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Friday, April 1, 2011
Why Warren Moon feels how he feels

By Mike Sando

The hour or so I spent with Warren Moon during Jake Locker’s pro day was no different than the hours I’d spent with him previously over the years.

We talked football, cracked a few jokes and watched Locker zip passes around the field.

"Fluid drop," Moon said as Locker set up in the pocket.

"Short delivery," Moon observed following the throw.

There was no way to know we’d be speaking again on the phone -- about racial issues, of all things -- only two days later. Had I known Moon would dive into the center of an emotional and very personal (for him) discussion about Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, I certainly would have raised the subject then.

“If I would have known this was going to happen, I would have talked to you at the pro day,” Moon said with a laugh Friday.

Cam Newton
Cam Newton's ability to lead and passing accuracy have been questioned.
That's the thing about Moon. He overcame much in becoming the first African-American quarterback in the modern era to earn enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he has never been one to push a racial or political agenda. I've never seen him discuss the subject unless someone asked him about it.

In this case, Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com called Moon to discuss some of the most recent criticisms directed toward Newton. Moon has come to know Newton in recent weeks while working as an unpaid adviser and mentor to him, so his feel for Newton was based on first-hand interaction. Some of the criticisms Freeman referenced -- specifically, those from Pro Football Weekly analyst Nolan Nawrocki questioning Newton's leadership, trustworthiness and the sincerity of his smiles -- struck a nerve with Moon.

Moon told Freeman he thought much of the criticism against Newton was "unfortunate and racially based." Nawrocki called such criticisms absurd.

The debate was on. The related story on ESPN.com generated more than 7,000 comments in roughly 24 hours. To more than a few, Moon had diminished his argument by "playing the race card" like a political opportunist. I knew that wasn't Moon's style, and as he explained Friday, he wasn't trying to score debate points.

"This isn't an argument to make you agree with me or not agree with me," he said. "It's what I feel, it is how I've lived, it is what I have been through. I am telling you how it makes me feel."

That distinction is critical and was central to the piece I wrote Thursday. On one level, this discussion is about what scrutiny is appropriate and at what point projections cross lines, including racial lines. On another level, it's about taking into account the personal experiences that authenticate Moon's reaction and, hopefully, add dimension to the conversation. This doesn't have to be a knock-down, drag-out brawl just because Moon raised a sensitive subject.

For me, this was more about finding out why Moon feels the way he feels. I asked him for specific examples of the experiences that have shaped his views. He first pointed to the 2005 incident in which a local NAACP leader criticized Donovan McNabb after the then-Philadelphia Eagles quarterback said he scrambled less in part because he wanted to break stereotypes about black quarterbacks. Then Moon reflected upon his own experiences.

"I remember back in 1990, I threw for over 500 yards in a game, the second-most ever, and I came out of the game because we had the game won," Moon said. "Well, I got criticized by our African-American newspaper in Houston and called an Uncle Tom by a writer here because I didn't break that record, because it would have been so important for African-Americans that I break that record just for the self-esteem of African-Americans.

"I remember on my birthday, I threw for four touchdowns against the Cleveland Browns and I'm all happy and the game is getting ready to be over, and the next thing I know, my security team comes over and tells me there have been death threats on my life at the game and they have to walk me off the field. Do I know exactly why those death threats came? No, but I have a pretty good understanding of what they were probably about.

"I could go situation after situation, whether it is hate mail I get or got, or mail that Daunte Culpepper got -- not hate mail like you are playing poorly, but really nasty stuff. When I tell you that you cannot relate to it unless you have gone through it, this is what I am talking about. This is day after day. When my kids are in the stands in Houston where I am playing in my home stadium and fans are calling me the n-word while my kids are sitting there listening and my son is crying to me after the football game wondering why I'm being called all these names, that is when it becomes different than when the average quarterback out there just had a bad game.

"Or when I'm having a great game, and some guy is out there saying -- and I heard this from behind our bench -- 'throw that ball like you chuck those watermelons out there in the field,' that type of stuff. It is a little bit different, just a little bit different."

Back to Newton. The 21-year-old has grown up in different times -- better times for black quarterbacks, as Moon is quick to point out. Thirty-plus years after Moon went undrafted out of the University of Washington amid supposed concerns over his height and arm strength, the 54-year-old Hall of Famer thinks NFL teams have become far more interested in drafting the best players, minus the discrimination.

And as Moon explained to ESPN's Colin Cowherd, he has no problem with the basic criticisms of Auburn's controversial quarterback. Newton's actions at Florida involving a stolen laptop and lingering issues related to his transfer to Auburn are what Moon would consider fair game. But Moon thinks the national championships Newton won make criticisms about leadership seem curious, particularly with Newton's teammates having told Moon the quarterback rallied them repeatedly. Moon thinks the high completion percentage and record-setting efficiency Newton posted in college raise red flags about questions over passing accuracy. And to say Newton has a fake smile? That part in particular grated on Moon.

"This isn't a subject I went out seeking," Moon said. "I do interviews all the time about this kid and this guy [Freeman] asked me questions about it [a possible racial element], and I told him it has a feel to me that I didn't like because I've felt it before.

"I didn't say it was blatant racism. I didn't say it was racism, per se. But I said it has a racial undertone to me that just makes me feel like the stuff that I have felt before. That feeling is my feeling and it is a feeling only I can relate to and maybe there are other guys out there like Doug [Williams] and those guys that would agree, and there might not be a whole lot of other people that do agree, but I bet those guys do."