September 12, 2004

Endangered Species

A racial dividing line exists at the running back position,
and there doesn't seem to be a clear reason why.

By Chris Harry and Charles Robinson
Sentinel Staff Writers

Chicago Bears running back Brock Forsey knew they would come. He and his agent had discussed it on numerous occasions -- Forsey being white and all.

By the time he gouged the Arizona Cardinals for 134 yards in a game last season, Forsey had an idea of what awaited. People would want to ask him about being a white running back -- about what it was like to be the NFL's version of the bearded lady.

Fifty-eight years after the NFL's reintegration, Forsey had become the once-in-an-eon celestial event, a quizzical and momentary rarity in a league spinning on an axis of speed and agility. An anomaly in a sport that in 2004 features no white running backs on active NFL rosters, two white starters among the 117 Division I-A college programs and precious few legitimate I-A prospects in the nation's high schools.

This year, last year, 10 years ago -- little has changed.

That is what had reporters accentuating the pigment of the situation as Forsey sat at his locker last season.

"There were a lot of questions about, 'Is it surprising you came out and had a great game and you're white?'" Forsey remembers now. "I didn't think they'd actually come and throw it out there like that."

Reporters wondered at the irony (and oddity) of Kordell Stewart, a black quarterback, handing off to a white running back. On the other side of Soldier Field, Arizona running back Emmitt Smith, the NFL's career rushing leader, answered a question about Forsey by invoking the name of a Bears icon. A white one.

"You mean Brian Piccolo?" Smith deadpanned.

Through it all, Forsey's agent, Derrick Fox, was fielding offers on his cell phone. It seemed everyone wanted an interview: ESPN, The Sporting News, Chicago talk radio. Fox had seen it coming. "We had talked about it," he says.

Fox's client had given the people something to talk about, if only for a moment. The next week, Forsey carried three times for minus-4 yards in a loss at Green Bay. He didn't get the ball the rest of the season. Order was restored.

"They can't compete with us," says Eric Dickerson, the NFL's all-time single-season rushing leader, who dominated with the Los Angeles Rams during the 1980s. "The black athlete, especially at that position, is faster, more elusive. That's just a position made for agility.

"That's kind of like our chosen position."

As brash as Dickerson sounds, statistics are on his side:

Since Craig James ran for 1,227 yards and was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1985, 95 running backs have combined for 235 1,000-yard rushing performances over those 18 years. None has been white.

While minorities make up more than 70 percent of the NFL, running back is even more exclusive. In 2003, 98 percent of the NFL's running backs were minorities. The NFL kicked off the 2004 season Thursday night, but today marks the traditional opening weekend, and none of the 32 teams has a white tailback as a first- or second-teamer. Forsey? He was cut last week by the Bears.

A white running back hasn't led the NFL in rushing since Green Bay's Jim Taylor ran for 1,474 yards in 1962 or been drafted in the first round since Penn State's John Cappelletti was chosen 11th overall by the Rams in 1974.

There are 117 colleges playing Division I-A football in 2004, and none was scheduled to start a white tailback this weekend. Two schools -- Nevada, with Chance Kretschmer, and UAB, with Dan Burks -- have starting white tailbacks who are injured. Kretschmer, who rushed for 1,732 yards and 15 touchdowns as a freshman in 2001, received no scholarship offers and attended Nevada as a walk-on. Burks was a star high school player in Birmingham who was thought to be too slow to play for any "major" school.

SuperPrep recruiting service ranks high school prospects at each position, and there has been just one white tailback among the nation's elite in the past five seasons. That was Tre Smith, from Venice, just south of Sarasota, in 2000. Smith signed with Auburn and is the Tigers' third-stringer this season.

The best running back in Central Florida this season is Seminole High's Kevin Harris, who is white. He committed recently to Wake Forest because it was one of two Division I-A schools that promised him a shot purely at tailback. Mick Harris, Kevin's father and the coach at Seminole, said that during the recruiting process, "One recruiter just plain told me, 'Coach, I could never bring back a white running back to my university.' I just kind of looked at him, and he said, 'That's just the way it is. They just wouldn't accept it.' So I think it is there. I think there is a perception. But I don't think it's because there is a prejudice against a white running back. I just think it is because of the overwhelming number of black running backs in the NFL and college."

