The Complete History of African American Quarterbacks in the

National Football League (NFL)

 

By Lloyd M. Vance, Editor of BQB-Site.com, Website dedicated to the History, News, and Accomplishments of African American Quarterbacks.

 

With many African American Quarterbacks achieving success in the Pee Wee, Scholastic, College, and Professional ranks and with the retirements of the first wave of prominent African American Quarterbacks (James Harris, Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, and others), I felt that reviewing the history of these men and the pioneers before them was much needed.  History has shown that the journey of the African American QB was not an easy one, but when given the opportunity these men thrived in a system that was sometimes stacked against them.  African American Quarterbacks are now in 2007, no longer an anomaly and are thriving.  Their journey was definitely justified this past year as Warren Moon became the first Full Time African American Quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  His induction was a testament to himself and his predecessors at the position that overcame obstacles seen and unseen.  Moon rode into the Hall of Fame on the shoulders of Willie Thrower, Marlin Briscoe, James Harris, Doug Williams and other pioneering African American quarterbacks.  African American Quarterbacks in their history have been shunned, converted to other positions, fought for inclusion, stereotyped (Drastic Misconceptions about the Leadership and Intelligence of African American Quarterbacks) and chased opportunities in other leagues, but they have persevered to go from an Unwanted Oddity to Flourishing leaders.  Their extensive history is documented below:

 

Early Years (1890’s – 1946)

 

The first mention of African Americans playing football was in a College Football game played on November 23, 1892 (Thanksgiving) between historically black colleges Biddle (Later Johnson C. Smith) and Livingstone.  The game was won by Biddle by a score of 4-0.  After the historic game many African Americans continued to play during this era for historically black colleges and predominantly white universities.  In the early days of pro football the African American professional football player was just another player in a renegade sport.  African American Football players along with Whites and Native Americans were just trying to survive in an era where baseball, boxing, and college football reigned superior on the American Landscape.  The pro football was considered barbaric and illegal, because it lacked structure, a fan base, and the prestige of college football. Teams were loosely organized around factories/colleges/athletic clubs, featured players that jumped around from team to team, sporadic to little pay, fraught with fighting, and had college players play under assumed names.  In the Pre-NFL days African American players from Colleges and Schools were recruited to play, with usually a promise for a job during the week.  These players included: Halfback Charles W. Follis (Wooster) Shelby Athletic Club 1902-06, who is known to be the first black professional football player, Halfback Henry McDonald (Canandaigua Academy), who played for the Rochester Jeffersons from 1911-1917, and Halfback Charles (Doc) Baker, who did not attend college, but played for the Akron Indians from 1906-08 and 1911. 

 

Until 1906, the forward pass was illegal in the game of football, so there was not a true “Quarterback”.  The first authenticated pass completion in a pro game came on October 27, 1906 when George (Peggy) Parratt of Massillon threw a completion to Dan (Bullet) Riley in a victory over a combined Benwood-Moundsville team.  Before the forward pass, the ball was hiked to the “Back” or “Signal Caller” and he negotiated behind his blockers (line of scrimmage) against the defense toward the goal line to score and he could only lateral the ball backward until he was tackled.  One of best “Signal Callers” of this time was Frederick (Fritz) Pollard a back from Brown (Class of 1918).  Pollard was born on January 27, 1894 in Rogers Park, Illinois and though even standing only 5’9 and weighing 165 pounds, he ran with a hard slashing style that defied his size.  At Brown as a freshman in 1915, Pollard led his team to the Rose Bowl against Washington State, becoming the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl.  In his senior year he was named to Walter Camp’s All- American first team, the first African American in the backfield.  Professionally he played in the American Professional Football Association (Precursor to NFL) for seven years for Akron (1919-1921, 1925-26), Milwaukee (1922), Hammond (1923, 1925) and Providence (1926).  Even though Pollard faced discriminatory tactics by fans and opposing players, including the racially insensitive song “Bye Bye Blackbird” and dressing away from his teammates, he continued to prosper as he did in college.  He led the Akron Pros to the championship in 1920, attaining All League status and was lauded along with Jim Thorpe as the major gate attractions.  Later on he was the first African American head coach in the NFL (Hammond, Indiana) and is credited on the Fritz Pollard website (www.fritzpollard.com) and by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as being the first African American Quarterback, playing the position and taking direct snaps from center in a T-Formation for the Hammond Pros in a couple of games in 1923.  He was elected to the College Hall of Fame (1954, 1st African American) and was finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 almost 80 years after his playing days were over.  He died in 1986 at the age of 92 and was a true pioneer of the game and left a lasting legacy for future African American Quarterbacks and players.

 

 Also during this period African Americans were playing quarterback in the college game.  One of the first documented African American Quarterback only players was Wilmeth Sidat-Singh of Syracuse.  He played quarterback in 1937 and 1938.  Sidat-Singh was known for having a strong and accurate throwing arm.  Teams sometimes after learning that Syracuse had a black player refused to let Sidat-Singh play.  One of these teams was Maryland, which refused to let Sidat-Singh play in 1937 and won the game, but in October of 1938 Sidat-Singh would not be denied leading Syracuse to a 53-0 victory.

 

The NFL did not have black players from 1934 to 1946. When the league started to gain popularity in the 1930’s and to avoid public “backlash” from a lack of white players during the depression, the league no longer signed black players due to a “Gentleman’s Agreement” to keep the league like Pro Baseball, “All White”.  This was an unfortunate bad spot in the NFL’s history.  During this time African American Players formed their own teams and played against each other and in some interracial exhibition games.  One of the more famous teams of football’s “Negro Leagues” was the New York Brown Bombers backed by Joe Louis and coached and managed by Fritz Pollard.  Pollard also coached and managed the Chicago Black Hawks football team during this time.

 

 

Modern Era Years (1946 -1969)

 

By 1946 the NFL after the signing of Jackie Robinson in Major League Baseball, also decided to integrate the league again.  Halfback Kenny Washington from UCLA and the San Francisco Clippers (PCPFL) on March 21st and End Woody Strode on May 7th both signed with the Los Angeles Rams to become the first African-Americans to play in the NFL in the modern era.  Also at this time Guard Bill Willis on August 6th and Back Marion Motley on August 9th joined the All American Football Conference (AAFC) with the Cleveland Browns. Even with African American players returning, the league was still very slow to embrace African Americans at the so called “Thinking Positions” (Quarterback, Center, and Middle Linebacker), because of “backward” stereotypes.

 

In 1953, seven years after Washington and Strode broke the modern color barrier in pro football; Backup Chicago Bears QB Willie Thrower became the first African-American quarterback to solely play quarterback in an NFL game on October 18, 1953 against the San Francisco 49ers.  He played under center and received the snap directly, making him the first African American Quarterback since Pollard in 1923.  Thrower a native of New Kensington, Pennsylvania had already been the first African American Quarterback in the Big 10 conference, playing for Michigan State from 1950 to 1952, helping them win the National Championship in 1952.  In his historical game, Thrower went 3 for 8 for 27 yards in a 35 to 28 loss.  What was unfortunate about the game was George Blanda, who had struggled before Thrower was inserted was reinserted into the game at the 5 yard line to complete a drive Thrower had started. After his debut against the 49ers, Thrower never appeared in another NFL game.  Before the next season Thrower, who made the Bears team in 1953 as basically a “walk-on” was cut before the 1954 season.  Thrower wanting to play quarterback and without any other takers in the NFL decided to go to the Canadian Football League, playing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and semi pro in Toronto for four years before injuries shortened his career.  He retired at age 27, returning to New Kensington where he raised a family and open a couple successful businesses.  Known for having extremely large hands for a 5’11 man, he was featured on “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” for his hands and for his feat of a black man playing quarterback, which was considered an oddity at the time.  Thrower had a good outlook on his brief time at quarterback in the NFL and told The Valley News Dispatch of Tarentum, Pa., before he passed away in 2002. "I look at it like this: I was like the Jackie Robinson of football. A Black quarterback was unheard of before I hit the pros,"

 

Around the same time period George Taliaferro, a single-wing tailback from Indiana University started two games as a T-formation quarterback for the Baltimore Colts in 1953.  He only got the chance to play quarterback, because of a rash of injuries to the three other quarterbacks on the roster and the coach relenting.  Taliaferro took the snap from center in a “Shotgun” fashion and had to decide to pass or run very quickly.  After those two games, he played Halfback primarily and only attempted two more passes in his career.  Taliaferro was a big strong runner, who was considered as tough to bring down as Marion Motley.  At Indiana Taliaferro was known for his excellent play on the field and gaining access for African American students to campus and public facilities during the mid 1940’s.  He led Indiana to the Big 10 championship in 1945.  After a stellar career at Indiana, he was the first African American picked in the NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears in the thirteenth round of the 1949 draft, but elected to sign with the Los Angeles Dons of the AAFC. He played with the Dons in 1949; New York Yanks 1950-51; Dallas Texans 1952; Baltimore Colts 1953-54; Philadelphia Eagles 1955.  He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1951, 1952, and 1953.  He finished his NFL career with 61 Games Played, 47 Completions from 160 Attempts  for 843 yards with 6 TD’s and 15  Interceptions.  His statistics show that he was a better runner than a passer throughout his career, finishing with 1794 yards and 10 TD’s rushing, but you never know if Taliaferro could have been a passing quarterback if he had the right coaching and support.

