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Minnesota Vikings COO Kevin Warren to be honored as NFL trailblazer

Pro football’s highest-ranking African-American to be given first Pioneer Award

Kevin Warren didn’t plan on becoming the NFL’s highest-ranking African-American in business operations. He merely heeded the sound, yet simple, advice of his late parents: Focus on being at your best each day. If Warren did that, they assured their youngest child, he would wind up in the right place.

His parents’ words have helped propel Warren, chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings, to the heights of professional sports’ most successful league. And for breaking a major barrier for blacks in the NFL, Warren will be honored with a pioneer award Saturday during a private reception in Houston, the site of the Super Bowl. Tony Wyllie, Washington Redskins senior vice president of communications, is among the organizers of the inaugural award. While considering whom to honor, the organizers kept coming back to one name: Warren.

“We want to recognize Kevin’s historic appointment to such an important job with the Vikings,” Wyllie said. “It needs to be celebrated.”

Warren leads the Vikings’ entire business operation — marketing, sales, legal, game-day operations – he’s involved with all of it. Owner Zygi Wilf relies on Warren to make everything run smoothly. Wilf definitely picked someone with the experience to get the job done.

Warren, 53, is beginning his 19th year in the NFL. In 1997, he joined the then-St. Louis Rams, holding a dual front office/legal role. A vice president with the team, Warren worked closely with then-head coach Dick Vermeil. During his time with the Rams, Warren gained insight into how the football operation functioned, helping him determine that both sides of a franchise must work collaboratively to thrive.

Following his time with the Rams, Warren had a stint as general counsel/senior vice president of business operations for the Detroit Lions. The Vikings hired Warren in 2005. Initially, he served as the team’s vice president of legal affairs/chief administrative officer. In February 2015, Warren was promoted to his current position. Warren never imagined he would be there.

“I have truly been blessed in my career,” he said. “To be starting my 19th season in the NFL … it really is mind-altering. I remember the first day that I started with the Rams. It was different. I had never really worked in corporate America. Or professional sports.”

Warren, however, had prepared to be successful in whatever field he chose. You could also say that he was destined to rise high: Warren was born into a family of achievers.

His father, Dr. Morrison Warren Sr., became president of the Fiesta Bowl board of directors in 1982, making him the first African-American to hold that title among the major college bowl games committees. Back in the early 1960s, one of Warren’s brothers was one of the first black scholarship athletes at Stanford.

“I was fortunate to grow up in a family of trailblazers,” Warren said. “My parents, my grandparents, they have always kind of been pioneers in their own regard.”

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE - Ahvery Thomas (left) talks with Minnesota Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren during the NFL Football Careers Forum at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. (Phil Skinner/AP Images for National Football League)

Ahvery Thomas (left) talks with Minnesota Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren during the NFL Football Careers Forum in Atlanta on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. (Phil Skinner/AP Images for National Football League)

Phil Skinner/AP Images for National Football League

Warren played basketball in college. He went on to earn an MBA and graduate from law school. He worked for a law firm before hanging his own shingle as a sports agent. By the time the NFL pursed him, Warren was ready for the NFL, and even if he hadn’t been, his parents were. On his first day with the Rams, and every day since, Warren recalls what they told him.

“I’ve always remembered it,” he said. “Focus on being the absolute very best for that day. Don’t worry about adding up the days. The days will add up themselves.

“Literally every day that I get up and go to the office, I just focus on that day. What can I do that specific day, thinking of my parents, to be absolutely the best I can be personally, and the best that I can be for the organization?”

By continuing to set a positive example, Warren may help more African-Americans break through the hard ceiling in the business-side of sports.

The NFL’s Rooney Rule – named after Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee – mandates that teams must interview at least one minority candidate for head coaches, general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions. In a workplace where most players are African-American, the rule undoubtedly has helped improve the league’s overall hiring culture.

But the commissioner’s office does not require franchises to take a similar approach in hiring on the business side. There’s no leaguewide mechanism that ensures that qualified people of color will be involved in those interview processes. It’s 2017. The NFL should be embarrassed that only one of its 32 teams has a black COO. Warren plans to continue to do his part to effect positive change.

“Owners, not only in the National Football League, but in other pro sports and in parts of corporate America, may make a determination on my performance, my attitude, my moxie, my style, my grace and my professionalism,” Warren said. “They may weigh that to make a determination on whether they give another person of color, especially a black male or female, an opportunity to be in a leadership role. So that’s what I think about every day.

“This is not for me or about me anymore. I recognize that when I back out of my garage in the morning, that clearly, whether fortunately or unfortunately, the thing that a lot of people see, even before I open my mouth or they can recognize my job performance, is that I’m a black male. Because of that, I recognize the need for me to make sure that I do everything that I possibly can do to open the doors wide for those who come behind me.”

For Warren, that’s extremely important. And that’s exactly what pioneers do.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.