Leland Stein III

Kansas City & Philadelphia clash in Super Bowl LVII

In Black history through sports, NFL, sports column, Super Bowl on January 31, 2023 at 8:38 am
Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes led their team to AFC and NFC championships.

By Leland Stein III

Looking forward to Super Bowl LVII, not only because it will be my 30th contest covered as a journalist, but the storylines fascinate.

First and foremost this will be the first Super Bowl ever with two Black starting quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts.

The reason black quarterbacks are being highlighted is because the quarterback is the leader of a team’s offense, directing other players on the field.

Perusing the long history of the NFL, it’s a fact that black players had been excluded from playing quarterback in the NFL because of the belief that white players would not follow their leadership and the perception that black quarterbacks lack intelligence, dependability, composure, character, or charisma to command the position.

The valued Vince Lombardi Trophy given to the Super Bowl champion.

Continuing with that theme, I have seen some groundbreaking Super Bowls moments over 30-years:

*In 2007 in Miami, I covered the only Super Bowl where there were two black head coaches. Tony Dungy led his Indianapolis Colts to victory over Lovie Smith and the Chicago Bears.

*Saw Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson join Doug Williams (he led Washington in 1988) as the second black quarterback to pilot his team to Super Bowl glory in 2014.

* In Miami in 2020, Mahomes became the third black quarterback to win the big game as his Chiefs overcame the San Francisco 49ers, 31-20.

* Williams and Wilson were not able to win two Super Bowls, now in 2023 Mahomes has a chance to to make history.

*Also, have to mention the “Helmet Catch” by the NY Giants’ David Tyree, which propelled the 10-6 Giants to become the first NFC wild card team to win a Super Bowl. The Giants beat a 17-0 New England and Tom Brady in a big upset in 2008.

Super Bowl XXII MVP Doug Williams celebrates following the Redskins 42-10 victory. Betterman – photo

*In 2013 in New Orleans the lights went out delaying the game for 34 minutes, thus the name “Blackout Bowl.” The only Super Bowl where brothers were head coaches. John Harbaugh’s Ravens beat Jim’s 49ers.

*No team had ever made up more than a 10-point deficit to win a Super Bowl. Brady led the Patriots on five straight scoring drives that equaled 31 straight points to erase a 28-3 Atlanta Falcons’ third quarter lead. The Pats 34-28 victory came in the first-ever overtime game in 2017.

I have also covered every other black quarterback that has led his team to a conference championships but lost in the Super Bowl.

After Williams broke through in 1988 winning MVP and leading the Washington Redskins to a blowout victory over the Denver Broncos, it took another 12 years before Steve McNair lead the Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl in 2000, a loss to the St Louis Rams.

McNair came within a yard of winning the game as he led his team to St. Louis’ 10-yard line with six seconds remaining, but his receiver was tackled one yard short of the goal line to prevent a potential game-tying touchdown. The game became known as “The Longest Yard” and is regarded as one of the greatest games ever.

Five years later in 2005, Donovan McNabb and Philadelphia lost a close contest to New England and Brady 24-21.

Kaepernick’s second half heroics were not enough to get the victory. Gary Montgomery – photo

It took 8-years for another black quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, piloted his team to the Big Game in 2013. With the Ravens leading late in the game, 34–29, the 49ers drove down to the Baltimore 7-yard line just before the two-minute warning but turned the ball over on downs due to a controversial no-call on fourth down.

Three years after Kaepernick, Cam Newton in 2016 led the 15-1 Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl, but lost to the Denver Broncos 24-10.

Also, Wilson in 2015 lost a chance to win his second Super Bowl losing to New England on a last second interception on the goal line.

Mahomes — like Wilson — lost his chance at a second Super Bowl victory in 2021 getting crushed by Tampa Bay and Brady 31-9.

Clearly progress has been made over the 100-year history of the NFL; however, progress towards inclusion and diversity is always an ongoing concern.

Leland can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII

#SuperBowlLVII

#superbowl2023

Frazier vs. Ali: America’s greatest boxing trilogy

In Black history through sports, Boxing, sports column on January 30, 2023 at 9:34 pm
Joe Frazier

(Article first published for Michigan Chronicle and NNPA member news wire services 11-8-2011)

By Leland Stein III

If one was to peruse the dictionary for the noun pugilist, Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s picture probably, and should be, firmly affixed next to that definition.

There have been bigger (George Foreman), stronger (Jack Johnson), faster (Rocky Marciano), smoother (Muhammad Ali) and prettier (Ali) heavyweight pugilist, but the adjective “warrior” is all one needs to say about the type of fighter Frazier was.

Born in Beaufort, S.C., Frazier recently transitioned after a brief battle with liver cancer at the age of 67. In his death we have all been reminded of the total man he was, and, ironically after living in the giant shadow of Ali, he finally had the world boxing stage to himself.

