andrew kruse-ross | the neville now | sept. 2018
“Reggie, this is God. Come to Green Bay." — phone message left by Coach Holmgren on Reggie White's answering machine
And so goes one of the many vignettes included in Delay of Game: Experiences of African American Football Players in Titletown,running now through March of 2019 at the Neville Public Museum.
While the Green Bay Packers may have played their first game in 1919, African Americans have only been a part of that story since 1950.
It is the experiences, challenges and contributions of these players that are the focus of this exhibit while paying particular attention to the three “game changers": Bob Mann, Emlen Tunnell and Reggie White.
White's signing with Green Bay represented a pivotal moment in Packer history. At that time, being sent to Green Bay was used as a threat by other coaches and players. The sentence of playing in Green Bay was often equated to being sent to Siberia.
White's signing changed the course of franchise history, making Green Bay a viable place to play.
“With Reggie coming here and the influx of other African American players coming, the team had to start providing them services that weren't normally provided in Green Bay," says Neville Curator, Lisa Kain.
Kain says services such as proper hair care, soul food and nightlife were hard to come by in Green Bay, making a decision to remain in town an easy one for many African American players. Such were the conditions in Green Bay that the wives of many African American players refused to relocate.
Admittedly, African Americans were involved in the game since its earliest beginnings, but according to Kain, a concerted effort was enacted to prohibit African Americans from pro football beginning in 1933.
“There was a silent ban that started in 1933. They were banned from 1933 to 1946 and it was actually Jackie Robinson's teammates at UCLA that broke the color barrier and they did it a year earlier than Robinson did in the MLB."
Those men, Kenny Washington and Willie Strode, broke the color barrier in '46, signing with the Los Angeles Rams. It would be another four years before Bob Mann would break that barrier for the Packers.
Mann is credited as the first black player to play a regular season game for the Packers in the modern era — doing so in 1950. He also holds that distinction as a Detroit Lion (1948).
Technically, Walter Jean may hold that distinction as a Packer. Jean joined the Packers in 1925. However, unlike Mann, Jean's physical features had many believing him to be white and Jean did little to change their minds — even identifying himself as white in later censuses. Jean may have had good reason to do so.
Beside a placard dedicated to Jean in Delay of Gameis displayed a pamphlet that circulated in Green Bay from that same time period. It reads “First Lesson in the Science and Art of Klankraft." A figure in a white pointed hat is depicted below the words.
For players like Mann and Tunnell, finding food and grooming may have been the least of their worries; simply living in Green Bay presented certain unique challenges and housing discrimination presented a major hurdle for players.
“Mann ended up living in the cabins behind Kroll's East," says Kain. “That's all he could find."
For Tunnell, who was the first African American to play with the New York Giants, the move to Green Bay presented the defensive standout with a case of culture shock. Like Mann, housing was difficult to come by and he spent three seasons residing at the Hotel Northland. Vince Lombardi is rumored to have paid for his lodging.
The rumor would be in character for Lombardi, who in his second season decided his team would no longer be separated by Jim Crow laws while on the road. His impact on the game and its players are also featured in the exhibit, as are those of many others.
Delay of Gameexcels in its presentation. Great care has been taken to let the history speak for itself as presented by the men and women who lived it. This is accomplished utilizing story, video, image and artifact to considerable effect.
A large triple-timeline installation sits in the center of the exhibit; it highlights the histories of the USA, the game of football and the Packers side by side as they relate to civil rights. It places a combined history into focus and invites comparisons to be made, painting a clearer picture of a larger history of America in the process.
With the final entry upon the timeline — the NFL's adoption of the national anthem policy in 2018 — it's apparent that the history of Delay of Gameis still being written.