Whatever happened to the white tailback?   

Updated: September 30, 2008, 1:05 PM ET

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When Michigan played Notre Dame, a freshman pounded the Irish for 131 yards rushing, slashing and slithering around defenders like an eel.

It was some coming-out party. But other than his ability, one thing really stuck out about this Wolverines tailback.

Sam McGuffie

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Michigan's Sam McGuffie is starting as a freshman and had 178 rushing and receiving yards against Notre Dame.

He's white.

Michigan hasn't had a white player start at tailback since Rob Lytle in 1976, which also was the last time a white tailback led the Maize and Blue in rushing.

If Sam McGuffie's breakout game against the Irish is any indication, maybe he'll be the one to break new ground for white tailbacks, who have become as rare a sight as Halley's comet.

"I really don't have too much to say about that," said McGuffie, who ran for 1,711 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior at Cy-Fair High School in Cypress, Texas, and gained YouTube fame for hurdling a defender. "If you can play the position, you can play the position."

Many of us watch sports not caring if the men on the field are purple or magenta, as long as they produce. But watch sports long enough and you inevitably notice trends and rarities. One of them is that white tailbacks at the college and professional level have become virtually nonexistent.

In 2007, just 13 of the top 100 rushers in the Football Bowl Subdivision were white. The SEC and Pac-10 each have just one white starting tailback in their respective leagues, Vanderbilt's Jared Hawkins and Stanford's Toby Gerhart. And McGuffie is the Big Ten's lone starting white tailback.

In the NFL, white tailbacks are even scarcer. Not one white player starts at tailback on any of the NFL's 32 teams. The last time a white tailback was taken in the first round of the NFL draft was 1974, when the Los Angeles Rams selected Penn State's John Cappelletti with the 11th overall pick.

With such a deeply entrenched trend, you wonder if ESPN college football analyst Craig James might be the last white player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in the NFL or if former Washington Redskins legend John Riggins will be the last white feature back to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"Fans write me all the time calling me 'The Great White Hope,'" said James, who ran for 1,227 yards with the New England Patriots during the 1985 season. "One of these days, someone will come along."

Short history of white running backs

Nick Goings
The last white running back to lead his NFL team in rushing, with 821 yards for the Panthers in 2004.

Mike Alstott
A fullback, Alstott led the Bucs twice in rushing (1999 and 2001) and finished with over 5,000 yards in his career.

Chance Kretschmer
Playing for Nevada, led Division I as a freshman in 2001 with 1,732 rushing yards, but suffered a knee injury as a sophomore and eventually went undrafted.

Tommy Vardell
The last white running back drafted in the first round, the fullback was taken ninth overall by Cleveland in 1992. Finished with 1,427 yards and 18 TDs.

Brad Muster
Like Vardell a Stanford product, Muster was drafted 23rd overall by the Bears in 1988. A fullback-type who complemented Neal Anderson, he ran for 2,231 career yards.

Craig James
The last white running back in the NFL to top 1,000 yards, gaining 1,227 for the 1985 Patriots. Suffered shoulder and knee injuries and played just 21 more games.

John Riggins
A bruising 230-pounder, Riggins topped 1,000 yards five times (the last in 1984) and had over 11,000 in his career. Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.

Rob Lytle
The last white running back to lead Michigan in rushing, ran for 1,469 yards in 1976 and finished third in the Heisman voting. Drafted in the second round by Denver and had 1,451 career yards in the NFL.

John Cappelletti
The last white tailback selected in the first round, the 1973 Heisman winner from Penn State was selected 11th by the Rams in 1974. Played nine seasons in the NFL, rushing for 2,951 yards.

It's difficult to tell whether the lack of white tailbacks is a result of nature or nurture. Are white athletes pursuing or being pushed into other positions because they're intimidated by the racial dynamics? Or is there something to the controversial theory that this is the merely the unraveling of genetic trends?

The answer is maybe … and maybe.

There's no doubt racial discrimination and exclusionist Jim Crow policies helped usher in "position profiling" in both the NFL and college football. For a long period of time, blacks were stereotyped as being intellectually incapable of playing certain positions, namely quarterback.

One position where African-Americans were welcomed was running back. After the NFL lifted its freeze on black players in 1946, one of the first players to reintegrate was Kenny Washington, a standout running back from UCLA. In his three NFL seasons, Washington averaged 6.1 yards per carry and was a top-five rusher in his second season.

Even then the NFL was a copycat league. After Washington and Marion Motley, the Hall of Famer who joined Cleveland in the All-America Football Conference in 1946 and averaged 5.7 yards per carry in his career, a wave of black runners entered the league in the 1950s and '60s

Suddenly the black running back was en vogue. The dynamics of the position had changed dramatically, with speed in the backfield becoming a major emphasis. And as time passed, white feature backs became a rare sight.

Certainly some white tailbacks have had successful NFL careers after the explosion of black players, but not many. Mike Alstott, one of the few fullbacks given feature back responsibilities, retired as the Tampa Bay Bucs' all-time leader in touchdowns (71) and the No. 2 rusher in team history (5,088). In 1999, the six-time Pro Bowler was 51 yards away from the 1,000-yard mark, finishing with a career-best 949 rushing yards. Twice, Alstott led Tampa Bay in rushing.