There would seem to be a pattern here, the source of which is neither simple nor agreed upon. The NFL's changing racial makeup since reintegration in 1946 is the flashpoint to the trend. Years later, as the '70s became the '80s, running back evolved as offenses became more specialized. Through it all, coaches at the grass-roots level went looking for that special athlete to build a running game around. It wasn't long before the Ed Podolaks, Mike Adamles and Scott Dierkings of the world no longer fit the profile.

Just why that was so is debatable. "Stacking" or "slotting" -- the funneling of whites and blacks based on stereotyped characteristics -- impeded the progress of black quarterbacks for years, but the walls have begun to come down. Now, some sociologists lean toward economic background as a predetermining factor in what position a young player seeks. A more controversial premise is based in genetics, with blacks said to possess decisive speed and skill advantages over their white counterparts.

All theories can be questioned. The trend can't be.

A new era


Two seasons. That's how long it took Kenny Washington, who was black, to crack the NFL's top five rushers after the league's reintegration. Washington and defensive end Woody Strode were the first players to reintegrate the league after it closed its ranks to minorities in 1933. And in his second season after breaking the color barrier in 1946, Washington finished fourth overall in rushing.

It was only a hint of how blacks would factor into the position over the next six decades. In the 1950s, black running backs would finish in the league's top five in rushing 24 times (48 percent of the time), beginning a climb that would see them take over the position.

"You had Ollie Matson, Jim Brown, Joe Perry and Marion Motley," says Jim Taylor, the Packers' Hall of Famer, recalling four of the black running backs who made major impacts at the position in the 1950s and early 1960s. "Here are some running backs who were very, very good players. But wherever they came from, whatever they could do and whomever they played for, it was totally irrelevant in terms of color. Their abilities dictated them playing that position."

Eventually, those same abilities fostered a shift in strategies. As speed in the backfield increased, offenses began to move away from fullbacks and split-back sets, relying on one dominant player to carry the rushing load. In turn, the percentage of black running backs comprising the league's top five rushers made healthy jumps each decade: 62 percent in the '60s, 84 percent in the '70s and 100 percent since 1984.

Not since Washington's John Riggins finished fifth in 1983 has a white running back been among the NFL's top five in rushing yardage. Riggins was a first-round pick in '71 -- as a fullback. But he morphed into a feature back when Coach Joe Gibbs implemented a one-back system with the Redskins that became a model for future offenses on all levels.

The lone white runners to be taken in the first round of the draft in the past 30 years were fullbacks: Brad Muster (23rd by Chicago in '88) and Tommy Vardell (ninth by Cleveland in '92). Their pro careers were undistinguished, with the players combining to run for 3,658 yards in 15 seasons (an average of 244 yards per season).

And it's not like there are candidates on the horizon, either. "It's been like this for a long time," says Allen Wallace, the national recruiting editor of and publisher of SuperPrep magazine. "I don't notice college coaches paying lesser attention to potentially excellent white running backs. It's just been a long while where your best running backs are almost unanimously black."

But that hasn't been a point without debate. Most white backs who have made it to the NFL in the past 20 years can relate tales of resistance, be it encouragement to move to fullback, switch to defense or being ignored altogether.

Forsey wasn't offered a scholarship out of high school. And despite scoring 32 touchdowns (the second-best single-season mark in NCAA Division I-A history) and rushing for 1,611 yards as a senior at Boise State in 2002, he wasn't invited to the NFL Combine, the league's annual audition for pro prospects. Having a 4.6-second time in the 40-yard dash will do that.

Former BYU running back Luke Staley was asked to switch to defense by every college that recruited him except for the Cougars. He eventually won the Doak Walker award as college football's top running back in 2001, rushing for 1,582 yards (on 8.2 yards per carry) and scoring 28 touchdowns. But Staley, a seventh-round pick by Detroit, never got a chance to prove himself. Injuries ended his career in his second NFL training camp, and he never had a carry in the regular season.

Tampa Bay's Mike Alstott, who has become one of the NFL's premier fullbacks, was told by recruiters while he was in high school that he had to bulk up and switch to that position if he wanted to run the ball for the various Big Ten schools that were recruiting him. Alstott was the top-rated prep back in Chicago.

