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Martin Luther King Jr.

‘My biggest problem was I had never been in the huddle with an African-American person’

Former Packer and Alabama coach Bill Curry on attending King’s funeral and how football affected his views on race

One might not expect a 75-year-old former Southeastern Conference football coach, a WASP born and raised in College Park, Georgia, to be an outspoken advocate for racial justice. But Bill Curry always enjoyed challenging expectations.

Selected in the 20th and final round of the 1964 draft, Curry surprisingly made the roster of Vince Lombardi’s powerhouse Green Bay Packers. He had a 10-year NFL career as a center with the Packers, Baltimore Colts, Houston Oilers and Los Angeles Rams, including a stint as president of the NFL Players Association. After leaving the NFL, Curry became a successful college coach. He was the ACC Coach of the Year at Georgia Tech in 1985 and Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year at Alabama in 1989, and in 1993 he led Kentucky to its first bowl game in nearly a decade. He then teamed with Mike Golic to call college football for ESPN. In 2010, Curry returned to coaching for three years to launch the football program at Georgia State.

Curry still lives in College Park (also the hometown of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and rappers Ludacris and 2 Chainz) with his grade school sweetheart Carolyn, an author and women’s advocate. Curry travels the country speaking on leadership and also shares his thoughts on Twitter. As the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination neared, he spoke with The Undefeated about how pro football affected his views on race and why it was important for him to march in King’s funeral procession in Atlanta.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On the final episode of the Mike & Mike radio show, the hosts asked about the biggest lesson you learned playing for Lombardi. You didn’t talk about the Packer sweep or winning or toughness. Instead, you said he didn’t tolerate racism. Why was that your answer?

I was undersized; I was the last draft choice of the Packers. And they were the next to last team choosing, so I was the next to last guy chosen in the ’64 draft. I had lived in the South all my life, but none of those were my biggest problem. I had played for Robert E. Lee “Bobby” Dodd [at Georgia Tech], who was the epitome of the Southern gentleman. And I walk in the [Packers’] locker room where the guy is definitely not Southern, plus he’s a Yankee, plus he’s a Catholic … and it was just foreign to me. He was all of those things that we weren’t supposed to like. I was put off by his manner and his profanity and by the screaming and yelling and all that. But that was not my biggest problem.

My biggest problem was I had never been in the huddle with an African-American person. There were teams in the league that had quotas, or they had no African-American players, and they bragged about it. In the Packers’ training camp, if you said one racist sentence, you were cut immediately. That was the talk in the locker room. On a 40-man roster we had 10 African-American players, and [Lombardi] would have had 40 because he didn’t care about the color of your skin. He cared a lot if you could play football, and he cared a lot if you were a good human being. He had a gift for selecting all of the above and blending all of those various qualities. There we were, playing against teams with no African-American players, and we’ve got Willie Wood and Herb Adderley and Bob Jeter and Lionel Aldridge and Willie Davis. And I thought those guys would hear my Southern accent and hurt me and send me home.

So you were self-conscious about growing up in the South?

I had always asked my dad about the water fountains and the restrooms. ‘What’s the deal with this, Dad? Isn’t this wrong?’ ‘Yes, it’s wrong, but it’s just the way it is.’ That was the answer I got when I was a kid. I never understood illogical hatred. We were very blessed in one respect growing up. My father worked at Rich’s Inc., which was the retail store in Atlanta. Everybody went to Rich’s. Well, the Rich family owned it and they were Jewish. And a lot of the top executives with whom my father worked were Jewish. And they embraced us; we were family. … We were Presbyterian. But we were included. It was never a thought of ours to be prejudiced toward Jewish people. How could you? They were our family. If we had had the same privilege with African-Americans, it would have been the same result. But I didn’t have that experience. So when I got to Green Bay, my thought was, ‘I don’t know how to talk. I’m going to say something racist.’ And I did.

What did you say?

I was sitting with Marv Fleming, who was our tight end. Marv went on to play with the Dolphins. He has five Super Bowl rings. Great guy from L.A., just really sophisticated. I was trying so hard to ingratiate myself. I said to Marvin, ‘Yeah, when I had a construction job, my boss was a colored guy!” and Marv said, ‘Your boss was what?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he was a colored guy!’ He said, ‘Bill, what color was he?’ I said, ‘Oh, jeez, what am I supposed to say?’ This was 1966. He said, ‘Say black, black guy, not colored guy. That’s how we prefer it.’ Well, that was a wonderful response. Rather than get up and leave the table or slap me, he taught me. I just didn’t know how to behave in that locker room. I was nervous and desperate to make the team.

