Is the white CB gone for good?
A week removed from Donovan McNabb's remarks about black quarterbacks, the nation prepares for another weekend of pro football, a game segregated by position.
For the sake of argument, consider the rule, and not the exception. Kickers and punters are white. Running backs (excluding the "throwback" blocking types) are black. Receivers are mostly black. Quarterbacks, as McNabb noted, remain predominantly white.
Still, a single black quarterback would be one more than the number of starting white cornerbacks.
"I may have been the last," says Jason Sehorn, who retired four years ago.
The last ever, he means. Sehorn, whose nickname among the Giants was "Species," now wonders if white cornerbacks are themselves extinct.
"Like the dinosaur," he says.
Then again, if in fact the white cornerback is a dead species, it wouldn't bother Sehorn too much. It is not, at least in his mind, a civil rights question.
"Being the last doesn't mean anything," he says. "It's not like being the first. It's not like I was a pioneer."
Sehorn, now an analyst for FOX Sports Net, considers black quarterbacks like James Harris and Doug Williams among the game's pioneers. He's more ambivalent on the subject of McNabb, who recently told HBO's James Brown that black quarterbacks "have to do a little extra" and that their white counterparts "don't get criticized as much as we do."
"As a journalist," says Sehorn, "the first thing I thought was, 'It's not the color of your skin. It's the city you play in.'"
Philadelphia, where it is brotherly to loathe, has the most notorious fans in America. Long before booing McNabb, they booed Santa Claus and Mike Schmidt. Sehorn — who notes that black quarterbacks have been drafted with the first pick in two of the last six NFL drafts (should've been three if the Texans had the sense to draft Vince Young) — ventures an educated guess that McNabb's comments are rooted in frustration, the voice of a man telling himself: "You take all this crap, and for what?"
"We played the Eagles twice a year and they never had a great wide receiver," says Sehorn. "But the one year they give him a great wide receiver — even if he was a malcontent — he gets them to the Super Bowl. And then what?"
Then he gets booed.
Still, as former player, there's something in Sehorn that feels obligated to qualify his answer.
"I've never been in McNabb's shoes," he says.
Translation: I've never been a black quarterback.
He has, however, been a white cornerback. And one can't help but wonder why the very idea has become such an anomaly. How many white kids from junior high through college were down-shifted, as it were, from corner to safety and from safety to linebacker in anticipation of a career at the next level?
Like most questions involving race and sports, these may be impossible to answer, but nevertheless worth asking. White cornerbacks lack the same historical baggage black quarterbacks have to carry, but by the same token, is there not a presumption against them? Didn't Jason Sehorn have to do "a little extra" to prove himself?
"No," he says.
His answer comes as something of a surprise. For a guy who grew up dirt poor without a father, Sehorn is devout in his belief that one should make his own breaks. It may sound naïve, but he considers professional football a meritocracy.
"I truly believe the best people play," he says. "No matter what color they are."
Sehorn played safety through his junior year at USC, and was projected as a safety when drafted by the Giants. He played two preseason games at the strong side position. By his own account, he was "awful." He was also bored.
"Sitting around doing nothing," he says. "It was mundane."
Finally, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan asked: "What do you feel most comfortable doing?"
"Playing corner," he said.
He believed he was a cornerback. And that's how he made his career, six years as a starter, the last white corner of any consequence since Atlanta's Scott Case back in the '80s. If a single play could illustrate Sehorn's virtues as an athlete, it would be his interception of McNabb in a playoff game on Jan. 7, 2001.
From Bill Pennington's story in the New York Times: "As McNabb let go of the ball, Sehorn, who had been retreating in coverage, broke forward and dived for the pass a few feet in front of (Torrance) Small. Sehorn got his hands on the ball, but he fell to the ground, rolling onto his back as he bobbled the ball. Lying on the grass and looking up, Sehorn batted the ball in the air, then caught it with two hands even as he was rising to run the other way.
"With the ball tucked under his arm, Sehorn quickly made a move to elude a Philadelphia lineman, then outraced McNabb to the corner of the end zone."
"I've never seen an interception like that," said Jim Fassel, the Giants coach.
"It was instinct," Sehorn said after the game.
Instinct? According to the ever-prevailing stereotypes, such instinct and athleticism is precisely what's lacking in so many white players.
Sehorn doesn't doubt that a form of prejudice, however benign, results in some white high school kids being steered away from positions like cornerback. Then again, part of the problem has to be the kids themselves.
"Some people are like sheep," he says.
You can't be a running back unless you believe you're a running back. Same goes for cornerbacks and quarterbacks.
"You have to believe in yourself," says Sehorn. "You have to believe that you can be the anomaly."