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Part II: Unvarnished history of 1950s Black Packers

Did Charlie Brackins, one of only two Black QBs over NFL’s first 48 seasons, get a fair shake?

Charlie Brackins (No. 15) was impressive throughout training camp in 1955
Charlie Brackins (No. 15) was impressive throughout training camp in 1955

April 1, 1955 – Halfback Veryl Switzer, who had recently completed his rookie season after being the first Black player taken by the Packers in the first round of an NFL Draft, started work as assistant manager of Farah's Liquor Store at 411 W. Walnut St. Switzer, who lived at the YMCA during his time with the Packers, was believed to be the first Black player to remain in Green Bay during the offseason.

Six weeks later, Jim Pendleton, a Black outfielder with the Milwaukee Braves, visited Switzer at the Farah store. "I liked it here fine last fall when we played and the fans were wonderful," Switzer told Pendleton, "but it's even better now because I get to know a lot of them personally. I'll have a different feeling when I play next fall – like everybody up in the stands are my personal friends. Can't help but do better."

Esber Farah and son George were officers of Farah's Food Mart and adjoining liquor store when Switzer was hired. Esber emigrated from Lebanon and arrived in Green Bay in 1916. The manager of his grocery store when Switzer was hired was Bryan Shalhoub, also a Lebanese immigrant and actor Tony Shalhoub's uncle.

Switzer was selected with the fourth overall pick in the 1954 NFL Draft. As a rookie, he led the league in punt returns with a 12.8 average, including a 93-yard touchdown. He also shared kickoff return duties with Al Carmichael and averaged 25 yards with a long of 88. In 1955, Switzer led the Packers in kickoff returns with a 26.2 average and punt returns, again, with a 6.6 average. As a right halfback, he was used more as a receiver and blocker than runner, catching 31 passes for an 8.7 average over those two seasons.

"I had some very good friends in Green Bay," Switzer said in 2003. "They'd invite me out to dinner after games. One owned a liquor store."
A lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve, Switzer received orders to report to Lackland Air Force Base in Lackland, Texas, in March 1956. He spent two years in the Air Force, returned to the Packers in 1958 and was cut before the start of the season. He then played three years in the Canadian Football League.

July 15, 1955 – When the Packers announced their training camp roster of 86 players, it included a franchise-high 10 Black players. Up to that point, only five Black players had appeared in a regular-season game for the Packers since 1950.

The camp list included Switzer, the only holdover from 1954; tackle Tom Johnson and halfback Bill Robinson, returnees from 1952 who had been in the military; four picks from the 1955 draft: quarterback Charlie Brackins, tackle Robert Carter of Grambling, 190-pound guard Charles Bryant of Nebraska who was being projected as a defensive back and defensive end Nate Borden of Indiana; free-agent veterans Jack Spinks and guard Sisto Averno; and 6-8, 260-pound end Howard McCants, a fourth-round draft pick by Detroit in 1954 who had signed in Canada and left, only to be waived by the Lions without a look.

The highest of the Black players drafted by the Packers that year, tackle Art Walker of Michigan, a 12th-round choice, signed in Canada.

Four of the 10 Black players in camp played that season. Switzer and Borden, a 25th-round draft pick, made the roster and played in all 12 games. In fact, Borden played five years and in 57 games, the most by any Black Packer in the 1950s. In his final season, he was a starting defensive end for Vince Lombardi. Brackins and Spinks spent roughly half the 1955 season with the Packers.

Spinks had been selected by Pittsburgh in the 11th round of the 1952 NFL Draft and had played in 13 games as a fullback for the Steelers and Chicago Cardinals over the '52 and '53 seasons. He stood 6-feet and weighed 240 pounds. Thus. Coach Lisle Blackbourn moved him to guard. Waived on the final cut of camp, Spinks was re-signed halfway through the season and played in six games. In 1956, he played in the opener and was traded to the New York Giants.

Sept. 20, 1955 – The Packers trimmed their roster to the league limit, and Charlie Brackins made the team as the backup quarterback to Tobin Rote. Brackins, who led Prairie View A&M to 33 victories in 37 games, had been selected in the 16th round of the 1955 NFL Draft.

When scout Jack Vainisi traveled to tiny Prairie View, Texas, to sign the 6-foot-2, 202-pound Brackins, he stopped in Houston and took veterans Tobin Rote and Billy Howton with him. During the unscheduled signing ceremony, Brackins said: "You know, Mr. Rote. I consider it a great honor to be able to have a great quarterback like you to work with. I know you will be able to give me lots of tips on ball handling and passing."
Brackins played in seven games for the Packers mostly as their kickoff specialist, but when he took snaps at quarterback and attempted two passes against Cleveland in the fifth game of the season, he became the first Black quarterback in Packers history to appear in a regular-season game and only the second in NFL history.