 

 The next quarterback to get an opportunity to play was Charlie "Choo Choo" Brackins in 1955 for the Green Bay Packers.  Drafted in the 16th round of the 1955 NFL Draft by the Packers out of Prairie View A&M, where he was a four-year starter and led his team to 33 victories in 37 games.  He was a big tall passer at 6’2 and 205 Lbs.  Brackins became the fourth black quarterback to play in an NFL game when he played in the closing minutes for the Green Bay Packers in a blowout game against Cleveland on October 23,1955.  Green Bay won the game 41-10 and Brackins had two incompletions.  The Packers placed him on waivers later in the season after he had broken curfew before a game in Chicago and other unnamed problems.  His career only lasted seven games and the game mentioned earlier was his only appearance.  After the “Violations”, Brackins never got a chance to return to the NFL.  He had tryouts, mostly as a defensive back, but never caught on again and injured his knee leaving the game.  He died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 58.

 

There was another drought of African American Quarterbacks again after Brackins’ “Violations”.  This seemed to be calculated move by NFL owners and personnel evaluators, who lived by the “One Strike and Out” rule at the time, especially when it meant putting your coaching career in jeopardy for a black quarterback.  Unfortunately all African American Quarterbacks were lumped into the “problem” category or the "Should be converted to another position" category, because of long held racial bias formed by many Southern trained coaches.  College quarterbacks that excelled at this time, but not receiving a chance included: Sherman Lewis of Michigan State, Mel Myers of Illinois, Wilbur Hollis of Iowa (QB of 1960 Big 10 Co-Champions), Jimmy Raye also of Michigan State (Converted by Philadelphia Eagles to Defensive Back), Sandy Stephens of Minnesota, and others.  Stephens was the first African American starting quarterback to win a national championship in 1960.  He finished 4th in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1961 and was drafted by Cleveland (NFL) in 2nd Rd and NY Titans (AAFC) in 5th Rd, but he never played in the NFL because he was never offered the chance to play quarterback.  He went to the Canadian football League (CFL) and played with Montreal in 1962 leading the Alouettes to the Grey Cup Finals.   He later signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as a fullback, but never got to play quarterback other than practice and retired in 1968.  Sandy Stephens died on June 6, 2000 at age 59.

 

In 1968 the plight and drought of African American Quarterbacks seemed like it was going to change with the drafting of Tennessee State Quarterback Eldridge Dickey by the Oakland Raiders in the 1st Round with the 25th Overall pick.  Dickey became the first African-American Quarterback selected in the first round by an AFL or NFL team.  The American Football League (AFL) having been established for only 8 years was considered to be more open-minded toward black players and the league and time seemed right for a breakout African American quarterback.  Dickey played from 1965 to 1968 at Tennessee State, setting many historically black college records.  He led his team to bowl berths in 1965 & 1966 and was known for having a strong arm and the ability to make plays on the move.  Dickey believed that he was going to be the first African American Quarterback to play and maybe start on a regular basis. However the Raiders decided that Dickey would play wide receiver first and be allowed to practice with the quarterbacks in training camp.  Dickey was paid a higher salary to except the position change and did so hoping for an opportunity to play quarterback.  In training camp he performed very well and by some accounts outplayed Ken Stabler also drafted in 1968 in the 2nd Round from Alabama.  After training camp Dickey was moved back to Wide Receiver permanently.  He played in 11 games in 1968 finishing with 1 catch for 34 yards.  Dickey hung around on injured reserve and as backup WR with the Raiders for a couple of years and in the 1971 season he finished with 4 catches for 78 yards and 1 Touchdown.  He never got the opportunity to play quarterback in the AFL/NFL, which many say left him disheartened about football and he left the league after the 1971 season.  Dickey later became a minister and died May 22, 2000 after suffering a stroke.

 

Instead of Dickey making an impact on pro football in 1968 there was another African American Quarterback that broke through that year.  Marlin Briscoe from University of Omaha was drafted in the 14th Rd by the Denver Broncos (AFL) in the same draft as Dickey.  Briscoe had been a two-sport star (basketball and football) in the Omaha area in both high school and college.  Though he was small at 5’11, 185 lbs, Briscoe could more than get the job done as a quarterback.  He was well schooled in the position by his uncle Bob Rose a youth coach in the Omaha region.  He finished his senior year of college with 2,283 yards passing and was named a NAIA All-American in 1967.  He was nicknamed the “Magician” in college for the way he magically got away from defenders to make plays on the move.  When Briscoe was signed by the Broncos, they asked him to come in as defensive back.  Briscoe had been warned that pro football was still not ready for a black quarterback and he had already experienced similar treatment in high school where he had to play running back to get on the field.  His college coach Al Caniglia knew Briscoe wanted to play quarterback and advised him to have his contract stipulate that in training camp he be given a three day tryout at the position.  When he arrived at training camp there were 8 quarterbacks and Briscoe was listed last on the depth chart.  During the beginning of the open to the public training camp, Briscoe dazzled at the position, but was moved to the defensive backfield after his three day tryout.  Briscoe wanting a chance to make the team accepted the move, but fate snuck in to help him.  Starter Steve Tensi broke his collarbone and backup Joe DiVito was unproductive.  Briscoe finally got his chance in the 3rd game of the season against the Boston Patriots.  He entered the game with the Broncos trailing 20-7 and almost helped them pull out a victory in a 20-17 loss, scoring a touchdown running the ball.  After his showing Head Coach Lou Saban reluctantly named him the starter and he became the first African American Quarterback to start for a team.  He ended up playing in 11 games, 7 of which he started.  He finished with a Broncos rookie record of 1,589 yards passing and 14 TD’s, plus 308 yards rushing.  Some of Briscoe’s records stood until John Elway came along in 1983.  The next season when Briscoe arrive at training camp, he was informed by Saban that he was no longer a quarterback and was cut without an explanation.  Briscoe needing an opportunity almost signed with the British Columbia Lions (CFL).  Instead he got picked up by the Buffalo Bills as an “Athlete”.  The Bills were already set at quarterback with Tom Flores and Jack Kemp, additionally they already had an African American Quarterback in 1969 draftee James Harris, so Briscoe was moved to wide receiver.  Briscoe practiced at quarterback only when the others were injured and strictly played wide receiver.  He later developed into a quality receiver, playing three seasons for the Bills and earning Pro Bowl honors for the 1970 season, finishing with 57 catches for 1036 yards and 8 touchdowns.  After leaving Buffalo, Briscoe continued to play WR with the great Miami Dolphins teams of the early 1970’s including the 1972 perfect 17-0 team.  On those Dolphin teams Briscoe was known as the perfect compliment to future Hall of Famer Paul Warfield, because he could always find ways of reading coverage and getting open.   He continued to play until 1976, playing with Detroit, San Diego and ending his career with the New England Patriots.  Unfortunately Briscoe never got to achieve success at the quarterback position after a stellar rookie season in 1968.  He later beat drug addiction and now counsels and coaches children in the Los Angeles area.

