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Remembering Eldridge Dickey: A Pioneer Before His Time
PHILADELPHIA — With the Oakland Raiders appearing to be closer everyday to selecting LSU big-armed quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the first overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, one cannot help but to associate the Raiders and black quarterbacks in the first round to the name of Eldridge Dickey.
Some maybe saying to themselves “Eldridge Who?”, but Dickey’s almost 40-year-old compelling story needs to be told. In a year where the United States became a simmering pot of unrest, the Raiders made history on January 30, 1968 when they selected Tennessee A&I (later Tennessee State University) quarterback Eldridge Reno Dickey with the 25th overall selection in the AFL/NFL Draft, making him the first black quarterback to be taken in the first round of any draft.
He instantly became a great trivia question and answer, but he was much more than that. Dickey was a pioneer who led the way for future African American quarterbacks including Donovan McNabb, Doug Williams, and the player he is most compared to Michael Vick.
Marlin Briscoe, who is credited as being the first black starting quarterback in the NFL, recently described Dickey as “An exceptional athlete, who was too good of a quarterback, at a time when society was not ready for him”.
Dickey was born on Christmas Eve 1945 in Houston, Texas and grew into a spectacular athletic quarterback at Booker T. Washington high school. TSU won an intense recruiting battle for the highly decorated 6-foot-2, 190 pound quarterback, who was known for his unseen agility, quickness, and ambidextrous throwing ability.
When he decided to attend TSU, he was nicknamed the “The Lords Prayer” by head coach John Merritt, because he was the answer to the program’s prayers in terms of helping it turn into a winner.
In his career at TSU that spanned from 1964-67, Dickey was a three time HBCU All-American pick by the Pittsburgh Courier and amassed an amazing 6,523 yards passing with 67 touchdowns while setting many historically black college records.
Dickey was a very competitive athlete, who often was the first player at practice and the last one to leave only after competing with teammates in throwing, running, and kicking contests. Though noted as a quiet guy off the field, he led more by example then by being a rah-rah player.
With his tremendous athleticism, he probably could have played a number of positions for the Tigers, but he excelled at the quarterback and punter positions. As a passer he was the Randall Cunningham or Michael Vick of his time, he was athletic enough to avoid the rush to make plays down the field, run with the vision of a back and had a strong right arm for every kind of throw.
He also had the rare ability to throw with equal precision left or right handed (coaches and teammates have said he could throw 60+ yards with either arm). He was lauded by fans and media as the best HBCU thrower to come along since Joe “Tarzan” Kendall of Kentucky State in the 1930’s.
Dickey’s No. 10 jersey was often a flash on the field for the Tigers’ wide-open spread formation passing attack. He led his team to bowl berths in 1965 and 1966.
The ‘66 squad, which sent 22 players onto professional football, also featured future NFL great Claude Humphrey. The group recorded TSU’s first undefeated, untied season and their first National Black College Football Championship.
With Dickey at the helm they averaged 41 points per game and their stingy defense only allowed four points per game, including an 83-0 homecoming win over Kentucky State University.
In Dickey’s senior year, Al Davis was spotted scouting Dickey at a game against Central State in Wilberforce, Ohio. At the time of his scouting Dickey, many wondered was Davis looking to be a maverick and turn the team over to a black quarterback or did he see another athletic black quarterback that needed to be converted.
To this day Davis will not talk about Dickey’s selection (Note: The Raiders didn’t return interview requests for this article), but most people believe that he saw a tremendously gifted “athlete” whose speed and athleticism were greater than his passing.
Other rumors included that the Raiders wanted to keep Dickey away from their rival the Kansas City Chiefs, who also had their eye on him. K.C. head coach Hank Stram had been a master at finding gems at historically black colleges during this time as shown by his 1966 Super Bowl I losing squad, which featured HBCU players Emmitt Thomas, Bobby Bell, Fred Williamson and others.
For whatever reason, the Raiders made the controversial decision to grab Dickey in the first round, which was unthinkable for a black quarterback at the time.