So in that state of mind I’m walking out of the dorm one night and a voice came out of the darkness behind me. I thought it was God. It was freezing cold in Wisconsin and it was August. It was a strange, alien place. And this voice calls me, and I turn and it’s Willie Davis, the defensive captain. And he says, ‘I’d like to speak with you.’ And I thought, Oh, no, he’s going to tell me to get lost. He said, ‘I’ve been watching you at practice, Bill, and I really like your effort. You’ve got a chance to make our team, and I’m going to help you. Now, Bill, you come on our practice field and you leave no regrets and you do that the next day and the next day. And when you can’t take it another minute, when Lombardi is screaming and spitting in your face’ — and he did — ‘and Ray Nitschke is tearing your head off’ — and he did — ‘you come find me and I’ll get you through it.’ What did the great man do for the terrified white kid? He changed my life. It was an unexpected, undeserved, unrewarded act of kindness.

“When I got to Green Bay, my thought was ‘I don’t know how to talk. I’m going to say something racist.’ And I did.”

In talking about Lombardi, you were also speaking to this moment in our country.

Absolutely correct. Our leadership is reverting to the not-so-subtle racist undertones and an incredible lack of sensitivity toward other people. And I do mean incredible. And unforgivable. Many people I know just can’t forgive that nonsense because it’s filtering into our schools. To see a group of children with brown skin or black skin standing and crying while another group of children shout, ‘Build the wall!’ at them, I thought I was going to pass out when I saw that. You don’t think this stuff filters down? It’s devastating. It’s a potentially fatal illness in our country.

Do you remember where you were when King was assassinated?

No, but I remember where I was when Carolyn and I spoke, and we said, ‘We have to be in the march.’ I had been a student at Candler School of Theology at Emory [University in Atlanta] for a year at that point, and we had some very dear friends who were in the ministry. There were phone exchanges with them, and after we talked we all agreed that we had to be there. We had a new baby. Our daughter had just been born the year before. Some family members said some things to me to try to persuade us not to go. ‘You know you’ve got an obligation, you’ve got to be thinking about that child.’ And I said, ‘I am thinking about that child. I’m going to be at the funeral.’

I vividly remember the march itself and who we saw. I was with Carolyn, just laypeople, holding hands with anyone who would hold hands with us. We weren’t nothing except two sick, sad white folks. There was such a sense of real sadness and mixed responses from the African-American marchers toward us. And I don’t blame them. Some were very gracious; others looked at us like, ‘So now you show up? Great. What are you going to do?’

What has Carolyn’s influence been on you in terms of race?

Very, very powerful in making me aware of how it feels to be the ‘other.’ For her, it’s being a female and always being shoved to the side when I would be coaching a game or playing in the Super Bowl. We’re standing there together and people rush up and act like she doesn’t even exist. She has constantly educated me on what it’s like to be the one that’s left out.

What did you do to be sure your kids grew up with the right values?

You remember the movie South Pacific? ‘A child has to be taught to hate.’ They don’t show up hating anybody. I was at the Boys & Girls Club in Dalton, Georgia, in March. I had a tie on that has a bunch of runners, all different colors of runners with different shirts on. I didn’t think anything about it until these little people started rushing up and saying, ‘That’s me, that’s me!’ It was like a miracle. All you have to do is get together and find out you love each other. For me it didn’t happen until I was 22 years old in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

If you have to be taught to hate, do you have to be taught not to hate?

I always told my teams, ‘We’re not going to engage in illogical hatred of anybody, but neither are we going to act like it doesn’t exist. If it pops up in our locker room, we’re going to deal with it immediately, we’re going to understand it.’ And by the way, I’m taking the kid from South Central L.A. and the one from the hills of North Georgia and they are going to dress next to each other. ‘I don’t like him, Coach.’ Well, that’s not my problem, it’s your problem. And then they find out that sweat smells the same on everybody. They learn to love each other, and it lasts the rest of their lives. That’s the good stuff about competitive sport.

Do you feel that coaches have a responsibility to speak out about racism? In the SEC, for instance, the coach is probably the most visible person in the state.