While Brackins might have had difficulty adapting to life in a strange city far from home, he found at least one friend in Green Bay in Roger Skaletski, then a young salesman at C.A. Gross Co., a high-end, local men's clothing store in the city's downtown.

"After practice, he always stopped at Gross'," Skaletski said in 2020. "One day – I was still living at home before I was married – I told my mom I had gotten to know this guy a little bit and would it be OK if I brought him home with me for supper. I told her he was a nice guy, Black. She said, 'Sure. That would be OK.' Our family didn't have a car. He didn't have a car. So we walked from Gross' to my mom and dad's house, not too far from Astor Park, and he sat and had supper with my mom and dad, my older brother and myself. When it came time to go, I walked him back to the (Astor Hotel or YMCA, wherever he was staying at the time) and then took the bus back home.

"He'd (Brackins) come in and visit. If we were waiting on people, he always stayed out of their way. We just talked, mostly about his school and his home. I can't remember a lot of details, but he was a very nice person. I would say he was more of an introvert."

Nov. 8, 1955 – Brackins was waived after missing curfew three days earlier on the eve of the Packers-Bears game at Wrigley Field. Blackbourn would only say, "There are certain things you can't talk about in public. All I can tell you is that it had nothing to do with his football." Almost 25 years later, Blackbourn said in an interview that he cut Brackins for breaking curfew and a backlog of other reasons.

Players on the 1955 team, both white and Black, have told me Brackins was at least partially a victim of his own indiscretions: Too much late-night partying.

One said he lost favor within the organization when he started dating white women in Green Bay.

Brackins later claimed that curfew was 10 p.m. before the Bears game, and that he returned to the hotel by 10:30, a half-hour to an hour before some other players, and was the only one cut.

Dave Hanner, one of Brackins' teammates and someone who served the Packers as a player, coach and scout for 44 years, said he was a victim of timing, as much as anything, and not just because there were no other Black quarterbacks in the league.

"He had a lot of talent," Hanner said in 1998. "A tall kid. A good arm. He was a better athlete than passer. But coming out of Prairie View, he didn't have a lot of coaching. He was a raw talent."

Back then, Brackins was never exposed to what a raw, but talented quarterback prospect might benefit from today: a quarterback coach working with him on a daily basis through training camp and the season; tutoring on fundamentals and the mental aspects of the game during offseason team activities; and a player development staff to help with off-the-field issues.

In the case of someone like Brackins, that might have included easing the transition from a historically Black college campus to Green Bay, where there were less than a handful of Black players on the team and residents talked openly about how the only other Black residents in the city were John Vaughn and Wallace "Yorky" Smith, who ran the shoeshine stands at the Beaumont and Northland hotels, respectively.

At the time, Brackins was only the second Black to play quarterback in an NFL game. The first was Willie Thrower, who threw one pass for the Chicago Bears in 1953. Brackins was 0-for-2 in his one-game stint. And, as it turned out, they would be the only two Black quarterbacks in the NFL's first 48 seasons.

"He was 30 years ahead of his time," Charles Garcia, one of Brackins' college teammates and later an NFL scout for 25 years, said in a 1998 interview. "The man made the team in '55 as a quarterback. The guy could play and he could play today. There was a presence about this guy. He wasn't loud or boisterous, but when he walked in a huddle, he had that presence that said, 'Hey, we're going to win this game.'"
Even Blackbourn admitted in a 1979 interview that "(Brackins) was really a better passer than Bart (Starr)," a 17th-round draft pick a year later.

"Let me just say," Switzer said in 1998, "the Black athlete in those days was expected to perform above and beyond the standards. And there were some talented Black athletes who they used as models. If you didn't live up to that, you had a tough time making it and competing with your white counterparts."

Brackins entered the service after being cut and was named the quarterback on the 1957 all-Army team – Forrest Gregg was one of the guards – by the Army Times newspaper. In 1960, Brackins signed with the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) of the new American Football League and blew out his knee trying to make the team as a defensive back.

"I wanted to be the first Black quarterback in the National Football League," Brackins told the Green Bay Press-Gazette in 1979. "And I still feel I could have been. To be perfectly honest, I don't think I got a fair shake. I know I had the ability, they just didn't give me a chance to groom myself."

Dec. 13, 1958 – On the day before the Packers' season finale, coach Scooter McLean cut 32-year-old defensive end Len Ford, who had been acquired in an offseason trade from Cleveland, where he had played on three NFL championship teams. In 1976, Ford was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But by the time the Packers obtained him, he was an alcoholic. The final straw with the easygoing McLean was when Ford stayed up all night and showed up drunk for a Saturday morning practice in Los Angeles.

"(Ford) roomed with Nate Borden (another Black defensive end) at the Astor Hotel," Jim Temp, the team's third defensive end, said in 2007. "Nate and I were good friends, and he said, 'Jim, we get up in the morning and he takes a water tumbler and he pours it full of vodka and drinks it right down."

