Black Quarterbacks Scoring in the NFL
In 1974, Joe Gilliam Jr. was a rarity: an African American quarterback who actually had an opportunity to play the position in the National Football League.
When he died of a heart attack on Christmas night, Gilliam was watching “Monday Night Football,” a game with two African American starting quarterbacks: Steve McNair of the Tennessee Titans and Anthony Wright of the Dallas Cowboys.
As the NFL playoffs begin today, five of the 12 starting quarterbacks are African American: Daunte Culpepper of the Minnesota Vikings, Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles, Shaun King of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Aaron Brooks of the New Orleans Saints and Tennessee’s McNair.
In all, 14 African American quarterbacks started at least one game this season.
“I can’t help but think that when this is the year of the black quarterback, Joe Gilliam dies in obscurity,” said Don McPherson, a star quarterback at Syracuse in the 1980s who believes racial bias limited his own prospects for an NFL career.
“I remember seeing him play. I was 7 or 8 and hadn’t even started playing football. I remember, mostly, my father marveling at the fact he got an opportunity.”
By then, African American players made up half the NFL’s work force and starred at many positions. Quarterback, however, was always viewed as “different,” because it was the key leadership position.
Gilliam, who was 49 when he died, squandered his career, largely because of drug problems that dogged him until recent years.
But in 1974, he was 4-1-1 for a Pittsburgh Steeler team that went on to win the Super Bowl after he’d lost the job to Terry Bradshaw. Gilliam never really got another chance.
James Harris was another of the early black quarterbacks, helping the Los Angeles Rams to the NFC title game in 1974 and ’75 and earning most-valuable-player honors at the 1975 Pro Bowl, only to get caught in a quarterback shuffle with Ron Jaworski and Pat Haden in 1976.
Today, as director of pro personnel for the Baltimore Ravens, Harris is one of those involved in deciding who will get a chance to play.
“My attitude now is that we’re at a time when quarterbacks, if they have enough ability to play, they’ll get the opportunity to play, and it wasn’t always that way,” he said.
The reasons that opportunities were denied are myriad, but society at the time wasn’t comfortable with African Americans as leaders. The white-dominated football hierarchy often labeled blacks as “athletes” who should play cornerback, receiver or running back, sometimes suggesting that they lacked the passing and cognitive abilities to play quarterback.
“We can’t deny there have been some major changes in the last 40 years in our society that have given African Americans more opportunity than in the past,” said Charles K. Ross, an assistant professor of African American studies at the University of Mississippi who wrote a book on the integration of the NFL.
“I also think competition is the nature of the game, and it has forced coaches, general managers, even owners, to give players an opportunity based strictly upon talent. The competitive nature of the game has forced people to come to grips with the fact the game has changed, and you have to put the players in the positions--especially at the quarterback position--that will enable you to win.
“The NFL is about 68% black and steadily increasing. . . . With the amount of speed in the game now, it’s inconceivable to have a quarterback who can’t move around much.”
It would be comforting if the lack of opportunity were a relic of the dusty, distant past, but it isn’t necessarily so.
Charlie Ward, the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner at Florida State, told NFL teams he wanted to play football, but went undrafted.
Later a first-round pick in the NBA draft, he plays point guard for the New York Knicks.
“I gave the first opportunity to the NFL and the NFL didn’t give me an opportunity,” he said.
“They came up with excuses why they didn’t draft me. That I was not big enough. That I was too short and didn’t have a strong enough arm, and everyone was afraid if they drafted me in the first round I wouldn’t play football.”
He sees the changes a few years have brought.
“It’s not so much about skin color. I think it’s about wanting to win. Those guys give you the best opportunity to win. Linemen and linebackers are getting bigger and stronger, and you have to have an athlete at quarterback--white or black, it doesn’t matter.
‘The Racism Made a Difference’
“Now, African Americans are getting an opportunity to play. We’ve always been good thinkers and leaders. They held that against us. They didn’t say that, but they did.”
Little more than a decade before McNabb became a first-round pick from Syracuse in 1999, McPherson finished second in Heisman Trophy voting and took Syracuse to the Sugar Bowl.
A sixth-round 1988 draft choice for the Eagles, he spent three seasons as a reserve quarterback who didn’t play.
“I led the nation in passing, and we had an undefeated season and a berth in one of the biggest bowls,” said McPherson, now a college football analyst on ESPN2 broadcasts.
“I sent a letter to all 28 teams and asked them not to draft me unless I was going to play quarterback. Not a lot of people asked about me. Paul Hackett [recently fired as USC’s coach], who worked for the Cowboys at the time, came out to Syracuse. So did Dennis Green, when he was the receivers’ coach at San Francisco. Those were the only two that came.
“I think the racism made a difference.
“I don’t know what you’d sue for, but to me, that seems illegal.”
The first African American to play quarterback in the NFL was Willie Thrower, who appeared in one game with the 1953 Chicago Bears.
Sent in for George Blanda, he drove the team downfield before Blanda was brought back to take the Bears the final five yards into the end zone.
It was not the harbinger of progress.
It wasn’t until 1968 that an African American quarterback was selected in the first round of the draft, when the Oakland Raiders picked Eldridge Dickey from Tennessee State.