They then compounded their dilemma by selecting Alabama quarterback Ken Stabler in the second Round. The Raiders roster all ready crowded at the position with Darryl Lamonica (13-1 the previous year and Super Bowl starter) and part time quarterback/kicker George Blanda, who had already played with the first black quarterback in the NFL Willie Thrower for the Chicago Bears in 1953.
They had to figure out “what to do” with Dickey when he arrived. The Raiders didn’t know it at the time, but they had selected a player, who vehemently only wanted to be a quarterback. Joe Gilliam Sr, former coach at TSU during Dickey’s time there recently told me “If Dickey couldn’t play quarterback, he didn’t want to play at all”.
Gilliam noted that Dickey’s soft-spoken nature and naiveté caused “The Prayer” to not speak up about his preference. He truly believed that after his high selection he was going to be the first African American Quarterback to play and maybe start in the NFL on a regular basis, however the Raiders had their own plan.
The plan may have been formulated by the number of quarterbacks on their roster, Stabler’s status on the team, Dickey’s raw passing skills and athleticism, or past stereotypes cast on African American quarterbacks regarding their intelligence/leadership abilities.
It was decided that Dickey would play wide receiver first and be allowed to practice with the quarterbacks in training camp. Dickey was said to be compensated to accept his slotting, but he did so hoping for an opportunity to play quarterback. In training camp and during the exhibition season according to accounts the white-shoed phenom from TSU outperformed the bigger school Stabler enough that he left the team to play minor league ball and had to be coaxed back.
Before the regular season, however Dickey was moved back to wide receiver permanently. Dickey being an introvert internalized his displeasure and didn’t make waves about his conviction of playing quarterback only. Coach John Merritt tried to encourage him during this time by saying “you have to bear the cross before you can wear the crown”, but Dickey had already lost his heart.
Ironically it was Briscoe, who was taken in the 14th round of the same 1968 draft by the rival Denver Broncos as a defensive back, who broke through as the first black starting quarterback setting Broncos’ rookie records of 1,589 yards passing with 14 TD’s.
Briscoe too was later converted to wide receiver after his one season as a quarterback and later won two Super Bowl rings with the great Miami Dolphins teams of the early 1970’s.
Briscoe recently recounted in the book, Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumph of the Black Quarterback that Dickey came over to his apartment when the Raiders played the Broncos in Denver and that you could obviously see he was despondent over the position change.
He said, “You could see from his body language that the position change was not sitting well with him”. Briscoe added “To be honest with you, he should have been the first black quarterback to start”.
It was rumored that during this time that the sheltered Dickey fell into the wrong crowd and was introduced to drugs to deal with being jaded and disheartened about switching from the position he loved. His play on the field in 1968 showed his disinterest as well.
He appeared in only 11 games finishing with a catch for 34 yards and six punt returns for 48 yards with a long of 17 yards. Dickey hung around on injured reserve as a backup wide receiver and occasional training camp thrower with the Raiders for a couple of years, but he didn’t appear in the box score again until 1971.
That season he finished with four catches for 78 yards with a touchdown and was unceremoniously cut seven games into the season after dropping a potential touchdown pass in a game against Kansas City because some say he heard “footsteps”.
Dickey was out of the NFL at age 25 without throwing a pass in a regular season game and became an after thought as the Raiders became perennial contenders, winning Super Bowl XI with Stabler at the helm.
He languished in Southern minor leagues for years, resurfacing in 1984 to sign, but not play for the Denver Gold of the USFL.
The legacy of Eldridge Dickey is that he never overcame his “broken heart” from switching positions. Dickey felt he didn’t get a “fair” opportunity to be a quarterback and turned to avenues that never filled the hole inside of him.
Briscoe recently said, “Three out of the four pioneering black quarterbacks of this time (Dickey, Gilliam, and Briscoe) had troubles (drug abuse), only Shack (James Harris) avoided these problems”. He later added “By being denied what we coveted (an opportunity to play quarterback), consciously and subconsciously led us to some of our problems”.
Opportunity lost ate away at Dickey for the remainder of his life. He later counseled others as a minister, but he unfortunately died May 22, 2000 at the age of 54 after suffering a stroke. He was recently honored in 2005 as the quarterback of the All-Time HBCU football team.