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Gold Jacket Spotlight: Willie Lanier Still Striving for Equality

Gold Jacket Spotlight: Willie Lanier Still Striving for Equality

01/16/2022
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Many of the country’s Historically Black College and Universities were founded because students of color lacked the opportunity to compete on a “level playing field.”

Despite much progress over the decades, at many of those institutions the “unlevel playing field” still exists – in the form of football stadiums and other athletic facilities long overdue for renovations and upgrades.

Willie Lanier, who this week steps into the Gold Jacket Spotlight, has teamed with two turf companies to help provide level football fields at dozens of HBCUs.

“How can you talk about being equal?” Willie asked rhetorically in an interview with a television affiliate in his hometown of Richmond, Va., as he walked the new turf field bearing his name at Virginia Union University. “How can you talk about an opportunity to expand if you’re not in the same kind of facility and view of others? How do you start taking the steps?”

Willie decided a couple of years ago he could start “taking the steps” by creating the Honey Bear Project – the name coming from the nickname teammates gave him in his second pro season.

Honey Bear Project has set as its mission the replacement of damaged and outdated synthetic fields – or the installation of FieldTurf for the first time – at 36 HBCUs at minimal or no cost to the schools. So far, Willie has been on hand for dedications at Virginia Union and more recently at Central State in Ohio.

For the Honey Bear Project to reach its goal, Willie estimates he and his partners will need roughly $50 million. He knows raising that kind of capital will be an uphill climb, but Willie has conquered challenges all his life.

As a high school standout in Richmond, Willie had an opportunity to play college football on a scholarship, but he opted to attend Morgan State for its academic programs. He joined the Bears’ football team as a walk-on and quickly made a huge impression.

By his junior season, Willie had risen to small-college All-American, an accolade he repeated as a senior in helping Morgan State record a second consecutive unbeaten season. He capped his collegiate career with the MVP award in the 1966 Tangerine Bowl.

Drafted in the second round by the Kansas City Chiefs, Willie struck another blow for equality by earning the starting position at middle linebacker – something a Black player had not accomplished previously in pro football.

Over an 11-year career in the AFL and NFL, Willie was named a first-team All-Pro three times and was selected to play in a combined eight AFL All-Star or AFC-NFC Pro Bowl games. He is a member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and the NFL 100 All-Time Team.

In 1972, he received the NFL’s Man of the Year Award.

After his playing career, Willie became a successful stockbroker and entrepreneur.

He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986 and as a member of the Black College Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 2010.

Promoting and sustaining HBCUs remains a special cause.

“With these fields, I hope to leave a bigger footprint on the game of football,” Willie said. “I want athletes to know you have the ability to go somewhere, do something, and then have a hand in changing something that needs to be changed.”

Honey Bear Project website says it also hopes to “ignite new developments in those communities and foster economic growth.” To learn more, go to HoneyBearProject.com.

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