His legacy is one that will live forever, because Bill Nunn has touched so many lives and made such a difference for so many.
And on Tuesday, the Steelers hosted ‘Preserving the Bill Nunn Legacy,’ a virtual panel introduced by Nunn’s granddaughter, Cydney Nunn, and moderated by Dr. Damion Thomas, the Museum Curator of Sports for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History & Culture, that reflected on the legend that Nunn was.
Former Steelers safety and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020 Donnie Shell, Steelers pro scouting coordinator Brandon Hunt, NFL columnist for USA Today Jarrett Bell and co-founder of the Black College Hall of Fame James ‘Shack’ Harris, all joined the conversation, sharing stories of Nunn from multiple perspectives.
“I was honored to be a part of this group discussion to talk about one of my mentors and friends, who meant so much to my life,” said Shell. “I don’t know if he realized it or not, but just being around Bill, his professionalism, the way he carried himself in his life, it meant a lot to me and had a great effect on me. He never would have thought that. That is the way he was, unassuming. That was Bill. That is who he was. He made people gravitate to him. You wanted to be with him. You wanted to be in his presence to listen to some of the wisdom that he had.”
Each of the panelists touched an area that Nunn had an impact on, from the Steelers and the NFL, to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to African Americans in sports journalism. And it was a combination of those aspects of his life that landed Nunn in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2021.
“All of us had relationships with Nunn, were pieces of his life, but this is the first time we have come together to talk about him,” said Hunt. “What he meant to me as a mentor, it’s beyond words. Football is, ‘oh by the way.’ It’s the platform that put us together. But the mentorship was family, faith, education, financial and more. He used football to get in your ear, and now that he got you, you are going to get everything. I still save the way he taught me in 2005. He was always about saving your money. He was big on saving because he never lived in the 401K world. He would save it in mattresses and shoe boxes. He would encourage us to let our money grow for us.
“He would plant a seed that might not be relevant at the time, but then down the line would be the eureka moment. He was like a visionary. He was able to almost see the future for so many of us.”
Nunn, the legendary scout who served in multiple roles in the Steelers personnel department beginning in 1967 in a part-time role, and then in a full-time role from 1969-2014, was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Contributor as part of the Class of 2021. Nunn becomes the first Black Contributor in the 100-year history of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, something that isn’t lost on anybody as he was a trailblazer in the league, opening doors for Black players.
Nunn, who died in 2014 at the age of 89, joined the Steelers organization in the scouting department after a career in the newspaper business where he started as a sportswriter, then a sports editor, and then managing editor of The Pittsburgh Courier.
Starting in 1950 he selected the newspaper’s annual Black College All-America Team, developing relationships that benefited his scouting career and opened the door for Black players who weren’t getting a lot of attention from professional teams.
“Bill Nunn made a major difference in most of the players coming up in our time because of the All-America team he would pick,” said Harris. “That is something we would strive to make. Every year we wanted to be able to recognize our school, our accomplishment, and Bill Nunn made it possible.
“He is one of the reasons, he and so many others, we started the Black College Football Hall of Fame. We want to continue to recognize the history and all the great contributions that people like Bill Nunn have done for black college football, the game of football and the history of the game. Without people like Bill Nunn, so many outstanding players, none of those players would have ever had the opportunity. He was one of the forerunners. He had to really sell it because they didn’t believe we had players that outstanding. He was one of the great salesmen.”
Nunn, a member of the Inaugural Class of the Black College Football Hall of Fame and a 2018 Steelers Hall of Honor selection, helped the Steelers find talent from HBCUs that other teams largely ignored, including L.C. Greenwood from Arkansas AM&N, Mel Blount from Southern, Frank Lewis from Grambling State, Dwight White from Texas A&M-Commerce, Ernie Holmes from Texas Southern, Joe Gilliam from Tennessee State, John Stallworth from Alabama A&M, and Shell from South Carolina State.