Frazier, like Ali (1960), won a boxing gold medal representing the United States. Frazier corralled his medal in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo becoming the only American fighter to win gold in those Games.

Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali lock arms on the ESPY Awards red carpet. Jon Gaede – BVN photo

After turning pro in 1965, Frazier quickly became known for his punching power and stamina, stopping his first 11 opponents. Within three years he was fighting world-class opposition, and, in 1970, beat Jimmy Ellis to win the world heavyweight title that he would hold for more than two years.

“Joe Frazier should be remembered as one of the greatest fighters of all time and a real man,” promoter Bob Arum told reporters. “He’s a guy that stood up for himself. He didn’t compromise and always gave 100 percent in the ring. There was never a fight in the ring where Joe didn’t give 100 percent.”

I agree with Arum completely, but I did not always feel that way. I admit I was a victim of the Ali mystic. I just wanted Ali to win every fight he fought, and, unfortunately for Frazier, but historic for boxing, the two came along in the same era.

Possessing the gift of gab and having the gall and audacity to challenge the status quo, while changing and revolutionizing his given name of Cassius Clay, especially during the turbulent 60’s and 70’s, made Ali bigger than sports.

Frazier, ever the pugilist, labored on the only way he knew how – straight ahead with dogged determination. No matter that he became cast as an anti-hero, an establishment symbol at a time when many Americans, including Ali, were in protest over the Vietnam War.

As I grew and learned in the sporting community, I revised my attitude of Frazier. I did not have to dislike one to like the other. After getting into the national boxing circuit as a writer I had the pleasure to encounter Smokin’ Joe one-on-one in a number of situations, and, I found him engaging and enlightening. It was my joy to converse with Frazier and listen to a true pugilist.

One of the contradictions that are ever present in the media is the giant hatred Frazier had for Ali. Sure it had some merit. Anytime two “Warriors” like Frazier and Ali had to try with all their heart to knock the other out, it was hard to maintain a friendship.

The fact of the matter is the two giants of boxing engaged each other three times. The first was the Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden in 1971 where Frazier won a unanimous decision – giving Ali his first loss.

Ali would narrowly win their next two fights, including the the third battle, the brutal and legendary “Thrilla in Manila.” He in turn received the adoration of a public that came to appreciate the courage he showed by standing on his principles.

Ali now mostly silenced by Parkinson’s disease, making him even more of a sympathetic figure, while Frazier silently struggled with his own financial and health issues, and all the while harboring a feeling Ali wronged him.

Frazier’s professed a dislike of Ali, who taunted him ruthlessly and callously. I was at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles where they appeared arm-in-arm. Later Frazier told me: “I don’t have the burning hate anymore. With the little time we have left, I’d like to live it clean and live it fine.”

Conversely, Ali told me in an interview that all his “taunting” and the noise he did before the Frazier fights was learned from “professional wrestling,” and, was meant only to “galvanize interest in the fights,” especially since he was the one white America hated. He also noted that Frazier’s refusal to call him Ali fueled their discord.

No matter, Frazier vs. Ali produced the greatest trilogy in boxing history.

“I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration,” Ali said in a statement. “In the end we both fought for the same things: Life, family, country and respect. Our paths to get there may have been different, but the journey took us to the same place.”

Leland can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII

Jack Johnson: Unforgivable Blackness

In Black history through sports, Boxing, sports column on January 16, 2023 at 8:07 pm

James Jefferies versus Jack Johnson was the first “Battle of the Century” that was smothered in racial discord. Getty Image Photos

Johnson forced out the United States after he married a white woman.

(Article first published 2-17-2005 in Michigan Chronicle and NNPA member news services)

By Leland Stein III

As black history month comes into clearer focus, periodically a special documentary comes along that depicts the undeniable, atrocities perpetrated upon Black Americans.

Fielding phones calls from friends all over, they were collective in their interjections, “Watch filmmaker Ken Burns film ‘Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson’ airing on PBS.”

Being a research minded person, I thought I knew all about the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson’s life, but there was more to be learned.

Jim Crow era whites never forgave Johnson for his unwavering spirit, his strong persona and his “I’m a free man and should be able to choose my own companions” attitude and lifestyle.

Johnson in happier days.

Through the magic of Burns’ painstaking research and detail, he recreates the setting, the characters, the mood and tone of that time in American history when too much of its indiscretions and dirty laundry were swept under the carpet and excluded from history books.

The thing, for me, that clearly comes out in Unforgivable Blackness is that Johnson’s complex life frames him as much more than an athlete or pugilist.

