Willie Lanier was known as “contact” during his famed NFL career, but that wasn’t what stuck with him.
After nearly dying during his rookie season, the Hall of Fame linebacker knew he had to change his playing style and stop leading his head to tackle. The notion and slight adjustment gave way to Lanier taking on the nickname of “The Honey Bear,” which was affectionately given to him by former Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt.
“What I didn’t know was how lucky I was to be alive,” Lanier said.
“After making a tackle in a game back in 1967, I felt what they would call a concussion. Next week, I’m in Kansas City and in the huddle I collapse and I’m out for two hours. I stayed in the hospital for a couple days with some double-vision, but nothing too bad. I miss the next week and return to play the following week.
“We’re playing the San Diego Chargers and I go to make the play and have vertical double-vision because of damage in my head that wasn’t yet discovered. I went up to tackle and caught air. I go to the sidelines and take myself out of the game. The next week, I go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and they tell me I had a previously undiagnosed subdural hematoma.”
“My view is I was never going to play again,” Lanier admitted. “But God allowed me to play the game with the nature of physics. What I didn’t know is that the doctor I tapped on the shoulder to take me out of the game that day told me after I retired that he lost my pulse three times while being unconscious.”
Lanier went on to be an eight-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl Champion, NFL’s Man of the Year in 1972. Several years removed from his days of stalking opponents and the “sweet bruin” reference Lanier adopted is still being used for a higher purpose.
The Honey Bear Project established by Lanier gives back to historically black colleges and universities. An initiative near and dear to him as a graduate of Morgan State University, an HBCU nestled in the heart of northeast Baltimore. One of the goals put forth by the Project focuses on the football programs who’ve struggled to maintain an adequate playing surface.
The project seeks to raise $50 million over the next two years to build new state-of-the-art FieldTurf playing surfaces at over 30 HBCU football stadiums. “If you build it, they will come” is not just for the Field of Dreams, but a reality on the campus of Virginia Union University. A long 114-year gap from the first football game being played to having a new field was overdue to say the least.
Now, fans cheer on the VUU Panthers as they play on Willie Lanier Field at Hovey Stadium. An amazing accomplishment even the forever Chief is still in awe of knowing he’s part of something bigger than his legacy.
“It’s about giving back and providing a better field to these colleges and universities,” said Lanier. “A better playing surface is not only necessary, but it’s safer and reduces the risk for injuries. I want to create awareness to this problem of inequality.”
The history of NFL legends starting at an HBCU goes back to the league’s inception. Lanier, along with Shannon Sharpe, Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, and Michael Strahan are just a few to leave their mark on the game of football from a historically black college or university. A rare class of extraordinary athletes who’ve defied the odds. In fact, 30 HBCU players including the five aforementioned are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There are 20 HBCUs in the Carolinas, and out of those only five have established football programs participating in the Honey Bear Project, including Charlotte’s own Johnson C. Smith University.
In 1892, the institution originally known as Biddie University played in the first black football game against Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C. It was the birth of The Commemorative Classic, which has become an annual tradition at JCSU. A trailblazer in the game of football and in business as the first university in the south to offer professional courses in 1919.
For more information or for a list of participating schools, please visit honeybearproject.com.