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Bob Wallace Proud Of His Role As NFL Trailblazer

Lawyer hired to negotiate contracts for Cardinals in 1981

AZC_Bob Wallace

Bob Wallace looks back on his decade with the Cardinals as a wonderful experience.

It was equally historic.

Wallace was hired by owner Bill Bidwill in 1981 to negotiate player contracts despite just finishing law school. Wallace became the first African-American to have such a position in the NFL. Four decades later, Wallace recognizes the magnitude of his role.

"I think you can take pride in it because you want to open up some doors for others," Wallace said. "I think it opened up some doors for other African Americans entering the business. I think it opened up doors for a younger generation to come.

"I was very aware of my role and I was very proud of it."

As Black History Month begins, Wallace spoke of his NFL journey -- one of the first in the NFL -- and the Cardinals' ongoing effort to increase opportunities for people of color. In 1979, the Cardinals hired Adele Harris as the team's director of community relations, making her the first African-American female executive in the NFL.

The Bidwill family has made it a point to lead the charge in improving diversity throughout the league. Owner Michael Bidwill serves on the NFL's diversity, equity, and inclusion committee.

"Bob is still a friend of the organization and someone who helped steer us through some critical years," Michael Bidwill said. "I think there was a real bond between (Wallace and Bill Bidwill)."

One of the things that Wallace is most proud of during his time with the Cardinals was how he bridged the divide between the players and the club.

"Cardinals player contract negotiations were antagonistic when I started," Wallace said. "What (Bill Bidwill's) idea was to hire an outside lawyer, although it kind of became a fiction because once the outside lawyer had done this for two years, you were really considered part of the team."

Before he became a lawyer, Wallace spent many days roaming the sidelines at Cardinals training camp in Lake Forest College in Chicago, Illinois as a ballboy. That's where the connection with the team first began.

Once he started working with the Cardinals at 25, he could relate to the players. It was one of the reasons why the relationship improved between the front office and the players.

"He always gave great advice and in terms of his player negotiations," Michael Bidwill said. "He was ahead of his time. He brought a professionalism to it as a lawyer and a negotiator. Personally, he was influential on my decision to go to law school. That had a profound effect on my life."

Society as a whole has changed significantly over the past 45 years. There were plenty of times that Wallace would be the lone minority sitting in a room with then-commissioner Pete Rozelle and other league executives. Each time Rozelle would look around the room, he'd acknowledge that the league needed to do a better job of inclusion.

"My Dad was always proud to have Bob with him at owner's meetings and different league activities," Michael said. "Oftentimes, Bob would be the only black man in the room. For me, it was a point of pride for my Dad and meaningful for Bob as well."

A lot has changed since then. Wallace currently serves as the chairman for the Thompson Coburn Sports Law Group in St. Louis. The business and diversity throughout the NFL has grown as well. Thinking back to those meetings, Wallace wasn't sure he envisioned how far the league would have come in this area.

Wallace said he believes there are still some disparities for "African-American executives and coaches to climb the ladder and that steep climb is not the same for the white coaches."

He added that the league, especially considering how offense-driven the game has become, is also severely lacking African-American offensive coordinators. There's room for more as the league continues to emphasize diversity on the sidelines and in the front office.

"I think the league still has a way to go, but they have improved," Wallace said. "This hiring cycle has been better from the head coach ranks. There are several general managers that are people of color that are doing a great job. I think there's room for improvement but there has been a lot of improvement."