Being in the right place at the right time was the genesis of John Wooten’s prolific career as a player and equal rights activist for the game of football.
“I never played organized football until tenth grade,” Wooten said. “By the same token, we loved it. We played every day in the streets. We chose up sides, and we let the best choose against each other or the worst choose against each other so the teams would be even. We played tackle football without pads.”
Wooten, a 2012 College Football Hall of Fame inductee and Texas native, was part of a special “Breaking Barriers” roundtable panel in honor of Black History Month on Feb. 22 at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. Fellow College Football Hall of Famers Thom Gatewood and Gene Washington were also panelists and it was hosted by Don McPherson.
Wooten, 80, was a sophomore the first year of integration at Carlsbad (New Mexico) High School after a student vote to allow the school to desegregate in 1952. School Superintendent Tom Henson, High School Principal Guy Wade and Football Head Coach Ralph Bowyer spearheaded the effort.
“That was just a tremendous break for me,” Wooten said. “Those three men had enough insight and belief to call a student assembly at Carlsbad High School and ask, ‘Would you have trouble with negroes coming to school here? With Brown vs. Board of Education, most schools in ’52 were starting at the first grade, then the second grade, then the third grade the following year. Those kids, unbeknownst to us, voted they would not oppose us going to school there.”
Wooten made the Caveman varsity roster as a sophomore. Prior to that, he had never played a down of organized football.
“We didn’t even know how to put the pads on,” he said. “We thought the rib pads went around your waist. We still went out there and practiced. A young running back, Joe Kelly, and I made the team as sophomores. I ended up starting as a sophomore. The next year, we made All-State, and all of the sudden, I’m getting scholarship offers.”
Wooten was interested in playing at Dartmouth, but Hanover, N.H., was a bit too far away from Carlsbad for his mother, Henrietta.
“When I told her that perhaps I had a chance to go to Dartmouth, she said, ‘Where’s Dartmouth?’” Wooten said. “I pointed it out on the map, and she said, ‘John, that is a long way from home.’ I knew what that meant, so I ended up going to Colorado, which was a great choice.”
Wooten, an offensive lineman, became the second Africa-American player in program history at Colorado in 1955, one year after Franklin Clarke. Wooten was also one of the first African-American interior linemen to be named an American Football Coaches Association All-American. He also helped the Buffaloes to an 8-2-1 record and an Orange Bowl win over Clemson as a sophomore.
But Wooten’s football career was just getting warmed up.
The Cleveland Browns drafted him in the fifth round of the 1959 NFL draft. From there, he blocked for three future Pro Football Hall of Famers (Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell), won an NFL title during and was a two-time Pro Bowler during his eight years in Cleveland. Wooten’s playing career ended with one final season with the Washington Redskins in 1968. He is a member of the Cleveland Browns Ring of Honor.
Wooten went on to various roles with NFL teams, including Director of Pro Scouting for the Dallas Cowboys (1975-91), Vice President of Player Personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles (1992) and Assistant Director of Pro and College Scouting for the Baltimore Ravens (1998-2003).
“When you say, ‘Football Matters,’ my head is up, because football has given me every single thing that I could ever hope for,” Wooten said. “It gave me a chance to go to school and get an education. Without football, we never would have had that opportunity. It gave me a chance to play pro football. It’s given me an opportunity to do things for my family I never would have been able to do.”
Additionally, Wooten became chair of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy group for hiring minorities in coaching, scouting and front-office positions in the NFL, in 2003. The “Rooney Rule,” an NFL policy that requires teams to interview minorities for those positions, was established that same year.
“I played high school football, college football and 11 years in the NFL,” Wooten said. “Never was I on the field where there was a black coach in any position. There were men that wanted to coach. This is why we have worked like we have to try to give those men that opportunity and help them prepare to be coaches. Do we have a long way to go? Yeah, but believe me, we’ve come a long way. The Rooney Rule has opened doors.”
Wooten learned first-hand throughout his career the major impact of coaching on players.
“I played under Paul Brown and worked under Coach Tom Landry,” he said. “I know from being around them, observing them and being in meetings with them, what it takes for an organization to teach it. I’ve been blessed. I don’t care who they are — Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh — great coaches are teachers because that’s what it takes. As coaches, you’ve got to teach, motivate and develop.”
And his love affair with the game of football will never subside.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of parents, and I’ve said to them very simply, ‘If your son wants to play, you’ve got to let him play. It will bother him for a long time when he gets older and he realizes that he missed something that was so important to him,'” Wooten said. “Football is a tough sport. Football is not like tennis or golf or basketball where you’re just out there having fun, shooting and practicing. In football, the practices are probably rougher than the games are in terms of what you have to do.
Football has just done wonders for me. I know that’s true for other guys. That’s why I stand positive with football. There’s a lot of good stuff in the game. I tell people all of the time that I’ve never had a real job.”