SUPER BOWL XXII : THE BLACK QBs : From Thrower to Williams, a Long Arc

Times Staff Writer

The Chicago Bears were stalled. They were losing to the Washington Redskins, 35-21, and the Bear fans were hooting.

With the ball on their 35-yard line and time running out, the Bear coach searched out the rookie quarterback.

"You ready?" he asked Willie Thrower.

"Am I what ?" answered Thrower.

Out came starter George Blanda. In went the kid.

The football felt like a tennis ball. The arm felt like George Blanda's leg. The rookie took the Bears on the drive of his life, covering 60 yards, down to the Redskins' five-yard line.

He walked back to the huddle to call the play for first and goal. Surprise! There was no room for him. Blanda was back. The kid was out.

"The coach didn't think I could finish it," said the kid the other day. "He wanted George to take them in. He wanted George to do it."

The year was 1953. The coach was George Halas.

Willie Thrower was football's first black quarterback.

It's a late December morning, two days before Syracuse is to play Auburn for a chance at a national championship. Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson is sleeping when a phone rings in his New Orleans hotel room. He pulls at the receiver. He holds it over his ear. The voice fades in and out, but this much McPherson understands:

"During the game, (racial slur), you are going to die."

McPherson hangs up, pulls up the covers, and goes back to sleep. Two days later, when he leads his team into the Sugar Bowl, it remains his own little secret.

"Why tell anybody?" he said. "Why? What good would it have done? This stuff happens. This stuff will keep happening."

In 1988, Don McPherson will be pro football's newest black quarterback.

High thinking and bureaucratic yodeling aside, what it means for black Washington quarterback Doug Williams to play in Sunday's Super Bowl XXII is just this: One day, people like Willie Thrower will get to score that touchdown, and Don McPherson will jump out of bed and scream about an indignity.

"Doug is not playing for black America, he's playing for the kids," said Houston quarterback Warren Moon, one of two other black starting quarterbacks in the National Football League, Philadelphia's Randall Cunningham being the other.

"He's playing so maybe our black youth who want to be quarterbacks, they will feel like they can be quarterbacks. He's playing so they won't have to go through what all of us went through."

All of us. They are like old soldiers, wearing their memories like wounds.

Moon is flying in from Texas. Former Ram quarterback James Harris is driving down from Los Angeles. Sometime this week, someplace where the cameras can't find them, they will get together with Williams.

There will be a phone call from Nashville, Tenn., from former Steeler Joe Gilliam.

If a certain young man can get up the nerve, there will be phone call from the University of Nebraska. That's where quarterback Steve Taylor will begin next football season as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Williams counseled him once during a tight time, and Taylor wonders if this wouldn't be a good time to say thanks.

From other spots, there will be inner communication. In Syracuse, N.Y., that quarterback named McPherson will dream. In Dallas, a quarterback named Kevin Murray will wonder.

The bond here is of more than color. It is of death threats, nasty letters, lost chances, and an outside that still doesn't understand.

"They don't think we can think or react under pressure," said Moon. "They don't think we do well in situations that cause you to think and act quickly. So they don't play us at quarterback."

Yet this week, there is also a bond of quiet contentment. Because in a fight the black quarterbacks never asked for, suddenly they are winning.

"When I was playing, it wasn't fair, and I never expected it to be fair," said Harris. "Now, maybe, it won't be like that. Maybe kids who want to be quarterbacks won't be forced to switch positions. Maybe kids who dream about being quarterbacks, maybe that's becoming a realistic dream."

Thrower is now 56 years old and working in construction in Pittsburgh. He doesn't figure he's an expert on society, but he still wonders about some things. Such as, what does it mean that we are still talking about black quarterbacks?

"There still shouldn't be controversy over this, should there?" he asked.

Thrower played only one NFL season, and just two games in that season. He was released by the Bears and approached by no other team, so he finished his career in Canada with Winnipeg, where he threw to tight end Bud Grant for three years.

"I was 20 years ahead of my time," he admits.

The next black quarterback didn't come along until 15 years later, in 1968. But Marlin Briscoe played just one season with the Denver Broncos before going to the Buffalo Bills as a wide receiver.

For depth chart purposes, the first quarterback entered our consciousness in 1972, and the first was not one but two: James Harris and Joe Gilliam, linked inseparably through history, not only as pioneers, but as a recipients of unusual breaks.

It was not until later that the football world realized how unusual.

Most remember that in 1974, after Joe Gilliam had led the Pittsburgh Steelers to three straight wins and moved them to 4-1-1, he was benched in favor of Terry Bradshaw, who took the team to its first Super Bowl. Doug Williams isn't the first black quarterback in a Super Bowl, Joe Gilliam stood on the sideline and did nothing for two of them.

