Monday, 26 September 2016


Bill Nunn's signature role was as Radio Raheem in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. Nunn and Lee were buddies from Morehouse College in Atlanta, and he was regular in Lee's movies. In a way, the brilliance of his Raheem was a curse more than a blessing; it's a nuanced performance combining intelligence, ego, and depth along with anger, rage, and potential violence. Much of Nunn's career would see him cast in roles that reflected only the angry part of the character, almost as if producers thought he were Bill Duke, or a younger version of him.

My favourite of Nunn's parts (though I can't claim to have seen them all) came in the wonderful Fallen Angels series which aired on Showtime in the mid-90s, and intermittently at odd hours in Britain (sometimes with the silly title Perfect Crimes) after that. They were 30 minute adaptations of hard-boiled detective stories, with top-flight writers, directors, DPs, and actors. Nunn played Walter Mosley's character Fearless Jones in an episode called 'Fearless', alongside Giancarlo Espositio and the much under-valued Cynda Williams. You can watch the three of them onstage in that lovely scene from Mo' Better Blues, Nunn on bass, Esposito on piano, giving the spotlight to Wesley Snipes and Denzel, while Cynda sings 'Harlem Blues'.

Fearless was directed by Jim McBride and adapted by Richard Wesley, who also wrote Uptown Saturday Night, and the adaptation of Native Son. Although there's often little difference in Mosley's various leading men, especially on film, Esposito's Paris Minton is very much an Easy, while Nunn's Fearless captures the ironic nature of his name, in an almost classic noirish pairing. Oddly, Nunn also had a part in Always Outnumbered, a TV movie made for HBO three years later, in which Lawrence Fishburne played another Mosley hero, Socrates Fortlow, and Mosley wrote the adaptation. Interestingly, Bill Duke was in that one too.

But one thing you probably didn't know was that Bill Nunn was a ball-boy for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he and Art Rooney, who's now the Steelers' owner, once stole Mean Joe Greene's car. The ball-boy job came about because Nunn's father, Bill Nunn, Jr., was the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier (owned by William Nunn Sr.) which was one of America's leading black newspapers. Bill Nunn Jr knew more about black college football and its players than anyone. Dan Rooney, the son of the then-owner of the Steelers, was curious about why Nunn never came to Steelers' games, and was told it was because the team ignored players from black colleges. Rooney was intrigued, they became friends, and eventually Nunn became a full-time scout for the team. It was Bill Nunn who brought many of the stars to the Steel Curtain Steelers of the 70s, including Greene, so it wasn't surprising his son and Rooney's son would be ball boys together.

Bill Nunn Jr. died in 2014, at just about the same time as Steelers' coach Chuck Noll. I wrote a piece about the two of them for, but the link to the article seems to have expired. So here is that piece; it's a shame that Bill Nunn III has gone so soon after.

In a sense, Chuck Noll's death on June 13th caught us by surprise. He was 82, of course, but we had the image of the rock-hard Noll implanted on the Pittsburgh Steelers' sideline not so long ago. That's because Noll was succeeded by the even more granite-jawed Bill Cowher, and Cowher by the kinder, gentler visage of Mike Tomlin, and as far as the Steelers are concerned, that was it. Dan Snyder goes through more coaches in a decade than Dan Rooney has in 45 years.

But another Steeler great died just a month before Noll. Bill Nunn Jr, their longtime scout, died May 6th, drawing somewhat less attention. But Nunn's role in the transformation of the Steelers from also-rans to dynasty was crucial, and his story and Noll's, and for that matter Dan Rooney's, are tightly entwined, and worth telling here.

I'm not sure where Noll fits in the rankings of top coaches ever, which is just about the first thing everyone asked when he passed away. If you are what your record says you are, then he's certainly among the very elite, and one of the things I'd like to point out is that his career as an assistant gives him extra points in the scoreboard of eliteitude. Lots of people mentioned the innovation Noll and his defensive coordinator Bud Carson brought to the 4-3 by lining up Joe Greene at an angle off the center's shoulder. If you never saw Greene, think of Warren Sapp in the Tampa 2 during the seasons he was in great shape and fully motivated. And realise that for Greene that was every season.

But what was overlooked was that when Noll was the coordinator for Sid Gillman's San Diego Chargers in the AFL, he began to use an offset 4-3 by lining up The Big Cat, Ernie Ladd, directly over center. Ladd was 6-9 315 and as Patriots' center Jon Morris once said, 'when he lined up over you he blocked out the sun.' Those Chargers had the original 'Fearsome Foursome': Ladd, Earl Faison (a great forgotten star), Bill Hudson and Ron Nery, but that was overshadowed by Gillman's innovative offense. Noll was a defensive guy but when he built the Steel Curtain Steelers, he kept Gillman's offensive innovation in mind, and the need for a Lance Alworth-type deep threat receiver.

Before he got to Pittsburgh, Noll went to the Colts, as defensive coordinator for Don Shula, with whom he had played on Paul Brown's Browns. In 1968, those Colts went 13-1, with a defense built around MLB Mike Curtis, but they lost the Super Bowl to Joe Namath's Jets. Patriots' owner Billy Sullivan displayed his usual talent for understanding football, and hired the Jets offensive coordinator, Clive Rush as their head coach, leaving Noll for the Rooneys.

