- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

What better way to kick off Black History Month this year than with the historic Super Bowl XLI?

Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy became the latest “first,” destined to join the ranks of journalists Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass and other black icons honored when February rolls around in the future.

The first black National Football League coach to win the ultimate prize in America’s favorite game, Dungy thanked those who ran the racial obstacle course before him to get to the top of the heap.

“I need to dedicate this to guys who came before me, good coaches who could have done this had they gotten the opportunity. It feels good to represent the guys who paved the way,” Dungy said after the Colts’ 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears in Miami on Sunday.

Here we are again, elated once again that a black man proved to be the best. This time he was honored for his thinking acumen, not singing or dancing or running down a field or court, as has been the case so often in the past.

And the icing on the cake is that the consolation prize went to another black man, Dungy’s friend and protege, Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears.

Football Hall of Famer Willie Wood, a native Washingtonian who played in the first two Super Bowls as a safety for the Green Bay Packers, said yesterday, “as a player, I couldn’t even fathom this happening.”

Mr. Wood, 71, said he was cheering for both coaches because “there was no way any of us could have lost, no matter who won.” He likened the two head coaches to “civil rights guys without the rap.”

When he was playing in the NFL, Mr. Wood said that there were blacks who could have been head coaches, and Sunday’s historic game of “firsts” was “long overdue.”

Though he starred as a quarterback at the University of Southern California, no NFL team drafted him.

A letter-writing campaign by Bill Butler, his coach at the Boys Club in the District, caught the eye of the Packers. Mr. Butler told Packers Coach Vince Lombardi that Mr. Wood was “a thinking man’s ballplayer,” and “if you could see this kid unshackled, you would really agree with me.”

Mr. Wood tried out with the Packers and was signed as a free agent in 1960. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989 after playing in eight Pro Bowls and six NFL championship games, including the two Super Bowls.

In Super Bowl I, he had a key interception against the Kansas City Chiefs that helped the Packers put the game away in the second half. In Super Bowl II against the Oakland Raiders, he returned five punts for 35 yards, including a 31-yard return that would stand as the record for the longest punt return until the Redskins’ Darrell Green broke that mark in Super Bowl XVIII.

Mr. Wood’s greatest hope is that Dungy and Smith have created a movement in which the biggest beneficiaries will be players and coaches in college, the farm teams for the pros.

Mr. Wood got his chance to coach in 1975, when he took over the Philadelphia Bell in the short-lived World Football League. He later was the first black head coach in the Canadian Football League, leading the Toronto Argonauts in 1980 and 1981.

I hate to admit that I was not aware of the extent of Mr. Wood’s football fame until Cuzin Raymond Terrell informed me. He nearly flipped out when I invited him to accompany me to a party at Mr. Wood’s Northwest home last year, where some of his memorabilia was auctioned off for a charitable cause.

Mr. Wood said Dungy’s victory was a vindication. He said before Dungy built up the Colts’ organization, he “built up a great organization” with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, he was not kept on long enough, and his successor won the Super Bowl the subsequent year “on Dungy’s work.”

“If he’d been a white coach, he might have been held onto longer,” Mr. Wood said.

As for Smith, “he brought that team back to greatness from its ‘80s days, and he should be rewarded” with a salary commensurate with other coaches now that he has proved himself.

“African-Americans won every step of the way [Sunday] night,” said Mr. Wood, once described as “one of the most exceptional defensive players in NFL history.” Sad but true.

In 2007, black folks still find themselves celebrating and rooting for our “firsts.”

“We have now mastered a way of football that no one thought was possible,” D.C. civil rights historian and stalwart Lawrence Guyot said. “Whites said, ‘They can run, but can they think?’ We must always rekindle the realization that we were thinkers first; our ancestors taught Aristotle.

“Now, let’s go on to something else.”

Why are these “firsts” so significant, even today, especially to black Americans? In part, it is because these trailblazers break the negative racial stereotypes that we are bombarded with every day. They show our children options and give them hope through more positive role models. And, through their demonstrated abilities in breaking through racial barriers, the “firsts” serve as a reminder to white Americans that some of the barriers to opportunity for all still need to be knocked down.

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