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Moon Made His Position Clear From Start

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous Plaschke columns, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

One of the steadiest voices in football history is cracking.

“I never wanted to talk about this ... “

One of the smoothest demeanors in football history is breaking.

“I never wanted people to think I was crying ... “

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Warren Moon sighs.

The journey is over. He finally belongs.

Next weekend when he becomes the first African American quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he is finally guaranteed cheers.

There will be no racial catcalls. There will be no death threats. There will be nobody wondering whether he is smart enough or savvy enough simply because he isn’t white enough.

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Nothing he can say will keep him out.

So now, finally, he can say it.

“I’ve had it real, real hard,” Moon says. “What I’ve had to deal with, you shouldn’t have to deal with.”

For one of the greatest football players from Los Angeles, it will be a day of triumph.

For those many football people who never believed blacks could play quarterback, it should be a day of shame.

“During Warren’s hardest times, I always told him, just win, and everything will be fine,” recalls his mother Pat. “If you win, nobody cares what color you are.”

Today, teams are finally getting it. There were nine black starting quarterbacks last season. Michael Vick is on the cover of video games. Donovan McNabb is the star of soup commercials. Vince Young was the first quarterback selected in this year’s NFL draft.

Moon chuckles. He was never the face of anything, and he was never drafted by anybody.

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He never made it to the Super Bowl, never made it big in endorsements, never felt the love given John Elway or the respect granted Dan Marino.

“All I ever heard was, ‘Have you ever thought about playing another position?’ ” he recalls.

Thought about it? Never. Not once. Ever. It temporarily cost him his country, nearly cost him his career, and could have cost him his life, but he never backed down.

“Only by sheer force of will did he make it,” says longtime agent and friend Leigh Steinberg, who will introduce him in Saturday’s Canton, Ohio, ceremony.

Moon’s will eventually pushed him into the top five in all five major passing categories, into the Hall of Fame on the first attempt, and, most important, onto the bedroom walls of young black football players everywhere.

“I remember walking into the home of a young African American quarterback recently, and there were two photos above his trophy case,” Steinberg says. “One was of Martin Luther King, and the other was of Warren Moon.”

Oh, but the hammering that went into the hanging of that picture.

It started when Moon was a senior at Hamilton High, down the road from the mid-city duplex where he was raised with his mother and five sisters.

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His father died when he was 7, forcing him to become the male figure in a house of six women, maturing him quickly, so much that his nickname back then was “Pops.”

“That’s where he got his stubbornness,” his mother says. “He had to run the house with all of us women in it.”

So, then, as a senior, Moon did not blink when Arizona State rescinded its offer for him to play quarterback after they signed two white quarterbacks.

“They asked me if I would play running back or defensive back,” Moon recalls. “I said, ‘No way.’ ”

Moon was adamant that he was a quarterback. They could take away his scholarship, but they would not take his position.

So he went to West L.A. College for a season, spending the fall sending out game films to Division I coaches around the country. He was finally summoned by rookie boss Don James, at the University of Washington, a program then plagued by racial strife.

“I called a player there and he told me not to come,” Moon recalls. “My mother told me not to go. Lots of people told me not to go.”

But, lacking options, he searched himself for strength.

“I decided, I wanted to be a quarterback, and this was my only opportunity, and even if I had to deal with a lot of racial stuff, I would do it,” he explains.

He had that racial-stuff part right.

From his first game there, he was booed and derided, his girlfriend and friends surrounded in the stands by nastiness.

“People would yell at the field, ‘You’ll never win with that ‘N’ playing quarterback!’ ” he recalls. “There was a lot of that stuff, all the time, and it was hard.”

Moon remembers his teammates looking at him in the huddle as if to say, “Can you take it?” He remembers honing his game face during those three seasons, learning to act like a leader even when, inside, he felt he was being chased.

“Throughout my career, I was never able to relax, I always had to go on the field with another responsibility, I felt like I was playing not just for my team, but for my race,” he says. “This feeling never went away.”

