You could tell right away what was wrong with Vincent Tobias Evans as a quarterback. Brown eyes.
Quarterbacks, it has been well established, have blue eyes. They also have light hair, and they come from some place around Aliquippa or Altoona, Pa., and have names that end in a vowel or have been shortened from the Hungarian.
You could tell by looking at him that Vince Evans only thought he was a quarterback. He was really a wide receiver, right? Maybe a flanker. At least, a defensive back. Safety man.
He was too fast to be a quarterback. A guy who could move this quickly should have the ball, not be handing it off to someone else or throwing it 60 yards downfield.
The trouble was, Vince Evans knew he was a quarterback. A good one. Asking him to play flanker was like asking Richard Burton to do Three Stooges movies or Caruso to sing, "Melancholy Baby."
"Honest, I'm a quarterback. Watch!" he always seemed to be saying. And he would launch an orbital throw 70 yards downfield.
Football coaches are not prejudiced, just superstitious. They not only wear the same color hats when they're on winning streaks but the same color quarterbacks. So, they like their quarterbacks white, their running backs black. The rest of the team is on its own.
Vince Evans didn't know any of this when he came West to play for USC in the mid-1970s. He thought quarterbacks were judged on their completions, not their color.
The Trojans didn't pick him, he picked them. Raised in the middle of North Carolina by a religious family, he had a choice of going to any one of three all-black colleges when he happened to catch a USC-UCLA game on TV. O.J. Simpson and that white horse were running wild. He knew that was for him. Football and John Wayne in the same wrapping.
"I'm going there!" Vince announced to his stunned family.
He enrolled at Los Angeles City College on his own and played well enough to get scholarship offers. At USC, which recruited him, the coach, John McKay, had already gone to a Rose Bowl--and won it--with a black quarterback, Jimmy Jones in 1970. So he knew they weren't bad luck.
Here, though, Vince Evans got his first lesson in Civics. When the coach announced in the middle of the 1975 season that he was going to quit to join the pros, the team went into a tailspin.
Did the alumni blame the coach? No. Somehow, Evans became the villain.
The bumper stickers said: "Save USC football. Shoot Vince Evans."
The letters, likewise, were hardly reassuring.
"They would write things like, 'Who told you you were a quarterback, nigger? Go home!' " Evans was recalling the other day.
But when Coach John Robinson gave him the football and the job the next year, Vince Evans not only led the team to the Rose Bowl, he beat Michigan when it got there, 14-6. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 181 yards, scored on a rollout and was voted player of the game.
"I think if you really look at it, it came down to Evans," Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler said after the game. "He is so strong, he can roll one way and throw back the other with strength and accuracy. He made the difference."
He was the second black quarterback of the decade to win the Rose Bowl and, a year later, Warren Moon made the third.
For his efforts, Evans got drafted 140th by the Chicago Bears. The Chicago Bears of that era consisted of Walter Payton and not much else.
"If Vince had figured a way to complete a pass to himself, we might have had a chance," a coach later opined.
Vince shared the position with one Bob Avellini, and they filled the air with footballs. That was the trouble. That was all they filled--air.
When the United States Football League came along, Vince rolled out of the pocket and joined, playing first with the Chicago Blitz and, when they disbanded, the Denver Gold. Neither team reminded anyone of the Lombardi Packers, and the next thing Vince knew, he was estimating the amount of electrical conduit needed for plant wiring.
"It's not hard," Evans recalls.
Of course, no one carries you off on their shoulders if you guess right. So, he kept writing to all 28 National Football League teams. Have arm, will travel.
He got no answers--until the strike. Then, his mailbox was full. He chose the Raiders.
Of course, he still hadn't turned white, his hair and eyes hadn't changed and a lot of people still thought he was, therefore, miscast for the role--something like Edward G. Robinson playing a priest.
Then a funny thing happened in football. A non-blond player with a cannon arm who had been kicking around in the backup spot and on a defunct franchise in the USFL suddenly became the toast of football. Doug Williams not only made the Washington Redskins' backfield, he led them to the Super Bowl.
When he got there, he faced the prototypical pro passer. You can't get any blonder or more blue-eyed and fair-skinned than John Elway. Of course, as the priest-scientist, Mendel, could have told you, brown eyes are dominant over blue.
Just when he was beginning to think he might have to dye his hair and get contact lenses tinted blue, Vince Evans finds he's in a bull market for black quarterbacks. They're enjoying a new-found credibility as he suits up for practice with the Raiders this week. He has finally got the right color eyes and a name that's as American as Pocahontas.
It's the white quarterback who may find he's lousing up the color scheme in the future. He may be met by a coach, frowning and saying, "Look, kid, have you ever thought of trying flanker? Or strong safety? How are you at estimating electrical conduit?"