Kansas City Chiefs legend and Hall of Fame Willie Lanier gets a long-overdue biography, written by Joe Zagorski.
When Willie Lanier was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967, professional football still held the racist view that black athletes could not play middle linebacker. If it was spoken about then the excuse would be that black players did not have the intellect or leadership skills to play middle linebacker or quarterback.
Unspoken was the need to maintain the broader culture of white supremacy, which would be undermined by visible examples of black authority and leadership. It’s worth thinking about whether that still holds for coaches and owners, who remain overwhelmingly white.
That’s a subject for another time, however. By putting Willie Lanier at middle linebacker the Chiefs helped to change attitudes to race at the position. What made the biggest difference was Lanier’s exceptional skill. He was an adept defensive play caller, a superb reader of the game and a speedy player who hit hard. He was selected to the Pro Bowl every season from 1968 until 1975, was a three-time All-Pro, and led his defense to an unexpected win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. It was impossible to argue that black athletes couldn’t play the position when this one played it so well.
Zagorski’s book mostly focuses on Lanier’s playing career – there isn’t much about his off-field life, his family, and so on – with a particular emphasis on the Super Bowl-winning Chiefs. After he retired, Lanier went into business and his subsequent career was helped by his work ethic and willingness to be just one of a team. Lanier was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
Joe Zagorski is a former sportswriter and author of several football books, including The NFL in the 1970s and The Year the Packers Came Back. He is the winner of the Pro Football Researchers’ Association’s 2020 Ralph Hay Award for lifetime achievement in pro football research and historiography.
A book about Willie Lanier is long overdue, especially since he was the leader of a defense that boasts six Hall of Famers. Unfortunately, Lanier declined to be involved in the book, other than a what’s described as a “brief telephone conversation”. Zagorski has to rely on material published elsewhere and other interviews Lanier has given. He does an excellent job gathering that material but it does leave an unavoidable absence at the centre of the book.
That’s perhaps the reason why the book is a little one-dimensional. We don’t hear much about the off-field Willie Lanier. At the end of the book, I didn’t know whether Lanier had children or was even married. These things aren’t essential to know about a football player, but they do give a sense of a rounded individual.
Likewise, more than a quarter of the book deals with the 1969, Super Bowl-winning Chiefs. Granted, that was the pinnacle of Lanier’s career, but it’s also been covered a lot elsewhere. Meanwhile, the remaining eight seasons of Lanier’s career get the same amount of space, conveying the impression that he didn’t really accomplish much after that Super Bowl.
America’s Trailblazing Middle Linebacker is a solid book about an important player but it’s hard not to feel that it could have gone deeper.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
Throughout the book there are excellent anecdotes and quotes from teammates like Johnny Robinson, Bobby Bell and even an excellent quote from author TJ Troup. The book also lays out Lanier’s post-NFL career in which he was as much a success in business as he was in football.
Pro Football Journal