When he led the Huskies to a stunning Rose Bowl victory over Michigan in 1978, earning game MVP in the process, he thought that color was no longer an

issue.

Willie Thrower had been the NFL’s first black quarterback in 1953. Marlin Briscoe had been the first black starter in 1968. Joe Gilliam had been the first black opening-day starter in 1974.

It was time for all the doors to open, right?

Wrong. Moon wasn’t invited to the Senior Bowl, or the combines, or to any private NFL workouts.

Black quarterbacks were still considered parlor tricks, last resorts, sideshows.

“The quarterback is the face of the organization, and the white owners still weren’t ready for that face to be a black man,” Moon says. “The owners wanted somebody to take to the country club, and they weren’t ready for that to be a black man.”

Moon says the unspoken stereotype involved the perception of smarts.

“They didn’t think a black could be in a position of leadership,” he says.

Steinberg, who raised eyebrows among colleagues by championing Moon’s cause while he was in college, also felt it.

“Talking to the people in the league before the draft, they just felt that blacks could never master the quarterback position,” Steinberg recalls.

So, in a Hail Mary act of defiance, they blew off the draft.

Weeks before anyone in the NFL had a chance to snub him, Moon signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League, where he spent the next six years becoming one of the best quarterbacks in CFL history.

He loved it there. But he always wanted to test himself against the best. He would come home in the winter and attend NFL games and wonder.

“He was like a little kid with his nose pressed against the glass,” Steinberg says. “He had yearning in him that was almost sad to see.”

Finally, in 1984, it was time, Moon coming to the NFL’s Houston Oilers as a 28-year-old rookie with the highest salary in history.

Which only meant he was booed even louder. During his first years there, the Texas-sized slurs swirled around his family such that he eventually moved them to a private stadium box.

Then there was the time he was leaving the field after a game in Cleveland when he was surrounded by security guards.

“They told me to follow them and don’t ask any questions,” he recalls. “I learned later that someone had threatened my life.”

When the Oilers finally started winning, the animosity ended, and he was eventually embraced by the locals. But for the rest of his career, through seven playoff appearances that included an infamously blown 32-point second-half lead to the Buffalo Bills, he would look in the stands.

“Sitting on the bench, looking at the faces, you always kind of wonder if that person is up there,” he says.

Occasionally, the pressure broke him, as it did in the summer of 1995, when he admittedly slapped and choked his then-wife Felicia in a domestic dispute. He publicly apologized and was later acquitted of misdemeanor assault after she declined to testify.

“Nobody suspected anything like that of me,” he says now. “It’s going to tarnish you.”

He retired after the 2000 season and has since become a role model for former NFL players, gracefully slipping into radio-TV work for the Seattle Seahawks and management for Steinberg’s agency and perhaps, one day ,a role in the new Los Angeles NFL franchise.

“A lot of great players played their first football in this town,” he says. “Maybe one day I can have a hand in bringing it back.”

The grip that he has held so tightly on his world finally

loosened last winter, Super Bowl week, when he was driving around Detroit with wife Mandy.

The cellphone rang. It was the call informing him that he had just been voted into the Hall of Fame.

“All the struggles, all the times I was told ‘No,’ they all came down on me at that one moment,” Moon recalls. “I cried like a baby.”

He began weeping so hard he could no longer drive. Mandy temporarily took the wheel and steered them down the road to the news conference.

Warren Moon sighs again.

“A long, long road,” he says.

Extra points

* Betemit now than later, I always say. In a move that crushes all those Dodgers fans who would rather have a good farm system than a good team, Ned Colletti trades one kid for a better kid. How dare he try to win this year!

* Don’t worry Angels, you’re next. Yep, it’s time for Bill Stoneman to change his evil ways and trade Ervin Santana for Miguel Tejada. The kid pitched brilliantly against the Yankees last October and where did it get them? Needing Tejada, that’s where.

* You see where Bobby Bowden says his Florida State football players register their guns with the football office, then check them out when they need them for hunting? Since when do college football players have time to hunt? Since when do they need guns for anything?


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