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

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: December 18, 2007


James "Shack" Harris

PHILADELPHIA — With the merger of the NFL and AFL in 1969 and the influence of new commissioner Pete Rozelle the NFL seemed ready to move forward. The merger driven by the NY Jets historic win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III the previous year (1968) had brought exposure, which led to a large television contract for the league, making it an “American Institution”.

Also with pro football taking a lead from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, there was an emergence in the league of more successful leading African American players. African American players were now more established, rebelling and speaking out against longstanding stereotypes of black players.

This was different than in the 1950’s and 1960’s when they had to keep quiet to conform and survive. African Americans were starring on both offense and defense at practically every position except Center, Punter, Kicker and most importantly Quarterback.

The popularity of the game also brought a rival league in 1974 the World Football League (WFL). The WFL did not last long closing shop midway through the 1975 season. In the college game, African American Quarterbacks were still succeeding and now at predominantly white universities where blacks usually were blocked from playing the quarterback position.

These quarterbacks included:

Donnie Little — University of Texas, Dennis Franklin – University of Michigan, JC Watts & Thomas Lott – Oklahoma, Condredge Holloway – Tennessee (1st Black QB in SEC), Jimmy Jones – USC (QB of National Champions in 1971), Gene Washington – Stanford, and others.

Another African American College Quarterback of this time that deserves to be mentioned is University of Toledo (OH) Quarterback Chuck Ealey. Ealey (5’11, 195 lbs) from 1969 to 1970 was undefeated as Toledo’s QB, going 35-0 and leading his team to victory in the Tangerine Bowl and finishing 8th in Heisman Trophy Balloting.

He still holds the NCAA Record for wining percentage and winning streaks. Ealey unfortunately was overlooked by the NFL and went undrafted in the 1972 NFL Draft. He went to the CFL and won a Grey Cup in his rookie season with Hamilton and then played six more years before retiring.

One of the pioneering professional African American starting quarterbacks of the ’70’s was the aforementioned James Harris. Harris came on the AFL/NFL scene in 1969 when he was drafted out of Grambling in the 8th Round of the 1969 AFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. Harris played at Grambling from 1966-68 and as a senior, he passed for 1,972 yards and 21 touchdowns.

In three years as Grambling’s starting quarterback, he led the Tigers to a 24-5-1 record. He also had set numerous school and historically black college records in his collegiate career. Harris, nicknamed “Shack”, was different from past black quarterbacks in that he was a “Pocket Passer” with comparable size of Joe Namath at 6’4 and weighing 210 pounds. He also had bad knees, which affected his mobility and forced him to be a pure passer.

Teams knew in picking him there was little chance of converting him to “Black” positions (WR, DB, or TE). Harris was forewarned by his legendary college coach Eddie Robinson of the pitfalls of a black man playing quarterback in professional football. He pointed to the examples of how coaches and personnel men had treated Eldridge Dickey (Converted to WR) and Marlin Briscoe (Cut and Converted to WR).

Harris was undaunted and wanted to play quarterback at the next level. Harris after being drafted by the Bills was glad to follow in the footsteps and of his trailblazer teammate Marlin Briscoe, who was a receiver on the team at the time. Harris battled injuries and languished on the Bills bench behind Jack Kemp and Tom Flores appearing in only 18 games from 1969 to 1971. It was after the 1971 season that new Bills coach Lou Saban determined that Harris was not a pro quarterback and cut him. Harris with no takers did not play football in the 1972 season.

Before the 1973 season Chuck Knox of Los Angeles Rams gave Harris the chance to return to the NFL as a backup QB. By 1974, Harris was the starting quarterback for the Rams and the team was winning. He was the first African American to start a NFL Playoff game, leading the Rams into the NFC Championship where they lost to the Vikings. He was named the first African American Quarterback to the Pro Bowl for the 1974 season, where he was named the MVP of the game.

His numbers for the 1974 season were 106 Completion on 198 attempts for 1544 yards and 11 TD’s in only 11 games. He continued to be the Rams starter until the 1976 and then went to the San Diego Chargers in 1977, where he started and then was a backup until 1980. Harris was the first African American Quarterback to experience lengthy success as a starter in both the regular season and playoffs. He also paved the way for future African American Quarterbacks to play in the Pro Bowl against the league’s best players.

Injuries and Discrimination marked portions of Harris’ 12 year career, but he served as a mentor and role model for future African American quarterbacks. Harris later became a trailblazer for African Americans in a front office role. He was instrumental in putting together the 2000 Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens team and was named General Manager/Head of Personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003.

