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This is the second of a two-part series celebrating Arkansas’ African-American heritage through the lens of pro football. In the first part, we look at the legacies of Arkansans Elijah Pitts and Willie Davis. They played on the perennial champion Green Bay Packers, which had more black players than many NFL teams in 1960s. Another Arkansan joined them on the roster in Parkin native Dave “Hawg” Hanner…
Hanner, a former Razorback, starred alongside Davis on the left side of Green Bay’s defense in the early 1960s. “We worked together and knew what our strengths and shortcomings were,” Willie Davis told the Milwaukee Continental-Journal Sentinel. “We had a commitment to each other to make the left side the most difficult for our opponents, if they chose to come that way.”
After retiring as a player in the mid-1960s, Hanner became the Packers’ defensive line coach. He instructed Davis, his former teammate, as well as younger players like Bob Brown, a mammoth defensive tackle out of what’s now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The team continued to roll through the 1966 regular season, Elijah Pitts’ best. Pitts had been a backup to starter Paul Hornung since his rookie 1961 season but took more carries because of an injury to Hornung. In 1966, Pitts produced 393 rushing yards and seven touchdowns while catching for 460 yards and three touchdowns. His two touchdowns in the Super Bowl sealed a 35-10 win over the Americal Football League’s Kansas City.
“We knew they were a good team but no better than five or six teams we had beaten that year,” Pitts later said, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Untold Stories. “Put it this way: They wouldn’t have been in the Super Bowl if they’d had to through the NFL like we did.”
The Packers rolled again in the 1967 season to win Super Bowl II 33-14 over Oakland. That was Lombardi’s last year as Green Bay’s head coach. A couple years later, Davis retired and while Elijah Pitts and Travis Williams played into the early 1970s, neither could duplicate the success of 1966-67.
The epilogues for these three players range the lowest of lows to highest of highs. A knee injury cut Williams’ career short at the age of 26, and he soon returned to his hometown of Richmond, Calif. (his parents had moved there from Arkansas in 1953). He scrounged by with odd jobs for a few years but mounting alcohol and drug problems eventually exacted too terrible a toll to fully recover from. At the age of 45, he died of heart failure with just a dollar bill hidden in his shoe.
Willie Davis, meanwhile, earned an MBA from the University of Chicago before taking over a Los Angeles-based brewing distributorship in 1970. Now 81 years old, the millionaire businessman has owned five radio stations across the nation while serving on the board of directors for 12 large corporations.
Pitts went into coaching, where he became an assistant head coach on the four Buffalo Bills teams which made the Super Bowl 1991-1994. He died of cancer in 1998. “He was a father figure to me … who really helped me be the person I am today,” the Bills’ all-time leading rusher Thurman Thomas said in the Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes Before Integration. “After his death, [Pitts] was really all I was playing for. At the time Elijah died, I wanted to retire, but I knew he wanted me to continue playing.”
Pitts’ legacy remains strong in central Arkansas, where his family has donated thousands of dollars to helping tornado victims and Philander Smith College annually raises funds with a golf tournament in his name. Nationwide, his legacy will never fade, not in a world where today African Americans make up more than 68% of NFL team rosters.
Those players owe Pitts, Davis, Williams and other pioneering Packers of the 1960s no small debt of gratitude.
All photos courtesy of the Green Bay Packers
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