished himself after his playing career by becoming one of the most respected businessmen in America. He served on the board of directors for Fortune 500 companies, taking part in various foundations, and speaking to audiences of all ages about his experiences. In this excerpt of his autobiography Closing The Gap: Lombardi, the Packers Dynasty, and the Pursuit of Excellence, Davis explores the racial dynamic of being a black player for Green Bay in the 1960s.
There were four of us black players, which was more than several other teams in the league had in their organization.
I would say that nobody had more impact in creating diversity in the NFL than Coach Lombardi. It was partly because he took a new approach, almost playing ignorant to any kind of racial tension in the league. He didn't buy into debates or arguments about his drafting, trading (or in the case of Willie Wood) letting black players walk on. Right from the start, he treated us as equals, just players competing for a spot on the team. He chose not to see color in an era where most chose to look the other way in terms of blacks. It was as if he felt the best way to fix the problem of segregation and racism in the league was to actually pretend it didn't exist -- at least to us.
The other impact he had on the issue stemmed from his success. Coach Lombardi stayed true to his belief that the best players would earn the starting positions on his Green Bay Packers team and that was final. It didn't matter what school you came from, how successful you were in college or the pros in previous years, your time and experience in the league, or your race. If you were the best man and gave him the best chance to succeed, you would earn the starting spot. With the field wide open like that, those blacks that were on the team were truly given an opportunity to let it all out and work hard. As such, many of us during the next few years became contributing players.
And we won.
It would be interesting to have seen how the issue of blacks in the league would have faired if we didn't have as much success as we did. That probably helped diversity in the league more than anything. Coach Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers had so much success during the next eight years -- adding more and more black players each season -- that the rest of the league knew they had to keep up. It was as if the owners took a look at Coach Lombardi's formula and said, "Hey, I gotta get some of those!" Pretty soon, all the teams opened up shop, allowing all positions on their teams to be earned by the best competitors.Full Story >>