When Bengals president Mike Brown receives the 2012 Game Ball from the Fritz Pollard Alliance Friday during a reception in Indianapolis, John Wooten can throw it all the way back to Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns of 50 years ago.
Wooten, chairman of the Alliance that seeks to diversify the coaching and front-office ranks of the NFL, was a guard on Brown's last four teams after he was drafted in 1959.
"The award goes to a person who has made a difference in leveling the playing field for minorities," Wooten said. "And it's a tradition that goes back to Mike's father."
That's why Wooten plans to have Brown's daughter, Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, a member of the NFL's diversity committee, present him with the award.
Brown, Blackburn and the Bengals were key figures in the early days of the Alliance and the Rooney Rule, which required teams to interview a minority for a head coaching job. As the rule was being formed in December 2002, it was unclear how owners would embrace it but the Bengals went ahead and interviewed Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis twice before making him the club's first African-American head coach.
"Mike did a good job. He did it very well, very professionally," said Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney, author of the rule, at the 2003 scouting combine where the Alliance was born. "I talked to him several times and I commend him. He's the guy that did it."
Wooten cited Brown's decision in sticking with Lewis after the 4-12 season in 2010 and reaping the benefits with a playoff berth in 2011.
"Showing that faith in Marvin Lewis gave them the chance to get into the playoffs," Wooten said, "and in addition showed his ability as an NFL executive to get his team into the playoffs despite losing his No. 1 quarterback and veterans at key positions like Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.
"And the playoff game (in Houston) really came down to a play that was made and a play that wasn't. (J.J) Watt made one for a touchdown and (Chris) Crocker didn't make one that would have been a touchdown."
With Lewis heading into his 10th season, he'll end the year breaking Dennis Green's record for the longest tenure by an African-American head coach with the same club. Green coached 159 regular-season games from 1992-2001 in Minnesota while Lewis has worked 144.
There'll also be a video honoring Paul Brown on Friday. Wooten's generation looked to the Browns like they did baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers. While Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947, Brown signed Hall of Famers Bill Willis and Marion Motley in 1946 to help break pro football's barrier.
But it still wasn't easy in the early '60s. Wooten recalls trips to Dallas, where there was only one hotel that would allow integration. And since there were no movie theaters that would, Brown eschewed his weekly ritual and kept the team in the hotel the night before the game, where the players watched the coin-operated TV sets.
"We stayed in that one hotel; we stayed together," Wooten said. "We talked to black guys on other teams and they said they had fights in the shower and were called racial slurs. We never had that. It was because of Paul Brown. He said, 'We're not black, we're not white, we're Browns and that's how we're going to act.' "