"Really, no one was interested in me playing tailback," says Alstott, who was a 6-foot, 205-pound senior when college teams began asking him to switch to fullback.

"People look at it, 'If you're white, you can't be a tailback. You got to be a fullback,' " says former Pittsburgh Steelers fullback Merril Hoge, who was a tailback in college at Idaho. "When I was in the NFL, I had a coach tell me, 'I can't have a white guy leading our team in rushing.' Whether that was a joke or not, what does that tell you?"

It says there's a stigma. Take Kevin Harris, who rushed for 1,179 yards and nine touchdowns last season as a junior at Winter Springs, then padded his résumé this summer with one of the best workouts at the Nike prep combine in Miami (fourth among 30 running-back prospects, he said).

"I've had a lot of people tell me that if I was black, I'd probably have a lot more looks," Harris says. "There have been a few coaches from other high schools and stuff like that. They ask me about some schools recruiting me: 'What do they want you to play?' And then I tell them linebacker, and they're like, 'They have got to be out of their minds. If you were a black kid, you'd be on the front of all the magazines.' I get a lot of that."

But apparently little respect as a tailback.

See no evil

There are three standard answers when someone asks why the white running back has disappeared from football:

"I don't know."

"I've never really thought about it."

"Next question, please."

If anything, discussing race and sports is like walking a tightrope made of dental floss, particularly when it involves the prominence of one group or another. Coaches and players would rather steer clear of it.

When Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden was asked to explain the decline of the white running back, he laughed so hard, he actually grabbed on to the reporter posing the question. When NFL spokesman Greg Aiello was asked whether the league kept statistics on white running backs -- perhaps the same way the league does on its black coaches -- he was incredulous.

"White running backs?" he says, laughing. "No."

Most recruiting analysts have a hard time remembering white prep tailbacks with the talent to rival their black counterparts. Most players aren't eager to delve into the subject. And most coaches stick to a party line: "We're like everybody. You go and recruit the best you see," University of Miami Coach Larry Coker says.

In the infrequent cases in which people are willing to take a stab at the subject, they usually settle on this: If white running backs were good enough to compete with blacks on an elite level, more would be there.

"You go with the best, and it just happens to be there are more minority tailbacks than there are non-minority," says Bowden, who has spent nearly 50 years in the college ranks. "Why? I don't know. There's just more of them. They run better, jump higher.

"God has made every man different. He's even made our races different. There are some races that are smaller than others. There are some races that are taller than others. There are some races, it seems like they have more athletic ability than others. It just seems they [minority tailbacks] have more talent as runners than my race. I think that has something to do with heredity, you know?"

While some say the sheer numbers prove that point, others argue there are several other factors in play, setting up barriers of perception.

"You've got guys in high school, white players, who are discouraged from being wide receivers, defensive backs or running backs -- I think we do have that," Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy says. "It's 'this position is a white position or black position. I definitely believe they are channeled early on."

Sometimes the channeling comes from within. New York Jets Coach Herman Edwards painted a picture of tryouts during a football practice at the youth or prep level.

"When you're young, you think about how you're going to make the team," Edwards says. "The kid is standing in a line, looks around and says, 'Whoa! I'm not making this team as a running back.' He says, 'Hey, Coach, can I change positions?' He says, 'Sure.' Kid says, 'OK, thanks,' then he goes and plays tight end.

"He's like, 'Who am I fooling?' They don't mess with it. That's competition."

"Slotting" is a theory that many cite for the dearth of black quarterbacks in the NFL until relatively recently. But comparing black quarterbacks to white running backs is a parallel few want to draw.

"The African-Americans were good enough to be playing quarterback, but they weren't getting the opportunity," Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome says. "What you're talking about [with white running backs] isn't for opportunity. They're going into soccer, lacrosse and golf or something like that."

Fact or fiction?

False assumptions aren't hard to find. Ask Craig James -- now an ESPN college football analyst -- and he will recount his Pro Bowl season and having players tell him they were shocked he actually was fast.

Forsey might recall seeing where new Bears Coach Lovie Smith cracked, "You look at him, and you say, 'Hey, is this guy a manager or what?' Priest Holmes, Marshall Faulk and guys like that -- they are about the same size as me, and you wouldn't think something like that would be said about them," says Forsey, who is 5 feet 11 and 208 pounds. "I don't think it was meant in a negative sense, but at the same time, it's not a good thing to be said."

