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Detroit Free Press
It took almost 30 years, but Larry Lee and Rod Graves finally got their wish.
As division rivals in the early 1990s, Lee, a front office executive with the Detroit Lions, and Graves, a budding scout with the Chicago Bears, talked often about working together one day.
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Lee’s contract prevented that from happening in Chicago, and over the next two decades, as Graves moved from the Arizona Cardinals, to the New York Jets, to the league office, the opportunity never quite materialized.
Former Lions offensive lineman and executive Larry Lee (Photo: Photo courtesy of Larry Lee)
Lee was largely out of football for a long stretch of time, building a business and music career after he was fired in the Matt Millen purge of 2001, but he and Graves stayed in frequent contact, “solving life issues, unofficially, away from football,” and holding out hope that their dream would one day come true.
When Graves took over as executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a job Lee also interviewed for, he found a kindred spirit in his old friend, and this summer brought Lee into the small but important organization that should help shape the NFL’s future.
For both men, working for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which champions diversity in hiring across the league, is a deeply personnel endeavor.
Graves’ father, Jackie, was one of the NFL’s first African-American scouts. He worked for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960s and ‘70s, scouring Black colleges for talent, and though he eventually ascended to the role of assistant director of player personnel, had few opportunities for advancement.
Lee played eight NFL seasons as a backup offensive lineman and parlayed that into a nine-year front office career with the Lions.
He was considered a locker room leader as a player, despite starting just 25 career games, and an astute businessman. He and teammate Mark Nichols started their own limousine company as players and built a client list that included Aretha Franklin and Lions executives Russ Thomas and Chuck Schmidt.
In the front office, Lee rose from player development assistant to vice president of football administration. He was one of Barry Sanders’ closest confidants in the organization, and helped negotiate contracts and scout talent.
But after he was let go in 2001, Lee never landed another full-time job in the NFL, and part of his mission with the Fritz Pollard Alliance is to make sure other minority coaches and executives don’t go through what he did.
“There are some exceptions to the rules, but it seems like a lot of times African-Americans, we’re almost like one-and-dones,” Lee said. “There’s been some exceptions, like (former Lions GM) Martin Mayhew has gotten a couple opportunities. Kevin Warren has gotten a few opportunities. Rod has gotten a few opportunities. But for the most part, we don’t get the second and third chances that our counterparts get, our white counterparts get. So personally, Fritz Pollard is very meaningful to me cause I’ve lived the plight that I’m fighting for now. I’ve lived it.”
Larry Lee And The Back In The Day Band. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Larry Lee)
Lee said Millen, after taking over as Lions president in January of 2001, encouraged him to go job hunting at the Senior Bowl a few weeks later. He officially was fired when he returned from that trip without a job — in the NFL, regime changes often lead to major front office turnover as many executives prefer to bring in their trusted friends and colleagues from across the league — and spent the next few years shopping himself at the NFL combine and other events before settling into life mostly outside of football.
He’s consulted for several organizations over the past 19 seasons, both as a talent evaluator and in player engagement. But he also started his own demolition company and rekindled his love for the bass guitar.
A few years after he was fired, Lee formed the “Larry Lee And The Back In The Day Band,” a funk outfit that, pre-pandemic played 70 to 80 gigs a year, mostly at corporate events and festivals. The band has opened for George Clinton and Chaka Khan, among others, and played at the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl XLIII postgame party.
Still, Lee said he never gave up hope of returning to the NFL full-time, and Graves, who joined the Fritz Pollard Alliance in 2019, said he never forgot about Lee.
“One of the things that I wanted to do was certainly expand our footprint in areas of advocacy and the things that we’re doing or want to do in the community,” Graves said. “And obviously the job of really increasing diversity of leadership is a significant one. It’s a huge effort. I wanted to bring Larry on board because I believe the qualities that he brings to the table for our organization are a tremendous benefit. And I’ve always viewed him as a visionary, a strategist. He’s a proven business leader. And he’s a quality person. And given those factors, and his availability, I just felt like for the things that we’re trying to do, he would be a great asset.”
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Since its formation in 2003, the Fritz Pollard Alliance has pushed for equal employment opportunities in the NFL by promoting and preparing coaches and executives of color and monitoring adherence to the league’s Rooney Rule, which requires that every club looking for a head coach or general manager interview minority candidates.
Former Lions offensive lineman and executive Larry Lee (Photo: DFP file photo)
Graves said his vision is to ensure the Fritz Pollard Alliance is “recognized as the foremost authority when it comes to information regarding candidates of color,” and specifically to help with advocacy, career development and networking opportunities.
Currently, there are four minority head coaches in the NFL — Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins, Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers and Ron Rivera of Washington — down from a record-tying eight in 2018. The league has two minority general managers (Chris Grier of the Dolphins and Andrew Berry of the Cleveland Browns) and one recently-hired minority team president (Washington’s Jason Wright).
Together, Graves and Lee said they’re committed to helping boost those numbers, not just through the hiring of top minority candidates like Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and former Lions coach Jim Caldwell in this winter’s hiring cycle, but by fostering long-term relationships between candidates and team decisionmakers and by preparing the next generation of coaches, scouts and executives.
To that end, the Fritz Pollard Alliance held a virtual career development seminar in early July for not just position coaches and general manager candidates, but for those interested in jobs on the business side of football, too. Lions defensive line coach Bo Davis made a presentation during the defensive line seminar, and Lions coach Matt Patricia sat in on some of the meetings.
Graves said he’s in the process of organizing the lists of potential head coach, general manager and coordinator candidates that the Fritz Pollard Alliance presents to the league every fall; both Caldwell and Mayhew likely will be on those lists.
And Lee, who helps with the organization’s fundraising, compared the vetting process to some of the scouting responsibilities he had with the Lions. Beyond simply presenting the resumes of top candidates, the Fritz Pollard Alliance does intensive studies on the jobs themselves to ensure the right candidates are being promoted for the right situations.
All of it has whet Lee’s appetite to return to the NFL full-time, which may happen with the Fritz Pollard Alliance or someone else.
“Once we put all our programs in place that we’d like to see done and implemented, Fritz Pollard Alliance will be a household name and will transcend not only for the NFL, we want to do it for sports in general — on all levels,” Lee said. “We want to make sure that equality is happening, and when I came from that business world … we learned and there’s statistics that prove that the more diverse an organization is, the more successful it is. And so I don’t, right now necessarily, know how to translate that into football wins, but I’m dissecting that right now to see. You’ve got to have diversity. That’s just a sign of the times.”
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