Ford's troubles proved to be emblematic of a larger problem. Since 1946, when the Los Angeles Rams signed two Black players and integration returned to the NFL, the Packers had finished with a winning record twice in 13 years. They were 6-5 in '46 and 6-5-1 in '47. In the 17 seasons prior to 1946, they had won six NFL championships.

From 1946-58, other NFL teams had uncovered 14 Black future Pro Football Hall of Famers: Jim Brown, Roosevelt Brown, Willie Davis (signed with Cleveland, 1958), Ford, John Henry Johnson, Night Train Lane, Ollie Matson, Bobby Mitchell, Lenny Moore, Marion Motley, Jim Parker, Joe Perry, Emlen Tunnell and Bill Willis.

In Green Bay, Black players had made a minimal contribution.

July 26, 1959 – Vince Lombardi, who was named general manager and coach of the Packers in January following their disastrous 1-10-1 season under McLean, acquired 11-year veteran safety Emlen Tunnell from the New York Giants for cash. Tunnell was the NFL's all-time interception leader at that point and would be the first Black player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

Vince Lombardi and Emlen Tunnell in 1959
Vince Lombardi and Emlen Tunnell in 1959

1959 – Training Camp

Almost immediately, the Packers veterans realized that Lombardi had acquired Tunnell for reasons other than to bolster a secondary that had been a glaring weakness the previous season.

"I'll never forget when Lombardi first got there, and we started training camp," tackle Forrest Gregg said in 2012. "Em called him, 'Vinnie.' I thought, 'Man, there has to be a connection here.' Nobody would dare call him by his first name. (Tunnell) had tremendous respect for (Lombardi) and it spilled over to us. (Tunnell) was a wise old owl."

It was on the practice field one day, according to David Maraniss, author of "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi," that the new Packers coach delivered his first lecture on racism. Lombardi informed his players that if he ever heard any of them use a racial slur, "regardless of who you are, you're through with me. You can't play for me if you have any kind of prejudice."

Lombardi even made a point that summer of finding out if there was a barber in town willing to cut his Black players' hair. He found one in Jim Gevers, whose shop was a short walk from the St. Norbert campus.

"We got a call one day and (the caller) said, 'This is Mr. Lombardi,''' Gevers said in 2009. "We thought somebody was putting us on. He said, 'Do you have a color line down there at your barber shop?' We said, 'No, no.' I had been in the service and had cut Black guys' hair before and felt a little comfortable, not that I was an expert at it. He said, 'All right, I'm sending Timmy Brown down at 12 o'clock.'"

Brown was a rookie halfback from Ball State who was cut by Lombardi after one game for one too many fumbles in practice and then went on to have an outstanding career with the Philadelphia Eagles. Lombardi wound up keeping only two Black players that season: Borden and Tunnell. But Tunnell's presence alone was enough to start changing the culture in Green Bay.

"The best," Paul Hornung said of Tunnell's locker room leadership in a 2011 interview. "He was a great guy. He was a great teammate for all the players. He was a real leader of the Blacks. He loved life. He had been on the New York Giants and Vince liked him."

1959 – Season

Under Lombardi, the Packers made one of the most dramatic turnabouts in the history of the NFL: from 1-10-1 to 7-5. While there were only two Black players on the team, the welcome mat was out for more Black players in the future – Lombardi would trade for Willie Davis and sign rookie free agent Willie Wood during the offseason – and most everyone on the team seemed to recognize that Tunnell was the one showing the way on and off the field, and it was all part of Lombardi's grand scheme.

"He was a great athlete. He was a great team man and well respected," said Herb Adderley, who joined the Packers in 1961, Tunnell's final season. "Lombardi brought Emlen Tunnell here for a couple reasons. No. 1, he had respect for him. He loved Emlen. No. 2, he made a statement to let the white players in Green Bay know that I have a Black man riding shotgun with me, and we're going to get more Black players on this team.

"When I came here Emlen was the man who brought everybody together: Black and white. All the guys loved Emlen Tunnell and respected Emlen Tunnell."

1950s Black Packers

Table inside Article
Name Position Years Total Games
Bob Mann E 1950-54 38
Charley Robinson G 1951 2
Tom Johnson DT 1952 8
Bill Robinson HB 1952 2
Veryl Switzer HB 1954-55 24
Charlie Brackins QB 1955 7
Jack Spinks G 1955-56 7
Nate Borden DE 1955-59 57
Emery Barnes DE 1956 2
Frank Purnell FB 1957 9
Len Ford DE 1958 11
Emlen Tunnell DB 1959 12
Timmy Brown HB 1959 1

Notes: Barnes was missing from last week's chart. Tunnell also played 1960-61.