“He signed me as an undrafted free agent,” said Shell. “I had the chance to go to Houston or Denver. This is what sold me on the Steelers. He said Coach (Chuck) Noll doesn’t care what school you went to. He likes players who are self-motivated and are going to work hard. That did it. My buddy was drafted by Denver the year before, and I was going there. When Bill shared that with me, I said I need to be in Pittsburgh.
“We had side conversations that no one ever knew about. He was a confidant. If I had some issues, if I didn’t do well in practice, I would talk to Bill and it wouldn’t go any further than that. He would sit me down and say keep working hard and doing what you are doing, you will be fine. When you are young, that gave you encouragement to keep working hard. Nobody ever knew about that.
“It was amazing to have him there to talk to. I went to South Carolina State University, an HBCU and I was around people like me for four years and then you come to an organization that is predominantly white, and you see this guy is over training camp, running the entire camp. I thought it was unbelievable. That was such a great move by the Steelers because he made you feel welcome and comfortable in the environment, especially when you see someone of your own race in that position. It relaxes you.”
Shell shared a story of his final season with the Steelers, in 1987 when he was 35 years old. Shell was running the 40-yard dash, and scouts expected him to run slower being near the end of his career.
“Bill was kneeling on one knee to time us,” said Shell. “I ran my fastest time in my career, a 4.55. He came up to me and looked at me in the face and said how did you do it. I said Bill didn’t you not tell us to improve every year and get better. He said, this is your 14th year, you are 35 years old. He was surprised by that. That was the first time I spoke to Bill and he was surprised by an athlete doing something.”
Nunn had a unique ability to make everyone feel equal, from athletes to interns, coaches to writers, everyone was on the same level. He also had a unique ability to share stories, and wow, did he have the stories. Hunt, who laughed because Nunn gave him a hard time the first time they met-just like Nunn always did, was blessed to hear more than his fair share after sharing an office with Nunn for years at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and sharing many other moments with Nunn, including the experiences driving Nunn to and from training camp and home when he interned in the Steelers player personnel department in 2005-06.
“We would sit in the office and talk about things,” said Hunt. “When there was a current event, we would talk about it and he would relate it to his experience. We would talk about the (ESPN) 30 for 30 series. He loved those. He liked current events, but history. He always talked about my family. He would get every piece of what is going on in your life into every conversation.
“Your welcome to football was the Bill Nunn project. You drive him around and he planted the seeds in you. That ride right there, the conversations were priceless. At the same time, he had conversations with others about so many things.
“(GM) Kevin Colbert always told him he should write a book. He wrote his story though all of us. He left the pieces out there for all of us to plug the pieces together. This was an opportunity to get some of it. you won’t ever get the full story because he left it everywhere.”
Bell shared the epic story of Nunn going to see Stallworth in college before the Steelers drafted him in 1974, sticking around an extra day to re-time Stallworth in the 40-yard dash after he didn’t time well in the rain the day before, and how that is one of his favorite Nunn stories ever. And he even shared a little tidbit.
“To this day, at least a couple of months ago when I talked to Stallworth, he never knew what his 40 time was that second day because Nunn never told him,” said Bell. “Nunn didn’t tell a lot of people.
“Mr. Nunn had such an incredible wit and sense of humor, in addition to an innate ability as a strategist. I had the pleasure and honor to meet him and honor him and interview him extensively in 2008 and cross paths with him at other points. A tremendous asset to the Steelers and to the scouting world overall.”
The stories were plentiful, entertaining, and heartwarming, because Bill Nunn was a walking story, one who as Hunt said never wrote a book, but left the stories everywhere.
“One thing Bill Nunn always did was continue to break barriers and kick ceilings,” said Hunt. “If there was a limit, he would eliminate the limit and keep fighting. He continued to take chances, push the envelopes. The success he had from taking the chances, it created opportunity for everyone who followed in his footsteps.
“To continue to preserve that legacy, we all have to continue to kick through the glass ceilings, not take no for an answer, continue to be outstanding people and continue to pay it forward and reach back into the community and help somebody else.”
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