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Chiefs’ Hank Stram was early pioneer for integration of pro football

The first-ever Chiefs head coach did more than just win a Super Bowl during his professional career

January 11, 1970; Super Bowl IV- Minnesota Vikings v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

It’s been 50 years since the Kansas City Chiefs upset the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl IV. The long wait for fans to see a second championship included one new stadium, five general managers, 12 head coaches and 30 different starting quarterbacks.

Obviously, a lot has changed in the world since the Chiefs won their first professional football title. But unfortunately, one thing that hasn’t changed enough is the oppression of African Americans through police brutality and systemic racism.

Super Bowl IV occurred on the tail end of the decade in which the civil rights movement began. Less than two years earlier, the final major legislation of the era — the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — was passed into law.

Sadly, the fight for true equality in all aspects of life continues today, when there are still disheartening and depressing examples of racial prejudice. In such times, it’s important that people in positions of authority make a difference. Back in the 1960s, Chiefs head coach Hank Stram had the platform to do so.

Stram was one of the most significant pioneers of integration in professional football. Since the team’s start as the Dallas Texans in 1960, Stram signed and drafted notably more black players than most other teams. In fact, the American Football League — led by Hall of Fame men like Al Davis, Sid Gillman — and the Chiefs’ founder, Lamar Hunt — began to offer opportunities to black football players earlier (and at a much higher rate) than the rival National Football League did.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

As late as 1960, NFL teams had unofficial quotas for how many black players they could have on the roster. Franchises would put all the black players on the squad at one position to cancel each other out; white players wouldn’t receive any competition from black players for their roster spots. It took until 1962 for Washington to sign its first black player.

But in that same year, Stram’s AFL champion Dallas Texans were led to victory by black players like running backs Curtis McClinton and Abner Hayes. In 1963, Stram selected two future Pro Football Hall of Fame players. Defensive lineman Buck Buchanan not only was the first-ever black player drafted in the first round, but also first overall. Linebacker Bobby Bell was picked in the seventh round. Before the 1966 season, he promised an undrafted black cornerback that he would get a fair opportunity to make the team. That player turned out to be Hall of Famer Emmitt Thomas.

Stram recognized and appreciated black players’ on-field talents — but unlike some coaches in that era, that’s not where he stopped caring. He actively tried to start dialogue between the different ethnicities in the locker room.

In 1967, he famously paired black linebacker Willie Lanier with white linebacker Jim Lynch as roommates for training camp and road trips. Both were competing to become the team’s middle linebacker. After Lanier won the job — becoming the first black middle linebacker in professional football history — Lynch moved to outside linebacker. The two roomed together for the next eight seasons.

Super Bowl IV - Minnesota Vikings v Kansas City Chiefs

It’s important to note how big a deal it was that Stram chose Lanier over Lynch. Lynch was perceived as one of — if not the — best linebacker prospect coming out of college. In that time, the middle linebacker was seen as the quarterback of the defense — and black players were stereotyped as not being intelligent enough to handle the job. But Stram didn’t let race play a part in his decision-making.

“We don’t particularly care what color he is, what nationality he is, what anything,” Stram said in the America’s Game episode for the 1969 season. “The only concern we have is bringing them in with the idea of competing for our squad, and if they earned the right to be a member of our 40-man squad, then they’re going to be here.”

Still, Stram should share the credit for bringing in such great talents. He relied upon the work of college scout Lloyd C. A. Wells, the first full-time black scout in professional football. Wells was instrumental in bringing in players like Buchanan, Lanier and Thomas. He is also known for convincing black wide receiver Otis Taylor to sign with the Chiefs instead of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. His success in finding talents at historically black colleges and universities forced other professional football teams to pay closer attention and scout those schools as well — leading to more scouting jobs (and more playing opportunities) for graduates of those institutions.

The Super Bowl IV victory is Stram’s biggest accomplishment as the franchise’s head coach — but his lasting legacy is still visible today. About 70% of today’s NFL player pool is African American — and a majority of the league’s superstar players are black. But when the league was only 30% black, most of Stram’s star players (with the exception of quarterback Len Dawson) were African American; the starting defense of his championship team included an unprecedented eight black players and just three white players.

He was able to give these players the chance to become great because he had an open mind. In a time where it was easy to be closed-minded, Stram saw nothing but hard-working men of good character — and gave them an opportunity to succeed when a lot of teams wouldn’t. He did it largely by opening his ears and listening to the right people — a lesson that we should remember now.

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