The History Of African-American QBs In The NFL (Part Four)

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: December 19, 2007

Doug Williams

Doug Williams

PHILADELPHIA – The NFL in the 1980′s was continuing to flourish from decisions made by Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The league had another great TV package and teams were getting international attention playing pre-season games abroad.

The league was also changing their view of the role and model for quarterbacks. Now quarterbacks black or white were now asked to be more athletic to avoid speedier defenses. The statuesque “pocket” passer was now being swarmed by blitzes and better athletes on defense, who were capitalizing on stationary targets.

Also the emergence of the “West Coast” offense with its quick reads and moving pocket was more conducive to athletic quarterbacks. Coaches looking for mobility were looking at more African American Quarterbacks that were similar to past and present athletic white quarterbacks (Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Steve Young, etc).

The league did have its challenges during this time including the United States Football League (USFL), which was a startup rival league in 1983. The league originally started as a Spring League back by ABC, ESPN, and large investors like Donald Trump (NJ Generals). The league enticed players away from the NFL and College including Steve Young, Jim Kelly and Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie, which helped ratings.

The USFL gave the chance for several African American Quarterbacks to play professionally including Walter Lewis (Memphis Showboats), Doug Williams (Oklahoma/Arizona Outlaws), Joe Gilliam (Washington Federals), Reggie Collier (Birmingham Stallions), John Walton (Boston/New Orleans Breakers) and Vince Evans (Chicago Blitz and Denver Gold).

Eventually, the USFL after their third season devised an ill-fated plan to go head to head with the NFL in the fall of 1986, which caused the league to never play the 1986 season and eventually fold. The league was eventually awarded $3.00 dollars in damages in a 1986 lawsuit claiming a monopoly by the NFL.

The NFL also had labor strife in 1982 and 1987. The 1987 strike really gave the league a black eye, because they chose to play three “scab” games rather than cancel games. “Real” NFL Players were on the picket lines while “scabs” played to almost empty stadiums. Television unfortunately had to live up to their deal and televised these awful games. Eventually the league and the players came together for the betterment of the league and ended the strike to save the season.

One of the subplots of the “scab” games was it gave an opportunity for several African American Quarterbacks to play in the NFL even if most people were not watching. Quarterbacks included: Walter Briggs from Montclair (New York Jets 1987), Homer Jordan from Clemson (Cleveland Browns 1987), Ed Blount from Washington State (San Francisco 49ers 1987), Mark Stevens from Utah (San Francisco 49ers 1987), Larry Miller from Northern Iowa (Minnesota Vikings 1987), Willie Gillus from Norfolk State (Green Bay Packers 1987), Reggie Collier from South Mississippi (Pittsburgh 1987) Bernard Quarles from Hawaii (LA Rams 1987), Tony Robinson from Tennessee (Washington Redskins 1987), Vince Evans from USC (Raiders 1987) and Willie Totten from Mississippi Valley State (Buffalo Bills 1987).

Two of the better stories from this group were Ed Blount and Willie Totten. Blount was home in 1987 after not having gotten an opportunity to play professionally after graduating from Washington St, when Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers called asking him to join his replacement team. Walsh knowing that other teams would not have a lot of time to prepare for games installed an option attack featuring Blount and Mark Stevens that thoroughly confused the other teams. The 49ers went on to win all three games and made it to the Divisional Playoffs thanks to Blount and Steven’s “Option Wizardry”.

Willie Totten was also a story during this time, because he returned to the United States from the CFL and finally got his chance to play in the NFL. Totten had been one half of the greatest quarterback / wide receiver combinations in NCAA history with Jerry Rice at Mississippi Valley State.

Totten had thrown 139 touchdown passes in 40 career games at MSVU, but went undrafted in the 1986 NFL Draft. He went to the CFL, but was mired on the bench and took his chance with the 1987 Bills strike team. He appeared in 2 games, but did not have the same magic and never appeared in another NFL game.

The ’80′s also brought a new wave of African American Quarterbacks to the forefront in college football. African American Quarterbacks had been fully integrated into all NCAA conferences including Southern predominantly white universities and were more accepted than in the past. During this time you even saw African American Quarterbacks competing and winning National Championships and Major Awards.

Quarterbacks who excelled during this time included: Randall Cunningham from UNLV 1982 – 1984 (Also an All American as a Punter), Rodney Peete from USC 1985 – 1989 (Finished 2nd in 1988 Heisman Trophy Balloting), Walter Lewis from Alabama 1980 – 1983 (First African American QB at Alabama), Danny Bradley from Oklahoma 1981 – 1984, Jamelle Holieway also from Oklahoma 1985 – 1988 (Led Oklahoma to National Championship in 1986 Orange Bowl), Steve Taylor from Nebraska 1985 – 1988, Turner Gill also from Nebraska 1983 – 1985 (Won several Big Eight Titles – Remembered for his game against Miami in 1985 Orange Bowl), Major Harris from West Virginia 1987 – 1989 (Finished 5th in 1988 Heisman Balloting as a Sophomore and 3rd in 1989 as a Junior).