 

 

Building Years (1970 – 1980)

 

With the merger of the NFL and AFL in 1969 and the influence of new commissioner Pete Rozelle the NFL seemed ready to move forward.  The merger driven by the NY Jets historic win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III the previous year (1968) had brought exposure, which led to a large television contract for the league, making it an “American Institution”.  Also with pro football taking a lead from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, there was an emergence in the league of more successful leading African American players.  African American players were now more established, rebelling and speaking out against longstanding stereotypes of black players.  This was different than in the 1950’s and 1960’s when they had to keep quiet to conform and survive.  African Americans were starring on both offense and defense at practically every position except Center, Punter, Kicker and most importantly Quarterback.  The popularity of the game also brought a rival league in 1974 the World Football League (WFL).  The WFL did not last long closing shop midway through the 1975 season.  In the college game, African American Quarterbacks were still succeeding and now at predominantly white universities where blacks usually were blocked from playing the quarterback position.  These quarterbacks included: Donnie Little – University of Texas, Dennis Franklin – University of Michigan, JC Watts & Thomas Lott – Oklahoma, Condredge Holloway – Tennessee (1st Black QB in SEC), Jimmy Jones – USC (QB of National Champions in 1971), Gene Washington – Stanford, and others.  Another African American College Quarterback of this time that deserves to be mentioned is University of Toledo (OH) Quarterback Chuck Ealey.  Ealey (5’11, 195 lbs) from 1969 to 1970 was undefeated as Toledo’s QB, going 35-0 and leading his team to victory in the Tangerine Bowl and finishing 8th in Heisman Trophy Balloting.  He still holds the NCAA Record for wining percentage and winning streaks.  Ealey unfortunately was overlooked by the NFL and went undrafted in the 1972 NFL Draft.  He went to the CFL and won a Grey Cup in his rookie season with Hamilton and then played six more years before retiring.

 

One of the pioneering professional African American starting quarterbacks of the ‘70’s was the aforementioned James Harris.  Harris came on the AFL/NFL scene in 1969 when he was drafted out of Grambling in the 8th Round of the 1969 AFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills.  Harris played at Grambling from 1966-68 and as a senior, he passed for 1,972 yards and 21 touchdowns. In three years as Grambling’s starting quarterback, he led the Tigers to a 24-5-1 record.  He also had set numerous school and historically black college records in his collegiate career.  Harris, nicknamed “Shack”, was different from past black quarterbacks in that he was a “Pocket Passer” with comparable size of Joe Namath at 6’4 and weighing 210 pounds.  He also had bad knees, which affected his mobility and forced him to be a pure passer.  Teams knew in picking him there was little chance of converting him to “Black” positions (WR, DB, or TE).  Harris was forewarned by his legendary college coach Eddie Robinson of the pitfalls of a black man playing quarterback in professional football.  He pointed to the examples of how coaches and personnel men had treated Eldridge Dickey (Converted to WR) and Marlin Briscoe (Cut and Converted to WR).  Harris was undaunted and wanted to play quarterback at the next level.  Harris after being drafted by the Bills was glad to follow in the footsteps and of his trailblazer teammate Marlin Briscoe, who was a receiver on the team at the time.  Harris battled injuries and languished on the Bills bench behind Jack Kemp and Tom Flores appearing in only 18 games from 1969 to 1971.  It was after the 1971 season that new Bills coach Lou Saban determined that Harris was not a pro quarterback and cut him.  Harris with no takers did not play football in the 1972 season.  Before the 1973 season Chuck Knox of Los Angeles Rams gave Harris the chance to return to the NFL as a backup QB.  By 1974, Harris was the starting quarterback for the Rams and the team was winning.  He was the first African American to start a NFL Playoff game, leading the Rams into the NFC Championship where they lost to the Vikings.  He was named the first African American Quarterback to the Pro Bowl for the 1974 season, where he was named the MVP of the game.  His numbers for the 1974 season were 106 Completion on 198 attempts for 1544 yards and 11 TD’s in only 11 games.  He continued to be the Rams starter until the 1976 and then went to the San Diego Chargers in 1977, where he started and then was a backup until 1980.  Harris was the first African American Quarterback to experience lengthy success as a starter in both the regular season and playoffs.  He also paved the way for future African American Quarterbacks to play in the Pro Bowl against the league’s best players.  Injuries and Discrimination marked portions of Harris’ 12 year career, but he served as a mentor and role model for future African American quarterbacks.  Harris later became a trailblazer for African Americans in a front office role.  He was instrumental in putting together the 2000 Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens team and was named General Manager/Head of Personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003.

 

Another pioneering African American quarterback in the ‘70’s was “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam.  Gilliam followed Eldridge Dickey’s path at Tennessee State University.  Gilliam played from 1969 to 1971 at TSU, breaking every major record at the school and other historically black college records.  He was known to be one of the most popular players in Tennessee History and gained his nickname, because he was said to have is name called all along Jefferson Street, which was the main road in Nashville, Tennessee.  He was a black college All-American in 1970 and 1971. He was an 11th-round draft pick by the Steelers in 1972 NFL Draft.  Gilliam was well liked by Coach Chuck Noll and his teammates for being easy going and being a smart tough quarterback.  He became a starter in 1974 when some players including Quarterback Terry Bradshaw went on strike.  During this time Gilliam was known to having an affinity for throwing the ball downfield, despite being in the Steelers conservative offense.  When all of the players returned, Gilliam kept the starting job through six games with a record of 4-1-1.  He however faltered and Bradshaw returned to lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory.  Gilliam was never fully accepted by the “Blue Collar” Pittsburgh area, which was not ready for an African American quarterback in the early ‘70’s.  Gilliam received death threats and other hostile treatment including lots of “hate” mail.  The outside pressure and his on the field struggles regrettably led Gilliam to his unfortunate history of drug abuse.  Gilliam played very little for the Steelers in the 1975 season (Another Super Bowl Victory) and was cut in the off-season.  He was signed for a brief period by the New Orleans Saints in 1976, but was cut for disciplinary reasons.  Gilliam could not beat his drug demons causing his football career to fade away and even an attempt to revive his career with the Washington Federals of the USFL failed.  He was homeless for a little while and even pawned his Super Bowl rings to pay for drugs, but recovered with the help of his father.  He later got back his Super Bowl rings and started a football camp for children at Tennessee State, which included drug counseling.  Sadly he died of a sudden heart attack in December of 2000 while watching the NFL playoffs.

 

Even though Gilliam and Harris were performing at a high level, the NFL still had long held drastic misconceptions about the leadership and intelligence of African American Quarterbacks.  One of the best quarterbacks in college at the time was Warren Moon of the University of Washington.  Moon had grown up in Southern California and experienced some racism, but on the larger part was viewed as just another player.  Blessed with a rifle for an arm, Moon always knew quarterback was the position that he wanted to play.  He began to excel at the position in youth football and it continued in High School.  Moon unable to gain interest from larger schools went to West Los Angeles Junior College to prove he was a passer.  After proving himself at the junior college level, he accepted a scholarship to Washington, because they did not ask him to switch positions and he was going to get the chance to play quarterback.  Other PAC 10 schools including USC and UCLA were looking at him to play other positions.  Moon went on to have a stellar career at Washington, leading them to victory in the nationally televised 1978 Rose Bowl.  Even though Moon had excelled, he went undrafted in the 1978 NFL Draft and signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL.  Moon again showed that he was a true talent and led the Eskimos to five Grey Cups.  He passed for 21,228 yards and 144 TD's in just six seasons in the CFL. Finally in 1984 with his stock never higher the Houston Oilers decided to sign him to a free agent contract.  The ironic thing from the signing was that there were still coaches and personnel men that still believed Moon wasn’t good enough for the NFL.  Moon proved these naysayers wrong leading the Oilers to the playoffs seven straight years , operating their “Run and Shoot” offense to near perfection.  If he had a defensive compliment, the Oilers probably could have made it to the Super Bowl one of those years.  After leaving the Oilers, Moon enjoyed success playing for the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs.  He set an NFL record with four 4,000 yard passing seasons, with the last one coming with the Seahawks after the age of forty.  When he retired in 2000 at the age of 44, Moon had thrown for more than 49,000 yards 391 touchdowns in the NFL. Moon was selected to nine Pro Bowls and only Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton and John Elway lead him in some statistics. Only Marino and Elway have completed more passes and have more yards in NFL History. Moon finished with more completions, passing yards, and touchdowns than anyone if you combine his CFL and NFL numbers (70,553 yards and 435 touchdowns).  As mentioned earlier he proved to be a successful trailblazer and representative of the African American quarterback by being the first African American Quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

 

Other African American Quarterbacks at this time that played in the NFL in mostly backup roles included: John “JJ” Jones from Fisk (New York Jets – 1975), John Walton from Elizabeth City (Philadelphia Eagles 1976 – 1979), Parnell Dickinson from Mississippi Valley State (Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1976), Vince Evans from USC (Chicago 1978–1983) and Dave Mays from Texas Southern (Cleveland Browns 1976- 1977 and Buffalo Bills 1978).

