You have to see one to be one.
And every single day growing up, Kevin Warren saw one in his father, Morrison.
Maybe that explains how Kevin ended up as the first black commissioner of the Big Ten, the first black leader of a big-time college athletics conference. “First black” was as commonly applied to his dad’s name as the title “Doctor.”
Morrison Fulbright Warren was Phoenix’s first black city councilman, its first black vice mayor, the first black man to lead a major bowl game and he helped integrate college football nationally.
“I was in awe of his background and what he came from and what he became and what he had to endure in his life … to overcome those things,” said Bill Shover, a longtime newsman with The Arizona Republic, who helped create the Fiesta Bowl and bring the Phoenix Suns to town.
“He was an inspiration to me,” Shover said.
Morrison Fulbright Warren — “Dit” to anyone who knew him before his death in 2002 — played for Arizona State College after he returned from the war in 1946.
Despite risking his life to defend his nation, he couldn’t play football in Texas.
“There may be a lynching or something,” is how Morrison Warren recalled the warning decades later, downplaying it in a 1997 interview with Arizona’s Historical League.
It must have affected him, because he told the story for the rest of his life, speaking with pride about white teammates and school administrators who stood up for him.
Kevin Warren heard all the stories.
He was the youngest of Morrison and Margaret Warren’s seven children. Father and son were uncommonly close.
Margaret died in 2012. But she lived long enough to see her baby boy adopt her husband’s passion, discipline, work ethic, fastidiousness and practicality.
She saw Kevin shuttle back and forth from Detroit, where he was working for the Lions, to be by his father’s deathbed.
It lasted about a year. Morrison never really did recover from the stroke he suffered in 2001. But in that time, Kevin heard all his dad’s old stories.
That game in El Paso against the Texas School of Mines came up.
There were plans to sneak Warren and one other black teammate, George Diggs, into town and out again immediately after the game. Warren and Diggs were either too proud or too gracious, but it didn’t go that way.
Arizona State made the trip without them and lost to the school now known as Texas-El Paso 21-0 on Nov. 8, 1947.
The Sun Devils would never play another segregated game.
“Arizona State was the first team in the country to break the color bans,” Morrison Warren told historians. “They were the first in the country who said, ‘No more.’”
‘A briefcase in high school’
Father and son were close before that final year, of course.
“One thing that was interesting,” Kevin Warren said, “my parents were married for 49 years, and almost made it to their 50th anniversary before they divorced, which was bizarre … I think that was the nature of my household was that it was complex, it was loving and supportive, but the best thing about it was that it was real.”
It had oddly positive effect.
As an elementary schooler, Kevin accompanied his father to countless public events.
“We got to spend so much time at breakfast meetings and lunch meetings and dinner meetings and banquets, and that’s why I have such fond memories of college football, because all of the Fiesta Bowl events my dad was invited to, I bet you 90 percent of them, I was his date,” Kevin said.
He learned how to speak with adults, how to sit up straight and look people in the eyes, how to use the proper utensils, how to ask questions and how to dress.
That last one had a hilarious result.
“This guy carried a briefcase in high school,” his childhood friend Kevin Tucker said.
“I tease him about it today whenever we get around people … That’s no joke, he had a briefcase in high school. He may have been the only person in high school, other than maybe a (teacher), carrying a briefcase.”
Kevin Warren is a good sport about it.
In the late 1970s, students at Tempe’s Marcos De Niza High School didn’t tote backpacks, and he just needed a place to keep his stuff.
“I was always a very practical person,” he said. “I had a bunch of books, and my dad had an older briefcase. And I saw him carrying a briefcase, so I asked him if I could use it, he said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I ended up using it. Said, ‘Man, this is perfect.’”
‘You have to pay your dues’
Kevin Warren is 55 years old, but he still carries countless stories from all that his father accomplished.
Of course, none of the big things mean as much as the little ones.
“I remember when my dad taught me how to tie a tie, how to polish my shoes, how to shake someone’s hand,” Kevin said.
And there were sayings, too.
“’Process is content for growth,’ … He said that, ‘process is content for growth,’ so many times that it’s become embedded in my spirit,” Kevin said.
“You have to go through a process,” Kevin explained. “You have to go through a journey. You have to pay your dues. That really is what gives you the strength and the content to really grow as a person — especially now that was live such a microwavable life. Everything is so quick now.”
His dad held a Ph.D in education.
“I think he had some insight of what this world was going to grow into.”
‘We talk every day’
This Father’s Day, Kevin Warren is getting ready to step into a whirlwind.
In a few months, he’ll be asked about whether more college football teams should be able to make the playoffs, whether players should be paid, what safeguards are in place to prevent sex abuse scandals or bribery scandals, and he’s going to have to be thinking about the next wave of billion-dollar media-rights deals.
But on Sunday, he’ll be thinking about his dad.
Kevin used to call his father regularly, even when he was busy climbing the ranks to become the NFL’s first black chief operating officer.
It wasn’t lost on Morrison.
“We talk every day,” he told a historian. “He says, ‘Dad, I don’t see how you did it.’ I say, ‘Kevin, I don’t see how I did it, either.’”
But isn’t it obvious? It was all the little things. It was the process.
That’s what allowed Kevin to see one — a real one.
And with his rise, his two children can see one, too.
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The Kevin Warren file
Born: Nov. 17, 1963, Phoenix
Education: B.A. in business administration, Grand Canyon; masters in business administration, Arizona State; Juris Doctor, Notre Dame Law School
Athletics career: Member of the GCU Athletics Hall of Fame (basketball)
Current position: Chief operations officer, Minnesota Vikings. Warren has spent 20 years working in the NFL, the last 14 with the Vikings.
Big Ten commissioner: Warren was named to the post on June 4, and he will assume his duties in September. Warren will fully replace Jim Delaney on Jan. 2, 2020.