Obituary: John Nisby / Pro Bowl guard, former Steeler

Sept. 9, 1936 - Feb. 6, 2011


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John Nisby, a former Steelers lineman and three-time Pro Bowl offensive guard, died Feb. 6 of aspiration pneumonia. He was 74.

Mr. Nisby, who also battled Alzheimer's disease in recent years, played in the NFL for eight seasons and was one of the first black players to break the color barrier with the Washington Redskins, the last team in the National Football League to integrate.

"He did not follow the lead," said Eric Davis, Mr. Nisby's brother-in-law. "He was a guy with a lot of principle; that's what kind of guy he was. He wasn't your typical athlete."

Mr. Nisby was born in San Francisco and grew up in Stockton, Calif. He played football at the College of the Pacific in 1954-56 and received a master's degree from the University of Oregon. The Green Bay Packers drafted him in the sixth round of the 1957 draft, but he joined the Steelers before the season started. He played for Pittsburgh for five years and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1959 and 1961.

While in Pittsburgh, he worked with the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper, to gain equal employment policies at the companies that did business with the Steelers, and worked with the Rooney family to end segregation at a local beer distributor.

"You would never know that he was a football player," Mr. Davis said. "He never put that badge up on his chest."

He joined the Redskins for the 1962 season, when he made the Pro Bowl a third time. The Sporting News selected him as a first-team All-Pro in 1959 and '61.

Mr. Nisby joined the Redskins during a period of pressure to integrate. In 1961, Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall threatened Redskins owner George Marshall with federal retribution, including losing the right to play in the new D.C. Stadium, if he continued to refuse to sign black players. In 1962, the Redskins drafted Syracuse's Ernie Davis, the first black to win the Heisman Trophy, and later acquired Mr. Nisby from Pittsburgh.

After his football career, Mr. Nisby returned to Stockton, where he became active in the area.

He directed San Joaquin Delta College's College Readiness Program, served as a faculty adviser to the school's Black Student Union and was a city councilman. He also worked to end segregation in Stockton, Mr. Davis said.

"He was always into trying to make young people and people around him better than they were," Mr. Davis said.

Mr. Nisby is survived by his wife, Dr. Patricia Hatton, and five children: sons J.P. Nisby, a senior defensive lineman at Boise State, Jon, Shawn and James, and daughter Dawn; two siblings; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A funeral service was held Friday in Stockton.


Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com .


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