Also, Tracy Ham from Georgia Southern (Led GSU to several D1AA Championships), Tory Crawford from the US Military Academy 1984 – 1987 (Top 5 All Time Rushing QB), Shawn Moore from Virginia 1988-1991 (Led Virginia to an almost undefeated season his senior year), Damon Allen from Cal State Fullerton 1981 – 1984 (Brother of Hall of Fame Running Back Marcus Allen, who later won several Grey Cups in the CFL), Stacey Robinson from Northern Illinois 1988-1990 (Held many QB Rushing Records), Tony Rice from Notre Dame 1986 – 1989 (Led Notre Dame to National Championship in the 1988 Fiesta Bowl) and many others.

A major breakthrough in College Football came during this time when quarterback Andre Ware of Houston was named the 1989 Winner of the Heisman Trophy. Ware became the first African American Quarterback to win the award after others had contended, but were passed over. Ware broke almost every major college record for passing while leading the Houston Cougars “Run and Shoot” explosive offense. In his Heisman Trophy winning junior season he threw for 4,699 yards and 46 TD’s and led the Cougars to a 9-2 record.

He later spent four years with Detroit after being drafted in the 1st Round in, 11th overall in the 1990 NFL Draft. He battled injuries and competition from Erik Kramer and Rodney Peete, playing in 14 games, while starting 6 of them for the Lions. He also spent time in the CFL with Ottawa in 1995 and Toronto (Backup on Grey Cup Champion 1997 squad). He attempted one last comeback to the NFL in 2001 playing for the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe after being allocated by the Oakland Raiders.

He fractured his shoulder in the fifth game of the NFLE season and was cut in training camp by the Oakland Raiders. After being cut Ware retired and returned to the Houston area, starting his own computer consulting business and commentating football games. Ware unfortunately never made the impact that was thought of him after winning the Heisman.

During this era the African American Quarterback experiencing the entire cycle of the “black” quarterback experience was Doug Williams. He experienced the extreme highs and lows, going from an Unwanted High School QB to College All American to Professional Starter to Vilified Holdout to the USFL to Unwanted Free Agent to Super Bowl Hero to “Black balled” Outcast in his professional career that spanned from 1978 to 1989. Williams from Louisiana started off as a high school quarterback, whose raw skills were waiting to explode.

Being from the South, Williams was not offered a chance to play quarterback and went pretty much unnoticed during recruiting. He chose to go to historically black college Grambling and learn under the guidance of the Legendary Head Coach Eddie Robinson. Williams was a record setting quarterback at Grambling, finishing in 1977 with a NCAA Record 93 Touchdowns and 8,411 yards passing. During his stay there, Williams followed in the footsteps of his “Big Brother” James Harris. Harris had already blazed the trail of an African American quarterback going from Grambling to the NFL.

Harris had experienced racism on and off of the football field and gave Williams first hand knowledge of what to expect in the NFL. Williams had the size of Harris at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, but he could move around better than Harris. Before the draft Coach Robinson and Harris advised Williams about how the draft usually treated African American Quarterbacks, but to everyone’s surprise the former expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Williams in the 1st Round, 17th overall of the 1978 NFL Draft.

Williams became the first African-American quarterback drafted in the first round since the 1970 merger and he would not be asked to convert to another position unlike Eldridge Dickey before him. Coach John McKay believed in Williams and thought he was the Buccaneers quarterback of the future. Williams held out for 1 week against owner Hugh Culverhouse, who was known for his mismanagement and unwillingness to pay players. Williams soon learned how a high-profile African American Quarterback was treated in the South when he didn’t follow the program. He received hate mail and harsh criticism from fans and the media.

After signing, he appeared in 10 games, throwing for 1170 yards and 7 TD’s, plus 1 rushing touchdown. The following season in 1979 – 1980, Williams established himself as a player on the rise. He threw for 2448 yards and 18 TD’s and ran for additional 2 touchdowns leading the Buccaneers to NFC Central Division title and a playoff victory over the Eagles, losing to the Rams in the NFC Championship.

He again led the Buccaneers in the playoffs in 1980-1981 and 1981-1982, where they lost to Dallas each year. The Buccaneers shortcomings in the playoffs were due to a lack of a running game and a porous defense, but Williams was blamed by the Tampa Bay area. Williams soon became a target of vandalism to his home and vile hate mail filled with racial epithets.

