A personal memory of Bill Nunn

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I had the honor of spending a few hours with the Steelers personnel legend.

The call was totally unexpected, someone with a 412 area code was calling me on my cell. I don't receive many calls, few people have my number so it was with not a small amount of curiosity that I answered. A woman's voice says "Please hold for Art Rooney Jr."

What?

So how did we get to this point? Several years ago I was asked by BTSC founder Michael Bean to contribute to the Maple Street Press Steelers Annual. In 2011 I got it in my head to attempt to do a profile of Bill Nunn. The problem was I had no idea as to how to get in touch with the man. I eventually asked for some help from Maryrose, who got me in touch with someone in the Steelers offices and I sent an email. But I wasn't very optimistic concerning a response. A few days went by and I began working out alternative scenarios for what I would write about when I am put on hold to speak to Art Rooney Jr.

I could write an entire piece just on the phone conversations I had with Art Rooney Jr. He was gracious and expansive in giving the information I needed to contact Nunn, as well as sharing about their professional and personal relationship and a few other things about  the development of the Steelers. It was what I would call Pittsburgh talk, and though I didn't need it, further cemented my loyalty to the franchise.

Not long afterward, I am sitting on the back porch of Bill Nunn's home in the Schenley Heights section of Pittsburgh's Hill District, settling in for a afternoon of conversation about the Steelers, the Rooneys, Chuck Noll, Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues, growing up black in Pittsburgh, a number of things, only a fraction of which made to the final article. In my initial imaginings I thought I would be meeting him at the South Side facility, get to see the Lombardis, that kind of thing. But in a way this was much better. From where I sat I could actually see my old neighborhood across town, and the fact that Nunn was still living in the house that he grew up in (Nunn pointed out to me that was also true for billionare owner Dan Rooney) spoke volumes about the governing values of the Steelers organization.

But what was so important about Bill Nunn?

There is something about the story of the Steelers that is mysterious and a little strange if viewed from afar. How did an organization be the absolute worst in its business for the first 40 years and then be the absolute best in the business for the last 40 or so? The answer is four names Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, Joe Greene and Bill Nunn.

At a  time that America was beginning to travel on a long, difficult path away from being a segregated society these four men got ahead of the curve in identifying and leveraging all of the available talent within our society, with the result being a legacy of excellence that reverberates to this day. Nunn's father was at the helm of the Pittsburgh Courier when that newspaper, the equivalent of the New York Times for black America in its day, helped to spearhead the effort to integrate major league baseball. Chuck Noll was a player and disciple of the legendary Paul Brown whose teams led the way to integration in professional football in 1946, a full year before Branch Rickey unleased Jackie Robinson on the world. It could be argued that as far as the NFL was concerned, this was the genesis of the concept of using the best players available.

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but that attitude toward personnel resulted in the Cleveland Browns being arguably the most successful franchise in professional football from the mid 1940s through the mid 1960s, with the baton handed off to the Steelers to carry until this day. Nunn, a man who harbored no pie in the sky illusions about the dynamics of race in American culture was effusive in his praise of the Rooneys and Chuck Noll in terms of how they treated him personally in his relationship with the team and their ability to move past the myopia that creates restrictive, and ultimately ineffectual boxes that undermine the ability of organizations and individuals to effectively compete.

Some of the ways that this played out was obvious; signing players from small colleges in the south; Greene, John Stallworth, Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, LC Greenwood, Dwight White, just to name a few. But it was also being able to see the value in an undersized Jewish tight end from the Philadelphia suburbs (Randy Grossman) who would never be a Combine or mock draft star today but contributed to four Super Bowl championships. Or for that matter the hiring of three little known defensive assistant coaches (Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin) who perpetuated a standard for sustained excellence that is the envy of professional sports.

The Nunn and Rooney families were close. Nunn's son Bill III was a member of Art Rooney II's wedding party. And one of the reasons that Nunn was still working on the draft at nearly 90 years old was that Dan Rooney made it clear that retirement was not an option. Nunn lived a rich life and had a lot to say about a great many things. I suggested to him as our time together was concludinf on that warm May day three years ago that the world might benefit from him writing an autobiography. He disagreed. Today, as we are now deprived of his presence it is clear to me that was one evaluation in which he was dead wrong.

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