Another pioneering African American quarterback in the ’70’s was “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam. Gilliam followed Eldridge Dickey’s path at Tennessee State University. Gilliam played from 1969 to 1971 at TSU, breaking every major record at the school and other historically black college records.

He was known to be one of the most popular players in Tennessee History and gained his nickname, because he was said to have is name called all along Jefferson Street, which was the main road in Nashville, Tennessee. He was a black college All-American in 1970 and 1971. He was an 11th-round draft pick by the Steelers in 1972 NFL Draft.

Gilliam was well liked by Coach Chuck Noll and his teammates for being easy going and being a smart tough quarterback. He became a starter in 1974 when some players including Quarterback Terry Bradshaw went on strike. During this time Gilliam was known to having an affinity for throwing the ball downfield, despite being in the Steelers conservative offense. When all of the players returned, Gilliam kept the starting job through six games with a record of 4-1-1. He however faltered and Bradshaw returned to lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory.

Gilliam was never fully accepted by the “Blue Collar” Pittsburgh area, which was not ready for an African American quarterback in the early ’70’s. Gilliam received death threats and other hostile treatment including lots of “hate” mail. The outside pressure and his on the field struggles regrettably led Gilliam to his unfortunate history of drug abuse. Gilliam played very little for the Steelers in the 1975 season (Another Super Bowl Victory) and was cut in the off-season.

He was signed for a brief period by the New Orleans Saints in 1976, but was cut for disciplinary reasons. Gilliam could not beat his drug demons causing his football career to fade away and even an attempt to revive his career with the Washington Federals of the USFL failed. He was homeless for a little while and even pawned his Super Bowl rings to pay for drugs, but recovered with the help of his father.

He later got back his Super Bowl rings and started a football camp for children at Tennessee State, which included drug counseling. Sadly he died of a sudden heart attack in December of 2000 while watching the NFL playoffs.

Even though Gilliam and Harris were performing at a high level, the NFL still had long held drastic misconceptions about the leadership and intelligence of African American Quarterbacks. One of the best quarterbacks in college at the time was Warren Moon of the University of Washington. Moon had grown up in Southern California and experienced some racism, but on the larger part was viewed as just another player.

Blessed with a rifle for an arm, Moon always knew quarterback was the position that he wanted to play. He began to excel at the position in youth football and it continued in High School. Moon unable to gain interest from larger schools went to West Los Angeles Junior College to prove he was a passer. After proving himself at the junior college level, he accepted a scholarship to Washington, because they did not ask him to switch positions and he was going to get the chance to play quarterback.

Other PAC-10 schools including USC and UCLA were looking at him to play other positions. Moon went on to have a stellar career at Washington, leading them to victory in the nationally televised 1978 Rose Bowl. Even though Moon had excelled, he went undrafted in the 1978 NFL Draft and signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL. Moon again showed that he was a true talent and led the Eskimos to five Grey Cups. He passed for 21,228 yards and 144 TD’s in just six seasons in the CFL.

Finally in 1984 with his stock never higher the Houston Oilers decided to sign him to a free agent contract. The ironic thing from the signing was that there were still coaches and personnel men that still believed Moon wasn’t good enough for the NFL. Moon proved these naysayers wrong leading the Oilers to the playoffs seven straight years , operating their “Run and Shoot” offense to near perfection. If he had a defensive compliment, the Oilers probably could have made it to the Super Bowl one of those years.

After leaving the Oilers, Moon enjoyed success playing for the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs. He set an NFL record with four 4,000 yard passing seasons, with the last one coming with the Seahawks after the age of forty. When he retired in 2000 at the age of 44, Moon had thrown for more than 49,000 yards 391 touchdowns in the NFL. Moon was selected to nine Pro Bowls and only Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton and John Elway lead him in some statistics.

Only Brett Favre and Marino have completed more passes and have more yards in NFL History. Moon finished with more completions, passing yards, and touchdowns than anyone if you combine his CFL and NFL numbers (70,553 yards and 435 touchdowns). As mentioned earlier he proved to be a successful trailblazer and representative of the African American quarterback by being the first African American Quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Other African American Quarterbacks at this time that played in the NFL in mostly backup roles included: John “JJ” Jones from Fisk (New York Jets – 1975), John Walton from Elizabeth City (Philadelphia Eagles 1976 – 1979), Parnell Dickinson from Mississippi Valley State (Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1976), Vince Evans from USC (Chicago 1978-1983) and Dave Mays from Texas Southern (Cleveland Browns 1976- 1977 and Buffalo Bills 1978).

NEXT: The Opportunistic Years (1980-1990)