By Mary Beard
Special to Stlouisrams.com
More than 100 kids from Webster Groves High School and Hazelwood High School came together last week for a peek into the history of the NFL—even the history that wasn’t so pleasant.
Third and Long: A History of African Americans in the NFL is a multi-part documentary highlighting both the struggles and triumphs of African American professional football players. Rams legends such as Deacon Jones, Kenny Washington and Rosey Grier spoke throughout the film about their experiences. Many students were surprised to learn that the Rams were leaders in diversification—the first team to sign and play African American athletes post World War II.
The event, which was sponsored by Ameren Missouri and held in partnership with the Diversity Awareness Partnership, focused on small group discussions after the screening of the film where students had an opportunity to delve into the issues presented in the film as well as examine diversity issues that affect their personal lives, schools and communities.
Current Rams players Johnny Hekker and
The students watched the first part of the series, and then each of the featured guests discussed what they learned from the film. The students then broke into groups in classrooms throughout the school.
“When we first walked in, the body language was that they were not going to participate,” said Steve Parks, of Ameren-Missouri. “But we had an excellent facilitator and an excellent topic to discuss with them so over time their body language loosened up and they got involved. I believe that they sincerely understood how important it is that we make a difference.”
Topics covered in the small group discussions included bullying, stereotypes, diversity awareness and inclusion.
“You could see the wheels turning in their heads a little bit about what social change takes and how that affects the world around them, so I think it was a positive thing for the students to see,” said Johnny Hekker.
“Watching guys like Deacon Jones and Rosey Grier talk about how they worked so hard to desegregate their own teams--let alone the league--and to see where the league is now, where it’s predominantly African American, a lot people look at that and say, ‘wow, how things have changed!’” said Will Witherspoon. “There are still barriers that still need to come down and we can collaborate to break down those last few walls and put those bricks aside. But to be part of this game for as long as I have and to understand the history of the game is to only take it forward.”
Through the partnership on Third and Long the St. Louis Rams and Ameren Missouri are continuing their commitment to diversity in the St. Louis region. This is the second year the organizations have partnered on this program.
“The Rams are thrilled to continue our partnership with Ameren Missouri by bringing the history of professional football to local high school students and highlighting the unique role the Rams played in that history,” said Nicole Woodie, Rams community outreach and player involvement manager. “We as an organization have a lot to be proud of for the role we played in re-integrating professional football and providing opportunities for African American football players. We remain committed to these values and being leaders in the diversity arena.”