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Lynn Swann talks about the racism he faced as a Black man in the 1960s and 1970s

(Photo by Fred Roe/Getty Images)

Former Steelers wide receiver and Hall of Famer Lynn Swann is a member of the National Football Foundation Board of Directors and was recently interviewed in a Q&A for Black History Month. Swann talked about his career as a football player, broadcaster, politician and athletic director in the Q&A and touched on some of the challenges and obstacles he had to face as a Black man in the 1960s and 1970s.

Swann faced racism in San Francisco on the day he was drafted by the Steelers as their first round pick on Jan. 29, 1974. Swann went out to celebrate with his two brothers and cousin on being the 21st overall pick in the draft, and it sadly ended up being a day that was ruined by racial profiling.

"My career as a professional started out on kind of shaky ground," Swann said. "The day I got drafted, I took my two brothers and cousin out to dinner in San Francisco to celebrate. After we left the restaurant, we got stopped by the police. To make a long story short, and what is typical in a lot of young Black men's lives, we were stopped by the police, beaten up and thrown in jail for nothing. I spent the next two years fighting the San Francisco police in court. We won the case and the lawsuit. Again, that was right after I was drafted by the Steelers. So, the media had the stories all over the front page, saying, oh my, who did we draft here. So, it was trying to fight through that reputation and what was said about me at that particular time to find a place on the football team. It was a challenge, but at the end of the day, for the most part, it worked out. But it would not be the last time something of that nature would happen."

Swann let his reputation be defined by what he did in the community in Pittsburgh and what he did on the field, and not what the newspapers were saying about him after the unjust incident that happend in San Francisco on draft day. In 1981, Swann was named the NFL Man of The Year for his efforts in helping people in the Pittsburgh community. He also was impressive on the field in being a four-time Super Bowl champion, the MVP of Super Bowl X, a three-time Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro in 1978. In 2001, Swann was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I let who I was as a person speak. I let my involvement in different things around Pittsburgh in the community speak for who I am. And then I let football decide what kind of a player I was in terms of performance, ability and talent and things of that nature," Swann said. "In 1974, there was no PR specialist who was sitting and saying, this is how the public is now viewing you. We've got to get you involved in X, Y, and Z to give you a different kind of reputation and clean this up because it's important to you and the game. You just went there and played football. There were none of the PR campaigns, if you will, trying to push you to be a certain kind of public persona. It came out because how you behaved and how you responded to the things that occurred to you."

Swann also shared a story when he was in high school at Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif. and how a recruiter from Tennessee came in and said he wished he could recruit him. In the 1960s and early 1970s, most SEC teams were all white.

"When I was a junior in high school, [our quarterback] Jesse Freitas was being recruited by all the schools around the country. A scout, who was visiting our high school athletic department, was looking at film of Jesse, and I happened to walk by. He stopped me and said: "Boy, I sure wish I could recruit you." I thought, he wants to recruit me, but I'm a junior and so he can't recruit me. But the reality was, he was recruiting for Tennessee, near where I was born in Alcoa, Tennessee. And he was basically saying, he couldn't recruit me because I was Black. And, you know, I didn't realize that until sometime later on."

Swann ended up going to USC, a school that had an integrated roster long before most schools in the country.

"Going to Southern California, I was a freshman when Sam Cunningham was a running back, and the team went down to play football at Alabama in 1970. Sam runs through the Alabama football team. That game, Sam's performance, and him being Black, was certainly a catalyst and maybe a key moment for Bear Bryant to then be able to recruit Black athletes at Alabama," Swann said. "And then of course, after Sam did that, [Bryant] recruited John Mitchell, who became the first Black All-American at Alabama and then the school's first assistant Black coach. And he now coaches for the Pittsburgh Steelers. So, there's a ripple effect. And all those things are based on football."

Mitchell talked about breaking barriers and becoming the first Black player at Alabama in an article by Teresa Varley of earlier this month.

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