White Men Can Run

Jordy Nelson takes on the caste system

Ever seen the Mark Wahlberg film Invincible? I’ve always believed that this movie – the story of 30-year-old Vince Papale who became a receiver/special teams player for the Philadelphia Eagles after impressing coaches at an open tryout – and Miracle are Disney apologizing for the lies they promulgated in Remember the Titans.

Purchasing the book the film is based on led me to this passage that was left out of the script (Invincible, p. 84), where Papale talks about the open tryouts for the Eagles and the blistering 4.5 40 time he posted. One of the position coaches didn’t see him run the time, so he was on the verge of being left behind:

I was being shut for reasons I didn’t know. Unlike the decathlon, I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. For once I stood up from myself. I yelled out, “What is the criteria?” 

The coach, who had begun to walk away, turned around and shot me a look. He couldn’t believe I was challenging him. 

“We’re taking the fastest forty times,” he said.  

“I ran a four five, that was the fastest forty time here,” I said. 

“Yeah, but I’ve never seen a white guy run that fast. My assistant must have timed you wrong,” he said to me. 

“Give me another chance,” I said, stepping forward. 

Papale tells how four coaches timed his run this time. All the clocks read 4.5 when he finished. The motivational story of Invincible would never have been told, had Papale not said “give me another chance,” and he would have been denied the opportunity for success because of the conditioned belief that white guys can’t run.

It is indisputable that Black people – well, Black people of West African descent – hold the top 200 times in the 100 meter dash. But this does not necessarily mean that ALL Black people are fast, and that they alone hold a monopoly on ‘speed’; conversely, there are white athletes, like Papale, whose athleticism was questioned as a ‘mistake’ because of the widespread belief that a lack of melanin means some kind of ‘speed’ deficiency.

 It all starts at the high school, when talent scouts – representing Rivals and Scout.com – evaluate potential blue-chip recruits and hand out ‘star’ ratings. Rarely does a white athlete at a ‘skilled position’ (running back, wide receiver, safety, or corner back) receive more than a 3 out of 5. Tom Lemming, the founding father of recruiting guides, told Michael Lewis in The Blind Side that white high school athletes were discriminated against by college scouts and coaches because they couldn’t possibly be as a fast as Black athletes. He told the same thing to The Chicago Sun Times; he told the same thing to the South Bend Tribune.

White guys can never be fast. It’s a conditioned stereotype. When fans of college football teams see white players at skill positions, they instinctively believe their team is at a disadvantage and that the white player is a liability. Back in 2002, the Kentucky Wildcat started three white wide receivers (who all stood out, as few of the 12-member Southeastern Conference – SEC – schools start one white wide receiver) including the super talented Derek Abney.

The Black players dubbed them “The Snow Storm“:

The Wildcats’ all-white starting receiving corps of Aaron Boone, Derek Abney and Tommy Cook has combined for 77 catches, 1,235 yards, 13 touchdowns and one catchy nickname. Seems some of the black players on the team have jokingly referred to the trio as “The Snow Storm.” Lead storm trooper Abney, generously listed at 5-10 and 172 pounds, now has returned five kicks for touchdowns this year, after taking back two punts last week against Mississippi State. White Lightning is averaging 19.2 yards every time he touches the ball and is the only Division I-A player with at least 450 yards in receptions, punt returns and kickoff returns. His six career kick-return TDs ties the SEC record set by Vanderbilt’s Lee “Long Gone” Nalley in the 1940s. “At one particular point it amazed me how tough this kid is,” coach Guy Morriss said. “He’s taken some shots, and he’ll bounce back up like he’s made out of Flubber, almost. It’s almost like he’s sending back a message to the guy that hit him, ‘That didn’t hurt me.’ “

Abney, like so many white receivers before and after him, never got a real shot at the National Football League (NFL), where receivers like Terrell Owens – who recently had an arrest warrant out for failure to pay child support – are lauded by fans, coaches, and analysts for their “speed” and antics on the field that draw attention to themselves.

