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The black quarterback's long road to glory

Jets quarterback Geno Smith walks off of the

Jets quarterback Geno Smith walks off of the field during the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals. (Oct. 27, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

After all these years, Anthony Lynn still remembers.

The words had been a slap in the face -- and the beginning of the end to his boyhood dream.

Before he rushed for more than 1,900 yards and 17 touchdowns as a Celina, Texas, high school junior and won back-to-back Super Bowls as a running back with the Broncos in the 1997 and '98 seasons, Lynn played quarterback from the Pop Warner level all the way through middle school. But one demoralizing conversation with a former coach changed the course of his playing career.

"I'll never forget a guy telling a 13-year-old: 'Black guys can't play quarterback,' " said Lynn, now 44, the assistant head coach and running backs coach for the Jets. "It was so ignorant. That came out of a grown man's mouth -- to a kid . . . I was disappointed. But I wasn't going to let that stop me from playing."

And he didn't. Neither did Dennis Thurman nor Tim McDonald, both defensive coaches for the Jets. All three -- all of whom are black -- have 28 years of NFL playing experience and three Super Bowl rings among them. But each was forced to abandon the goal of playing quarterback to have a legitimate shot at college football and the NFL.

Their story, however, is common. Many former black players weren't given the opportunity to play quarterback in the league. And those who were, went through extraordinary measures to do so.

But today's generation of black quarterbacks doesn't have to deal with that struggle.

Nine black or biracial quarterbacks started Week 1 of the 2013 NFL season -- the highest number in an opening weekend. And those more enlightened attitudes toward race will be on display Sunday in Buffalo when Geno Smith's Jets face EJ Manuel and the Bills.

As was the case in their first meeting in Week 3, the game-day story line won't be about two black quarterbacks going head to head. It'll be about two rookies trying to lead their franchises to a victory.

The progress blacks have made, both in society and in sports, is well documented. And the issue of race no longer is an issue to young NFL quarterbacks.

"They didn't come up when I came up and they didn't witness some of the things I witnessed waiting for my opportunity as well, watching the Marlin Briscoes and the Joe Gilliams," said Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who chose to play in the Canadian Football League rather than switch positions in the NFL after going undrafted in 1978.

"They're not as battle-scarred about it as we are -- and that's fine. That's what we want it to be. We want these guys to not have to worry about that part of the game."


The forgotten ones

Questions about "the black quarterback" arise every so often. And these days, they seem to be met with slight apprehension, especially among young players. Some believe the progress made by blacks is an indication that race no longer needs to be part of the discussion. But that doesn't mean the conversations about black NFL quarterbacks are finished, Doug Williams said.

He would know. Williams was the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl, in January 1988 with the Redskins.

"The question always arises: 'Do you think we've made it to where we don't need to talk about black quarterbacks?' So basically, we have not gotten there," he said. "But not only in sports. The real world carries over to the football field . . . Once we get over it in society, it'll be easy on the football field."

Race and football, according to Williams, are a "touchy subject" for younger players.

"And I understand," said the former Grambling State star and coach, who was chosen in the first round of the 1978 NFL draft by the Buccaneers. "I ain't mad at them. They're making a lot of money, on and off the field, and their agents, or whoever represents them, makes sure they don't get caught up in that situation."

But it's hard to forget the fight once you've been scarred by it.

Often forgotten are the tales of players who sought to pursue their passion for playing quarterback, only to be told they couldn't. Or worse, those who endured inherent racism within their own NFL organizations.

Players like Briscoe, the first black starting quarterback in the American Football League, who still holds the Broncos' rookie record for touchdown passes with 14 in 1968. But he never got the chance to play quarterback in Denver again. The Broncos brought in Pete Liske, a white quarterback, in 1969 and intended to use him as the starter. After Briscoe was released, he decided to become a wide receiver - a position he had never played before - and was signed by the Bills that same year. He went on to earn All-Pro honors and was a member of the 1972 and '73 Super Bowl champion Dolphins.

In a recent interview with "60 Minutes Sports," Briscoe, 68, said institutional racism was "about 95 percent" to blame for his short stint in Denver.

Eldridge Dickey was the first black quarterback selected in the first round by an AFL or NFL team, in 1968. But despite a strong showing in training camp, the Raiders moved him to wide receiver.

Gilliam beat out future Steelers Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw in 1974 to become the first black quarterback to start in the regular season after the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. But despite his 4-1-1 record, Gilliam received death threats and withstood racial epithets from Pittsburgh fans. He soon was benched in favor of the inconsistent Bradshaw, who in an interview years later said of Gilliam: "He gave me my job back. I didn't earn it back."


