Legendary Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier had half his foot blown off in the Vietnam war. The team welcomed him back despite this. He was mostly to be a blocking back for Hall of Famer Franco Harris; however, in 1977, Bleier rushed for over 1,000 yards, which was a big deal in a 14-game season.
Prolific National Football League kicker Tom Dempsey had what was referred to back then as a "club foot." He was born with no toes on his right foot and no fingers on his right hand, He kicked with half a shoe, and for years he held the NFL record for the longest field goal at 63 yards, while with the New Orleans Saints.
More recently, Shaquem Griffin, who played for the Seattle Seahawks and the Miami Dolphins last year, had his left hand amputated when he was young, and nevertheless became an NFL player despite the challenge. At this writing, he is a free agent, after being released from the Dolphins, and he is looking for a new team.
And so is Carl Nassib, the only out active player in the history of the NFL, who was cut by the Las Vegas Raiders this week. He was released, according to the Raiders, for salary cap reasons. He had a hefty $7 million contract, and his contribution to the team didn't merit that amount of money, NFL insiders say.
At the beginning of this year, the Steelers had the only Black coach in the NFL. In February, the Houston Texans signed veteran Black coach Lovie Smith, so now there are two.
To be a Black head coach, to have one hand, and to be an out gay player are seemingly disadvantages for tenure in the NFL at the moment. To be very clear, I am not equating a disability with being Black and/or gay, but history says if you have a disability, you have a better chance of landing with an NFL team.
The league was caught in a firestorm of controversy when it had only one Black NFL coach at the end of last year. The so-called Rooney rule, named for the Steelers' late owner Ambassador Dan Rooney, says that each NFL team must interview one Black candidate when hiring a new coach. For many, it seems, this rule is perfunctory.
It got so bad for Brian Flores, who was fired as head coach by the Miami Dolphins last year, that he sued the NFL for racial discrimination. Flores led the Dolphins to two consecutive winning seasons, the first time that happened for the team since 2001. Critics of the NFL were dumbfounded as to why Flores got the ax with that kind of success. Was it because he was Black?
Any guess who ended up signing Flores? That's right, the Pittsburgh Steelers took him on as their defensive assistant and linebacker coach, albeit not a head coach, but they gave him a home after he became a pariah in the league with his lawsuit.
The NFL will go into next season with only two Black coaches when almost 70 percent of the league's players are Black. This is a travesty and is shameful for the NFL.
Now comes the next test for the league. Will anyone sign the NFL's only out player? Will Nassib find a home, or will 31 teams refuse to bring on an out gay player?
If history is any guide, the Steelers should be the team to sign him; however, the team's lineup of defensive ends seems set at this point. (Full disclosure: If you haven't guessed by now, I'm an avid Steelers fan.) So, excluding the Raiders and Steelers, that leaves us with 30 teams as a possibility.
After Nassib was cut, NFL.com observed, "With the NFL in constant need of edge-rushing depth, Nassib should have no problem finding a job this season -- it just likely won't be for $7 million." Easier said than done.
When Michael Sam was drafted by the then-St. Louis Rams in 2014, he became, at the time, the only drafted player who was out in the NFL. That was a historic first, and so was the kiss with his boyfriend after his selection by the Rams was announced.
In his senior year, Sam was the defensive player of the year in the Southeaster Conference -- that is a big deal in college football, one of the roughest and toughest conferences in the NCAA Division I. But Sam wasn't big enough and speedy enough for NFL scouts to choose him as a pass rusher, so he never played a regular season game in the league.
Reportedly, he was drafted by the Rams at the behest of Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose brother is gay, and who was worried that if the NFL didn't draft the SEC defensive player of the year, it would be accused of being homophobic. After Sam was cut by the Rams, Goodell was said to have called several different teams trying to get them to sign Sam, at the very least for their practice squads.
Presumably, there are probably a lot of calls being made on Nassib's behalf right now, and perhaps by the commissioner himself. Goodell has tried to implement ways to liaison with the LGBTQ+ community during the last few years, including partnering with GLAAD for an LGBTQ+ event at this year's Super Bowl.
Is the NFL being sincere in welcoming LGBTQ+ fans, or is it trying to appease those who still feel that Sam was wronged?
If days and weeks go by and Nassib remains unsigned, there will likely be pressure on the NFL to do more. The vast majority of the owners of the league's 32 teams are wealthy, white, and (as far as we know) straight, which many say is the reason there are only two Black NFL coaches.
Raiders owner Mark Davis, son of the team's flamboyant longtime owner Al Davis, told theLos Angeles Times when Nassib came out last year, "Number one, it's 2021, so it's not the most surprising thing in the world."
He added, "It doesn't change my opinion of Carl as a man or as a Raider."
Will any of the other owners feel the same way?
During Super Bowl week, Goodell was asked the same question at the venue that he was asked the year before. "Why aren't there more Black head coaches?"
"What we want to see is the outcome," Goodell said at the SoFi Stadium campus during his annual Super Bowl media conference. "We want to see Black head coaches in the NFL and people of color and eventually gender, so it's an inclusive process and hopefully an inclusive outcome."
Right now, the NFL doesn't look too inclusive. Will Goodell be asked the same question at next year's Super Bowl about the lack of Black coaches, and will he also be asked why no one will sign a gay player?
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.