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.
“Nothing against other races, but right now African-Americans are just more athletic. And sometimes white running backs and corners might be intimidated. You watch someone do a drill in front of you that’s bigger, stronger and faster than you and you might think, How am I supposed to do that?” - Jammal Brown, right tackle, Washington Redskins
In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a study about standardized testing for African-American students. The students were given a standardized test twice. The first time they took the test by itself. Later, they completed a questionnaire before the test. One of the questions asked the students to identify their race. Test scores dropped 10% on the second test. Were the students influenced by negative stereotypes of black scholarship? Might a similar problem affect white kids who get to practice and find they're the only white kid playing an extremely athletic position that’s dominated by African-Americans?
"Running back and cornerback are two positions where you either have it or you don’t. They’re extremely athletic positions. I’ve seen some white people that can play both positions and I’ve seen some that can’t. Just like I have with black athletes at those positions also. It really depends on the person more than anything." - Wayne Chambers, linebacker coach Missouri State University
We ignored Magic Johnson’s lack of athletic ability but we pointed at Larry Bird’s. Rex Chapman and Brent Barry could jump out of gyms but didn't have many posters made of them. It wasn't mentioned in polite, PC football circles, but people found it odd that former Redskins quarterback Doug Williams and Hall of Famer Warren Moon weren’t scrambling quarterbacks. All of the black quarterbacks we’d seen before—and there weren't many—were fleet of foot, so why weren’t these two? It was hard to believe until you saw it because you hadn’t seen it before.
Maybe white kids aren’t seeing enough white running backs and cornerbacks and don’t think they can play those positions. Even if they do think they can play, it’s possible they may have a coach who doesn’t think they can play the positions because the coach hasn’t seen enough whites at running back and cornerback himself.
Peyton Hillis played fullback at the University of Arkansas. Fullback is the position big white high school running backs are switched to when they enter college, because they aren’t athletic enough to play running back. Hillis was at Arkansas at the same time Felix Jones and Darren McFadden were there. Despite playing behind and blocking for two NFL first rounders, Hillis had a remarkable career at Arkansas. For his efforts, he wasn't taken until the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft. He was the teams starting fullback, but didn’t get the chance to show his abilities at running back until the starter went down. Hillis did well in 2008 and led the team in rushing. What happened in 2009? He got no love at all and was traded at the end of the season. In 2010, Peyton surprised everyone by rushing for over 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns.
OTHER SPORTS AND POSITIONS
"A lot of times coaches are recruiting in southern inner cities like Dallas, Houston, Miami, etc. These cities don’t have many white athletes. It just depends on the player. If some more suburban areas were recruited as hard as the inner city areas you might find more." - Anonymous Big Ten defensive backs coach
Maybe the good white athletes are just playing other sports or other positions. Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner can flat out fly. Jim Edmonds (from a few years ago) and Jacoby Ellsbury are also exceptional athletes that one could see on a football field. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, who both have good speed and change of direction, could help revive the extinct positions as well.
What about the white wide receivers? Wes Welker, Anthony Gonzalez, Jordan Shipley, Tim Dwight, and Matt Jones are all exceptional athletes. It’s said a cornerback is a wide receiver who can’t catch. So wouldn’t that make a wide receiver a cornerback who can? How many corners truly play at a dominant level in the NFL? Five tops. Darrelle Revis, Nnamdi Asomugha, Charles Woodson, Asante Samuel, and Champ Bailey. Everyone else gets burned countless times each Sunday. Might Welker be more valuable to the Pats as a shutdown corner? Or would that just be too weird?
Hell, even the five guys just mentioned get worked as well. There has to be at least one white guy with enough athletic ability to perform as well as the mediocre corners playing right now. So why is it that when San Diego Chargers free safety Eric Weedle was coming out of the University of Utah as a cornerback, he was switched to safety? Weddle was damn good in college. Did the Chargers even give him the chance to play cornerback?
"It’s more of a body type. Look at Deion, Nnamdi, Revis, they all have broad shoulders and long arms, very angular, lanky bodies. They all have exceptional speed as well." - Davin Joseph, Pro Bowl right guard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Have you heard of Christophe Lemaitre? He’s a white sprinter from Annecy, France. At 21 years old, he’s the fastest person of non-West African ancestry....like ever. He earned that distinction this past July when he ran a 9.92 100m at the French National Championships in Albi. Lemaitre’s 9.92 at 21 is faster than former World record holder, Asafa Powell, who held the distinction from May 2005 until May 2008. Lemaitre is also faster than two-time world champion, Tyson Gay, was at 21. What’s the excuse for young Christophe not being good enough? If Raiders owner, Al Davis, knew about this kid he would have drafted him.
The next great white running back hope might be Rice University tailback, Sam McGuffie. Watch him on YouTube and you’ll see why. And Indiana’s Greg Heban walked on at cornerback last year and played in all 12 games for the Hoosiers, making ESPN.com’s All-Freshman team.
At some point, there will be a white corner who’s going to shock the football world. He’ll have flash and dash, maybe some tattoos and a cool visor, too, but he’ll also have instincts, smarts, and toughness…a white Deion Sanders. Whenever that day comes, we'll be waiting. It’s hard to deny that when a white guy is toting the rock from the I-formation or in man-to-man coverage on the island that it doesn’t look strange in a really freaking cool sort of way.
It shouldn’t matter, but in case you're wondering, Richard is black. The stereotypical black guy too, former Division 1 athlete, loves chicken and fat asses. But he's also as dangerous as a category 5 hurricane because he has a Master’s Degree and awesome credit. Read more of his stuff at 6Magazine.com and follow him at 6Magazine.