Change of position

"For so many guys in my era, that was just how it went," said Tony Dungy, 58, the first black NFL coach to win a Super Bowl. "They would say, 'Hey, you can play in the NFL but it's going to be a position change. Or you can go to Canada and play quarterback because the style of the game kind of fits what you do.' And that's what happened in the '70s and '80s."

Dungy made the switch as well, moving from quarterback to safety and winning a Super Bowl with the Steelers in 1978.

So did McDonald, who was a high school All-American playing quarterback and safety in Fresno, Calif. But he knew his scholarship to USC meant becoming a full-time defensive back.

"Not a lot of kids grew up believing they could be a quarterback," said McDonald, 48, a Super Bowl champion with the 49ers (1994) and six-time Pro Bowl safety.

He has no regrets about switching positions, but he had some doubts back then.

"Probably 60 percent of my mind wanted me to go play quarterback," said McDonald, the Jets' secondary coach. "But my goal and my dream -- being an NFL player -- pushed it the other way."

Almost 10 years earlier, Thurman made the same choice.

He played quarterback against Moon in Pop Warner from the age of 10 in Southern California. But for Thurman, 57, just playing football was more important. So he went to USC and played defensive back.

"When you're a kid, throwing the ball around and playing quarterback in the alley or on some kid's lawn, you knew at some point you had to stop," said Thurman, who is in his first season as the Jets defensive coordinator. "You weren't going to get to do it. It was disheartening."

Those attitudes weren't relegated to the quarterback position. For decades, NFL teams were unconvinced that blacks could play safety, middle linebacker or center -- positions where "you had to think," said Thurman.

"The hoops that we had to jump through, just to compete on the same level, it's kind of been forgotten," said the Jets defensive coordinator. "But when we begin to talk about it, you begin to feel some of those feelings you had back then. It didn't feel good."


Moon landing

Warren Moon, however, wouldn't budge.

After leading the University of Washington to a Rose Bowl victory in 1978, he was determined to make it as a quarterback whether the NFL wanted him or not. He made a name for himself in the CFL, winning five Grey Cups and being named the game's Outstanding Offensive Player in 1980 and the Outstanding Player in 1982. Within six years, the NFL came calling.

But the pressure to be perfect took its toll on the nine-time Pro Bowler.

"People were letting me know everywhere I went, especially in the African-American community, 'You've got to represent for us, Warren. You've got to be successful.' You heard it all the time," said Moon, 56, who became the highest-paid NFL player when he signed a five-year, $10-million contract with the then-Houston Oilers in 1989.

"You knew there was another sense of responsibility besides just playing well for your team, playing well for your organization and playing well for yourself," he said. "You had this whole race of people that were relying on you to be the guy that could, not so much break the barrier, but could play up to the standards that everybody felt like we couldn't play at."

It was the same type of pressure that James Harris felt years ago with the then-Los Angeles Rams. Like Briscoe, he withstood racial epithets and death threats during his 13 seasons. But Harris, who was the first black quarterback to start and win an NFL playoff game in 1974, was never accepted as the face of the franchise.

Harris, now a senior personnel executive for the Lions, always had wanted to be viewed as just a quarterback. But his race was always the focus.

"He used to always say one thing when he was growing up," Williams said of his close friend, who also played at Grambling. "He dreamed of playing quarterback in the National Football League, and every time he woke up, it was a nightmare. Because it didn't happen."


The lucky one

Williams set out to be a high school football coach, like his older brother. But instead, he became a legend.

Twenty-five years have passed since Williams, 58, became the first black starting quarterback to win the Super Bowl. He remains the only one.

Legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson was the first person Williams saw as he walked off the field after the Redskins beat the Broncos, 42-10, to win Super Bowl XXII.

Lynn, like so many minorities, instantly knew the significance of Williams' achievement. White players on his Texas Tech football team were convinced "a black guy" couldn't beat a gunslinger like John Elway, Denver's quarterback.

"When the Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead, there was a lot of 'I told you so, I told you so.' And a riot broke out in our dorm on the athletic floors," said Lynn.

The historic win by Williams, who passed for 340 yards in the game, proved to be a collective victory for black football players seeking both validation and opportunity.

Thanks to these trailblazers, guys like Smith and Manuel have the freedom to be themselves and focus solely on playing well for their teams. The height, weight, speed, size and color restrictions no longer are in play, said Dungy, opening the door for acceptance of more athletic quarterbacks. And that change bodes well for today's black quarterbacks and ones who will follow.

"I feel good for these guys because they've gotten an opportunity," said Dungy, now an analyst for NBC's Football Night in America. "They are leading teams and nobody's talking about (race) and it is gratifying.

"The only thing you say is: I wonder who we missed seeing when this didn't happen 15 or 20 years ago?"

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