When Paul "Tank" Younger set out from Grambling State in 1949 for what was then uncharted territory in the NFL, he carried the biggest burden of any free-agent rookie in the league. He carried the hopes of his race.
At the time, no player from a black college had ever made an NFL team. Indeed, only a handful of select black players had been able to break professional football's color line.
So here was Younger, a 21-year-old running back fresh out of a small, black, Southern college, about to enter a world he had only heard about. And there was his coach, a young, ambitious Eddie Robinson, stressing how vital it was that Younger not only give a good showing with the Los Angeles Rams, but that he make the team, too.
"I had been Black College Player of the Year in '48," Younger said. "After graduation, I sat with Eddie and we talked about what I was going to do. He told me, 'If you go up and don't make it, there's no telling when another guy will get a chance.'
"I told the coach, 'I believe I can handle it when they start blocking and tackling.' "
Handling the bad with the good, Younger more than lived up to his word. He won a job with the Rams, became the eighth black to play in the NFL, and built a distinguished 10-year career as one of the last two-way players. A fullback/linebacker, he was part of the Rams' "Bull Elephant" backfield, and went to three Pro Bowls. As a fullback, Younger ran like his nickname. He rushed for 3,640 yards and 34 touchdowns, averaging 4.7 a carry.
More important, though, he opened the NFL door to the black college athlete.
When the Sheridan Broadcasting Network celebrates 100 years of black college football with two days of festivities in Baltimore .. this weekend, Younger will look at some of the great athletes who paraded through that door, as well as the next generation that stands at the threshold.
Fittingly, Younger, 64, has been named to SBN's All-time Black College Football Team, to be honored tomorrow night at the Marriott Inner Harbor.
Grambling placed the most players -- five -- on the all-time team, which was selected by a national panel of journalists, coaches and black college historians. Joining Younger are quarterback Doug Williams, wide receiver Charlie Joiner, defensive end Willie Davis and defensive back Everson Walls.
Also named to the team are Los Angeles Raiders coach Art Shell, an offensive lineman at Maryland State (now UMES), and linebacker Willie Lanier of Morgan State.
Saturday night, SBN will hold its 19th annual All-American banquet. Among the All-Americans to be honored are Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair, SBN's Offensive Player of the Year, and Texas Southern defensive end Michael Strahan, the Defensive Player of the Year.
For Younger, who is director of player relations with the Rams, this will be a weekend to savor. The memory of Robinson's pre-NFL speech remains vivid.
"I like to think I had something to do with it," he said about clearing a path for future black college athletes.
Younger's path to the NFL was no less than amazing. He was born in Grambling, La. At the age of 12, during World War II, his family moved to Los Angeles for better job opportunities. But he remained behind, living with godparents during the school year, with his parents during summers.
That his godfather happened to be Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, president of Grambling State, turned out to be a major blessing. And when Younger was graduated from Grambling High, he automatically enrolled at Grambling State, where he would rush for 2,631 yards and score 60 touchdowns in four years. He gained 1,207 yards in 1947.
In the era of segregation, the black colleges were loaded with quality athletes.
"Talent was abundant," Younger said. "Because there were no eligibility rules in those days, some guys would play five or six years. A lot of good players were forced to sit on the bench."
Robinson forged the foundation of what would become a black college dynasty in those days. He was a one-man coaching staff, Younger said.
"Eddie coached everything," Younger said. "He was the football operation. He taped ankles Saturday morning, and players lined off the field. We didn't have two coaches until my senior year."
Even with the abundance of talent on those Grambling teams, Younger said they would not have held up over the long haul against the more richer white colleges.
"We had a great ballclub," he said. "But numbers would have buried us. The white teams still had several coaches then. One can't out-coach eight. And we didn't have things like a training table, either. We ate what everybody else at the college ate."
What Younger learned from Robinson went well beyond the football field. He learned the value of an education, and the benefit of a solid work ethic.
"Probably the first thing Eddie stressed to me was going to school," Younger said. "I had to go to school, too, because my godfather was the president. I think 85 percent of the players got degrees.
"One of the things Eddie made me realize in life was that if you have some values, you could reach any height . . . if you were willing to pay the price."
That was the lesson Younger remembered when he joined the Rams in 1949. While he said he never experienced racism with his teammates that year, he found it often on the road.
"There were hotels where black players couldn't stay with the team," he said. "Even in the nation's capital. There was a hotel where we could stay, but we couldn't come down and eat. But we weathered the storm. It was like what Eddie said about paying the price. And I was part of the process."
The first historic step in the process, in fact.
Facts and figures
What: Sheridan Broadcasting Network celebrates 100 years of Black College Football
Where: Marriott Inner Harbor
Friday: Night of Champions banquet, 8 p.m., honoring the SBN All-time Black College Football Team. By invitation only.
Saturday: 19th Annual Black College All-American Team banquet, 6:30 p.m. By invitation only.
Sheridan Broadcasting Network's All-time Black College Football Team:
Offense QB Doug Williams Grambling RB Walter Payton Jackson State RB Tank Younger Grambling WR Jerry Rice Miss. Valley St. WR John Stallworth Ala. A&M; WR Charlie Joiner Grambling OL Art Shell Maryland State OL Rayfield Wright Ft. Valley St. OL Jackie Slater Jackson State OL Larry Little Bethune Cookman OL Ernie Barnes N.C. Central
Defense DL Willie Davis Grambling DL Too Tall Jones Tenn. State DL Deacon Jones S.Carolina St. DL L.C. Greenwood Ark. A&M; LB Robert Brazile Jackson State LB Harry Carson S.Carolina St. LB Willie Lanier Morgan State DB Mel Blount Southern DB Lem Barney Jackson State DB Donnie Shell S.Carolina St. DB Everson Walls Grambling