Lanier, Willie E.

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LANIER, Willie E.

(b. 21 August 1945 in Clover, Virginia), football linebacker famed for the ferocity of his tackles and his team leadership; a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Lanier's ambition as a young man was to become a businessman. He began developing his athletic skills at the Randolph Center in Richmond, Virginia, and he played football for Maggie L. Walker High School, but he did not see his future in the National Football League (NFL). Although athletic scholarships were available to him, he wanted to go to a college that offered a business degree, and he wanted to go somewhere that racism was not as pressing a problem as it was in Richmond.

He decided on Morgan State University, a historically African-American college in Baltimore. When Lanier called Earl Banks, head coach for Morgan State, the coach was skeptical. Morgan had academic standards, and told Lanier that he would have to pass an entrance examination. Lanier made the journey to Baltimore, took the exam, and scored in the top 10 percent. Banks had said that no athletic scholarships were available, but Lanier wanted to attend Morgan State anyway. Eventually, after much effort, Banks was able to persuade the university to give Lanier a scholarship.

To Lanier, the purpose of college was to earn a degree, which he did, in business, in 1967. During his years at Morgan State, Lanier was cocaptain of the Bears football team for two years and the sole captain his last year. He played every down of defense and occasionally played on the offensive line, where he was outstanding as a blocker on running plays. In 1965 Lanier's defensive team allowed the opposition only 732 yards in total offense for the entire season. The Bears also launched a thirty-two-game winning streak. Morgan State went to two bowl games, in 1965 and 1966, with Lanier's play on offense being as notable as his hard-hitting play as linebacker was on defense.

In 1967 the Kansas City Chiefs (then in the American Football League) drafted Lanier in the second round, the fiftieth overall pick. He almost immediately enrolled in the graduate business program at the University of Missouri Kansas City. When asked why, Lanier said that all the other business graduates from Morgan State were going on to graduate school, so he thought he would too. Even when entering professional football, Lanier's deep interest in business did not waver, and he eventually earned his M.B.A. The Chiefs head coach in 1967 was Hank Stram, and he was mixing in rookies with veterans while building a team to beat Kansas City's league rivals, the Oakland Raiders. Lanier provided Stram with the final element he needed to create one of the finest linebacking corps ever, with veterans Bobby Bell and Jim Lynch. To Lanier, the name of the game was hitting, and he was given the nickname "Contact" because of how he pursued and hit opposing runners. He was also called "Honey Bear" because of his gentle manners off the field, and "Honey Bear" became the more popular nickname, perhaps because it captured the contrasts within Lanier—gentle and affable off the field, ferocious like an angry bear on the field.

Ferocity, intelligence, and a great physique all contributed to making Lanier immediately recognizable and fearsome. He carried 245 pounds on a six-foot, one-inch frame, with a twenty-inch neck and broad shoulders and a fifty-inch chest that tapered down to a thirty-four-inch waist. The sight of him created dismay among opposing fans, while inspiring hope in the Chiefs' faithful. He was also notable after his second season for his outsized helmet. During his first two seasons he played with more abandon than was wise, and he suffered several concussions—injuries that taken all together could have ended his career. He took to wearing a helmet with extra padding and he admitted, as a linebacker, "You must learn to control your aggression." Still, those who saw Lanier in his first seasons are likely to remember how his presence on the field was felt in each game from the very first Kansas City defensive play.

In 1969 Lanier helped the Chiefs achieve one of their greatest moments of glory. During the season, the Raiders had defeated the Chiefs twice in close, hard-fought games, among the most memorable in their long, angry rivalry. Under a convoluted playoff system invented by the American Football League (AFL) president for what would be the AFL's last season, the second-place team in each division would face the winners; the victors would then play for the right to appear in the Super Bowl. Both the Chiefs and Raiders won their games, thus pitting second-place Kansas City versus first-place Oakland; Kansas City won. This meant the Chiefs would meet the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. The Vikings were led by their agile and inventive quarterback Fran Tarkenton and had a powerful running game; they were heavily favored to win. The game was a tough one, but Lanier made his mark by stuffing one running play after another, and he helped the Chiefs win their only Super Bowl championship.

During his years in the AFL Lanier was named All-AFL twice; after the AFL and NFL merged he was named All-American Football Conference nine times and played in six Pro Bowls. Although Lanier was always tough on running plays, he was also a fine defender against passes, with twenty-seven interceptions in his career at middle linebacker. Still, it may be his tackling that was most memorable. Raider fullback Hewritt Dixon said that when Lanier tackled him, "Part of me landed one place and the rest of me someplace else."

Lanier retired from the NFL in 1977 and entered the corporate business world. He became the senior vice president, capital markets liaison for Wheat First Union Bank and Brokerage Firm in Virginia. His business savvy was valued, and he became in demand as a speaker for business conventions. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986. That year, he used his profits from banquets held in his honor to found the Willie E. Lanier Scholarship and Development Fund, which helps high school students enroll in historically African-American colleges.

Walton, Thompson, Lanier, Collins (1977), is a gathering of short biographies by longtime sports writer Bill Gutman. Its section on Lanier may be supplemented by Gutman's Gamebreakers of the NFL (1973). Charles Livingstone Allen and Ben Olan, Pro Football's One Hundred Greatest Players (1985), indicates why Lanier is regarded as a great player, as does Ron Smith et al., The Sporting News Selects Football's 100 Greatest Players (1999).

Kirk H. Beetz