When Noll arrived in 1969, Nunn was the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper with a national profile, and a part-time scout for the Steelers. His father, Bill Nunn Sr. was the paper's editor; perhaps Dan Rooney recognised something in Nunn, something about the way they worked hard to avoid the tinge of nepotism which always has been a part of the NFL. Bill Nunn Jr was a fine basketball player at Westinghouse High, where is father had been the school's first black football player. Nunn went to West Virginia State, playing with Westinghouse's Chuck Cooper, and with Earl Lloyd. Cooper became the first black player drafted by the NBA, and Lloyd, by virtue of the schedule, would become the first black to actually play in the NBA. Nunn was good enough to get an offer from the Harlem Globetrotters, who in those days had talent worthy of an NBA team, but he went back to Pittsburgh and became his father's sports editor.

Every weekend in football season, Nunn covered a different game played by black colleges, and while he did he built a network which enabled him to in effect scout the entire country. Thus, he began picking the Courier's black college All-American team. There is a famous story of the Giants drafting Roosevelt Brown simply because Wellington Mara had followed his progress in the Courier. Nunn chose Tank Younger to his team in 1948; Younger would star on one of the great offensive teams of all-time, the early 50s Rams, before becoming a scout. It was Nunn who tipped Younger to David Jones, a defensive lineman expelled from South Carolina State for taking part in civil rights marches. Jones was playing for Mississippi Vocational College, and running down wide receivers thirty yards downfield. At the Rams he would be nicknamed Deacon, and you know the rest.

Younger, who played at Grambling, had been the first player in the NFL from an historically black college. The AFL, desperate for talent, was quicker than the NFL to scout those schools, with Lloyd Wells of the Chiefs prominent. One day in 1967, Dan Rooney asked a Courier reporter why Nunn never came to Steelers games, and was told Nunn didn't like the way the Steelers seemed to ignore black colleges. Rooney arranged a meeting and hired Dunn to work for the team part time. When Noll arrived, the two clicked, and Nunn left the Courier and became a full-time scout. In their first draft together, their first pick was Joe Greene, from North Texas State.

The Steelers had no GM, as such. Dan Rooney ran the scouting, and Noll knew the kind of players he wanted, focused on athleticism. Rooney, Noll, Nunn and the other scouts were all on the same page. Nunn looked for the same thing; he often went to campus dances on Saturday nights after games, to watch players he scouted on the dance floor and check out how light-footed they were. Dancing was different in those days.

Of course 1974 was the Steelers' signature draft, and Nunn was crucial to it. He had scouted Johnny Stallworth at Alabama A&M, but word got out. When scouts arrived to time Stallworth, the field was wet, and his 40 time was slow. They left; Nunn stayed and found a dry field somewhere in Huntsville. He also dug up film for Noll to watch (this wasn't an automatic thing as it is today). When Stallworth played at the Senior Bowl, they moved him to cornerback, and he looked like a receiver moved to corner (think of how Richard Sherman he might've been today). So Stallworth was off other teams' radar, but Noll was so enamoured of what he saw on film he wanted to take him in the first round.

Nunn persuaded Noll to wait. The Steelers grabbed Lynn Swann, a bigger name from USC, in round one. In round two, Nunn again talked Noll out of 'reaching' for Stallworth, and they took Jack Lambert from Kent State instead. The Steelers didn't have a third-round pick, and by the time the fourth round came around, they used their earlier pick (acquired from the Cardinals) in the round for Stallworth. Nunn breathed a huge sigh of relief. He hadn't been quite so confident as he had let on that Stallworth would still be there. In round five they added Mike Webster of Wisconsin: four Hall of Famers from their first five picks (the second choice in round four was Jimmy 'Spiderman' Allen, who played on two of the Super Bowl teams). Nunn's influence extended even after the draft's 17 rounds; the Steelers signed Donnie Shell undrafted out of South Carolina State.

Mel Blount (Southern), LC Greenwood (Arkansas AM&N), Ernie Holmes (Texas Southern) and Frank Lewis (Grambling) are some more of the key members of those Steeler teams Nunn drew from traditionally black colleges. Another was Joe Gilliam, the quarterback from Tennessee State, who certainly had the talent to star in the NFL, but whose career spiralled out of control after Terry Bradshaw took the starting job away from him.

Nunn worked for the Steelers for 46 years, like Noll staying on the team's books right til the end. You might recognise his son, Bill Nunn III, an actor who made his name in his fellow Morehouse College alumnus Spike Lee's early films, most notably as Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing.

Bill Nunn Jr leaves a tremendous legacy, one that fits into the Steelers' story perfectly. He once explained that Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll 'ignored the dots', which were little stickers teams put on their draft board identifying the race of the player. It was an issue then. Men like Noll and Nunn made that an anachronism. Dan Rooney went a step farther with the Rooney rule. When you watch Mike Tomlin on the Steelers sideline, think of Chuck Noll and Bill Nunn, and where the Steelers and the NFL would be without them.
 -Friday Monthly Tight End, May 2014,

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