Most also remember that two years after being voted the MVP of the 1974 season's Pro Bowl, Harris was benched by the Rams in favor of Pat Haden. He was traded to San Diego in 1977 and was never the same.

But for both men, there is more to it than that.

"When I reached San Diego, all of what had happened to me finally hit me," said Harris, a scout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "I finally said, 'I've had enough.' "

Enough?

Harris had planned to be a top draft pick from Grambling in 1969. Instead, he went to Buffalo in the eighth round, the 192nd player taken. Upset, he decided to quit. Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson talked him out of it.

"He told me if I quit now, nobody would ever try to be a black quarterback," Harris said. "So I went."

And on his first visit, while top draft pick O. J. Simpson was housed in a motel, Harris was put up in a YMCA. And while he earned a starting job during training camp, Harris always felt alone, and forced to look over his shoulder, and be perfect.

"I had spent my career enjoying the game, enjoying the maneuvering and the learning, and then all of a sudden, I make a mistake, I'm out," Harris said. "An interception gets you benched. One bad play gets you benched. It takes a toll on your mind."

Injury cut short his first year, but he came back the second season as the starter again, and the feelings started all over again.

"I was the only starter who was always afraid of getting cut," he said. "Every day, I thought I might get cut. I couldn't relax and do my job. There weren't a lot of players from the South in Buffalo, not a lot of guys like me, and then being in my position, it was very uncomfortable."

He finally lost the job to Dennis Shaw, was later released, then signed on with the Rams in 1973. It only took him 1 1/2 seasons to earn the starting job in Los Angeles, taking over when John Hadl was traded to the Packers. From parts of 1974 through parts of 1976, finally, James Harris had tripped upon his dream. He was one of the stars.

Now if only somebody could convince him it was worth it.

"My situation in Los Angeles showed the conditions the black quarterback had to play under," he said. "It's only speculation to say that, if I was white, I would have lasted longer. But I'm wondering if it wouldn't have been easier."

There was the hate mail, which came in such volume that sometimes Coach Chuck Knox would not let Harris see it. Then one morning before a home game, in Harris' room in the Beverly Hills Hilton, the quarterback got a death threat.

"They told me if I went on the field that day, something bad would happen to me," he said. "I couldn't listen to them. I couldn't give in to anybody."

So he told only quarterback teammate Ron Jaworski, just so Jaworski wouldn't stand too close. And that was that.

"Nothing happened," Harris said. "Like I said, I knew things would not be fair."

After being the starter for all of 1975, in which he led the Rams to a 12-2 record and the NFC championship game, he was told by Ram management that he would have to earn his starting spot in 1976. He was baffled.

"That didn't seem to make much sense," he recalled. "Doesn't the starter usually stay the starter during the off-season? Especially after a year like that?"

He earned it, but he was on the bench for the last five games of the 1976 season, when a thumb injury and Haden pushed him out. By the next year he was traded, and after the 1981 season, he retired.

Since then, he was trying to get back into the NFL in some capacity. Only this season, with the Buccaneers, has he succeeded.

"People say I'm a pioneer and a role model, but I can't tell it," he said. "I quit football and nobody wanted me. There are still just three black quarterbacks in the NFL. It is hard to think I did anything for this game."

For Gilliam, it was quicker and simpler. His career lasted four years, same place. He played for parts of two of those years and backed up Bradshaw the rest of the time.

Yet it was no easier. He had just one real chance, and it was taken away on Oct. 22, 1974, despite starting a team on a one-loss-in-six-games road to the Super Bowl.

"So it didn't work out like I thought it would," said Gilliam, an alcoholism counselor in Nashville. "But I played. Through it all, I played.

"I got a lot of hate mail filled with a lot of lowdown racial slurs, the worst you could think of. I had all kinds of death threats. But I knew I could play, before the threats, during the threats, after the threats. Things didn't work out like I wanted them to, but I played.

"I want people to remember that no matter what happened, that I played."

Moon has this theory: The problem with black starting quarterbacks is black backup quarterbacks. This season, counting only regular-roster true backups, there were none.

"The fact is, if you are black and not good enough to be a starter, a lot of organizations aren't going to take the time to develop you into a good player," Moon said. "Right from the draft, you have to be great, or they aren't going to fool with you.

"Look at what happened with Kevin Murray last year. I still don't know what the deal was with him."

Problem is, even Kevin Murray no longer looks at what happened to Kevin Murray.

Last April, Murray and some buddies gathered early in front of a television set at a Texas A&M; apartment to watch the NFL draft. The 6-foot 2-inch, 205-pound quarterback apologized to them in advance, saying he might have to get up and leave early, seeing as somebody might be trying to reach him.