But Alstott has proved to be little more than an aberration among feature backs. The last team to win the Super Bowl with a white back leading the team in rushing yards was the 1983 Redskins with Riggins. A white back hasn't led the NFL in rushing since Green Bay's Jim Taylor in 1962. The last white player to lead his NFL team in rushing was Nick Goings, with the Carolina Panthers in 2004.

"I don't ever want to put a spin on it and say it's profiling," said Floyd Keith, the executive director of the Black Coaches Association. "I think it has a lot to do with the quality of player."

But there is evidence -- some of it anecdotal -- to suggest there is a degree of profiling when it comes to white runners.

"It used to be for the athletes playing in high school, if you were African-American and playing quarterback, the assumption was they were going to put you at wide receiver," James said. "That trend has been reversed and there's not a perception [African-Americans] can't play quarterback, but there is a perception that if you're a white guy and a running back, you need to move your position."

Gerhart, a junior at Stanford, said opponents used to express surprise when they realized he was the feature back.

"There were definitely times after games, the DBs, safeties or linebackers would say, 'God man, you can move for a white guy,'" said Gerhart, who ranks 15th in the nation in rushing yards among FBS players. "Even at the college level, my freshman year I played some and after they tackled me, they'd say, 'Man, you run good for a white guy' or 'You're my favorite white running back.'"

Recently, according to Gerhart, one of his friends was playing an NCAA video game and created a player with Gerhart's speed and dimensions (6-foot-2, 230 pounds, 4.43 in the 40-yard dash). When his friend made the player white, the game automatically described the video version of Gerhart as "power back." When his friend changed the skin color to black, he became an "all-purpose back."

"Maybe it's just basic stereotypes," Gerhart said. "Even now you're described as a 'power back.' They still discredit speed."

But Jon Entine, an author and researcher who has written about the role of genetics in sports dominance in several international and national publications, doesn't buy that white tailbacks are underrepresented because of discrimination.

"That's a superficially appealing argument," Entine said. "The opposite was said 25 years ago, or 30 years ago, when all the defensive backs used to be white in the early '60s. It wasn't a level playing field because blacks were not participating in any high numbers and sometimes it was said that blacks don't have the mental necessities and strategy that it takes to play defensive back. They were discouraged from going into that because they had other opportunities, like being a running back. Suddenly what was used to explain why there were a dearth of blacks is now being used to explain why [there is] a dearth of whites.

"At 8 years old or 10 years old, you don't look around and say, 'There are no white cornerbacks in the NFL so I'm not going to go out and try to be a cornerback.' I just don't think you squelch kids' fantasies."

Instead, Entine offers a far more controversial explanation for the lack of white running backs. He believes the reason is genetics.

Entine authored the book "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It." In the book, Entine makes the link between genetics, geography and sports dominance.

He suggests athletes with West African ancestors -- which would encompass a large percentage of African-Americans -- dominate sports requiring speed and jumping because of the body types and other physical characteristics that are typical of people from that region.

"Once the population designations were set," Entine said, "there are real differences in the gene frequencies in the east and west African population, which is quite different from populations around the world."

Entine points out athletes with East or North African ancestry and also those from Mexico and South America are likely to dominate endurance activities because they have evolved in highland terrains whose populations tend to have a larger lung capacity and lean physiques.

"It's geography and ancestry," Entine said. "It's not race."

Even though other geneticists have backed Entine's research, his findings are viewed by some as treading the same dangerous ground as Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, who became a pariah for theorizing that blacks were better athletes because of how slaves were bred.

While what Snyder said was crass and inexcusable, it did touch on some commonly held beliefs. In 2006, the University of Michigan released a study that found 74 percent of white men and 65 percent of white women believed blacks were biologically and genetically superior to whites when it came to athletics.

"The message for geneticists is that we need to be very careful when we discuss genetic differences involving human characteristics and traits," researcher Dr. Elizabeth Petty said when the study was released. "It's important to keep in mind how genetics can easily be misinterpreted by the media and the public in a way that may perpetuate racial stereotypes."

Entine refutes his research is in any way racist. He believes it is far more racist for the media to suggest the reason African-Americans succeed in sports is because they're escaping poverty -- he points to Kobe Bryant and Grant Hill as examples who contradict that assumption -- and says his research is not meant to imply that genetics is the only reason one race dominates a particular sport or position.

"I don't think it's anything to bemoan because that doesn't discredit the efforts of the African-Americans who have become great tailbacks, or great sprinters," he said. "They're all individuals. They're competing with a vast number of others and they're succeeding because of their hard work, their intelligence, all of the things that make great athletes. All their genetic endowment does is give them an opportunity to compete at a high level. As long as we don't lose sight of the individual and try to understand the pattern then I think we're OK about this stuff. The danger is when we try to suggest that somehow great tailbacks run out of the womb, just because of their West African ancestry they're destined for greatness."

Jemele Hill is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com


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