While all the assumptions aren't accurate all the time, there is circumstantial evidence bolstering their existence.

"The minority prospects tend to be faster," says Bill Kurelic, a recruiting analyst for who has been scouting prep football players for nearly 20 years. "It's not much different than track. At the high school level, you don't have to run 4.4 [seconds] in the 40-yard dash to be a pretty good high school running back. But if you're not in that 4.4 or 4.5 range, you're not going to be a pretty effective college running back at the elite level."

In the book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It , author Jon Entine proposes the existence of a link between the genetics of ancestry and success in sports. The book argues athletes of West African descent -- believed to include most black athletes in the U.S. -- have a genetic advantage that lends an edge in sprinting.

In a July issue, Science Magazine 's Constance Holden writes that "various studies have shown that West African athletes have denser bones, less body fat, narrower hips, thicker thighs, longer legs and lighter calves than whites."

Such studies have fueled the argument of genetics playing a fundamental role in the development of sports in America. They also have provided a series of extremely controversial dots to connect when explaining why the speed of many white running backs falls short when compared with black counterparts.

"Any geneticist who is honest will say that ancestry and biology explain this more than any other single thing," Entine said. "It's how evolution has shaped body types. It's body type, but it's also things like muscle-fiber type, aerobic capacity, all these other things that are linked to biology and inherited."

On the contrary, counters Keith Woods, who teaches the coverage of race relations at the Poynter Institute, a renowned journalism think tank in St. Petersburg. He says most scientists have ruled out ancestry and biology, but society has not. That's what he teaches his students at Poynter.

"We believe it exists, so it does exist," says Woods, who used to cover the NFL for the New Orleans Times-Picayune . "Therefore, there's meaning beyond the melanin."

While some experts do agree genetics play a role in the athletic structure of individuals, some of those same geneticists argue it isn't necessarily a race factor. Philip Laipis, the associate chairman of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Florida, said environment may be a greater factor when determining a human's athletic success than biological makeup based on ethnicity.

"Sure, there are plenty of big, tall, fast black people," Laipis says. "But there are also lots of short, fat, slow black people, too. The ones you remember are the big, tall, fast people; you don't remember the short, fat, slow people. This holds in any field of endeavor.

"Why are Kenyans so good at the marathon? I don't think it's because they are Kenyan. I think it's because they get a lot of exercise, and they have a modest diet. Not to mention they come from an ethnic background that's a herding society."

Laipis points to the Genome Project as evidence that the difference in genetic makeup among humans is no greater in different racial groups -- meaning a black of Western African descent has nearly the same genetic composition as a Caucasian or an Asian.

Laipis says Entine is right in that both environment and genetics "play a role in who we are, but you can't argue that one is more important than the other overall."

Entine is persistent in his theory that "slotting" against white running backs as football players, while based on stereotypes, has legitimacy with regard to skill and athleticism. "There is a prejudice by coaches, but the stereotypes reflect reality," Entine says. "Just because they are stereotypes doesn't make them wrong."

What Entine rejects -- and many in the sports community cannot agree upon -- is whether the "slotting" or "funneling" of athletes takes place because of racial bias. Is there a lack of white running backs at elite levels because they can't compete? Or does a sifting begin at a low level and wipe out the chance of competition occurring in the first place?

Former Redskins quarterback Doug Williams knows something about stereotypes. In 1988, Williams smashed racial barriers by becoming the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl. Williams threw four touchdowns against Denver in Super Bowl XXII and was chosen the game's MVP. He'll be the first to say stereotypes are made to be broken.

"A lot of it boils down to athletic ability," says Williams, now an executive in the Bucs' pro personnel department. "If you have a kid who's been productive who's a black running back and he's running a 4.8 [in the 40-yard dash], and you have a white kid who's been productive who's running a 4.5, make no mistake, the 4.5 is going to be the kid getting the opportunity.

"That's never going to change. Color will have nothing to do with it."

For now, the NFL has no one to break the stereotype. Maybe it will be Nevada's Kretschmer, who once rushed for 327 yards and six touchdowns. Unlike Brock Forsey, NFL scouts already are saying Kretschmer warrants an invitation to the Combine next year.

As a fullback.