BASN’s 2008-09 Report Cards (Part Two)

By Gary Norris Gray
Updated: January 22, 2009

CALIFORNIA — Many coaches and owners have stated that African American quarterbacks could never lead a NFL team to victory; that they were not intelligent, that they lacked pocket passing skills, they were too radical, and the rhetoric Americans cast on African American men were cast on the Black quarterback.

This made it very difficult for many African American quarterbacks to play in the (AFL) American Football League and (NFL) National Football League. Let it also be noted the (CFL) Canadian Football League openly welcomed Black quarterbacks.

African American quarterbacks are held at higher standards than their white counterparts. For example, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco, and Matt Ryan are all new golden boys in the NFL. All three were never asked to move to another offensive position or asked to change their playing styles. All three have made mental and physical errors this year yet they are still the new superstars of the league.

This grade could improve if NFL coaches and owners stop trying to change Black quarterbacks’ playing style or moving them to another offensive position. Many African American college quarterbacks went to Canada or NFL Europe to play their position because they knew that NFL teams did not give them the opportunity to play.

Yes, it still happens in 2008. The list below dispels all of these myths of the Black quarterback.

The Famous No. 1

Warren Moon (University of Washington) of the Edmonton Eskimos won the Grey Cup (Canada’s Super Bowl) five consecutive years (1978 -1982). Moon would later come to the United States and play for the Houston Oilers, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, and Kansas City Chiefs. He led the Oilers and Vikings to the playoffs.

Moon is the first African American quarterback to be inducted into two football Halls of Fame (Canton and the Canadian Football of Fame in Hamilton, Ontario). With his combined NFL/CFL passing stats, Moon is the second most prolific passer in football history. The question remains what if he played his whole carrier in the United States? Would his passing records now be untouchable?

Major Harris (University of West Virginia). Harris played in the CFL and the Arena Football League. This outstanding college quarterback never made it in the NFL. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1990 but never played at that position.

This man could outrun any player on the field. He could throw 80 yards without effort. The only trouble was Harris could not read the complex NFL defenses that changed constantly and that is a prerequisite to play this coveted position. Harris was one of my favorite players because of his style of play.

Let’s go back in history to track our African American quarterbacks of the past:

1920: Fritz Pollard (Brown University) was the first African American quarterback to play professional football for the Hammond Pros and Akron Pros. He later became the coach for the African American team Chicago Black Hawks.

1934-1946: There was a silent agreement among owners not to employ African Americans in professional football.

The Washington team owners stood by this gentleman’s agreement. Then in 1961 President John F. Kennedy told owner George Preston Marshall if he wanted his team to continue to play in Washington’s Griffin Stadium he had to draft at least one African American player. They drafted Heisman trophy winner Ernie Davis then traded him for Bobby Mitchell who sat the bench most of the 1962 season.

Washington was the last team in the NFL to integrate. The Washington team was the flag ship team for the old south and Marshall wanted to keep it that way. The old fight song “Hail to the Redskins”, had the lyrics “FIGHT FOR OLD DIXIE” this was later changed to “Fight for old D.C.”

1950: Willie Thrower (Michigan State University) of the Chicago Bears was the first African American to play quarterback in the NFL. In 1953 he played one complete game. He guided the MSU Spartans to a National Title in 1952.

George Taliafarro (Indiana University) for the Baltimore Colts and Philadelphia Eagles and was the best NFL back up quarterback of the 1950’s

1955: Charles “Choo Choo” Brackins (Prairie View A & M University) for the Green Bay Packers became the third quarterback in professional history. The first quarterback from a Historically Black College and University (HBCU).

1960: Marlon Briscoe (Omaha University) – Denver Broncos was the first African American in the AFL. He had the nickname “The Magician” because he could get away from defenders with his quick moves. Then he was traded to Buffalo and moved to flanker one year later.

1969: Eldridge Dickey (Tennessee State University) was the first Black quarterback drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders. Dickey, who played well enough to start at quarterback during pre-season, never played a down as a quarterback. He was moved to wide receiver at the start of regular season.

1970: Joseph “Jefferson Street” Gilliam (Tennessee State University) – Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the best quarterbacks this writer has never seen. He had such natural raw talent, speed, and a strong arm. The evolution of the modern quarterback position started here. “Jefferson Street”, Joe was way ahead of his time.

