The History Of African-American QBs In The NFL (Conclusion)

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: December 21, 2007

Donovan McNabb

Donovan McNabb

PHILADELPHIA – 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 No. 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 Vince 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.


“Timeline: Black quarterbacks”

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

(Black QB History including Timeline)

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

Credit: Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2005

(Overall NFL History of Game including African Americans)

“History: Decade-by-Decade”

Credit: Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2005

(Overall NFL History Decade by Decade)

“Black QBs find more opportunities”,

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

(Charlie Brackins and History)

“Thrower was first black QB to play in NFL”

Posted: February 22, 2002 by Associated Press

(Willie Thrower and History)

“Minnesota’s first collegiate Black quarterback, Sandy Stephens!”,

Posted: 2005, African American Registry

(Sandy Stephens and History)

“Williams busted Broncos, barriers “

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

(Doug Williams)

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

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

“Beating the Odds – James Harris”

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

“The Hall Welcomes a Hero”

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

(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 ( 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.