Oddballs make sports tick. Sure, we appreciate the pure physical dominance of a Dwight Howard, but we love the guile of a Steve Nash. We can relate to the oddball easier—there are a lot more of us who are 6’3”, 178 than 6’11” 265.
Of course the often unspoken element of the “oddball” relatability quotient is race. The NBA is roughly 80% black, but Nash won back-to-back MVP awards in the middle of the last decade, and Dirk Nowitzki was the toast of the sport this past June. Major League Baseball was just 8.5% African-American this year, yet Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Prince Fielder, and Curtis Granderson are all in the MVP conversation in their respective leagues. Even the NHL features two dozen black players and a handful of Asians and Latinos.
With prominent exceptions like Hines Ward and Mark Sanchez, the NFL is predominantly black and white, with over 95% of the players classified as one of those two races (including players like Ward with one black parent). For the most part those races are spread across the positions on the field. The exception? Cornerback and running back.
Two of football’s glamour positions are distinctly lacking in racial “oddballs.” There hasn’t been a white starting cornerback since 2002. Before this past NFL season, when Peyton Hillis (image 1, above) ran for 1,177 yards, the last white running back to rush for over 1,000 was in 1982.
There are fifteen cornerbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and only two are white, Dick LeBeau and Roger Wehrli. LeBeau played for the Detroit Lions in the ‘60s and was overshadowed by Dick “Night Train Lane” and Lem Barney, but LeBeau is the franchise’s all-time interceptions leader (and most famous now for being the Steelers’ defensive coordinator). Wehrli was a 7-time Pro Bowler with the St. Louis Cardinals in the ‘70s, and according to Hall of Fame Cowboys QB Roger Staubach, the term “shutdown corner” was coined to describe him. Another great white cornerback was the Washington Redskin Pat Fischer (image 2, above). Undersized at 5’9” and not the most fleet of foot, Fischer nonetheless held his own in twice annual battles with Harold Carmichael of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was 6’8” and ten years younger.
When it came to oddballs, Jason Sehorn (image 3, above) was the equivalent of a Canadian white guy winning NBA MVP two years in a row in a league dominated by American black men. Nicknamed “The Species,” Sehorn was a lanky, long armed, speedy, and athletic cornerback for the Giants from 1994-2002. Sehorn stood out, because at the height of his career he was the only starting white cornerback out of sixty starting corners in the NFL. Sehorn was both underdog and oddball. He played like the “majority” corners and often times much better. He never made a Pro Bowl but it’s pretty hard to make a Pro Bowl in the same conference as Deion Sanders, Darrell Green and Aeneas Williams. Sehorn retired in 2003 and we haven’t seen a white cornerback since. Technically it’s 2002, because Sehorn played safety in his last season.
The white tailback is slightly less rare, but still an anomaly in the pro game. Last year Hillis was the first white running back since Craig James (image 4, above) in 1982 to run for over 1,000 yards. Along with Peyton Hillis there are still only a few quality white running backs. Danny Woodhead and Toby Gerhart (image 5, above) both saw action last year, but only in specialized or backup roles. The list of all-time white running backs includes names like James, John Riggins (image 6, above), Larry Csonka, Tommy Vardell (image 7, above), and Mike Alstott (image 8, above), with Riggins and Csonka the only members of the Hall of Fame to play after 1970.
So why aren’t there more white cornerbacks and running backs? We talked to coaches and players from college and the pros, and found four answers.