 

 

Opportunistic Years (1980 – 1990)

 

The NFL in the 1980’s was continuing to flourish from decisions made by Commissioner Pete Rozelle.  The league had another great TV package and teams were getting international attention playing pre-season games abroad.  The league was also changing their view of the role and model for quarterbacks.  Now quarterbacks black or white were now asked to be more athletic to avoid speedier defenses.  The statuesque “pocket” passer was now being swarmed by blitzes and better athletes on defense, who were capitalizing on stationary targets.  Also the emergence of the “West Coast” offense with its quick reads and moving pocket was more conducive to athletic quarterbacks.  Coaches looking for mobility were looking at more African American Quarterbacks that were similar to past and present athletic white quarterbacks (Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Steve Young, etc). 

 

The league did have its challenges during this time including the United States Football League (USFL), which was a startup rival league in 1983.  The league originally started as a Spring League back by ABC, ESPN, and large investors like Donald Trump (NJ Generals).  The league enticed players away from the NFL and College including Steve Young, Jim Kelly and Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie, which helped ratings.  The USFL gave the chance for several African American Quarterbacks to play professionally including Walter Lewis (Memphis Showboats), Doug Williams (Oklahoma/Arizona Outlaws), Joe Gilliam (Washington Federals), Reggie Collier (Birmingham Stallions), John Walton (Boston/New Orleans Breakers) and Vince Evans (Chicago Blitz and Denver Gold).  Eventually the USFL after their third season devised an ill-fated plan to go head to head with the NFL in the fall of 1986, which caused the league to never play the 1986 season and eventually fold.  The league was eventually awarded $3.00 dollars in damages in a 1986 lawsuit claiming a monopoly by the NFL. 

 

The NFL also had labor strife in 1982 and 1987.  The 1987 strike really gave the league a black eye, because they chose to play three “scab” games rather than cancel games.  “Real” NFL Players were on the picket lines while “scabs” played to almost empty stadiums.  Television unfortunately had to live up to their deal and televised these awful games.  Eventually the league and the players came together for the betterment of the league and ended the strike to save the season.  One of the subplots of the “scab” games was it gave an opportunity for several African American Quarterbacks to play in the NFL even if most people were not watching.  Quarterbacks included: Walter Briggs from Montclair (New York Jets 1987), Homer Jordan from Clemson (Cleveland Browns 1987), Ed Blount from Washington State (San Francisco 49ers 1987), Mark Stevens from Utah (San Francisco 49ers 1987), Larry Miller from Northern Iowa (Minnesota Vikings 1987), Willie Gillus from Norfolk State (Green Bay Packers 1987), Tony Adams from Utah State (KC Chiefs 1987), Reggie Collier from South Mississippi (Pittsburgh 1987) Bernard Quarles from Hawaii (LA Rams 1987), Tony Robinson from Tennessee (Washington Redskins 1987), Vince Evans from USC (Raiders 1987) and Willie Totten from Mississippi Valley State (Buffalo Bills 1987).  Two of the better stories from this group were Ed Blount and Willie Totten.  Blount was home in 1987 after not having gotten an opportunity to play professionally after graduating from Washington St, when Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers called asking him to join his replacement team.  Walsh knowing that other teams would not have a lot of time to prepare for games installed an option attack featuring Blount and Mark Stevens that thoroughly confused the other teams.  The 49ers went on to win all three games and made it to the Divisional Playoffs thanks to Blount and Steven’s “Option Wizardry”.  Willie Totten was also a story during this time, because he returned to the United States from the CFL and finally got his chance to play in the NFL.  Totten had been one half of the greatest quarterback / wide receiver combinations in NCAA history with Jerry Rice at Mississippi Valley State.  Totten had thrown 139 touchdown passes in 40 career games at MSVU, but went undrafted in the 1986 NFL Draft.  He went to the CFL, but was mired on the bench and took his chance with the 1987 Bills strike team.  He appeared in 2 games, but did not have the same magic and never appeared in another NFL game.

 

The ‘80’s also brought a new wave of African American Quarterbacks to the forefront in college football.  African American Quarterbacks had been fully integrated into all NCAA conferences including Southern predominantly white universities and were more accepted than in the past.  During this time you even saw African American Quarterbacks competing and winning National Championships and Major Awards.  Quarterbacks who excelled during this time included: Randall Cunningham from UNLV 1982 - 1984 (Also an All American as a Punter), Rodney Peete from USC 1985 – 1989 (Finished 2nd in 1988 Heisman Trophy Balloting), Walter Lewis from Alabama 1980 – 1983 (First African American QB at Alabama), Danny Bradley from Oklahoma 1981 – 1984, Jamelle Holieway also from Oklahoma 1985 – 1988 (Led Oklahoma to National Championship in 1986 Orange Bowl), Steve Taylor from Nebraska 1985 – 1988, Turner Gill also from Nebraska 1983 – 1985 (Won several Big Eight Titles – Remembered for game against Miami in 1985 Orange Bowl), Major Harris from West Virginia 1987 – 1989 (Finished 5th in 1988 Heisman Balloting as a Sophomore and 3rd in 1989 as a Junior), Tracy Ham from Georgia Southern (Led GSU to several D1AA Championships), Tory Crawford from the US Military Academy 1984 – 1987 (Top 5 All Time Rushing QB), Shawn Moore from Virginia 1988-1991 (Led Virginia to an almost undefeated season his senior year), Damon Allen from Cal State Fullerton 1981 – 1984 (Brother of Hall of Fame Running Back Marcus Allen, who later won several Grey Cups in the CFL), Stacey Robinson from Northern Illinois 1988-1990 (Held many QB Rushing Records), Tony Rice from Notre Dame 1986 – 1989 (Led Notre Dame to National Championship in the 1988 Fiesta Bowl) and many others. 

 

A major breakthrough in College Football came during this time when quarterback Andre Ware of Houston was named the 1989 Winner of the Heisman Trophy.  Ware became the first African American Quarterback to win the award after others had contended, but were passed over.  Ware broke almost every major college record for passing while leading the Houston Cougars “Run and Shoot” explosive offense.  In his Heisman Trophy winning junior season he threw for 4,699 yards and 46 TD’s and led the Cougars to a 9-2 record. He later spent four years with Detroit after being drafted in the 1st Round in, 11th overall in the 1990 NFL Draft.  He battled injuries and competition from Erik Kramer and Rodney Peete, playing in 14 games, while starting 6 of them for the Lions.   He also spent time in the CFL with Ottawa in 1995 and Toronto (Backup on Grey Cup Champion 1997 squad).  He attempted one last comeback to the NFL in 2001 playing for the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe after being allocated by the Oakland Raiders.  He fractured his shoulder in the fifth game of the NFLE season and was cut in training camp by the Oakland Raiders.  After being cut Ware retired and returned to the Houston area, starting his own computer consulting business and commentating football games.  Ware unfortunately never made the impact that was thought of him after winning the Heisman.

