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

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: December 17, 2007

Willie Thrower

Willie Thrower

PHILADELPHIA — By 1946, the NFL after the signing of Jackie Robinson in Major League Baseball, also decided to integrate the league again. Halfback Kenny Washington from UCLA and the San Francisco Clippers (PCPFL) on March 21st and end Woody Strode on May 7th both signed with the Los Angeles Rams to become the first African-Americans to play in the NFL in the modern era.

Also at this time, guard Bill Willis on August 6th and back Marion Motley on August 9th joined the All American Football Conference (AAFC) with the Cleveland Browns. Even with African American players returning, the league was still very slow to embrace African Americans at the so called “Thinking Positions” (Quarterback, Center, and Middle Linebacker), because of “backward” stereotypes.

In 1953, seven years after Washington and Strode broke the modern color barrier in pro football; Backup Chicago Bears QB Willie Thrower became the first African-American quarterback to solely play quarterback in an NFL game on October 18, 1953 against the San Francisco 49ers. He played under center and received the snap directly, making him the first African American Quarterback since Pollard in 1923.

Thrower a native of New Kensington, Pennsylvania had already been the first African American Quarterback in the Big 10 conference, playing for Michigan State from 1950 to 1952, helping them win the National Championship in 1952. In his historical game, Thrower went 3 for 8 for 27 yards in a 35-28 loss. What was unfortunate about the game was George Blanda, who had struggled before Thrower was inserted was reinserted into the game at the 5 yard line to complete a drive Thrower had started.

After his debut against the 49ers, Thrower never appeared in another NFL game. Before the next season Thrower, who made the Bears team in 1953 as basically a “walk-on” was cut before the 1954 season. Thrower wanting to play quarterback and without any other takers in the NFL decided to go to the Canadian Football League, playing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and semi pro in Toronto for four years before injuries shortened his career.

He retired at age 27, returning to New Kensington where he raised a family and open a couple successful businesses. Known for having extremely large hands for a 5-foot-11 man, he was featured on “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” for his hands and for his feat of a black man playing quarterback, which was considered an oddity at the time.

Thrower had a good outlook on his brief time at quarterback in the NFL and told The Valley News Dispatch of Tarentum, Pa., before he passed away in 2002. “I look at it like this: I was like the Jackie Robinson of football. A Black quarterback was unheard of before I hit the pros,”

Around the same time period George Taliaferro, a single-wing tailback from Indiana University started two games as a T-formation quarterback for the Baltimore Colts in 1953. He only got the chance to play quarterback, because of a rash of injuries to the three other quarterbacks on the roster and the coach relenting. Taliaferro took the snap from center in a “Shotgun” fashion and had to decide to pass or run very quickly.

After those two games, he played Halfback primarily and only attempted two more passes in his career. Taliaferro was a big strong runner, who was considered as tough to bring down as Marion Motley. At Indiana Taliaferro was known for his excellent play on the field and gaining access for African American students to campus and public facilities during the mid 1940′s. He led Indiana to the Big 10 championship in 1945. After a stellar career at Indiana, he was the first African American picked in the NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears in the 13th round of the 1949 draft, but elected to sign with the Los Angeles Dons of the AAFC.

He played with the Dons in 1949; New York Yanks 1950-51; Dallas Texans 1952; Baltimore Colts 1953-54; Philadelphia Eagles 1955. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1951, 1952, and 1953. He finished his NFL career with 61 Games Played, 47 Completions from 160 Attempts for 843 yards with 6 TD’s and 15 Interceptions.

His statistics show that he was a better runner than a passer throughout his career, finishing with 1794 yards and 10 TD’s rushing, but you never know if Taliaferro could have been a passing quarterback if he had the right coaching and support.

The next quarterback to get an opportunity to play was Charlie “Choo Choo” Brackins in 1955 for the Green Bay Packers. Drafted in the 16th round of the 1955 NFL Draft by the Packers out of Prairie View A&M, where he was a four-year starter and led his team to 33 victories in 37 games. He was a big tall passer at 6-feet-2 and 205 pounds.

Brackins became the fourth black quarterback to play in an NFL game when he played in the closing minutes for the Green Bay Packers in a blowout game against Cleveland on October 23,1955. Green Bay won the game 41-10 and Brackins had two incompletions. The Packers placed him on waivers later in the season after he had broken curfew before a game in Chicago and other unnamed problems.

His career only lasted seven games and the game mentioned earlier was his only appearance. After the “Violations”, Brackins never got a chance to return to the NFL. He had tryouts, mostly as a defensive back, but never caught on again and injured his knee leaving the game. He died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 58.

There was another drought of African American Quarterbacks again after Brackins’ “Violations”. This seemed to be calculated move by NFL owners and personnel evaluators, who lived by the “One Strike and Out” rule at the time, especially when it meant putting your coaching career in jeopardy for a black quarterback.

Unfortunately all African American Quarterbacks were lumped into the “problem” category or the “Should be converted to another position” category, because of long held racial bias formed by many Southern trained coaches. College quarterbacks that excelled at this time, but not receiving a chance included: Sherman Lewis of Michigan State, Mel Myers of Illinois, Wilbur Hollis of Iowa (QB of 1960 Big 10 Co-Champions), Jimmy Raye also of Michigan State (Converted by Philadelphia Eagles to Defensive Back), Sandy Stephens of Minnesota, and others.

