James Lawton: Dungy and Smith breaking colour bar closes one of sport's shoddiest chapters
The unthinkable happens on Sunday when Dungy and Smith pull the strings
Tuesday 30 January 2007
Good guys are not supposed to win but finish last on the American gridiron, especially if they work on the touchline as head coaches, and even more especially if they happen to be black guys. This makes the historic collision of Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears in this Sunday's Super Bowl in Miami something more than cause for a routine double celebration.
Between them, and with much brilliance and steadfastness, and in Dungy's case despite the most appalling personal tragedy, they have closed, quite officially and irrevocably, one of the shoddiest chapters in all of sport.
Long after the great baseball player Jackie Robinson raced across the colour line in 1946, the National Football League operated a prejudice that was supposed to be as subtle as it was insidious. In fact, it was never less than a sinister shadow over the Super Bowl, the monster event billed as one of the great days in the life of the world's most powerful nation, so compelling that it was always thought that, if the Soviet Union was ever to attack, it would do so on the day America was glued to the couch.
Scarcely more than a quarter of a century ago there were three great taboos in the NFL - and one unthinkable proposition.
The unthinkable happens on Sunday when Dungy and Smith pull the Super Bowl strings, the first two black coaches in place to take a congratulatory phone call from the President. The taboos were in force in three positions on the field of play: centre of the offensive line, middle linebacker and, most importantly, quarterback.
A black player could not be a quarterback because it would interfere with a majority American dream ... quarterbacks were exclusively white. Centres could not be black because it would involve the quarterback in an impossible indignity. He would have to reach down between a black man's legs to collect the ball. Middle linebacker was the defensive position carrying most authority. You had to be officer material, or put another, largely unspoken, way, you had to be white.
Though he never speaks of it now, the old quarterback controversy surely ticks away at the back of Dungy's psyche. He was a record-breaking quarterback for the University of Minnesota, but when he played for the all-conquering Pittsburgh Steelers he figured only with brief distinction in the most glamorous position, and that was when the celebrated Terry Bradshaw and his back-up were injured. Mostly Dungy played as a safety, a key defensive position in Pittsburgh's famed "Iron Curtain".
It was fine for black players to populate the trenches of the game, as linemen in all positions but centre and as running backs and linebackers and safeties and cornerbacks.
As late as the mid-Eighties there were still poignant examples of the colour line, and one of them was a fine quarterback out of Texas, Roy Dewalt. He was a tall, brooding, rather sad-faced figure who, after playing brilliantly for his college team, was drafted into the NFL by the Cleveland Browns - but as a running back. The fact he had a throwing arm that could have doubled as a howitzer did not impress the Browns. They had noted his ability to run out of the pocket, to scramble vital yardage in tough situations. Cleveland offered Dewalt good money but he turned it down, electing instead to play for the British Columbia Lions as a quarterback.
Said Dewalt: "Cleveland offered me a good contract and the money was a little tempting, but then I thought about it and said to myself, 'Hell, no, I'm a quarterback, that's the job I was born to do.' I went to Canada because people up there were saying, 'We like what you can do on the field, we think you're a fine quarterback.' I never really heard what Cleveland thought of me as a quarterback, and I didn't have to ask the reason for that. My ambition now is to prove myself not only a good quarterback but a great one. Maybe one day it will be different. Maybe one day an NFL club will come to me and say, 'Hey, we want you to play quarterback.' That would really be neat. It would be so good going home on my terms."
Dewalt never did. He had to content himself with a superlative display in the final of the Grey Cup, Canada's rather pallid version of the Super Bowl, and then watch quarterbacks like Warren Moon and Doug Williams, who shared his determination to play in their best position, gradually beat down resistance with the power of their arms and the sharpness of their vision.
On Sunday, Dungy and Smith represent a triumph of fortitude at the end of a troublesome road. They also send a reproach to Paul Ince, who recently implied he was a victim of prejudice in English football when he failed to land the manager's job at Wolves. Ince, who played for, among others, West Ham, Manchester United, Internazionale and Liverpool, and captained England, was never barred from any position on the field because of the colour of his skin.
Dungy's trials have included the death of his son, James, in the most tragic circumstances in 2005, when a coroner decided that the boy, who had had drugs problems, had taken his own life. Dungy stepped down briefly from coaching the Colts, who were poised to make the Super Bowl, to be with his wife and family, but he returned to the football challenge with all his old flair, particularly in the matter of organising defence. Smith is eager to pay tribute to Dungy's quiet but insistent work for black football men.
Smith, who was nicknamed Lovie after his beloved great aunt Lavana and was a ferocious linebacker for his Texas high school Big Sandy, recently aligned himself with Dungy's reflective style, something of a contrast with that of the father of the hard-driving genre, Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, of whom it was once said by a former player, "At least coach Lombardi never played favourites - he treated us all like dogs."
Said Smith: "I think a lot of young coaches coming through the ranks have a picture of how a coach should be and I think what Tony showed me was that you don't have to act that way."
Dungy has always been comfortable in his own skin. He says: "I know I probably didn't get a couple of jobs in my career because people could not see my personality or the way I was going to do it ... for your faith to be more important than your job, for your family to be more important than that job. We all know that's the way it should be, but we're afraid to say that sometimes. Lovie's not afraid to say it - and I'm not afraid to say it."
Outside of some Midwestern blue-collar sports bars, the Super Bowl verdict is surely already in. It is that the winner is the big, rough cynical game that has shed finally at least one reason for shame.
The flesh may be all too fragile, but Wilkinson's willing spirit can restore heart to despondent English rugby
Forget about cometh the hour. Jonny Wilkinson's challenge runs far deeper than holding the line. It is about renovating a mood and a spirit that had long disappeared from the psyche of England's rugby with their eighth defeat in nine matches.
The big question is whether the head coach, Brian Ashton, is mad to risk Wilkinson at such an early stage of his latest comeback. The short answer is no. So is the long one.
The fabled Wilko was never the player of English dreams, and if anyone doubted that the emergence of the All Black Daniel Carter as the world's greatest half-back by such a wide margin has set the record straight.
But Wilkinson has his own aura and Ashton is right to invest in it despite the brevity of the hero's fitness test at the weekend. Given the way he plays, he will never again know the certainties of his youth but then, without his immense heart, and kicking, England have been a shell of a team since his World Cup-winning drop goal.
When you are in a corner you need your best men and, of course, that means your best hearts. Whatever confidence Scotland bring to Twickenham for the start of the Six Nations Championship on Saturday after their successful "scavenging" at Murrayfield last year, we can be sure it has been dissipated considerably by Wilkinson's mere appearance on the team sheet.
In desperate times the need to believe in something or somebody is paramount. That's why Wilkinson was back in the England team the moment he left the field without the help of a stretcher.
It is a tribute to the power of faith - and a superior spirit.
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