 

During this era the African American Quarterback experiencing the entire cycle of the “black” quarterback experience was Doug Williams.  He experienced the extreme highs and lows, going from an Unwanted High School QB to College All American to Professional Starter to Vilified Holdout to the USFL to Unwanted Free Agent to Super Bowl Hero to “Black balled” Outcast in his professional career that spanned from 1978 to 1989.  Williams from Louisiana started off as a high school quarterback, whose raw skills were waiting to explode.  Being from the South, Williams was not offered a chance to play quarterback and went pretty much unnoticed during recruiting.  He chose to go to historically black college Grambling and learn under the guidance of the Legendary Head Coach Eddie Robinson.  Williams was a record setting quarterback at Grambling, finishing in 1977 with a NCAA Record 93 Touchdowns and 8,411 yards passing.  During his stay there, Williams followed in the footsteps of his “Big Brother” James Harris.  Harris had already blazed the trail of an African American quarterback going from Grambling to the NFL.  Harris had experienced racism on and off of the football field and gave Williams first hand knowledge of what to expect in the NFL.  Williams had the size of Harris at 6’3, 210 lbs, but he could move around better than Harris.  Before the draft Coach Robinson and Harris advised Williams about how the draft usually treated African American Quarterbacks, but to everyone’s surprise the former expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Williams in the 1st Round, 17th overall of the 1978 NFL Draft.  Williams became the first African-American quarterback drafted in the first round since the 1970 merger and he would not be asked to convert to another position unlike Eldridge Dickey before him.   Coach John McKay believed in Williams and thought he was the Buccaneers quarterback of the future.  Williams held out for 1 week against owner Hugh Culverhouse, who was known for his mismanagement and unwillingness to pay players.  Williams soon learned how a high-profile African American Quarterback was treated in the South when he didn’t follow the program.  He received hate mail and harsh criticism from fans and the media.  After signing he appeared in 10 games, throwing for 1170 yards and 7 TD’s, plus 1 rushing touchdown.  The following season in 1979 – 1980, Williams established himself as a player on the rise.  He threw for 2448 yards and 18 TD’s and ran for additional 2 touchdowns leading the Buccaneers to NFC Central Division title and a playoff victory over the Eagles, losing to the Rams in the NFC Championship.  He again led the Buccaneers in the playoffs in 1980-1981 and 1981-1982, where they lost to Dallas each year.  The Buccaneers shortcomings in the playoffs were due to a lack of a running game and a porous defense, but Williams was blamed by the Tampa Bay area.  Williams soon became a target of vandalism to his home and vile hate mail filled with racial epithets. 

 

When Williams held out against Culverhouse again in 1983, things really got ugly between Williams and the fans and media.  Williams believed that he was grossly underpaid and in his biography Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth he stated, “Then after five years and two division titles, I was only the 43rd-highest-paid quarterback in the league.  I held out again, and eventually went to the USFL. My wife had just died of a brain tumor. There was a three-month-old baby girl to take care of. You couldn't believe some of the letters I'd gotten in Tampa. Everyone heard about the package I got with the watermelon inside and the note, 'Throw this, (n-word). They might be able to catch it.' It got so that every time I got a letter with no return address, I wouldn't open it.”  Unable to work out a deal with the Buccaneers and without takers in the rest of the NFL, Williams signed with Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL.  Williams had thought that things would be better in the USFL, but he joined at a time when the league was struggling.  The Outlaws had trouble making payroll and moved to Arizona after 1 season.  They played one more year and the league folded soon after.  Williams finished his USFL career with 6757 yards passing with 36 TD’s and 4 TD’s Rushing.  Once the USFL closed down, Williams was unable to find a job in the NFL due to his outspokenness and took a job at Southern University working with the receivers. 

 

While not coaching, he was home figuring that his career was over when Joe Gibbs looking for a veteran backup signed him in 1987.  Williams played off and on during the season as starter Jay Schroeder struggled with injuries and effectiveness.  Joe Gibbs decided to bench Schroeder for the playoffs and started Williams in his place.  It was widely known around the league that most of the Redskins locker room was firmly behind Williams and believed he was the better leader and could take the team further.  Williams responded by beating Chicago and Minnesota to get to Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos and making him the first African American Quarterback to start in the Super Bowl.  Leading up to the game, the Redskins were underdogs (3 ½ points) and everyone expected the Broncos and star quarterback John Elway to win the game.  Elway was cast as the “Golden Boy” and Williams as the villain by the media.  The media continued to hound Williams with questions about him being the first black to start in a Super Bowl game and one member asked him the galling question “So how long have you been a black quarterback?”, which he did not answer.  In the game Williams twisted his knee in the first quarter and the Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead.  Williams was taken out of the game for a few plays, but responded in the second quarter with a Super Bowl record 228 yards passing with four touchdowns, in what some call the greatest performance by a quarterback in a quarter.  He finished the game with Super Bowl record 340 yards and 4 TD’s in the 42-10 triumph and was named the MVP.  His victory was hailed as the defining moment for African American Quarterbacks and future African American Quarterbacks always state the significance of the accomplishment and name Williams as a life-long hero.  Ray Didinger from NFL  Films and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a writer in a recent interview that I conducted marveled at how Williams was able to focus on the game and put aside all of the “Pioneer” talk that was circulating before the game.  He felt that Williams and other African American Quarterbacks like James Harris, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham by 1988 had already proven themselves as capable quarterbacks and that the “Pioneer” talk put on Williams was a lot.  He said “Williams excelled in the Super Bowl against pressure and media coverage that is difficult on all quarterbacks and sometimes causes some of them to fail.  He was able to deal with it and that shows the type of competitor Williams was”.

 

Ironically before the 1988 NFL season again Williams had to fight for a better contract.  This time the Redskins gave in to pressure and signed him to a lucrative deal.  Williams responded with a season of 2609 yards and 15 TD’s in only 11 games.  In 1989 – 1990 season Williams only played in 4 games and the Redskins released him.  Williams was unable to find any positions in the NFL even after being a Super Bowl MVP.  Around NFL he had been “Black Balled” for his outspokenness and there was a definite bias held by NFL personnel men and an attitude to get him out of the game.  Having no takers and not wanting to go to the CFL, Williams left the game at 32 years old after playing in just 88 games, leaving with 16,998 yards and 100 TD’s passing and 15 rushing TD’s.  Shortly after leaving the game, he wrote a "Tell All" book about his journey as an African American Quarterback,  the book called “Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth” was very informative, opinionated, and ticked off the NFL establishment.  Williams was never called by any NFL people and was “Blackballed” for good.  He later became a successful Head Coach at Morehouse College and Grambling where he replaced Robinson.  Williams is now a key member in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers personnel department.  He will not make the Hall of Fame with his career numbers, but his impact will far exceed his numbers, because he led the way for future African American Quarterbacks.  By winning the Super Bowl and being named the MVP he opened “backward” eyes that did not want to see.

 

Regular starters during this time included: Warren Moon (Houston Oilers), Rodney Peete (Detroit) and Randall Cunningham (Philadelphia Eagles)

 

Other African American Quarterbacks at this time that played in the NFL in mostly backup roles included: Don McPherson from Syracuse (Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Oilers), Reggie Slack from Auburn (Houston Oilers 1990), Brian Ransom from Tennessee State (Houston Oilers 1983-1985), Reggie Collier (Dallas Cowboys), Shawn Moore from Virginia (Denver Broncos) and Vince Evans from USC (Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders) and others.

 

 

Headway Years (1990 – 1999)

 

After Williams victory and with the need for non-traditional quarterbacks with the ability to move away from pressure, run, and pass on the move increasing more teams and colleges in the ‘90’s gave opportunities to African American Quarterbacks than ever.  Guys usually with the skill had the opportunity to play the position.  Some of the successful college quarterbacks of this era included: Darian Hagan from Colorado 1988 to 1992 (Led Colorado to Co-National Championship in 1991), Shawn Jones from Georgia Tech 1989 to 1992 (Led Georgia Tech to Co-National Championship in 1991), Charlie Ward from Florida State 1991 to 1993 (Led FSU to National Championship in 1993 and 2nd African American QB to win Heisman Trophy also in 1993), Michael Bishop from Kansas State in 1997-1998 (Finished 2nd in 1998 Heisman Trophy balloting),  Tommie Frazier from Nebraska 1992 – 1995 (Two time National Championship QB in 1994 & 1995), Chris McCoy from the US Naval Academy 1995 – 1997 (Top 5 All Time Rushing QB), Kordell Stewart from Colorado 1992-1994 (Record Setting Passer in Big 8), James Brown from Texas (Led his team to the Big 12 Title) and many others.

