The Extinction of the White Running Back in the NFL

Are featured white running backs an endangered species for college and NFL teams?
Are white running backs an endangered species for college and NFL teams?

By Darius Williams

It was a strange occurrence that day late last November as I sat down to take in a college football game. On the watching agenda this particular day was a game between the No. 6-ranked Fighting Irish of the University of Notre Dame versus No. 9-ranked University of Stanford Cardinal.

At this point of the season, I had heard enough about a certain Heisman Trophy candidate Stanford had in its backfield. I had watched enough of the guy who I figured would take that prestigious trophy home in the coming weeks in Alabama’s 240-pound tank of a runner Derrick Henry. Catching up on this young “brother” out on the west coast everyone was hyping up was the plan this Saturday evening.

The volume is down on my 60-inch LG flat screen as I decided I would play a little Commodores Greatest Hits as I multi-tasked my evening with a little bit of writing as well. With the sole purpose of watching this Heisman candidate, I would often wonder as the game reached the back end of the first quarter just where was this stud running back of Stanford’s that all the hoopla was about. Each time I glanced up at the screen while the team was on offense, the star tailback was on the bench in favor of some white kid wearing No. 5 on his jersey.

“Get this guy out of the game and put McCaffrey in,” I screamed at the television as this No. 5 made an amazing 8-yard run. On his way back to the huddle I caught a glimpse of the name on back of his jersey. To my surprise it read “McCaffrey.”

I had committed an act for which my race of people have fought against for decades and that’s racially profiling. Although I didn’t profile him based off of his race directly, I did however profile the position he played as one that a white college kid could not possibly do on the Division I level to the extent of which this McCaffrey guy had been doing all season long.

I went to bed that night thinking of the plight of the African American quarterback. The hurdles for which they had to overcome dating back more than 100 years ago (see Charles W. Follis of the Shelby Blues), to even be given a shot to play the position at a professional level, were plentiful due to preconceived opinions that were stereotypically racially-based.

So much has been both written and talked about regarding that topic. I gave thought to an even more intriguing question…what happened to the white running back in the National Football League? Now before you run off names such as Tom Rathman, Mike Alstott and Peyton Hillis, they don’t apply to the criteria for the running back/tailback position. They were skilled fullbacks, bruisers who specialized in getting tough yardage running up the middle of defenses. I’m referencing the white guy who served as the team’s lead runner. The guy who was able to take a pitch and turn the corner for large gains.

As I turned my pillow to the cool side, I was able to come up with the Washington Redskins John Riggins as the last white lead runner for an NFL team way back in the early 1980s. Then the New England Patriots Craig James came to mind as he was the lead runner on the Super Bowl runners-up in the 1985 season. Nobody else came to mind as I got some shut eye for the night.

Shame on me to think that a position that I played as a kid, one that required speed, balance, agility and toughness could not be manned by someone of Anglo descent at a high level. Rarely have I seen it during my four decades of watching both major college and professional football. NFL Films allowed me the opportunity to see the likes of a Red Grange, Frank Gifford, Jim Taylor and Larry Csonka. They were guys who were not of African descent running the ball quite efficiently.

Seems as the decade of the 1970s came to a close, the frequency in which a white guy lined up in the backfield for a professional team became a thing of the past.

Just as all the reasons black quarterbacks were not given ample chances to make NFL rosters without being “asked” to move to more athletic positions like receiver and cornerback, I wonder what reason was given to the white kid who on the high school level proved to be a productive runner, was given as to why he couldn’t play the position on the college level. The position that has “running” in its name can easily be one that eliminates those who aren’t fleet of foot.

Look at any elite level 100-meter dash at a track meet and you are guaranteed not to see a runner who is of Anglo descent. Speed isn’t usually a trait that comes with those who are of a paler skin tone. For whatever the genetic reasoning Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder so drunkenly gave back almost 30 years ago as to why the African-based race is superior athletically, to say he was alone in his assessment is a far cry. Many from all races share his sentiment on that topic. Most just don’t have the platform for which to drunkenly spout it out like he did. It is however very prevalent in how we may think when we see something that our trained eyes and mind find an oddity.

I’m sure many have come through in the last 30 years who possibly had the physical gifts to do it. Back in 2002, out in California, a very talented running back with elite speed was runner-up at the state meet in both the 100 and 200 meters to a white kid. This eventual Heisman winner went on to a stellar career at USC and then a solid pro career. I wonder if the white kid, whose name is Matt Bruno, could possibly have been as good running the football as the guy he defeated at the state meet. I don’t know, he would have to have been pretty special to be the equal of one Reggie Bush. We will never know because maybe he wasn’t given the opportunity to play the position.