Stephens was the first African American starting quarterback to win a national championship in 1960. He finished 4th in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1961 and was drafted by Cleveland (NFL) in 2nd Rd and NY Titans (AAFC) in 5th Rd, but he never played in the NFL because he was never offered the chance to play quarterback.

He went to the Canadian football League (CFL) and played with Montreal in 1962 leading the Alouettes to the Grey Cup Finals. He later signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as a fullback, but never got to play quarterback other than practice and retired in 1968. Sandy Stephens died on June 6, 2000 at age 59.

In 1968, the plight and drought of African American Quarterbacks seemed like it was going to change with the drafting of Tennessee State Quarterback Eldridge Dickey by the Oakland Raiders in the 1st Round with the 25th Overall pick. Dickey became the first African-American Quarterback selected in the first round by an AFL or NFL team.

The American Football League (AFL) having been established for only 8 years was considered to be more open-minded toward black players and the league and time seemed right for a breakout African American quarterback. Dickey played from 1965 to 1968 at Tennessee State, setting many historically black college records.

He led his team to bowl berths in 1965 & 1966 and was known for having a strong arm and the ability to make plays on the move. Dickey believed that he was going to be the first African American Quarterback to play and maybe start on a regular basis. However the Raiders decided that Dickey would play wide receiver first and be allowed to practice with the quarterbacks in training camp. Dickey was paid a higher salary to except the position change and did so hoping for an opportunity to play quarterback.

In training camp he performed very well and by some accounts outplayed Ken Stabler also drafted in 1968 in the 2nd Round from Alabama. After training camp Dickey was moved back to Wide Receiver permanently. He played in 11 games in 1968 finishing with 1 catch for 34 yards.

Dickey hung around on injured reserve and as backup WR with the Raiders for a couple of years and in the 1971 season he finished with 4 catches for 78 yards and a touchdown.

He never got the opportunity to play quarterback in the AFL/NFL, which many say left him disheartened about football and he left the league after the 1971 season. Dickey later became a minister and died May 22, 2000 after suffering a stroke.

Instead of Dickey making an impact on pro football in 1968 there was another African American Quarterback that broke through that year. Marlin Briscoe from University of Omaha was drafted in the 14th Rd by the Denver Broncos (AFL) in the same draft as Dickey. Briscoe had been a two-sport star (basketball and football) in the Omaha area in both high school and college.

Though he was small at 5-foot-11, 185 lbs, Briscoe could more than get the job done as a quarterback. He was well schooled in the position by his uncle Bob Rose a youth coach in the Omaha region. He finished his senior year of college with 2,283 yards passing and was named a NAIA All-American in 1967. He was nicknamed the “Magician” in college for the way he magically got away from defenders to make plays on the move.

When Briscoe was signed by the Broncos, they asked him to come in as defensive back. Briscoe had been warned that pro football was still not ready for a black quarterback and he had already experienced similar treatment in high school where he had to play running back to get on the field. His college coach Al Caniglia knew Briscoe wanted to play quarterback and advised him to have his contract stipulate that in training camp he be given a three day tryout at the position.

When he arrived at training camp there were 8 quarterbacks and Briscoe was listed last on the depth chart. During the beginning of the open to the public training camp, Briscoe dazzled at the position, but was moved to the defensive backfield after his three day tryout. Briscoe wanting a chance to make the team accepted the move, but fate snuck in to help him.

Starter Steve Tensi broke his collarbone and backup Joe DiVito was unproductive. Briscoe finally got his chance in the 3rd game of the season against the Boston Patriots. He entered the game with the Broncos trailing 20-7 and almost helped them pull out a victory in a 20-17 loss, scoring a touchdown running the ball. After his showing Head Coach Lou Saban reluctantly named him the starter and he became the first African American Quarterback to start for a team.

He ended up playing in 11 games, 7 of which he started. He finished with a Broncos rookie record of 1,589 yards passing and 14 TD’s, plus 308 yards rushing. Some of Briscoe’s records stood until John Elway came along in 1983. The next season when Briscoe arrive at training camp, he was informed by Saban that he was no longer a quarterback and was cut without an explanation. Briscoe needing an opportunity almost signed with the British Columbia Lions (CFL). Instead he got picked up by the Buffalo Bills as an “Athlete”.

The Bills were already set at quarterback with Tom Flores and Jack Kemp, additionally they already had an African American Quarterback in 1969 draftee James Harris, so Briscoe was moved to wide receiver. Briscoe practiced at quarterback only when the others were injured and strictly played wide receiver.

He later developed into a quality receiver, playing three seasons for the Bills and earning Pro Bowl honors for the 1970 season, finishing with 57 catches for 1036 yards and 8 touchdowns. After leaving Buffalo, Briscoe continued to play WR with the great Miami Dolphins teams of the early 1970′s including the 1972 perfect 17-0 team.

On those Dolphin teams Briscoe was known as the perfect compliment to future Hall of Famer Paul Warfield, because he could always find ways of reading coverage and getting open. He continued to play until 1976, playing with Detroit, San Diego and ending his career with the New England Patriots.

Unfortunately, Briscoe never got to achieve success at the quarterback position after a stellar rookie season in 1968. He later beat drug addiction and now counsels and coaches children in the Los Angeles area.

Next: The Building Years (1970-1980)