The crusty details of Johnson’s life come forward loud and clear through archival footage, still photographs, and the commentary of boxing experts such as Stanley Crouch, Bert Sugar, George Plimpton, Jack Newfield, Randy Roberts, Gerald Early and James Earl Jones, who portrayed Johnson in the Broadway play and, in the film, “The Great White Hope.”

I thought Muhammad Ali touched the world community like no other, but Johnson did likewise in his era.

Johnson at the wheel.

It is lore that Ali saw the play twenty times and claimed, “That’s my story. You take out the issue of White women and replace it with the issue of religion. That’s my story!”

At that time, Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam after converting to Islam had resulted in his boxing license being suspended and the government taking hold of his passport. These struggles he faced were the reasons why he saw so many similarities between him and Johnson’s plights.

“Johnson in may ways is the embodiment of the African-American struggle to be truly free in this country economically, socially, and politically,” wrote Burns in the press release previewing the documentary. “He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the black community. In that sense, he fought for freedom not just as a black man, but as an individual.”

Continued Burns: “Johnson’s story is more than a story of a tremendous athlete, or even one who broke a color line. It is the story of a man who forced America to confront its definition of freedom, and that is an issue with which America continues to struggle.”

Jack Johnson marries Lucille Cameron in 1912.

When Johnson defeated Tommy Burns in 1908 in Australia, he became the first Black heavyweight champion of the world.

Johnson’s greatest boxing moment came on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada. He whipped the then “Great White Hope”, James Jefferies, in the 15th round. At the time, Jefferies was considered the greatest heavyweight in history. Before their historic “Battle of the Century”, Jefferies had refused to fight a black man and retired undefeated.

When Johnson beat Jefferies and other white challengers, race riots promptly ensured, and, of course, innocent Blacks were targeted and victimized. Congress even passed an act banning the interstate transport of fight films for fear that the images of Johnson beating a white man was too much for White America to ingest.

Winning a boxing match against white men in a fair contest in the ring wasn’t Johnson’s only action that got under the skin of America’s leadership during that time. His steadfast liaisons with white women – two of which he married – completely inflamed the ire of white Americans.

Johnson and his wife were yanked off a train and arrested in Battle Creek, Michigan.

The paranoia of some of our white brothers in their relationship with black males, has led to troubling perversions of the law throughout our history here in America.

For example, after Johnson married Lucille Cameron in 1912, Assistant U.S. District Attorney Harry A. Parkin began looking for women who Johnson might have transported across state lines.

He asked the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) to mount an all-out effort to “secure evidence [of] illegal transportation by Johnson of any other women for an immoral purpose.”  

Federal agents fanned out across the country, looking for something — anything — to suggest that Johnson had violated the Mann Act.

Johnson and wife pose for a portrait.

Determined to get that “nigga”, the United States government, using weak as water, trumped-up charges, issued seven Mann Act indictments, and, convicted the heavyweight champion of the world, Johnson, in 1913 of violating the Mann Act.

Said champion Johnson about the Mann Act: “The search for the ‘white hope’ not having been successful, prejudices were being piled up against me, and certain unfair persons, piqued because I was champion, decided if they could not get me one way they would another . . .”

The Mann Act was designed to prevent human trafficking and commercialized vice — but was used to punish interracial relationships.

While designed to combat forced prostitution, the law was so broadly worded that courts held it to criminalize many forms of consensual sexual activity, and it was soon being used as a tool for political persecution of Johnson to make him pay for his success and him marring white women.

Rather than face a rigged and hostile jury, Johnson fled to Europe and later Mexico. He did not return to the United States until 1920. When he came back, he actually surrendered to U.S. authorities and served a one-year prison sentence in the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, in Kansas for traveling with his wife, a white lady.

This German poster featuring Jack Johnson, advertises a film of his 1910 fight with Jim Jeffries.

Johnson was basically forced back to the States when the U.S. government put pressure on our allies to not sanctioned any of Johnson’s fights. They kept the pressure up and eventually he couldn’t earn a living in Europe and returned to U.S.

“In some ways, he was the first global Black celebrity, traveling all over the world,” said Theresa Runstedtler, who wrote a book tracing Johnson’s travel across five continents. “Johnson fought against the color line in Sydney, London, Cape Town, Paris, Havana, and Mexico City. His life was a living example how issues of race, gender, and empire played out globally in the early twentieth century. His defeat of Jeffries ripped the veil off of the niceties that were used to cover up the violence of White supremacy.”

He died in a car accident in 1946.

Unforgivable Blackness is still smothering too much of America today, as it did Johnson, and, it is dense and thick enough to cut with a knife.

That’s why a provocative documentary like Ken Burns’ Unforgivable Blackness is so very important. It forces the watcher to truly reexamine America’s past and ask ourselves, how do we keep our country from going back to . . .?

Leland can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and twitter @ LelandSteinIII