From Canada To Canton: Moon’s Import Endures

By Mark Kiszla
Updated: August 4, 2006

DENVER — In this land of opportunity, where any dream can come true, there was a time not so long ago when Warren Moon had to leave the United States to find a job as a quarterback.

Johnny Unitas is more famous.

Joe Montana won more championships in the NFL.

John Elway threw more touchdown passes on television screens across America.

But if you are a sports fan under 50 years old, there has not been a more important quarterback in your lifetime than Moon.

This weekend, as admirers stand and cheer, Moon will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for a job nobody in the NFL thought he could do.

Finally forcing his way into the league after years of exile in Canada, Moon passed for nearly 50,000 yards while wearing the blue-skies-are-the-limit uniform of the Houston Oilers, as well as those purple duds for the Minnesota Vikings, that metallic silver of the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs red.

This story, however, is about black and white.

Moon is the first African-American quarterback to bust down the door to the Hall of Fame.

“I don’t want to make this a racial thing, but I think it is significant,” Moon told reporters before Super Bowl XL, when his election to the Hall was announced. “It shows that we have arrived at the pinnacle of our sport.”

What said more than his gracious words was what Moon did when he heard football had accepted him in the sport’s most exclusive club on the first ballot.

Moon cried.

At the University of Washington, he beat favored Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl. In the Canadian Football League, where Moon began his pro career because he refused to move to wide receiver for a shot at the NFL, there were five championships as the quarterback for Edmonton.

Of all the big games won by Moon throughout his career, none of the scores count for as much as the social significance of him being the CEO of a huddle.

“To be the first African-American quarterback into the Hall of Fame, all African-American QBs who played before me should share in this,” Moon said in February.

Sports are America’s toy box, certainly not to be confused with great works of art or serious debate among powerful politicians.

But almost nothing reveals more about a country than the way its people play.

What struck me most about Moon as we crossed paths in NFL stadiums was how he seemed to be a very old soul.

Moon was unflappable in the pocket, despite those big bodies crashing all around him. He was wise in ways of the world without turning cynical. Purposeful described him perfectly. The man was so buttoned-down and finely pressed he could make a polo shirt look like serious business attire.

I remember watching Moon walk away from the dejection of a trademark Elway comeback that produced a final-minute, head-spinning, 26-24 playoff victory for the Broncos in 1992.

Another Super Bowl dream for Moon had been denied. But I thought: This guy has taken far harder steps merely to get here.

If not for Moon, maybe Michael Vick is carrying the rock as a tailback for the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is not a brand name uttered in the same breath as Campbell’s Soup.

In 2006, most of us do not look twice at a black man under center in the NFL.

And maybe that is the best measure of Moon’s greatness, not to mention why he earned a piece of sports immortality.

His nine selections to the Pro Bowl, 291 touchdowns and 17 NFL seasons are all nice stats, but numbers don’t begin to tell the tale. Moon always acted as if he belonged. In the middle of the action. Giving orders. Taking charge.

Moon, if only a little, changed the way we regard leadership in this country.

So what’s next? A woman in the White House?

If a black quarterback can walk in the doors of the Hall of Fame with full credentials of a legend, maybe anything really is possible in America.

Shoot for the moon.