Drawing attention to themselves is something that that the white receiver (only 15 percent of the receivers in the NFL are white) has a tendency to do, as primarily Black defensive backs laugh when they line up to guard a “white boy.” This article from Sports Illustrated back in 1991 illustrates the problem perfectly:

Brian Hartline: One of the NFL’s most underrated players

The Taunts start early for Phoenix Cardinal wide receiver Ricky Proehl on most fall Sundays. “Hey, slow white boy!” opposing cornerbacks scream at him. “You ain’t going anywhere today. You ain’t catching nothing!” 

Proehl thinks the Philadelphia Eagle defensive backs are the loudest, but they aren’t alone in singling him out—Proehl’s one of only five white wide receivers who were starters for most or all of last season. “Most cornerbacks take it personally when they get beat by a white guy,” Proehl says. “Even in practice, when I beat a corner deep, I get compliments. It’s like I’m not supposed to do it.” 

The preference for blacks is not restricted to the NFL. “When I was in high school trying to get a college scholarship, most of the college coaches would shy away when they found out I was white,” says Proehl. And according to New York Jet assistant coach Kippy Brown, when he was a Tennessee assistant in 1990, the other Volunteer coaches “looked at me like I was nuts” when they found out he was recruiting a white receiver. That player, Craig Faulkner, is a starter for Tennessee this fall. 

Nineteen years ago Brown became the first black quarterback in Memphis State history, and he equates the blacks-can’t-play-quarterback controversy of years past to the white receivers’ situation of today. “The myth about black quarterbacks has been exploded, and it’s been proven you have to make decisions based on ability, not skin color,” Brown says. “But the mentality of a lot of people in this business is that the white kids can’t play certain positions.” 

The overwhelming need for speed at receiver and cornerback can be traced to NFL rule changes enacted in 1978. Offensive linemen were allowed to use their hands to thwart onrushing defenders, and defensive backs were restricted to bumping wideouts in an area within five yards of the line of scrimmage. All of a sudden, the quick, small black wideout became a huge factor, and an adjustment had to be made on the other side of the ball. At the end of last season the NFL had only six whites who were starting at defensive back—and none of them were cornerbacks.

Rare is the high school white receiver who gets a scholarship or an offer. Fitting that 1991 was also the year that Ben Brown decided to write a book called Saint Bobby and the Barbarians that documented the Florida State football team under Bobby Bowden, one of the coaches who was influenced by the belief that there were few, if any, white athletes worthy of being recruited to play college football (even laughing at the suggestion of a white running back). On page 75 of that book, we learn about Matt Frier, the last white starting receiver for FSU; he’s from a  proud family, and would eventually graduate with a degree in advertising and seamlessly move into the world of regional commerce.

But at FSU, he would have to outwork the other receivers (all Black) for a spot in the playing rotation:

(John) Eason – the FSU receivers coach – noted sarcastically that Frier may have been the victim of a racist stereotype. Because he was white in a position dominated by black athletes, he was assumed to be slow and awkward. But Frier’s straight-ahead speed probably put him in the middle of the pack among receivers and running backs. And his desire and toughness were unrivaled. 

Rarer is the white starting wide receiver who earns a scholarship to an SEC or Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) school.

It is the flashy Black receiver ready to dance after every reception and perform some gratuitous touchdown celebration that fans and coaches have been conditioned to believe can only excel in the either college or the NFL.

Stanford University held a conference on racial stereotyping in sports back in 1995, and a white receiver from that school described his experiences from NFL draft evaluations:

(Justin) Armour, a public policy major, told of his experience in February at a National Football League training camp where he was the only white among 44 wide receivers who were being looked over for the draft. In informal conversations with the mostly white physicians, coaches and trainers, he said, he was frequently asked about his academic work and non-athletics-related plans for the future. The same people, when talking to black players, he said, were not only less talkative but brought up “nothing to do with scholarship.” 