I think all people of goodwill in leadership positions, whether they are coaches or CEOs of a Fortune 500 company or the CEO of a two-person company in Lawrenceville, Georgia, I think everybody in a position of leadership in our country right now is desperately needed. And each of us has an obligation to speak out. The coach does have an exalted platform, which I think makes us all the more responsible, all the more obligated to do and say the right things, even if they’re not popular with our constituency. The answer is yes, but it’s not just coaches, it’s everybody. It’s the governor. It’s the chairman of the board of a company. And as we look across the boards of directors at the great companies and the great universities in this country, they are really white. Really white. And not many females. We’ve got to change that. And the only people who can do it are leaders.

What is stopping them?

The perception that it would cost them money and prestige at the good ol’ boys club. And we all know what the good ol’ boys clubs are. We can get invited to Mar-a-Lago. We can get to go to the yacht club. I’m not making this up. I’ve seen it. We’ve just got a long way to go. The same thing with the Christian church. We talk a good game. If we did what we should, 11 o’clock Sunday morning wouldn’t be the most divided moment of the week. And I’m part of the problem. I’ve talked a good game my whole life because I was exposed to great people, but I haven’t done nearly as much as I could have.

“As we look across the boards of directors at the great companies and the great universities in this country, they are really white. Really white. And not many females. We’ve got to change that.”

You’ve given former NFL tight end John Mackey a lot of credit for educating you on race.

By the time I became president of the NFL Players Association, I had not only been educated by Willie Davis but I had roomed with John Mackey, which was like receiving a Ph.D. on race. I made a lot of mistakes, but I tried to do the right thing.

What were the issues you were fighting for at the time?

The main issue was to revoke what was called the Rozelle Rule, the reserve clause, which meant every player was bound to the team that signed him forever unless the team decided to trade him or cut him. We were literally chattel.

So you and Mackey were the Curt Floods of football?

Curt made it a personal thing. He sacrificed his [baseball] career and made it a personal lawsuit. John Mackey did the same thing. We filed the Mackey suit and we all put our names on it, the people on the executive committee. We knew that would probably finish off our careers, and for most of us it did. Most of us got waived the next year or two, starting with Mackey, who was the greatest tight end of all time.

He lost his job for being active?

I think so. The teams would argue, no, he got traded to San Diego and then San Diego cut him. You can’t find a place for John Mackey?

Given what happened to his career and yours, what were your thoughts as you watched the Colin Kaepernick story unfold?

I told a Baptist Sunday school recently I was the Colin Kaepernick of 1974. I didn’t ‘betray the flag,’ but people said I and my union were destroying the national pastime and that we were unpatriotic and overpaid. Our average salary was $30,000 a year, and the same things were said about us that have been said about Kaepernick because we shook up the order of things. The Constitution is all about defending one’s right to take a stand that’s unpopular, I think. A lot of people died to make that thing work. A lot of people died to kill Nazis. My dad trained in hand-to-hand combat to go kill Nazis, and now we have a president who encourages Nazis in my country where my grandchildren live in Charlottesville, Virginia? What the hell is that?

What do you think when coaches say it’s a distraction to have players involved in social issues?

I would encourage the guys to do it with all your heart, but don’t do it in a way that’s going to be disruptive to our team. Let’s sit down and talk about it as a team, about what we would like to do as a group, and then we will do that. If you think you need to do more, we will talk about it on a case-to-case basis. I would hope we could find a common ground to do it as a team, and I think that’s what the Eagles did. I don’t think it’s an accident they played their guts out down the stretch, but I could be using that metaphor for my own purposes.

Do you enjoy being the opposite of what some people might expect of a 75-year-old white Christian man from Atlanta?

Probably Republican, probably racist, probably sexist, and I’m the opposite of all of those? Yeah, I love that, to tell you the truth. I love the shock effect. When I stand up and have 500 people in a room, I’ve got ’em for 45 minutes. They’re going to have to listen to me, and I’m going to make them pay attention. I do enjoy that, and I’m not proud of that because that’s an ego thing and I don’t think that’s appropriate. That’s part of my sinful nature. It’s fun to shock people, the opposite of what they expect. You nailed me.

You were at King’s funeral procession in 1968, and here we are 50 years later and a lot of the issues haven’t changed.

It breaks my heart. I think my generation had a chance to change this nation and make it right, and we flat whiffed and I’m ashamed, so I’m going to go down swinging. Our generation with JFK, Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy, those years when we were part of all that, the message was so clear. And we could have not just legislated civil rights stuff, which happened, we could have changed the whole thought process, and we didn’t do it. Especially the Christian church, white Christian America, including myself, we blew it. And now we’ve got to try to get it right.

Andrew Maraniss is the author of the bestseller "Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South," which received the Lillian Smith Book Award and RFK Book Awards’ Special Recognition prize.