 

In the NFL, the first two legitimate Pro Bowl African American Quarterbacks/Stars were taking flight in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  The first was the previously discussed Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers and the second was Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles and later the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, and Baltimore Ravens.  Cunningham like Moon was also a Southern California native growing up in Santa Barbara.  He learned the game from his brother Sam “Bam” Cunningham, who was a star player for USC and later the New England Patriots.  Cunningham had to battle through the loss of his father at an early age and sports were his outlet.  He excelled at track (high jump) and football, where he was all state as a punter and quarterback.  When it came time for Cunningham to select a school to play for many of the larger schools including USC, wanted him at other positions.  Cunningham accepted a scholarship to UNLV, which promised to give him the opportunity to play quarterback.  Battling through the loss of his mother during college, Cunningham excelled at a college off of the national radar leading his conference in total yards and in punting average.   In his senior season in 1984, Cunningham led UNLV to the California Bowl beating Toledo 30-13.  That year he also threw for 2,628 yards with 24 touchdowns and had an amazing average of 47.5 yards per punt.  His career numbers at UNLV were 57.9 Completion Percentage, 8290 Yards Passing with 60 TD’s and a Punting Average of 45.2 yards.  Cunningham had his coming out party at the East – West Shrine game after the season.  He threw a touchdown, caught a touchdown on a fake play and was named the game’s MVP.  Even with his performance and amazing college stats, potential questions were still raised by NFL personnel men.  Cunningham was labeled a good fit for the CFL and compared to Reggie Collier and Walter Lewis, two past African American Quarterbacks that were known more for their athleticism and ended up playing in the USFL. 

 

The Philadelphia Eagles however were in a rebuilding mode after Dick Vermeil retired.  Head Marion Campbell didn’t listen to the critics and picked Cunningham in the 2nd Round of the 1995 Draft.  When he was drafted the fans and media focused more on the selection of disappointing offensive lineman Kevin Allen with their 1st Round pick.  Cunningham in the preseason of 1985 showed his escapability and flare for making plays out of nothing.  He soon was playing at the end of the Eagles first game in a 21-0 loss to the New York Giants.  Campbell scrambling to help a sputtering offense named Randall the starter in the 2nd week in a 17-6 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.  He threw for 211 yards and ran for 90 yards, but threw 4 interceptions.  He however was regulated to the bench in favor of Ron Jaworski and the Eagles finished with a record of 7 – 9, with Cunningham finishing with 534 Yards Passing, 1 Touchdown, and 205 Yards Rushing.  Campbell was fired after the 1985-1986 and the Eagles hired Buddy Ryan.  Ryan named Jaworski the starter, but came up with a plan to use Cunningham, who was 3rd string at the time on 3rd downs.  He eventually was part of a revolving door rotation with Matt Cavanaugh and Ron Jaworski finishing with 5 starts, 1,391 Yards Passing with 8 TD’s, and a 2nd on the team 540 yards rushing.  In 1987 Cunningham was finally installed as the full time starter, but the 1987 Strike limited the opportunities for the Eagles, who didn’t field a quality “Strike Team” and had 3 losses finishing with a record of 7-9.  Cunningham however flourished under the coaching of friend and mentor Quarterbacks Coach Doug Scovil.  Cunningham finished with 2,786 Yards Passing with 23 Touchdowns and 505 Yards rushing with 3 TD’s.  Cunningham was named to his first Pro Bowl joining James Harris and Warren Moon as the only African American Quarterbacks to receive the honor.   In the 1988-1989 Cunningham was a one-man gang on offense leading the team in rushing (624 Yards) and passing (3,808 Yards with 24 TD’s).   He and a stifling defense led by Reggie White led the team to a 10-6 record and won the NFC East division for the first time since Dick Vermeil left.  Their season however ended in the playoffs against the Chicago Bears in the “Fog Bowl”.  Cunningham however was recognized being named to his 2nd Pro Bowl and finished 2nd to Boomer Esiason in AP MVP Voting.  At the start of the 1989-1990 season Cunningham and the Eagles renegotiated Cunningham’s contract making him one of the highest paid players in the NFL (3 Year, 4 Million Dollar Contract).  He was anointed the “NFL’s Ultimate Weapon” by Sports Illustrated and led the Eagles back to the playoffs again.  In the playoffs the Eagles lost to the Rams 21-7 and he shouldered most of the blame.  Cunningham finished with 3,400 Yards Passing with 21 TD’s and 621 Yards Rushing and led his team in rushing for the 3rd straight year.  He was named an alternate to the Pro Bowl.  In 1990 the Eagles knew that they had to save the position of Head Coach Buddy Ryan and Cunningham responded with an MVP season rushing for 942 Yards with 5 TD’s and 3,466 Yards Passing with 30 TD’s.  He was named to his 3rd straight Pro Bowl.  He however had to fight for his starting position with Jim McMahon in the shadows.  In the playoff loss to the Redskins, Cunningham was replaced for a series by McMahon and was not happy with the organization.  Ryan was shortly fired and Cunningham was said to be part of the movement to have him removed.  Cunningham was poised for another big year in 1991, but was hurt in the first game of the season when Bryce Paup tackled him tearing his ACL and ending his season.  The ironic part of the injury was Cunningham was in the pocket and not running around when he got hurt.  Cunningham returned in 1992 throwing for 2775 yards with 19 TD’s and running for 549 Yards and 5 TD’s, but never seemed his self in Richie Kotite’s offense and was very erratic as the Eagles finally win a playoff game against the New Orleans Saints 36-20, but lose in the Divisional Round to the Dallas Cowboys 34-10.  In 1993 the injury bug (Broken Leg) ended Cunningham’s season in the 4th game.  This marked the end basically of his Eagles career as he struggled in 1994 in a part time role and losing his starting job to Rodney Peete in 1995.  He finished his Eagle career in a playoff game losing to Dallas when he had to enter the game for an injured Peete, but struggled due to him leaving the team to tend to his pregnant wife during the preparation for the game. 

 

Cunningham had a brief “retirement” in 1996, but returned in 1997 with the Minnesota Vikings.  Cunningham immediately returned to his old form forming a deadly combination with Cris Carter and led the Vikings to the divisional playoffs in 1997.  In 1998, rookie Randy Moss joined Cunningham and the Vikings were unstoppable going 15-1 and setting an NFL record of 556 points scored.  Cunningham finished with 3704 yards passing and 34 TD’s, plus 127 yards rushing and was named the MVP for the 3rd time by several media outlets.  The Vikings stormed into the playoffs and missed the Super Bowl by the slightest of margins losing to the Atlanta Falcons 30-27.  In 1999 Cunningham struggled and was benched again and moved into the backup role that he ended his career doing finishing with the Dallas Cowboys in 2000 and Baltimore Ravens in 2001.  Cunningham finished his career with 29,979 yards passing with 207 yards and 4928 yards rushing with 35 TD’s; his rushing total is a NFL Record for quarterbacks.  Cunningham was known for his spectacular play on the field, but was unable to get to the big game like Williams and injuries precluded him during some of his best chances.  Cunningham was known as a spectacular player, but football is a team game and he was said to have an aloofness that rubbed fans and some teammates the wrong way.  He was the first run/pass threat African American to make it in the NFL.  He had a long and distinguished 16-year career that in my opinion should end at the Hall of Fame.