After all, he had just finished a career there that left a bold-faced legacy in record books selling from College Station to the Cotton Bowl. He was a third-team All-American, neat considering that the first team quarterback was Vinny Testaverde.

For two straight years he had been first-team All-Southwest Conference and voted the most valuable offensive player in the conference. In his career, he had thrown for the second-most yardage--6506--in SWC history. And in only three years.

There were two problems. He had struggled in his final game, throwing five interceptions in a 28-12 Cotton Bowl loss to Ohio State. And physically, he had undergone surgery for an ankle injury as a sophomore, and would eventually need a plate and pins removed.

Yet, so sure was he of his big-money chances, the former redshirt Murray had forsaken a final year of eligibility to turn pro.

"I thought I was a third- or fourth-rounder, to be honest with you," said Murray.

Three rounds passed. Four rounds. Murray left his buddy's house in embarrassment. He went home and lay in bed. Eight rounds. Nine rounds.

Finally, in the early evening, the Raiders called and said they would draft Murray in the 12th and final round, but only if he would spend two years in Canada.

He told them no.

"I thought I was one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, and all of a sudden I'm nothing, and headed for Canada?" he said.

Said Steve Endicott, Murray's Dallas-based agent who spent three years as a receiver coach for the New England Patriots: "He was totally devastated. He knows he can play. I know he can play, and I've seen a lot of football. It was totally ridiculous, not only not to be drafted, but not to be in the top half of the draft."

Most teams told Endicott they didn't draft Murray because of the injury. "They all said their X-rays showed the ankle to just be too dangerous, even though he agreed to sign a waiver releasing them of salary liability," Endicott said.

Then there was Stanford quarterback John Paye, coming off shoulder surgery four months before the draft. He was taken in the 10th round by the San Francisco 49ers.

"I know of Kevin's injury," Moon said. "But you mean he wasn't even good enough for the 10th round? That doesn't make any sense. We took the Southwest Conference's second-team quarterback, Cody Carlson of Baylor, in the third round. Now Cody is good, but from what people told me, Murray is better. Makes no sense."

Not all feel that way.

Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN draft analyst and nationally respected talent judge, said color had nothing to do with it.

"I wasn't surprised at all that Murray wasn't drafted," he said. "He had the injury, he had a couple of bad big games, and he didn't tell anybody he was turning pro until it was too late to do a thorough scouting job on him. I don't want to hear anything about color. I don't even notice color. The guy was just too much of a chance."

The future for black quarterbacks is more defined now. Some say those definitions still don't make any sense, but at least they are there.

"Young black quarterbacks are still going to have to get everything right, and do everything right," said Moon. "They still can't let up. They still have to be as perfect as they can be to get an equal chance.

"But at least more and more of them are getting that chance."

And despite what they have been through--perhaps because of it--future black NFL quarterbacks, such as Steve Taylor and Don McPherson, will honor that chance.

When Taylor was a star senior quarterback at San Diego Lincoln High, he was pursued by dozens of colleges. He thought this meant he would have dozens of options.

It did. If he was willing to change positions.

"I talked to a lot of coaches and they were saying, 'Yeah, you'd made a great wide receiver or a great running back,' " he recalled. "I said, 'Excuse me, there must be a mistake. I'm a quarterback.'

"I really got confused. I knew I could play quarterback, but I didn't know if anybody would let me."

Then Williams called.

"He was really calling for California, where their coach, Joe Kapp, was a friend of his," Taylor said. "But it turned into him telling me, 'Keep the faith, keep the confidence, don't let anybody tell you that you can't play quarterback.' "

Taylor listened. Sunday, as a 21-year-old senior at Nebraska, he will be watching.

"I tell you, I like the Denver Broncos, but I am going to be cheering hard for the Washington Redskins, cheering for Doug," he said.

"He has opened the doors for us. He is going to make things easier down the road. I just know it."

From the time Don McPherson decided to be a quarterback at age 12, he thought all he had to do was play well to be admired.

He did. As long as he was willing to change positions.

"People would come up to me and say, 'You play football right?' " he said. "I would tell them yes. Then 90% of them would say, 'You're a wide receiver, right?' And the other 10% would say, 'You're a cornerback, right?' "

"Nobody--nobody--would ever say I was a quarterback."

But he ignored them, and this winter he finished second in a Heisman Trophy race that had folks holding their breath all the way to Lincoln.

"I'll admit, I was cheering for him hard," said Taylor. "I think he should have rightfully won."

McPherson said: "I understand. I know that anything I do is going to be scrutinized. I know that people are always going to look for ways to refute the facts. I know. Those are my rules.

"But at least now, we can all see that it's possible. You see, Doug Williams is not helping an issue, he is helping people. And the people he is helping are not black, but white."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°