ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt. In Canton, Ohio tonight, seven men are being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It's a new record. Michael Strahan, 22 and a half sacks.
WESTERVELT: Strahan came to the NFL from Texas Southern University, a historically black school. Two other members of this year's class were also from historically black colleges and universities - programs that haven't always gotten much attention from the NFL. NPR's Phil Harrell talked to one football historian about this unusual class.
PHIL HARRELL, BYLINE: The other two are Aeneas Williams from Southern University and this year's oldest inductee, Claude Humphrey from Tennessee State.
MICHAEL HURD: It's always been a struggle to get attention for those guys.
HARRELL: Michael Hurd wrote a book about the history of black college football programs and how the NFL neglected them for a long time.
HURD: From the late '20s until the mid-'40s, there were no black players in the NFL.
HARRELL: Nor were they allowed to play at the big-time southern college programs like Ole Miss or Alabama, not until the early-'70s, leaving kids like Claude Humphrey, who grew up in Memphis, with few options.
HURD: If they wanted to play college football in the South back then, you either went to a black college or most of those guys left the South.
HARRELL: At first, black college programs didn't draw much interest from the NFL. Not until the rival, American Football League, needed to find untapped talent in 1960.
HURD: And of course, the AFL was likely to one-up the NFL or at least compete with the NFL. And it was the AFL that really started looking at black college players.
HARRELL: And they discovered superstars like Willie Lanier, Art Shell, Kenny Houston. They all have busts in the Hall of Fame today. So the NFL started focusing on these schools, too, but mostly through black newspapers.
HURD: Every year the Pittsburgh Courier did Black College All-American Teams.
HARRELL: So it wasn't, you know, boots on the ground watching these kids play?
HURD: No. They didn't attend a lot of games. They didn't know where a lot of those schools were.
HARRELL: But the NFL figured it out quickly enough. In 1968, Claude Humphrey was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons with the number three pick overall - a huge coup for Tennessee State.
HURD: Humphrey came along pretty much during the golden era because in the late-'60s, black college football was the onset of integration was about to start its decline.
HARRELL: From the 1970s onward, those programs were basically stripped bare of regional talent. And the NFL now only comes calling when a rare athlete really stands out, like Aeneas Williams or Michael Strahan. But Michael Hurd says tonight's Hall of Fame ceremony is still a chance to be proud of the lasting legacy of historically black football. Phil Harrell, NPR News.
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