 

Another African American Quarterback that established himself as premier starter at this time was Steve McNair of the Tennessee Titans.  McNair began his rise to the top at Alcorn State a Historically Black College in Mississippi.  At Alcorn State he followed in his brother Fred’s footsteps by also attaining the nickname “Air” McNair for his passing exploits.  He became a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate even though he was playing at a Division 1 AA school. His incredible college numbers include the only player in NCAA history to gain over 16,000 yards (16,823) in total offense during his college career.  He set collegiate record by averaging 400.55 yards in total offense per game and became only the third player in Division I-AA to throw for 100 TD's in a career (119).  He finished with 928 completions in 1,673 attempts (55.5%) for 14,496 yards passing with 119 TD's and added 2,327 yards and 33 TD’s.  He was the 2nd African American Quarterback drafted in the 1st Round, third overall player (Highest  at the time) selected in 1995 NFL draft. After being drafted McNair had to prove that he was capable of performing on the larger stage coming from a small school.  He led the Titans from being a displaced franchise (Houston Oilers) to a perennial AFC Title contender.  McNair is a double threat, can give opposing defenses headaches with strong arm in air or explosive running ability on ground, excellent pocket passer.  He led all quarterbacks in rushing yards with 674 in 1997 and 559 in 1998). His 1997 total was the third-highest rushing total by a quarterback in NFL history at the time behind Randall Cunningham (942 yards in 1990) and Bobby Douglas (968 yards in 1972).  McNair proved that he was up to the task of leading the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999 and became the second African American Quarterback to start the game. In the game the Titans lost to the St. Louis Rams by a score of 23-16 and came up a yard short of tying the game in the final moments, but McNair proved that he was a winner.  McNair continues to play in the NFL currently for the Baltimore Ravens and he is still chasing his elusive Super Bowl Victory.  He is known for playing through injuries and his toughness and leadership should get him strong consideration for the Hall of Fame when he is through playing.  He also has the numbers and winning percentage to back him up his intangibles.

 

During this time another notable African American Quarterback was Kordell Stewart of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Stewart came to the Steelers as a 2nd Draft pick in 1994 out of Colorado.  Stewart left Colorado with almost every passing record, but he could not lead the Buffs to National Championship contention.  College highlights included: Holding school all-time records with 456 completions on 785 passes with 7,770 yards in total offense. Also holds school's all-time records for average yards per completion (13.8), yards in total offense per game (235.5) and yards per offensive play (6.36). He threw for 300 yards 6 times and had only 2.4% of his passes intercepted. As a senior, Stewart was named to the All-American 2nd team selection by AP and made the play of the year with a “Hail Mary” to beat Michigan on national TV.   Scouts when evaluating Stewart were intrigued by his raw passing skills and speed. During his rookie year, Stewart was nicknamed "Slash" by head coach Bill Cowher, because he played qb, wr, and rb. Stewart took this role, because Neil O’Donnell was entrenched as the starter.  Stewart played 30 snaps at quarterback including the postseason and in Super Bowl XXII against the Dallas Cowboys.  The "Slash" role was a blessing and a curse for Stewart, it showed he was a “Team Player” willing to help out on the field, but he probably digressed as a pure quarterback by switching between positions. The “Slash” transition experiment appeared to be an early success for Stewart, when was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1997.  That season Stewart showed he could play the quarterback position. Stewart started in all 16 regular-season and both postseason contests. Stewart had an outstanding first season as a QB, becoming only the fourth player in Steelers history to surpass 3,000 passing yards. He was selected as an alternate to the Pro Bowl and finished the season with 3,020 passing yards, completed 236 of 440 pass attempts, 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions for a 75.2 pass rating. He also was the team's second-leading rusher, gaining 476 yards on 88 carries. He also had a long run of 74 yards versus Baltimore (10/5), which is the third-longest TD run by a quarterback in NFL history. He also became the first quarterback in the NFL to throw 20 or more TD passes and rush for 10 or more TD’s. He set an NFL mark as the only player to have two games with at least two rushing TD’s and three passing TD’s in a game.  However his development with the Steelers was also stunted by having different coordinators (Gailey, Lewis, Gilbride, and Mularkey) every season and the Steelers losing in the AFC Championship Game at home twice under him.  Stewart retired in 2005 as a “journeyman” backup with the Baltimore Ravens, but he will always be “Slash” to the public.  Stewart was a vanguard in that he had many assets to help his team win.  The “Slash” role definitely confused defenses and made offensive coordinators want to have their own “Slash”.  In the future teams used other Quarterbacks in this role trying to imitate Stewart including Antwaan Randle El, Troy Woodbury, Ronald Curry, Hines Ward and others.

 

During this timeframe a study made by Doug Williams in his book Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth, was changing.  In the book he theorized, “NFL Personnel Managers would only accept Starting Black Quarterbacks and not backup/developmental type Black Quarterbacks.  No Blacks carrying clipboards”.  African American Quarterbacks were now allowed to flourish as 1st String to 4th String Developmental Types on team’s Practice Squads and in NFL Europe.  The idea that a young African American Quarterback could learn a system and flourish within a team was enhanced by Steve McNair and veterans like Rodney Peete showed that African American Quarterbacks could also be valuable backups coming off the bench and leading their teams.  Some of the backup or developmental quarterbacks that played during this time were Dameyune Craig (Auburn) for the Carolina Panthers, Tony Banks (Michigan State) for St. Louis Rams, Wally Richardson (Penn State) for Baltimore Ravens, Ted White (Howard) for Kansas City, Michael Bishop (Kansas State) for New England Patriots, Jay Walker (Howard) for Minnesota Vikings, and many others.  Dameyune Craig in a NFL Europe game in 1999 playing for the Scottish Claymores passed for a record 611 yards and five touchdowns on only 27 pass completions in a 42-35 victory over the Frankfurt Galaxy.  His uniform from that game now resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  In 1997 there were six starting quarterbacks for NFL teams, more than at any time.  Starters included Randall Cunningham for Minnesota Vikings, Warren Moon for the Seattle Seahawks, Kordell Stewart for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jeff Blake for the Cincinnati Bengals, Steve McNair for the Tennessee Titans, and Tony Banks for the St. Louis Rams. 

 

 

Explosion Years (1999 to the Present)

 

This period has been highlighted by African American Quarterbacks that have played the position exclusively since their playing days in Pop Warner.  Many were recruited to play the position by coaches that no longer bought into the “Athlete” (black) versus “Pocket” (white) quarterback myths and stereotypes that led to position profiling in the past.  Players now could choose to play the position and usually would receive an equal opportunity to prove that their skill, leadership, arm, mind, etc was just as good as their counterparts.  Players from this era tend to look at themselves as a Quarterback first and an African American second.  In 2003, Chris Leak from Independence High School in North Carolina was the Number 1 rated Quarterback in High School football after having set several national passing records and leading his team to 3 state titles.  Every team in the country was looking to sign him as a quarterback and many of them had little or no African American Quarterbacks in the past.  Leak was asked if past racial treatment of African American Quarterbacks at some predominantly white universities would sway his college decision.  Leak like Vincent Young (High school star from 2002, who chose Texas) before him said that a school’s and conference’s history regarding African American Quarterbacks would not effect his college decision and that he was just another player picking a school.  He picked Southeastern Conference (SEC) power Florida, because of their passing reputation and wide open offense.  This showed a big step forward in attitudes on both sides Players and Coaches.

 

Many personnel evaluators and coaches were now looking at players that started playing the position after Doug Williams’ monumental Super Bowl victory in 1988, which unfortunately after years of waiting was one of the proving points to some that African Americans could play the position.  Now it was more common to see African American Quarterbacks winning state titles in High School, National Championships in College, and playing at a Pro Bowl level in the pros and these individuals served as role models for future players.  Also in the NFL, NCAA Division 1-A, CFL and Arena Football it was not uncommon to see multiple African American Quarterbacks on rosters smashing a quota system that had previously existed, where a team could have only one African American Quarterback. Quarterbacks that succeeded in College Football at this time included: Antwaan Randle El from Indiana (Top 5 Total Offense Leader), Woodrow Dantzler from Clemson (2,000 Yard Passer and 1,000 Yard Rusher in the Same Season), Byron Leftwich from Marshall (Record Setting MAC Passer), Michael Vick from Virginia Tech (Finished 3rd in 1999 Heisman balloting), and many others.

 

Unfortunately this time period was not without the usual overt and covert racial discriminatory incidents that have plagued African American Quarterbacks throughout their experience.  African American Quarterbacks professionally and at the collegiate level were still receiving some pieces of vicious hate mail filled with epithets blaming them for team loses, Talk Radio/Internet Message Boards gave a forum to some hosts and fans that could not move forward from their backward ways, and some small towns were torn apart over whether their High School should have a “Black” or “White starting quarterback.  Some African American Quarterbacks were still only being compared only to other African American Quarterbacks or labeled as a CFL player without a chance.  One the bigger media situations that brought the plight of the African American Quarterback back to the public forefront were racially shaded statements made by conservative television and radio personality Rush Limbaugh in October of 2003 on “ESPN’s NFL Countdown” television show to a national audience.  Limbaugh stated on the air when talking about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well," and "There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."  His comments devalued McNabb as a player and suggested that any accolades and successes were overblown by the media and public.  He also intimated that because McNabb was a “black” quarterback and “black’ was “in” that the NFL and football televising networks could benefit monetarily from a hip-hop crazed society looking for a black quarterback to succeed.  Limbaugh denied that his comments on the show were racially motivated, but resigned in a “firestorm” of pressure.  He returned to his usual conservative radio audience, but left America to debate the issue around water coolers, on talk radio, and message boards.  In the end most people agreed that Limbaugh was wrong and that McNabb and all other quarterbacks black or white should be judge by their play on the field.

