The last time the Chiefs were in the Super Bowl, they won with HBCU talent
Lloyd Wells, the first full-time black scout in pro football, helped the 1969 Chiefs, who had more HBCU players than any team in the AFL or NFL
Moments after the Kansas City Chiefs shocked the football world with their upset over the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl IV in 1970, sportscaster Frank Gifford was interviewing victorious players in their locker room. In the midst of fielding questions, the star running back Mike Garrett directed Gifford’s attention to a tall man who, amid all the celebration, still had his tie impeccably knotted and his white shirt uncreased.
The obscure figure now abruptly on camera, Gifford explained to his viewers, was Lloyd Wells, one of the Chiefs’ scouts. Gifford prompted Wells by noting that it must be a happy day, and in his unflappable way, Wells replied, “It’s a great day for all of us. And it really justifies having faith in these guys’ great ability.”
With those seemingly anodyne words, Wells was saying something quite profound. Largely through his efforts as the first full-time black scout in pro football, the Chiefs had assembled a roster with more players from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) than any in the AFL or NFL. The 1969 season, which began with Grambling’s James Harris starting at quarterback on opening day for the Buffalo Bills, ended with the heroics of Otis Taylor (Prairie View), Willie Lanier (Morgan State), and Emmitt Thomas (Bishop), among others, on Super Bowl Sunday.
According to the website Pro Football Reference, the 1969 Chiefs had 13 players from HBCUs on their 44-man roster, the most in pro football. Including African Americans from predominantly white schools, the Chiefs’ starting lineup featured a majority of black starters, 12 of 22, which had never happened in a championship game.
Now, as the Chiefs return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years, the historical importance of the 1969 team deserves recognition.
“Their win came on pro football’s biggest and most visible stage,” said Michael Hurd, author of several books about sports and race, including Black College Football: 1892-1992: One Hundred Years of History, Education, & Pride. “And it put the NFL — and other AFL teams — on notice that there was indeed a wealth of talent that needed to be explored at HBCUs. After that game, you could sense the rustle of unfolding road maps by scouts around the league.”
For most of its history up to that point, the NFL had drafted only a handful of HBCU players, many of them steered to the Los Angeles Rams by the team’s former running back Tank Younger, a Grambling alumnus. Similarly, the Pittsburgh Courier journalist and part-time scout Bill Nunn Jr. brought black college stars to the attention of the Steelers, who had seven on their 1969 roster.
But that number was an anomaly within the NFL. The Washington Redskins infamously did not have a single black player until 1962, when President John F. Kennedy’s administration, embarrassed by having an all-white home team in the nation’s capital during the civil rights era, pressured team executives to sign a black player, who turned out to be halfback Bobby Mitchell. As for the Vikings, who entered the Super Bowl as 12½ –point favorites and exited as 23-7 losers, their HBCU tally in 1969 was zero.
The breakthrough for HBCU players came because of the shared self-interest of black colleges and the upstart AFL, which was launched in 1960. Unable to outbid NFL teams for well-known college stars, AFL owners began plumbing the talent from HBCUs. As the Chiefs’ head coach, Hank Stram, put it in Hurd’s book, “We were the underdog and they were, too. It was a good mix.”
Wells entered the scene as the future Chiefs were playing their first three seasons as the Dallas Texans. Then in his late 30s, Wells had deep ties to black colleges. He was a graduate of Texas Southern and at one point had roomed with Collie Nicholson, who would ultimately become the groundbreaking sports information director at Grambling. Like Nicholson, Wells served in the Marines in World War II, a rare posting then for a black man, and went on to fuse sports and activism. Wells was a photographer for several African American newspapers and arranged all-star games to draw attention to Houston’s top black athletes.
Both Hurd and Michael MacCambridge, the author of ’69 Chiefs: A Team, a Season, and the Birth of Modern Kansas City and a biography of team owner Lamar Hunt, concur that Wells introduced himself to Hunt at one of those black all-star games. As MacCambridge tells the story, Wells had previously tried to interest another AFL owner, Bud Adams of the Houston Oilers, before dismissing him as a “peckerwood.”
As an assessor of talent, Wells possessed such a discerning eye that one of his nicknames was “Judge,” and such enthusiasm for star players that another was “Outta Sight.” He was also dapper, suave and urbane, traits that made him both a lady’s man and a guys’ guy.
While Hunt was hardly a civil rights activist, the pursuit of gridiron talent took him into perilous territory for a white Southerner. During the 1960 season, as MacCambridge recounts in Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports, an anonymous fan wrote to the owner’s father, H.L. Hunt, to complain that “engaging negro [sic] football players on the team he owns … is an act of [sic] communist support and hastening … intermarriage.” In conclusion, Hunt “wants to sacrifice the white race for a few dollars.”
Whatever Hunt did or didn’t do for Marxism and miscegenation, with Wells as his roving intelligence agent, he defiantly made the Chiefs pro football’s prime theater for HBCU talent. The Super Bowl team in 1969 included the cream of the legendary black college programs: Grambling (Buck Buchanan, Goldie Sellers), Tennessee State (James Marsalis, Noland Smith, Willie Mitchell), and Southern (Robert Holmes, Frank Pitts). Wells’ most famous scheme was spiriting Taylor out of a Holiday Inn where he had been secreted by the Dallas Cowboys so that the Chiefs could sign him first.
With a world championship on the line, Wells’ progeny performed. Lanier and Thomas both intercepted passes. The defensive line led by Buchanan held Minnesota’s vaunted rushing attack, which had racked up 222 yards against Cleveland in the NFL title game, to a measly 67. Pitts ran for three vital first downs on end around plays. And the Chiefs put away the game when Taylor turned a short square-out into a touchdown by breaking one tackle and faking out the last defender in his path.
The iconic image of the 1970 game is of Taylor gliding into the end zone. He didn’t look back. And neither did the rest of pro football in belatedly following the examples of the Chiefs, as well as the Steelers and the Oakland Raiders, in “discovering” the athletic riches in HBCU football.