But the Raiders’ second-round choice was Ken Stabler (who went on to have a successful 15-year career), and Dickey’s few appearances in a short career were as a receiver and on special teams.
“He was probably the guy I would have liked to have seen have an opportunity, because he had all the ability to be an upper-echelon player,” said Jimmy Raye, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator. Raye is a former Michigan State quarterback who was considered one of the best college quarterbacks of his era, only to be converted to a defensive back in the NFL.
“We’re talking about a completely different set of social circumstances then than now,” Raye said. “When I played at Michigan State, I was the only black [major-college] quarterback in the country.”
He was part of the first wave of African American quarterbacks who migrated to schools in the Midwest and West that were giving players a chance.
At USC, Jimmy Jones was quarterback of the team that beat Alabama in a 1970 game that some contend helped spur the integration of college football in the South.
At Minnesota, Sandy Stephens, who died this year at 59, became the first black All-American quarterback in 1961.
Tampa Bay Coach Tony Dungy played quarterback at Minnesota in the 1970s but was switched to defensive back as an NFL player, yet another black quarterback who never had the chance to play the position in the pros.
There is a list of pioneers to whom today’s quarterbacks owe a debt, from Gilliam and Harris to Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl in 1988.
There’s also Warren Moon, who would have retired as the most prolific passer in history if his six seasons in the Canadian Football League after no NFL team gave him a chance were added to his statistics.
The first black quarterback to start a professional game in the modern era was Marlin Briscoe, who started for the Denver Broncos in the old American Football League in 1968.
On the day Briscoe walked up to his locker stall and saw an unfamiliar No. 15 jersey--a number generally worn by quarterbacks--hanging there, the rookie cornerback and former college quarterback had only one thought.
“I thought I had been cut,” he said.
His opportunity, brought on by other quarterbacks’ struggles, lasted the rest of the season after he had come off the bench to rally the Broncos in the third game.
But by the next season, Briscoe was shuffled aside.
Eventually, he joined the Buffalo Bills as a receiver, then later helped the Miami Dolphins to two Super Bowl victories and led them in receiving in 1973.
“I just resigned myself to not getting another opportunity to play quarterback in the NFL, whatever the reason,” said Briscoe, a former teacher and coach and now an assistant project manager with the Watts-Willowbrook Boys and Girls Clubs.
Briscoe basically had negotiated his opportunity to play quarterback at Denver.
“They saw me as an ‘athlete,’ ” he said. “I agreed I would sign as a defensive back if they’d give me a three-day tryout at quarterback.
“I think they just did it to pacify me. I knew the powers that be in 1968 would be fearful of a black quarterback.
“But I also knew that Denver’s training camp was open to the public and the media, and I’d have the opportunity to show my skills for three days, to plant the seed that I had the ability to play the position.”
He got his tryout, the allotted three days.
“It was the ‘60s. I knew what racial prejudice and bias were. I had prepared for that so it would not affect my mental resolve to perform the best I could to let people know, ‘Hey, a black man could think and throw.’ ”
When the Broncos desperately needed a quarterback later in the season, they remembered.
There seem to be so many lost gems among quarterbacks.
Those Who Didn’t Get the Chance
For Randall Cunningham, the former Eagle quarterback who was a backup in Dallas this season, the quarterback he thinks about is a player he competed against in college.
“Let me tell you, there’s a kid playing in Canada who came out the same year I came out: Damon Allen. It’s a shame he has not gotten the opportunity,” Cunningham said.
Allen--former USC Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen’s brother--played at Cal State Fullerton and has spent his professional career in the CFL, setting the league’s passing record this season while winning the league championship Grey Cup with the British Columbia Lions.
Then there is Willie Totten, the quarterback who set so many records with receiver Jerry Rice at Mississippi Valley State that the stadium is named after both: Rice-Totten Stadium.
Totten passed for 13,007 yards in college, but only 155 in the NFL, appearing in two games for the 1987 Bills.
“Willie Totten, if he came along now, he’d get an opportunity to see if he’d succeed or fail,” Raye said. “At the time, with the system they ran, they were saying he couldn’t play a conventional style offense.”
That is a familiar refrain.
It was either size or arm strength or, “He’s just a runner,” or any number of questions about whether a quarterback is suited to a pro-style offense.
Those questions are considered not-so-subtle forms of racial bias, though players of other races sometimes face similar doubters.
Doug Flutie, after all, had to go to Canada for his career to take root because people were skeptical of his slight build. Scott Frost, the option quarterback who led Nebraska to an undefeated season in 1997, is a safety for the New York Jets.
What strikes some observers isn’t only the number of African Americans who are starting at quarterback.
When New Orleans quarterback Jeff Blake, who is black, was injured, another African American, Brooks, took his place.
When Troy Aikman and then Cunningham were hurt in Dallas, Wright got his chance.
Michael Bishop is a backup for New England; Joe Hamilton is on Tampa Bay’s practice squad.
There is opportunity all around, and one reason is that Harris, Raye and Dungy--every one of them a quarterback once asked to change his position--are sitting in the personnel meetings where decisions are made.
“It’s about what’s right and what’s wrong,” Harris said. “What’s right is: The best guy plays. It’s getting to be that situation because coaches want to win. They’re going to play the best players.
“You look at what’s happening. That’s what’s right.”
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.