John Smallwood | Dungy, Smith worth cheering about

SOME PEOPLE SAY the only reason that Bears coach Lovie Smith and Colts coach Tony Dungy being the first African-American coaches in a Super Bowl is a story is

because people like me make

it one.

Some say that nobody would care about the color of Dungy's and Smith's skin if it weren't brought up by folks like me.

I'd say, to some degree, those people are right. I say that

without apology.

To a lot of African-Americans, certainly including myself, their erasing another long-standing

racial myth is cause for celebration.

"I hope for a day when it is

unnoticed," Smith told reporters on Sunday after Chicago beat the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game,

making him the first African-American to coach a team to the Super Bowl, mere hours before Dungy's Colts beat the New

England Patriots for the AFC

title, "but that day isn't here."

For all intents and purposes, that day will be Feb. 4, the day Dungy or Smith holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy as the winning coach of Super Bowl XLI.

After that game, no one will

ever be able to say that any

African-American can't lead a group of men to a Super Bowl championship.

Again, I know plenty of people already believe a person's race has nothing to do with his or her ability to achieve.

I'm one of them.

I also know that we've come quite a ways since 1989 when the Oakland Raiders hired Art Shell as the first African-American NFL head coach in the modern era.

The 2006 NFL season started with a record seven black head coaches. That's 21.8 percent, which is almost double the 12.3 percent of African-Americans

in the U.S. population, according to the 2000 census.

Clearly, many of the old racial perceptions that had been used as "unspoken" barriers against African-Americans have crumbled.

But you must also understand that the scars left from the damage done by those perceptions haven't had time to fully heal.

Our past always shapes how we view our present.

I was born in 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was passed and 3 years before history says the civil rights movement ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

While technically that meant African-American kids of my generation grew up with legal protection from discrimination, it didn't free us from experiencing prejudice.

It didn't shield us from a societal perception that we were still inferior.

It didn't stop a lot of folks from believing, preaching and reinforcing the notion that we couldn't acheive certain things because we were African-American.

And remember, two older generations of African-Americans grew up directly suffering the

indignities and missed opportunities caused by segregation.

How many African-American doctors, lawyers, judges, scientists, and, yes, even NFL football coaches were simply lost because someone arbitrarily

determined that a black person was not capable of performing that job?

As much as I remember being excited that Doug Williams became the first African-American quarterback selected in the first round of an NFL draft in 1978, I remember being angered and perplexed that 1978 Rose Bowl MVP Warren Moon went undrafted after 12 rounds because he wanted to remain a quarterback.

He had to go to the Canadian Football League for the first 6 years of his career before

getting a shot in the NFL.

Unless you've lived through it, I'm not sure I can fully explain what it feels like to be told you are limited solely because of your race.

But I can tell you that you don't just "get over it" because things have improved in the past decade or so.

Celebrating the achievement of firsts is one of my birthrights as an African-American.

If some people choose to think that makes me bitter or stuck in the past, I can live with that.

I embrace the racial aspect of the Super Bowl story of Dungy and Smith. I understand its

importance and appreciate its significance.

It's the same way I appreciated the significance of Williams being drafted and later becoming the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl in 1987; Shell's hiring; former Eagles coach Ray Rhodes becoming the first

African-American coach to get rehired after being fired.

I celebrate these stories of achievement because prejudice and stereotyping once prevented them from being told. Now, they never will have to be written again. *

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