When Williams held out against Culverhouse again in 1983, things really got ugly between Williams and the fans and media. Williams believed that he was grossly underpaid and in his biography Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth he stated, “Then after five years and two division titles, I was only the 43rd-highest-paid quarterback in the league. I held out again, and eventually went to the USFL. My wife had just died of a brain tumor. There was a three-month-old baby girl to take care of. You couldn’t believe some of the letters I’d gotten in Tampa. Everyone heard about the package I got with the watermelon inside and the note, ‘Throw this, (n-word). They might be able to catch it.’ It got so that every time I got a letter with no return address, I wouldn’t open it.”

Unable to work out a deal with the Buccaneers and without takers in the rest of the NFL, Williams signed with Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL. Williams had thought that things would be better in the USFL, but he joined at a time when the league was struggling. The Outlaws had trouble making payroll and moved to Arizona after 1 season. They played one more year and the league folded soon after. Williams finished his USFL career with 6757 yards passing with 36 TD’s and 4 TD’s Rushing. Once the USFL closed down, Williams was unable to find a job in the NFL due to his outspokenness and took a job at Southern University working with the receivers.

While not coaching, he was home figuring that his career was over when Joe Gibbs looking for a veteran backup signed him in 1987. Williams played off and on during the season as starter Jay Schroeder struggled with injuries and effectiveness. Joe Gibbs decided to bench Schroeder for the playoffs and started Williams in his place.

It was widely known around the league that most of the Redskins locker room was firmly behind Williams and believed he was the better leader and could take the team further. Williams responded by beating Chicago and Minnesota to get to Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos and making him the first African American Quarterback to start in the Super Bowl. Leading up to the game, the Redskins were underdogs (3 ½ points) and everyone expected the Broncos and star quarterback John Elway to win the game.

Elway was cast as the “Golden Boy” and Williams as the villain by the media. The media continued to hound Williams with questions about him being the first black to start in a Super Bowl game and one member asked him the galling question “So how long have you been a black quarterback?”, which he did not answer. In the game Williams twisted his knee in the first quarter and the Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead. Williams was taken out of the game for a few plays, but responded in the second quarter with a Super Bowl record 228 yards passing with four touchdowns, in what some call the greatest performance by a quarterback in a quarter.

He finished the game with Super Bowl record 340 yards and 4 TD’s in the 42-10 triumph and was named the MVP. His victory was hailed as the defining moment for African American Quarterbacks and future African American Quarterbacks always state the significance of the accomplishment and name Williams as a life-long hero. Ray Didinger from NFL Films and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a writer in a recent interview that I conducted marveled at how Williams was able to focus on the game and put aside all of the “Pioneer” talk that was circulating before the game.

He felt that Williams and other African American Quarterbacks like James Harris, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham by 1988 had already proven themselves as capable quarterbacks and that the “Pioneer” talk put on Williams was a lot. He said “Williams excelled in the Super Bowl against pressure and media coverage that is difficult on all quarterbacks and sometimes causes some of them to fail. He was able to deal with it and that shows the type of competitor Williams was”.

Ironically before the 1988 NFL season again Williams had to fight for a better contract. This time the Redskins gave in to pressure and signed him to a lucrative deal. Williams responded with a season of 2609 yards and 15 TD’s in only 11 games. In 1989 – 1990 season Williams only played in 4 games and the Redskins released him. Williams was unable to find any positions in the NFL even after being a Super Bowl MVP.

Around NFL he had been “Black Balled” for his outspokenness and there was a definite bias held by NFL personnel men and an attitude to get him out of the game. Having no takers and not wanting to go to the CFL, Williams left the game at 32 years old after playing in just 88 games, leaving with 16,998 yards and 100 TD’s passing and 15 rushing TD’s. Shortly after leaving the game, he wrote a “Tell All” book about his journey as an African American Quarterback, the book called “Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth” was very informative, opinionated, and ticked off the NFL establishment.

Williams was never called by any NFL people and was “Blackballed” for good. He later became a successful Head Coach at Morehouse College and Grambling where he replaced Robinson. Williams is now a key member in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers personnel department. He will not make the Hall of Fame with his career numbers, but his impact will far exceed his numbers, because he led the way for future African American Quarterbacks. By winning the Super Bowl and being named the MVP he opened “backward” eyes that did not want to see.

Regular starters during this time included: Warren Moon (Houston Oilers), Rodney Peete (Detroit) and Randall Cunningham (Philadelphia Eagles)

Other African American Quarterbacks at this time that played in the NFL in mostly backup roles included: Don McPherson from Syracuse (Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Oilers), Reggie Slack from Auburn (Houston Oilers 1990), Brian Ransom from Tennessee State (Houston Oilers 1983-1985), Reggie Collier (Dallas Cowboys), Shawn Moore from Virginia (Denver Broncos) and Vince Evans from USC (Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders) and others.

NEXT: The Headway Years (1990-1999)