Doug Williams was on the phone with two dear friends the other night, talking about their playing days in the NFL and marveling at how much different — and how much better — things are now than when they fought against racism during their careers.
Williams, Warren Moon and James Harris, three of the most gifted passers in NFL history, played critical roles in breaking down the barriers they and so many other African-American quarterbacks encountered during their football journeys.
“We were talking about the young guys [in today’s NFL] and how far we’ve come [in the NFL] from when we played,” said Williams, 64, who became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl when the Redskins beat the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII after the 1987 season.
“You think about James Harris, the first African-American Pro Bowl player, and Warren Moon in the Hall of Fame. These [young] guys haven’t met us. They don’t know a lot about us and where we came from to where they are today.”
It is a breathtaking change that was decades in the making, a transformation forged in large part by the courage of Williams, Moon and Harris to challenge the skepticism among players, coaches, team owners and fans, so many of whom believed that African-Americans weren’t up to the task of handling the most difficult — and the most important — position in football.
Where once there were no black quarterbacks in the NFL, there are four who led their teams to this year’s playoffs. Last year, there were a record five African-American quarterbacks in the postseason.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is the overwhelming favorite to win this season’s MVP award. Last year, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was the MVP. Cam Newton of the Panthers was the first African-American quarterback to win MVP honors; he did so in the 2015 season, when he led the Panthers to the Super Bowl.
Four of the top 10 quarterbacks in passing yards are black: Jameis Winston of the Buccaneers, Dak Prescott of the Cowboys, Russell Wilson of the Seahawks and Mahomes.
“With people recognizing culturally that there’s no issue, that African-Americans can be leaders, can lead the whole team, we’ve gotten past that,” said Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, 64, an NBC analyst for the NFL’s Sunday Night Football broadcasts. “It’s better for the NFL. We’re seeing exciting football that 25 years ago we might not have seen.”
Dungy experienced the double standard during his football career. A standout quarterback at Minnesota in the late 1970s, he went undrafted and was urged to switch positions if he wanted to play in the NFL. He made the Steelers’ roster as a defensive back in 1977. After two seasons, he was traded to the 49ers, where he played under Bill Walsh in 1979, also as a defensive back.
Dungy played at Minnesota at the same time Moon starred at Washington, where he won MVP honors in the 1978 Rose Bowl. Moon, now 63, also was undrafted and played six seasons for the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos before joining the Oilers in 1984. He played 17 NFL seasons and in 2006 became the first black quarterback enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I’m leading the Big Ten in passing, Warren is leading the Pac-8 and goes on to be MVP of the Rose Bowl, and neither one of us got drafted,” Dungy said. “Our options were to change positions or go to Canada.”
Change came slowly. And grudgingly.
Harris also faced pressure to change positions when he prepared to play college football. But his insistence on playing quarterback eventually led to progress.
“Some [college coaches] wanted me to play wide receiver, tight end, defensive back,” said Harris, 72. “I had a chance to play in the Big Ten and I said no. I had already been through it before [in high school]. I wanted to play quarterback, even though I realized that when I said I wouldn’t play anywhere else, it was going to be the end of my career.”
But Harris eventually found out that standing by the courage of his convictions would lead to his own piece of history that would be passed down to future generations.
Harris played under Eddie Robinson at Grambling and produced a terrific career there. He was heartened to see Marlin Briscoe become the first black quarterback to start in the NFL; as a rookie 14th-round pick with the AFL’s Broncos in 1968, Briscoe started after Steve Tensi suffered a broken collarbone.
But Briscoe’s time as a quarterback was limited. The following year, after it was clear that coach Lou Saban didn’t want to use him as a quarterback, Briscoe asked for his release and went to the Bills. He was converted to wide receiver.
Harris was drafted by the Bills in the eighth round in 1969 and was named the starter as a rookie, thus becoming the NFL’s first black quarterback to go into a season as a starter. Some of his passes went to Briscoe.
“I figured when Marlin played well, it’s going to give me an opportunity to play,” Harris said. “Then Marlin is no longer playing quarterback, and I thought I had no chance of playing.”