Gilliam cracked under the constant pressure of being the only Black Quarterback in the AFC. Death threats followed him in the Steel City because this blue collar town was not ready for an African American quarterback. His job was taken by future Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw after six games, (Gilliam was 4-1-1 as a starter-NOT GOOD ENOUGH). Gilliam slid into depression and could not shake the drug demons and left professional football. He would return in the USFL, playing only one year.

In 1972, Chuck Ealey, the only undefeated and untied quarterback in collegiate football 35-0 refused to play any another position besides quarterback while at the University of Toledo. He was not selected by the NFL, in spite of being eighth in the 1971 Heisman voting. He promptly went to the CFL and won Rookie of the Year, Most Outstanding Player, and led the Hamilton Tiger – Cats to a Grey Cup Championship.

James Harris (Grambling University) played for the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams, and San Diego Chargers. Harris was the first African American quarterback to start a playoff game. Harris threw the ball so hard that many receivers did not want to practice with him. He was Brett Favre before there was a Brett Favre.

Harris flourished under the pressure of being the only Black quarterback in the NFC, leading his team to a conference title and leading the league in passing percentage. After retirement Harris as an assistant general manager helped to organize the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens in 2001.

As the seventies ended a message was being sent with five part-time quarterbacks John ‘JJ’ Jones (Fisk University) played with the New York Jets, John Walton (Elizabeth City) played with the Philadelphia Eagles, Parnell Dickerson (Mississippi Valley State) played with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Vince Evans (USC) played with the Chicago Bears, and Dave Mays (Texas Southern) played with the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills. The message that was still being sent was you’re good but not good enough to start. That would change at the turn of the century.

1980:Doug Williams (Grambling University) the first Black Quarterback to lead Washington to a Super Bowl XXII Victory. He also led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to within one game of the Super Bowl. Williams broke many passing records in that Washington Super Bowl XXII victory. Four touchdown passes in one quarter and a total of 340 yards. Williams was the MVP of that Super Bowl but never got the commercials or endorsements that other players received. This historic event put an end to “Black quarterbacks were not smart enough to lead their teams”. This put an end to “Blacks can’t think fast enough in this position”. Doug Williams broke the barrier for the future African American quarterbacks.

1985: Randall Cunningham, (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), played for the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, and Baltimore Ravens. He changed the map at the quarterback position. Randall could and would run out of the pocket at any given moment, causing havoc among NFL defenders. Cunningham was the first option passing quarterback in the league. Randall now quarterbacks for a higher team in an evangelistic church in Las Vegas.

At the end of this century another set of backup quarterbacks came on the field. Don McPherson (Syracuse) played for the Eagles and Oilers, Reggie Slack (Auburn) played for the Houston Oilers, Brian Ransom (Tennessee State) played for the Houston Oilers, Reggie Collier (Southern Mississippi) played for the Dallas Cowboys but spent most of his time in the (USFL) United States Football League, and Shawn Moore (University of Virginia) played for the Denver Broncos.

1990: Kordell Stewart (University of Colorado) played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and morphed the position of quarterback by playing many other positions in the same game. Kordell was called Slash because you had to put so many / behind his name. Tight end / wide receiver / running back / quarterback/ punter. Stewart made many NFL coaches re-evaluate the Black quarterback position.

Keeping with NFL tradition at the end of this decade another crop of potential quarterbacks lined up as second and third string. Dameyune Craig (Auburn) playing for the Carolina Panthers (who threw for over 600 yards in a game while playing for NFL Europe), Tony Banks (Michigan State) played for the St. Louis Rams (and earned a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens), Wally Richardson (Penn State) played for the Baltimore Ravens, and Jay Walker (Howard) played for the Minnesota Vikings and six other teams.

2000: At the turn of this century the professional quarterbacks were getting bigger and stronger. Some quarterbacks could run over defenders instead of trying to avoid them.

These young men come to mind. Steve McNair, (Tennessee Titans); Daunte Culpepper, (Minnesota Vikings); Aaron Brooks, (New Orleans Saints); Jeff Blake, (Saints); and Akili Smith, (Cincinnati Bengals).

Donovan McNabb (Syracuse University) Philadelphia Eagles is one of these big strong quarterbacks. When McNabb was drafted in New York City, he was greeted with a chorus of boos by the Eagle faithful, who wanted powerful running back Ricky Williams of Texas.

The green bird fans should be happy the administration drafted the talented quarterback. He has led the Eagles to four straight NFC East titles, five NFC Championship games and a place in the Super Bowl.

NEXT: More on Black quarterbacks in the NFL.