Willie Lanier played middle linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs for 11 seasons from 1967 through 1977. As the first African-American to star at that demanding position, he not only was a true pioneer but also the key man on one of the National Football League's strongest defensive teams.
At 6-1 and 245 pounds, he presented an awesome image to any quarterback who lined up against him. He became known and respected for his ability to track down enemy ball carriers and devastate them with the force of his tackles. He was called "Contact" because of his powerful hits on the opposition. Yet he was intelligent and disciplined and obviously much more than just a hitter in his role as quarterback of the defense.
He was All-Pro, All-AFL or All-AFC every year from 1968 through 1975. He was elected to the last two AFL All-Star games following the 1968 and 1969 seasons, and the first six AFC-NFC Pro Bowl games after the merger. He was the defensive MVP in the 1971 Pro Bowl. For a defensive player, he also did well statistically.
Except for his first and last seasons, he intercepted at least two passes every year and wound up with 27 thefts, which were returned for 440 yards and two touchdowns. He also recovered 18 fumbles. Lanier was a two-time Small College All-America at Morgan State. He was a second-round choice of the Chiefs in the 1967 draft and overcame stiff opposition to grab a starting job in the fourth game of his rookie season. He proved to be one of the most durable of all NFL stars of his time. He missed the last four games of his rookie campaign and then sat out only one more game in the next 10 seasons.