During a pencil-and-paper problem-solving test, he said, some of the black athletes pretended to be sneaking a peek at his paper. This joking behavior, he said, was encouraged by league representatives in the room. On the field, he said, coaches made comments when seeing him about having a “smart guy” in the group. Only after the camp was over, Armour said, did it strike him how pervasive the stereotyping had been. “It is perpetuated over and over,” he said, by well-educated people. “What scares me about racism is that the majority of it is pretty subtle.”

This is not an example of racism, but merely of conditioning. College recruiters will not sign a white receiver (or running back) for fear of being called a ‘racist’ by other coaches who will tell Black athletes that a rival school favors white players. For other reason but “racism” would a major university disadvantage their offense by signing a slow white athlete to catch passes?

Enter the very white Wes Welker, one of the leading receivers in the NFL. He stars for the New England Patriots, though no team dared draft the former high school Gatorade Player of the Year in Oklahoma. In fact, only one school – Texas Tech – gave him a scholarship, as he had planned to walk-on at Oklahoma State.

Only because former Texas Tech coach Mike Leech saw something he liked in the “frat boy” looking Welker’s film, did he offer him a scholarship. For four years, he would be the top receiver for the Red Raiders. Now, he is one of the top receivers in the NFL, though like so many other white high school stars, he almost never got the chance to even play college football.

The same goes for Indianapolis Colts receiver Blair White, who had to walk-on at Michigan State (‘walking-on’ means that the player didn’t receive an academic scholarship and must pay their own way into school, and that they start very low on the totem pole when it comes to the depth chart). The same goes for former walk-on Oregon white wide receiver Jeff Maehl, who despite putting up insane numbers at the 2011 NFL combine, wasn’t drafted. Here’s what was said of him before the BCS championship game in 2011:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The question seemed innocent enough, but Oregon receivers coach Scott Frost didn’t view it that way. 

When a reporter noted that wide receiver Jeff Maehl has deceptive speed, often turning short passes into long gains, Frost took exception to the perceived implication. 

“Unfortunately, he’s a white receiver so you give him that stereo type,” Frost said. “I don’t know why you give him that stereotype, but he’s gonna run a better 40 time than three fourths of the receiving coming out in the draft.” 

Fair enough. Maehl is more than a possession receiver who runs precise routes. His leaping 45-yard touchdown catch in the USC game was highlight-reel material. 

Maehl is aware of the stereotype surrounding “white receivers” and if anything it has worked to his ad vantage. 

“I guess that’s just kind of my advantage if teams think I might be slow or something,” said Maehl, a 6-foot-1, 184-pound senior from Paradise, Calif. “I’m guessing it’s out there in the media and in the back of some guys’ heads, that’s probably what they’re thinking.”

Another white walk-on receiver, Mike Hass of Oregon State, would go to win the Biletnikoff Award, annually given to the top receiver in college football. Drafted by the New Orleans Saints, he never got a chance to play in the NFL. Bouncing around between a few teams, he languished on practice squads. But no college team offered him a free-ride; he had to walk-on and fight for everything at Oregon State.

Though one college football site joked about discrimination toward white receivers, the reality of white high school players getting passed over is real.

Tim Dwight, who was nicknamed “white lightning” was once one of the fastest players in the NFL. Sadly, he was used primarily as a special teams player instead of a receiver. The Green Bay Press Gazette wrote an article about the problems facing white receivers in the league, which inadvertently shed light onto one of the reasons there are so few lining up for NFL teams:

“We’re a minority,” (Brett) Schroeder said. “In many ways being a white receiver is kind of like being an African-American golfer. I don’t know why it’s like that, but that’s just the way it is.”
Part of the reason is the NFL has fewer white players than ever. Just 25 years ago, 70 percent of the NFL was white. Now, it’s 30 percent.
“The league has changed,” NFL analyst and former Cincinnati Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth said on NFL.com. “It’s difficult to compare anything now in the NFL to what it was like 25 years ago.”
In 1981, Collinsworth was one of four white receivers to play in the Pro Bowl. He joined San Francisco’s Dwight Clark, Denver’s Steve Watson and Seattle’s Steve Largent.
In the past decade, Denver’s Ed McCaffrey is the only white receiver to be selected to the Pro Bowl. McCaffrey made it in 1998 and 1999, but in the last six seasons, no white receiver has been selected.
Tennessee Titans receiver Drew Bennett had a Pro Bowl-type season in 2004 when he had 1,247 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he didn’t receive an invitation. After that season, he was referred to as “The Best White Receiver in the NFL.” It’s a tag Bennett doesn’t like.
“I guess you always want to be the best at something,” Bennett said sarcastically. “I don’t control what people say.”
In the last five seasons, there have been 105 1,000-yard seasons, but only two of them — Bennett and Indianapolis’ Brandon Stokley in 2004 — have come from white receivers.
“There are plenty of good, white receivers in the NFL,” Bennett said. “I’m not going to get obsessed over stats.”
But the statistics can be very telling. Last season, only six white receivers — Bennett, Stokley, St. Louis’ Kevin Curtis, Atlanta’s Brian Finneran, Carolina’s Ricky Proehl and Seattle’s Joe Jurevicius — finished among their teams’ top three receivers. Curtis led all white receivers with 801 yards and Bennett was the only one to lead his team in receiving.
Packers receivers coach Jimmy Robinson has been coaching receivers for 21 years, including 17 in the NFL. Robinson said there’s one simple reason why there are fewer white receivers in the NFL than ever before.
“Obviously, it comes down to talent,” Robinson said. “Teams are committed to keeping the guys who are the best ones, regardless of color.”
During the 2005 draft one of the players who was causing the most commotion was Matt Jones, a 6-foot-6, 230-pounder who played quarterback at Arkansas.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were so enamored with Jones that they took him with the 21st pick.
When the Jaguars drafted Jones, it was the first time in over a decade a white receiver was taken in the first round.
Packers cornerback Ahmad Carroll remembers when he got burnt by a white receiver during his rookie season in 2004 when the Packers were hosting the Titans on “Monday Night Football.” The Packers were torched for three passing touchdowns in the 48-27 loss, but the one play Carroll remembers the most was the 11-yard touchdown pass from Steve McNair to Eddie Berlin.
Berlin is white.
“If I get burned by a white receiver, I’m going to hear about it more than if that’s not the case,” Carroll said. “Anybody who says otherwise is tripping.”
Bennett said he has gotten the sense defenders may actually try harder to make sure they don’t get beaten by a white player.
“I think they take me seriously. If you’re in this league, you can obviously play,” Bennett said. “Now, does it bother them a little more if I burn them for a touchdown? Well, you’d have to ask them that.”

White guys can’t be fast, which means that if a Black defensive player gets beat by one of the “speed” deficient white men in the NFL, they’ll take a lot of criticism from other players and coaches. Which brings us to Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers. A former walk-on at Kansas State, Nelson was a rarely used receiver until the 2010 season.

He helped lead the Packers to a Super Bowl title; this season, he has become one of the top receivers in the league (and, along with fellow white receiver Eric Decker of the Broncos, is near the top of league in touchdown receptions). And certainly one of the most talked about, after letting slip the reason for his success. Here’s the Washington Post on a “controversy” that would garner opinions and bloviating from ESPN, Rush Limbaugh, and, well, the entire sports world:

“I was talking to ‘Wood’ in the fourth quarter and he said, ‘When you see Jordy out there, you think, “Oh well, he’s a white wide receiver. He won’t be very athletic.” But Jordy sort of breaks all those stereotypes,’” (Aaron) Rodgers recounted during his weekly radio show on WAUK-AM, an ESPN Radio affiliate. “I am not sure why he keeps sneaking up on guys.” 

