OXNARD, Calif. – Every once in a while life will present us with an unexpected coincidence that causes us to go, "Say what?"
Here is one that came out of the blue this week.
Since July 27, we knew former Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls, along with linebacker Chuck Howley, had advanced to the final 12 of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Senior category for induction into the Hall. This will be Walls' second opportunity for induction into the Canton, Ohio, shrine and Howley's first.
We also discovered on that date that former Cowboys scout, personnel man and pro personnel director John Wooten has advanced into the final 12 of the coach/contributor finalists. Wooten would certainly win the award for being the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Forrest Gump.
For those not quite as familiar with the 85-year-old Wooten, he can list starting in 1955 being the second Black football player at the University of Colorado to only eventual former Cowboys wide receiver Frank Clarke; the former starting guard of the Cleveland Browns, arriving in 1959 and blocking for not only Browns Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, but also Browns Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly; a former player agent for the likes of Cowboys Hall of Fame wide receiver Drew Pearson and tight end Billy Joe DuPree; former Cowboys scout, contract negotiator, personnel advisor for Tex Schramm and pro personnel director for the Cowboys; then moved into pro personnel for Philadelphia and eventually vice president of player personnel in 1994; former Baltimore assistant director of pro and college scouting; then former consultant for the Ravens while working from home; and … finally this:
The first director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, designed to create more interview opportunities for Black coaches and potential front office personnel candidates.
Now that sure is contributing.
"I'm honored to be listed with the great people in our game," Wooten said this week, already a member of the Browns ring of honor, having played on their 1964 NFL Championship team along with the 1965 team losing to Green Bay in the title game.
Knew quite well Wooten did the groundwork with Pittsburgh to move the Cowboys from No. 21 in the first round of the 1990 NFL Draft to the Steelers' 17 in a trade for just a third-round pick so the Cowboys could select Emmitt Smith.
Knew Wooten had a hand in beginning the arrangement with Minnesota for the blockbuster trade sending Herschel Walker to the Vikings for an unprecedented number of draft choices and players alike that turned the NFL upside down and the struggling Cowboys into three-time Super Bowl champs in the 1990s.
But here is one that slipped by most of us.
It was Wooten who had his eye on that skinny cornerback from Grambling State University before the 1981 draft, and now both have an opportunity for Hall of Fame inclusion in the Class of 2023.
Wooten said he had watched Walls play six or seven games during his college career.
"But I told him, 'You're not going to get drafted because you didn't run fast enough,'" Wooten says. "They won't take you.'
"But I then told him, 'I know you can play because you have ball skills,' and that's what the Diggs' kid has with the Cowboys now."
As for Walls' part of the story, he was not happy to be told that, and not just by the Cowboys but two other NFL teams as well, including the Packers and then also CFL Toronto head coach Willie Wood.
"Yeah, that's what they all said," Walls said, referring to his speed.
After going undrafted in the first four rounds, "I was so mad I just went to class," Walls said.
Well, no matter as it eventually turned out, since we know the rest of the story, the undrafted Walls setting the NFL's single-season rookie record with 11 interceptions in 1981, and no NFL player has totaled more than 10 interceptions since … until Diggs' 11 this past season matched his 11.
But Wooten says he told Walls the Cowboys sure would be interested in signing him as an undrafted free agent, which of course they did in 1981, the start of a nine-year career with the Cowboys and that eventual Super Bowl victory in 1990 with the New York Giants, playing for future Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells and at the time some defensive coordinator named Bill Belichick. By the way, just another story deserving preservation in the Hall of Fame.
The 12-person senior committee meeting Aug. 16 will whittle the 12-player senior field down to three for potential validation by the full selection committee, and on Aug. 23 the coach/contributor committee will meet to select one coach/contributor to be presented to the overall 49-member Hall of Fame committee for approval.
But even though Wooten has retired, he's still fighting for the Black players cause, just as he was as one of the people in the famed picture standing in defense of Muhammad Ali's 1967 fight to resist induction into the Armed Services and potentially being sent to fight in Vietnam, standing along with the likes of Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Willie Davis, Bobby Mitchell and Carl Stokes, as part of the Black Economic Union Wooten helped organize.
This time his cause is for further inclusion and recognition for the four Black players in 1946 who broke the color barrier in the NFL that had existed from 1933 to 1946: Kenny Washington and Woody Strode of the Los Angeles Rams, along with Bill Willis and Marion Motley of the Cleveland Browns.
This weekend the Hall of Fame will award these players posthumously the Ralph Hay Pioneer Award as part of the enshrinement weekend for their "significant innovative contributions to professional football." The award was first presented in 1972 and just nine times total, most recently to NFL executive Joe Browne (2016), former head referee Art McNally (2012), famed NFL Films creator Steve Sabol (2007 and renowned turf guru George Toma (2001).
"The selection of these four men as the Ralph Hay Pioneer Award winners could not be more fitting," Hall president Jim Porter said in a statement about the ceremony that will include the families of those players being honored. "Individually and collectively, they made one of the most profound cultural shifts in pro football history when they broke pro football's color barrier, thus ending years of racial segregation.
"Their pioneering role not only opened the door to opportunity for generations of NFL players to come, but it also changed the game forever."
These players are being call "The Forgotten Four," but Wooten will tell you their campaign wants them to be called "The Fab Four," for their "fabulous" contribution opening the doors for all Black players to come after them.
And here is Wooten's logic behind the cry for further recognition for these players, wanting their pictures to appear in every office of the NFL, NFL Films, and NFL Network, along with inclusion in every NFL stadium. These four players broke the color barrier in 1946. "They took the abuse," Wooten points out. But everybody knows Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, and his No. 42 is retired throughout MLB and he's honored once a year when all players wear No. 42.
"We want the NFL to put their names in the Ring of Honor all over the league," Wooten says. "This is what I'll fight for with the league. I'm sure 99.9 percent of the Black players don't know who those guys are. These four guys don't even ring a bell."
Wooten also has a direct tie with one member of The Four. Browns owner Paul Brown asked Wooten to wear Willis' No. 64 when he arrived in Cleveland.
"The most endearing thing to me when I came to Cleveland in 1959," Wooten says, admitting at the time, "I didn't know any of this."
Well, he knows now, and he knows how these four players opened opportunities for him, and maybe even with the Cowboys organization. Wooten remembers in 1975 when Schramm called him, wanting to speak with him about a job. John thought Schramm was trying to hire him as an assistant coach.
"I said, 'No, no, I don't want to coach,'" Wooten says. "Then Schramm says, 'No, we're talking as an executive. Come and we'll train you.'"
So, Wooten became a scout of sorts, worked contract signings, saying he actually knocked out 1976 first-round pick Aaron Kyle's deal. Then Tex wanted Wooten to sit with him during home games. And not until 1989, Jimmy and Jerry's first season, after they parted ways with Gil Brandt, did Wooten ever get a title with the Cowboys, taking over as director of pro personnel.
Now when looking at the current 12-man list of coach/contributors, and knowing they will only nominate one, Wooten knows he's a long shot, in the same pool with coaches Don Coryell, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Dan Reeves (also with Cowboys ties as a player and assistant coach), Buddy Parker and Clark Shaughnessy, along with TV executive Roone Arledge, owners Robert Kraft, Art Modell, Art Rooney Jr. and personnel exec Frank "Bucko" Kilroy, by the way, a former scout for the Cowboys (1965-70) among many other stops, including with the Patriots from 1971-2006 as a scout and in various front office personnel posts.
"The reason I do what I do is what Gil and Tex did for me," Wooten says. "It's amazing the life I've had. I'm blessed, I'm blessed." All rather amazing, indeed.