The Plight of The Black Quarterback

By Bill Neri-Amadeo
Updated: April 7, 2006

LANSING, Mi. — We who follow sports are often told of the tails of sports legends such as Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens. These are stories of men who not only excelled in the arena of sports but excelled in life and opened the doors for generations of black athletes.

While the careers of these men are an important part of American history, there are many great black athletes who were pioneers who’s story has not been told. Some of these men are “The Black Quarterback.” Prior to 1999, the black quarterback was an underrepresented and under appreciated minority in the NFL. While many black QB’s have excelled at the college level for decades, only four of these athletes were selected in the first round of the NFL draft prior to 1999.

Some of the factors that have contributed to these statistics are lack of recognition, bad decisions and overall unfair treatment. Let’s take a brief course on the history of the black signal caller.


Question 1: Who was the first black QB to start in the NFL? Hint: It’s not Doug Williams. Answer: Marlin Briscoe. Briscoe started at QB for the Denver Broncos in his rookie season 1968. That season, Briscoe also set a rookie record by throwing 14 TD passes in a season.

Briscoe eventually became an All-Pro Wide Receiver with the Buffalo Bills and was a member of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only team in league history to go undefeated. How many casual (and not so causal) fans have heard of Marlin Briscoe? The man was a pioneer and yet few will recognize his name. That’s tragic.

Question 2: Who was the first black QB to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft? Hint: It’s not Doug Williams. Answer: Eldridge Dickey. The year was 1968 and the Oakland Raiders drafted Dickey out of Tennessee State. The Raiders, who do not have a stellar reputation in the sports world deserve some recognition in the sports world for providing opportunities to black athletes and coaches.

Not only did Raider owner Al Davis select Dickey, he was the first owner to hire a black head coach in the form of Art Shell. (On a side note, Shell was just re-hired to coach the Raiders for a second stint). Davis has always been a bit of a renegade and whether you love him or hate him, he deserves recognition for selecting Dickey and hiring Shell. Davis has done his part to right past wrongs.

One final note on the lack of recognition topic, there was a black All-Pro QB in the 70’s and most people don’t know that.Grambling State’s James Harris was an All-Pro when he was the signal caller of the 1974 Los Angeles Rams. If you heard of any of these three QB’s, give yourself a point, if you haven’t, that’s ok; you can still move on to part two of the lesson.


Question 1: Who was the starting quarterback of the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers? OK, that’s an easy one, right? Of course it’s Terry Bradshaw. Well, if you said Bradshaw, your kind of right. Did you know that “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam led the Steelers to a record of 4-1-1 before being displaced by Bradshaw that season? Gilliam was another Tennessee State quarterback who had all the potential in the world.

Unfortunately, the Steelers opted to bench Gilliam for Bradshaw and the rest is history. Sadly for Gilliam, he suffered a great deal of depression and never truly recovered from the demotion. Gilliam dealt with adversity the rest of his professional career and this turmoil lead to bad decisions in his personal life. Sadly, Gilliam died one day after his 50th birthday.

The silver lining in this cloud is that Gilliam became an inspiration to the world by being a public speaker and started a football camp for teens in 2000. Gilliam had to deal with difficult obstacles his whole life and in the end, he became a winner in the game of life but the sports world was robbed on his talents.

Question 2: Who was the most dynamic college QB in the mid to late 80’s? The answer could vary but one undeniable name that comes to mind is the former West Virginia QB Major Harris. Harris was “Slash” before slash was cool. He could run, he could throw, he could do it all. He should’ve been a great pro QB but he listened to people who convinced him to leave school after his Junior season.

After setting almost every Mountaineer record, he was not drafted until the 12th round by the Oakland Raiders in the 1990 draft. After not making the team, he played in Canada and the Arena Football League but he never blossomed into the professional talent he should have become. Harris was never given the chance to show his worth and he suffered by being an unfortunate byproduct of a league that rarely gave black QB’s a chance. With Major Harris, we can only wonder what could’ve been.


Question 1: Who was the first black QB to win a Super Bowl? Hint: The answer is Doug Williams. Williams has never received the recognition he deserves. Daunte, Michael, Byron and Donovan (Is there really a need for their last names?) should all donate a piece of their contract to Doug Williams because he is the predominant black QB of all-time.

While he didn’t have the athleticism of Randall Cunningham or the accuracy of Warren Moon, he stood out above the rest. He was drafted 17th in the 1978 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For a Black QB to be picked in the first round at this point in the league was an astounding feat. Williams lived up to the hype. He took over as the starter of the expansion Bucs in his rookie year and in his second season, his first full year as a starter he led them to the NFC Championship game.

Williams led the Bucs to the playoffs in three of his four seasons there and then went to the USFL after a contract dispute with former team owner Hugh Culverhouse. Williams would come back to the NFL and play for the Washington Redskins in 1986 to be a back-up. In 1987, when Redskins starter Jay Schroeder got injured, Williams took control of the team and led them to a convincing Super Bowl victory in 1987 over the Denver Broncos.

Williams won MVP of the Super Bowl XXII and etched his place in history as the first (but definitely not the last) black QB to earn a Super Bowl ring. One of the most memorable questions that came at media day prior to the Super Bowl was asked to Williams, the question was: “How long have you been a black quarterback?” That question really says it all.

Question 2: Who was the only QB from the 1978 draft to make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Hint: He wasn’t drafted by any NFL team. Answer: Warren Moon who was selected by the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. Moon was a bonified star at the University of Washington. He was the MVP of the 1978 Rose Bowl when his Huskies stunned the favored Michigan Wolverines.

Despite all of his collegiate success, Moon went undrafted and most experts feel it was because he was black. There seems to be some credence to that statement. After all, Guy Benjamin (Stanford), Gifford Nelson (BYU) and Matt Cavanaugh (Pittsburgh) were all selected in the second and third rounds of that draft and all did not have anywhere near the collegiate career Moon had.

Instead of giving up on his dreams, Moon went to Canada and won five consecutive Grey Cup Championships which is Canada’s equivalent of the Super Bowl. Moon’s talents could no longer be ignored. In 1984, the Houston Oilers signed Moon and he went on to have a Hall of Fame career.

A lot has changed over the years. In 1999, two black QBs, Akili Smith (Oregon) and Donovan McNabb (Syracuse) were selected number two and three respectively in the draft.

Prior to that, only Dickey, (1968), Williams (1978) Andre Ware (1990) and Steve McNair (1995) had been drafted in the first round. Today, Michael, Donovan, Byron and Daunte have set the tone for young black QBs.

This never would’ve happened if it were not for the perseverance and talent of Briscoe, Dickey, Gilliam, Williams and Moon. Every current and future black quarterback should look back on these men with fondness and gratitude. If things would’ve been different, who knows what would have become of Major Harris and so many others who we don’t have time to mention.

To all of the pioneers discussed, the world needs to know of your accomplishments. We hope this article does a small part to correct past wrongs.