Jennings, Nelson’s fellow wide receiver and friend, knows exactly why Nelson keeps sneaking up on opponents: He’s white. 

“They underestimate him. And honestly, he uses that to his advantage,” said Jennings, who like Woodson is black. “Seriously . a lot of it has to do with the fact that guys look at him and say, ‘OK, he’s the white guy, he can’t be that good.’ Well, he is that good, he’s proven to be that good and it’s because of the work and the time that he’s put in — not only on the field but in his preparation off the field.”

Like Dwight, Nelson is nicknamed “white lightning”; unlike Dwight, Nelson was given the opportunity to succeed in the NFL (largely due to injury attrition) and made the most of it. Though his success has been questioned, just like Papale’s speed:

When asked by the Green Bay Press Gazette if racial bias is a factor in Nelson’s on-field success, he replied: “Honestly, I think it is.” 

Nelson and his teammates believe that, with so few elite white receivers in the league, opposing players are likely to dismiss Nelson’s abilities on the field. 

“As receivers, we’ve talked about it.” Nelson told the Press Gazette. “I know [cornerbacks coach] Joe Whitt tells me all the time, when all the rookies come in, he gives them the heads up, ‘Don’t let him fool ya.’ That’s fine with me.”

Wes Welker, the NFL’s best receiver

Nelson had to prove his worth to Kansas State coaches as a walk-on, because no college would give him a scholarship. Welker was basically in those shoes, especially as an undrafted receiver. How many talented white high school receivers never get the chance to even lace up their boots in the college ranks, because of the institutionalized bias that only Black people have “speed?”

Steve Sailer pointed out that Matt Jones (whose cocaine addiction ended what should have been a stellar NFL career), the first white receiver drafted in the first round in years, was asked to gain weight to play tight end:

Of course, wide receiver is mostly a black position, so lots of NFL guys tried to talk Jones into playing tight end, a position where whites are more common. Chris Mortensen of ESPN wrote: 

“You know, it’s funny,” one AFC head coach told me last week. “We asked [Jones] about putting on some weight and playing tight end, and he made it clear that he thought it was foolish. He said, ‘So you want me to put on 20 pounds and be a 4.57 guy instead of a 4.37 guy?’ When you put that into context, you have to admit he makes sense.

So there is something to what Jordy Nelson intimated. White guys aren’t supposed to be ‘fast’ or play wide receiver. Not at the collegiate level; not at the professional level.

To excel means that they are outliers, freakish white athletes that stand out from the sloth-like masses of white people. In reality, to excel at receiver you must be able to run precise routes (because quarterbacks have timed drop backs that require concise route running from the receiver to operate properly); good spatial recognition (to determine where to make cuts for optimal positioning against a zone defense to get open; and enough speed to get separation from the defensive back.

Plenty of white receivers can and do excel at this; sadly, coaches don’t believe white guys have the intangibles and necessary metrics (fast 40 time) to compete at the college level. This is a burden of entry for many talented white high school athletes who are then forced to walk-on if they want to play college football.

And because fans and coaches (and players) have been conditioned to believe only Black people possess “speed,” any white athlete who excels at receiver in the NFL will be instantly singled-out by the media and opposing defenses – led by entirely Black corners and safeties – for ridicule. Just ask Brian Hartline of the Miami Dolphins, a white receiver from the Ohio State University. He happens to be one of the NFL’s most underrated receivers:

The NFL is a melting pot full of players from every city and every background under the sun. There aren’t many white wide receivers, though. Hartline says he and his teammates have some laughs about that. 

Among the NFL’s top 30 in terms of 2010 receiving yards, Dallas’ Jason Witten and Hartline are the only Caucasians. 

“We have a lot of fun with it,” Hartline said. “No doubt, you hear a lot of talk, along the lines of, ‘That white boy … don’t sleep on him.’”

Or Mike Furrey, a white receiver who caught 98 passes a few years ago for the Lions in one season, and quickly found himself unemployed the next.

