Donovan’s Beef (Part Two)

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: October 2, 2007

NOTE: Michael-Louis Ingram’s look at Donovan McNabb and the history of black quarterbacks in the NFL continues. Today: Part Two — More Prototypes & Archetypes.

Marlon Briscoe

Marlon Briscoe

PHILADELPHIA – The aim in building a better quarterback was rooted in the desire to personify the image of the team through its most important position. So not only did that person have to be a leader, he had to look the part as well.

Tall, strapping with a cannon arm and good looks to match, he couldn’t just ball –he had to be Chip Hilton personified.

And the likelihood of a “Chocolate Chip” Hilton didn’t seem palatable to NFL front offices.

James “Shack” Harris is vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars and has over 30 years in the NFL. Drafted in the eighth round by the Buffalo Bills out of Grambling in 1969, Harris played for 12 years, played in league championship games and was the NFC’s highest rated passer in 1976.

In an interview while serving as assistant general manager of the New York Jets, Shack recalled a fellow Grambling Tiger. “You know, after I got to the pros, I sincerely thought that my teammate Matt Reed would have followed.”

“Matt had everything the scouts were supposedly looking for. He was tall (6-foot-5) rangy, had good size (210-215 lbs.) and technique. He could throw it a mile and was really smart.”

Reed did get drafted by the Bills in the 10th round of the 1973 draft, but the Bills also drafted the more heralded Joe Ferguson the same year out of Arkansas — four inches shorter, with an inferior arm to that of Reed.

Ferguson would go on to play 17 seasons, mostly with Buffalo. Throughout his career, Ferguson would throw 196 touchdowns — and 209 interceptions. Reed never got more than a passing glance through the league.

Snake Bitten

Meanwhile, in the American Football League, coaches were utilizing talent from many of the HBCUs; but also failed to allow for the concept of “best man plays” at the premier position.

Ken “The Rattler” Riley was a heady quarterback coming out of Florida A&M for the 1968 season; but the expansion Cincinnati Bengals head coach Paul Brown wanted Riley to play corner, a position he had never played at any prior level.

Riley, in spite of the fact he was never elected to any league awards, played 15 years at cornerback and is fourth all-time in career interceptions with 65 picks.

The starter at quarterback for those first year Bengals was John Stofa, who Brown used two picks to acquire from Miami. Stofa, while having the desired dimensions of 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, would throw for five touchdowns and five interceptions in his only season ever as a starter.

The Bengals would eventually find their prototype in local hero Greg Cook, out of the University of Cincinnati a couple years later. Unfortunately for all of football, Cook, a true talent as a passer, succumbed to injuries that forced his leaving the game prematurely.

“It ate him up all inside.”

Marlon “The Magician” Briscoe would get to play and excel at quarterback because their prototype, Steve Tensi, broke down and other circumstances made Briscoe a final option. In spite of his success, however, Briscoe would never be allowed to play quarterback for the Denver Broncos ever again after the 1968 season.

Ironically, the first Black player ever to be drafted in the first round at quarterback, Eldridge Dickey, out of Tennessee A&I (later Tennessee State University) played well enough at Oakland to win the starting job over their second round draft choice — Ken “Snake” Stabler, out of the University of Alabama.

I interviewed Briscoe during a recent Super Bowl week and asked him who was the best player the fans never saw, and he immediately blurted out Dickey’s name. “My God,” gasped Briscoe, before composing himself.

“If you could’ve seen the talent this guy had at the pro level; they (the Raiders) really screwed with his head with the way they drafted him.”

“Eldridge was very depressed. The whole process just ate him up all inside, and he just fell into some bad things because of what happened.”

Nicknamed “The Lord’s Prayer” in college, Dickey provided enough Saturday exploits to fill several volumes of football hero books, but not for Sundays in prime time.

An ex-Oakland Raider, on agreement of anonymity, admitted Dickey wasn’t the first to get screwed by Raider management. “If all things were fair, Morris Bradshaw should’ve been a superstar in this league when he was there — but he got jerked around, too. And it wasn’t that big of a surprise when the shit hit the fan with the thing Al Davis had with Marcus Allen.”

Raider faithful would likely say “That was then, this is now” because their present depth chart at quarterback has Daunte Culpepper, all 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds of him, teaching the position to first overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell out of LSU.

Russell can go eyeball-to eyeball with his new mentor; maybe one day Oakland will have the courage to do the same and speak on what methodology they had in mind in wasting Eldridge Dickey’s talent.

It is one thing to be drafted; but to earn the starting spot, only to be pulled, has to be even worse than being considered for it at all. Such was the case with Joe Gilliam, another victim of what could only be called the “Tragedy of TSU.”

After being selected in the 11th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972, Gilliam, long and lean with a rifle arm, beat out Terry Bradshaw for the starting quarterback’s spot in 1974.

Gilliam led the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record during his first and only six starts with the team; the 35-35 tie with the Denver Broncos was the first recorded tie under a new league format.

But in spite of the winning record, coach Chuck Noll pulled Gilliam and went to Bradshaw, and the rest, as they say, is Super Bowl history. It was earned on the field — but one can only wonder what could have happened if Gilliam got to drive the train for the full slate.

Gilliam’s depression over being demoted spiraled into off-field problems, which included drug addiction, leading to his premature death at 49 years old.

Next time: Black & White.