 

Some of the major highlights from this period include:

 

·         The monumental 1999 NFL Draft where Donovan McNabb of Syracuse was picked by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1st Round with the second pick overall, which at the time was the highest draft pick ever for an African-American quarterback. Also in this draft McNabb was joined by several other African American quarterbacks including Akili Smith of Oregon selected third overall by the Cincinnati Bengals, Daunte Culpepper of Central Florida selected eleventh overall by the Minnesota Vikings, Shaun King of Tulane selected in the 2nd Round by the Tampa Bay, and Aaron Brooks of Virginia selected in the 4th Round by the Green Bay Packers.

 

·         The previously mentioned Super Bowl XXXIV, which ended the 1999-2000 NFL season and in the game Steve McNair of the Tennessee Titans became the second African American to start in the Super Bowl in the 23-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams.

 

·         In the 2001 NFL Draft the electrifying Michael Vick was selected as the Number 1 overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons.  Vick had the rare ability to run a 4.2 40 Yard Time and have a cannon for an arm.  Vick was selected after leaving Virginia Tech as a redshirt sophomore and almost winning the National Championship in the 2000 Sugar Bowl as a Redshirt Freshman.  This marked the first time that an African American player was selected as the top pick and marked the end of questions of whether an African American Quarterback could be considered top player in the draft and a “franchise” player.  Vick went on to post numbers of 785 passing yards with two touchdowns and 300 yards rushing with 1 TD in limited action.

 

·         In the 2005 season, Michael Vick (Falcons) and Donovan McNabb (Eagles) met in the NFC title game and it was the first time two African American quarterbacks started in a conference championship game against each other.  Ray Didinger when speaking about this NFC Championship Game said “It spoke volumes of how far the NFL and society have come that two African American Quarterbacks were opposing each other and little was made of it.  No USA Today Cover Story or other fanfare”.  The Eagles and McNabb won the NFC Championship and McNabb became the third African American Quarterback to start the Super Bowl in a 24-21 loss to the New England Patriots.  McNabb threw for 357 yards with three touchdowns, but also had three interceptions in the game.

 

·         Also in 2005 the Pro Bowl also marked some history, when Donovan McNabb led a NFC Quarterback group of Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick into the Pro Bowl.  It is the first time that all 3 QB’s elected for the NFC or AFC were African Americans.

 

As of January of 2007 Current African American Quarterbacks in the NFL include: Starters - Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles, Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons, Daunte Culpepper of the Miami Dolphins, Byron Leftwich of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Aaron Brooks of the Oakland Raiders, Vince Young of the Tennessee Titans, Tavaris Jackson of the Minnesota Vikings, Jason Campbell of the Washington Redskins, and Steve McNair of the Baltimore Ravens.

 

Backups –Charlie Batch of the Pittsburgh Steelers,  DJ Shockley of the Atlanta Falcons, Cleo Lemon of the Miami Dolphins, Brad Smith of the New York Jets, Casey Printers of the Kansas City Chiefs, Anthony Wright of the Cincinnati Bengals, David Garrard of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Senneca Wallace of the Seattle Seahawks, and Quinn Gray of the Jacksonville Jaguars

 

This research article has been one of my life long dreams.  I was spurred by an elementary school debate where I was told by a group of kids that there were no “Black” quarterbacks in the NFL.  I began my research that day and I returned the next day with my San Diego Chargers James Harris football card.  From that day I knew that the legacy of the African American Quarterback needed to be told.  When I began my study I knew of Doug Williams, James Harris, and John Walton, but I soon found out so much more about the rich history of the game of football and the African American Quarterbacks throughout history that survived racial barriers to reach the point where today that almost any African American Quarterback is given a chance play the position and succeed or fail based on his play on the field.  The “opportunity” was all men like Fritz Pollard, Willie Thrower, James Harris, and Doug Williams wanted for themselves and future African American football players.  I also wrote this article so that the next time I see a young person with a “Throwback Jersey” of one of these men (Doug Williams, Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon, James Harris, etc) they can know the history behind the shirt.

 

 

 

References

 

“Timeline: Black quarterbacks”

Posted: 05/20/2005 by Jarrett Bell, USA Today,

http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/2005-02-01-black-qbs.htm

(Black QB History including Timeline)

 

“African-Americans in Pro Football - Pioneers, Milestones and Firsts”

Credit: Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2005

http://www.profootballhof.com/history/general/african-americans.jsp

(Overall NFL History of Game including African Americans)

 

 “History: Decade-by-Decade”

Credit: Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2005

http://www.profootballhof.com/history/decades/

(Overall NFL History Decade by Decade)

 

“Black QBs find more opportunities”, 

Posted: November 08, 1998, By Cliff Christl of the Journal Sentinel staff

http://www.jsonline.com/packer/sbxxxiii/news/qb110898.asp

(Charlie Brackins and History)

 

 “Thrower was first black QB to play in NFL”

Posted: February 22, 2002 by Associated Press

http://espn.go.com/classic/obit/s/2002/0221/1338084.html

(Willie Thrower and History)

 

Minnesota's first collegiate Black quarterback, Sandy Stephens!”,      

Posted: 2005, African American Registry

http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/1161/Minnesotas_first_collegiate_Black_quarterback

(Sandy Stephens and History)

 

“Williams busted Broncos, barriers “

Posted: September/October 2001 By Phil Barber, NFL Insider

http://www.nfl.com/insider/2001/williams_doug090601.html

(Doug Williams)

 

“Gilliam paved the way for black quarterbacks in the NFL “

Posted: December 30, 2000 By Paul Zeise, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

http://www.post-gazette.com/steelers/20001230gilliam2.asp (Joe Gilliam)

 

“Beating the Odds – James Harris”

Posted: Feb 22, 2005 by College Football Hall of Fame

http://www.collegefootball.org/news.php?id=559 (James Harris)

 

“The Hall Welcomes a Hero”

Posted: Feb. 5, 2005 by Brett Hoover / The Ivy League

http://www.fritzpollard.com/

(Fritz Pollard and Early History)

 

“Limited chances, big breakthroughs”, By Donald Hunt

The Philadelphia Tribune, 11/21/2004 (Overall History)

 

 Hard Road to Glory – A History of the African American Athlete Since 1946, Chapter 4, By Arthur Ashe, Warner Books Incorporated, Copy Right 1988 (Overall History of African American Football including Quarterbacks).

 

I’m Still Scrambling By Randall Cunningham and Steve Wartenberg, Double Day Publishing (New York), Copy Right 1993 (Randall Cunningham and History)

 

The First Black Quarterback, Marlin Briscoe with Bob Shaller, Cross Training Publishing, Copy Right 2002 (Marlin Briscoe, Eldridge Dickey, James Harris and others)

 

The Negro in Sports, Chapters VI & VII, By Edwin Bancroft Henderson, The Associated Publishers Inc (Washington DC), Copy Right 1939 (Early History including Fritz Pollard)

 

Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth, by Doug Williams and Bruce Hunter, Bonus Books, Inc (Chicago), Copy Right 1990 (Doug Williams, James Harris, and History)

 

The Sports Encyclopedia: Pro Football, The Modern Era 1960-1995, By David Neft, Richard M. Cohen, and Rich Korch, St. Martins Griffin Publishing (New York), Copy Right 1996 (NFL History and Statistics)

 

Interview on 8/25/05 By Lloyd Vance, editor of BQB-Site (http://www.bqb-site.com) of Ray Didinger from NFL  Films and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame regarding the topic of the impact of African American Quarterbacks and their history.  

 

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