What about Drew Bennett, a white wide receiver who retired from the game in 2009. ESPN The Magazine published this account of the un-drafted, former college quarterback, who went on to be one of the more productive receivers of the 2000 – 2010 years:

On a cool March evening under a clear Spanish sky, he slides out of a rickety wooden chair in a cozy café in Barcelona’s Plaza Real. The gangly and goofy American can feel the rubbernecking stare of the natives. He’s 6’5” in a land where men are an average of 5’9”. He wears gray suede Pumas with an orange stripe in a land where people seldom wear tennis shoes. He orders toasted ham and cheese and a beer using butchered Spanish (“Oon bikini ee oon Guinness, poor fevoor”) in a land where people speak a language called Catalan. Clearly, Drew Bennett does not belong. 

So, what else is new? 

Forget for a moment that Bennett, in Spain visiting his younger brother Mark, who’s a student there, is a white guy playing a position dominated by black guys. Disregard that he’s a former backup UCLA quarterback who’s now the Tennessee Titans’ No. 1 wide receiver. Ignore the fact that he’s gone from his childhood home in the Bay Area to Nashville, from the cradle of conservation to a place where recycling means buying another Harley. All of it pales in comparison with the mother of fish-outta-water scenarios: making it in the NFL as an undrafted free agent.

Ask Austin Collie of the Indianapolis Colts, who excelled at Brigham Young University as a receiver. BYU is known for having great quarterbacks who throw to primarily white Mormon receivers, and Collie is easily the best receiver the school has ever produced.

Perhaps his success is fueled partly because he had a good support system at BYU, instead of being constantly ridiculed by his teammates for being a “slow, white receiver.” Because BYU actually recruits student-athletes instead of any Black kid who can run a fast 40 time, white athletes aren’t unfairly criticized and made fun of; with most of the team being white guys, there a sense of camaraderie that talented white players don’t feel elsewhere.

That’s the point of sports; to develop sound work ethics and pride in yourself, because you are part of a team.   Recently retired NFL fullback Heath Evans once alluded to the fact that many NFL teams have racial animosity (imagine being one of the few white guys on a team of predominately Black players), and you can understand how white receivers might have difficulty adjusting to a culture dominated by Black morals and social customs.

The same can be said of the college level.

At the high school, it’s not a liability to have a white receiver; coaches can’t recruit (save at private schools) and can only play those athletes who live in their school district. White receivers excel and develop chemistry with their teammates, but rarely have the opportunity to advance to the next level, because college recruiters have prejudicial opinions of their innate abilities.

In spite of this, talented players like Wes Welker and Jordy Nelson found a way to excel. If that meant walking-on and having Black defensive backs (we won’t even discuss the kind of hate Jason Sehorn faced) be dismissive of their talents because they were white, so be it.

It’s this simple: sports provide the primary medium where Black people can provide positive contributions to American life. Though trivial, many people derive their entire identity from their alma mater or professional football team they follow (because there is no such thing as an “American Identity” anymore).

Because the concept of Black Supremacy in sports is so ingrained, predominately white sports fans believe that having a white athlete at a position dominated by Blacks (especially wide receiver) that their team is at a distinct disadvantage.

How can they compete against such fast Black players?

Just ask Vince Papale how you compete against coaches and talent scouts who believe white men can’t run fast.

Just ask Jordy Nelson and Wes Welker, who never had Rival or Scout salivating over their abilities, and were forced to fight for everything they earned as either a walk-on or as a player given the last scholarship.

How many talented white high school receivers could have developed were they given that opportunity?

White Men Can Run (with apologies to Amby Burfoot), its just a system has been erected that denies the lot of them an opportunity to prove it at the collegiate level. Those that break free then face an even greater burden of proof at the NFL level to showcase their talents, because white guys aren’t supposed to be fast.

White Men Can Run… it’s just universally accepted and constantly stipulated that they can’t. Just ask Jordy Nelson, who is having a tremendous season in spite of his debilitating whiteness.


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