Harris wound up with the Rams, replacing John Hadl for the final nine games of the 1974 season and becoming the first black quarterback to win a playoff game and be selected for the Pro Bowl.
“In the end, I was always reminded of all the [black] quarterbacks who were denied an opportunity,” said Harris, who became an NFL front-office executive after his playing days. “There were some great players in college and high school who could have played in the NFL, and I was mindful that my opportunity could maybe contribute to others playing.”
Stereotypes didn’t change easily.
“It was an unwritten rule that the reason blacks weren’t playing quarterback was because we weren’t smart enough,” Harris said. “We couldn’t lead. There was some concern about character. Throughout the country, there was that issue. We just didn’t have blacks getting the opportunity to excel.
“All anybody ever wanted was a chance,” he said. “When you grow up and you want to play professional football and you want an opportunity to play your best position, I think all you can ask is that the best players play. That hasn’t always been the case.”
While much progress has been made, there still are those who believe there is an inherent bias against African-American quarterbacks. Among the most critical: former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.
“It’s still an issue,” said McNabb, the second overall pick in 1999. “It’s always a question of the ability — can [African-American quarterbacks] play in a pro-style offense? How about why don’t you draft him and build an offense around him? If Baltimore didn’t draft Lamar Jackson [with the final pick in the first round of the 2018 draft], where would he have ended up? People weren’t sure of him last year when he led them on a 10-game win streak. I’ve had many arguments with people on the outside who say he can’t throw. But now people are getting excited.
“It’s questions like that that really still keep us in the same path that we’ve been in for years,” McNabb said. “I’m excited to see there are opportunities for some of these young quarterbacks so that more will have the opportunity going forward in the next couple of years.”
Williams’ win in the Super Bowl was a watershed moment. While much was made of the fact that he became the first African-American quarterback to win an NFL championship, Williams himself tried his best to block out the burden of achieving history. And he thanks Redskins coach Joe Gibbs for providing just the right approach.
“Joe Gibbs didn’t bring me to San Diego [for the Super Bowl] as the black quarterback,” Williams said. “He brought me to San Diego as the Redskins’ quarterback.”
Just days before the start of the regular season that year, Gibbs shrewdly decided to renege on a potential trade of Williams to the Raiders. When the coach asked him to come to his office, Williams thought it was to inform him about the trade, but Gibbs told him the deal was off.
Williams was furious because he wanted a chance to start, but Gibbs told him he had a feeling he might need him at quarterback for what he believed could be a Super Bowl run.
Gibbs’ vision proved prophetic, and he named Williams his starting quarterback going into the playoffs. He was rewarded with a Super Bowl MVP performance.
Williams threw four touchdown passes (including an 80-yarder), all in the second quarter, and passed for 340 yards in leading Washington to a 42-10 win over Denver.
After Williams’ win, there was a dramatic change in the way black quarterbacks were viewed. The color of a quarterback’s skin no longer is emphasized. It is how he plays that determines how far he can get, as shown by how many African-American quarterbacks have since flourished.
“The mentality of ownership and coaches is a lot different than it was a few years ago, and there is a belief that you can win with a black quarterback,” Williams said. “If you don’t have an opportunity, you never do it. That’s the bottom line.”
Coaches are much more willing to adapt to quarterbacks, regardless of race. That’s demonstrated no better than Ravens coach John Harbaugh tailoring his offense to Jackson, who was spectacular in leading Baltimore to a 14-2 record and the No. 1 seed in this year’s AFC playoffs.
“We are built around Lamar,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got guys around him who do different things. The tight ends are very diverse. [Running back] Mark Ingram is a blocker, but he’s also a very good receiver. Our receivers are good receivers, but they’ll block. Lamar was pretty darn good last year when we put him in, and he has definitely expanded his game dramatically.”
He’s about to become the NFL’s latest MVP and perhaps the latest Super Bowl winner — yet another indication that the color barrier at quarterback is nearly gone, if not entirely so.
“When we get to the point that it’s not an issue,” Williams said, “then we’re not having this conversation at all.”