With the evolution of the game where speed is essential at positions that in the past didn’t necessarily require speed, having a running back who exemplified the simple ability to outrun defenders became a must when evaluating a prospective runner. The NFL Combines have over the years been the stage for a guy who could run the 40-yard dash under 4.5 seconds to catch the eye of general managers and coaches of teams in attendance. Have an average college career at running back, but run a 4.35 at the combine could land a young man in the first round of the draft. Other skills are required as well, but the sheer ability to cover ground at a fast rate meant you were a draftable commodity. Rarely have those who lined up at the combine to run the 40-yard dash has been a white running back.

A position that requires the same top end speed at the professional level that somehow has been very racially diverse is wide receiver. Many white receivers in the last 30 years have been very successful. The aforementioned Christian McCaffrey’s father, Ed McCaffrey, was a Pro Bowl receiver for the Denver Broncos in the late 1990s into the 2000s. Others come to mind as well like Dwight Clark, Chris Collingsworth, Ricky Proehl and Jordy Nelson. How is it that the white player has been able to have a presence at a position that is considered to require above average speed and quickness? Things that the pro scouts look for in running backs.

As a young kid growing up in Dallas in the early 1980s when football was entering my consciousness, Southern Methodist University football played a prominent role in shaping my sports observation world. The ‘Pony Express’ attack that the offense in particular was so affectionately labeled was a thing of beauty. Future NFL Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson was the catalyst for this explosive running attack. He was seen as the “can’t miss” prospect as he sported 219 pounds on his 6-foot-3-inch frame with speed that had previously won him state titles in the 100- and 200-meter dashes in high school.

It was a visual pleasure to see him gliding through Southwest Conference defenses. More impressive to me was the other guy who made up the other half of the tandem. He was the white kid who looked to my 10-year-old eyes as just as fast as the Dickerson guy. This stablemate was Craig James. I found myself more excited watching him take a pitch from quarterback Lance McIlhenny and outrun his pursuers to the edge for long touchdown runs.

What happened to the Craig James’ of the world? They didn’t stop producing them after SMUs magical 1982 season. Maybe how those in decision-making positions on the college and pro level changed their approach in which they fairly assessed the position of running back.

Did they take the same approach to that position as they may have over the years when they viewed the tape of some quarterback from a historically black college or university program and figured he didn’t have what it took to play the position at the professional level? Maybe they have been talked into becoming linebackers and safeties to continue their careers. Advice all too familiar to black quarterbacks over the decades.

Affirmative Action was implemented back in the 1990s as means to bring a halt to racial inequalities as it related to the workforce. Companies were required to meet a quota to employ minorities in certain positions within the company. Whether you see it as a fair way of conducting business, it provided opportunities to those who might not have otherwise been given the chance to show their wares. Should the same practice be done for athletics? Should teams be required to have in place players of all races? Just to make sure that equality is practiced. History has shown us that race can determine your path on a football team. The numbers would surprise most of all the quarterbacks who became All Pro wide receivers and cornerbacks. Black quarterbacks that is.

The McCaffrey kid had a solid game that day. Nothing to blow me away, but an obvious display of ability to play the position at a high level. He showed the ability to run inside the tackles. He showed great hands out of the backfield as a receiver. He looked the part at 6 feet 1 inch and approximately 210 pounds. More important, he had the one trait that all long for in that position and that is speed. Yet somehow I ask myself if he will really get the chance in a couple years to be highly regarded and seen as a franchise lead running back? Would a professional franchise take him in the first round? After all, he really doesn’t fit what we have come to expect a top tier running back to look like. His skin is way too light to really be one who compares to an Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch or Jamaal Charles for sure. Right?

I will watch closely as his college career comes to a close. I will anxiously see if the scouts use reverse racism in their assessment of his ability to play in the NFL. It will be interesting to see if the same “hidden racial” scouting reports hinder him. Will his accomplishments on the college level be enough to warrant a shot at becoming the lead runner for some franchise?

I personally will pull for his success to open the minds of all of us who like to “pigeon hole” based on race. It is my belief that if given a fair opportunity to display your ability is a practice that happens in all walks of life, the world would operate better. The white running back didn’t disappear due to lack of ability. The white running back disappeared due to the lack of opportunity. Something that we all can relate to in some form or fashion.