Black quarterbacks and their struggle in the NFL

January 30, 1988. San Diego, California.

Super Bowl XXII. Washington Redskins vs. Denver Broncos.

On the field, Doug Williams. The first Black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl.

Eddie Robinson, James Harris and Warren Moon watched from the stands. Marlin Briscoe watched from jail.

The ensuing hours proved a touchstone. Williams was brilliant, leading Washington to a 42-10 victory, becoming Super Bowl MVP in the process. Harris and Robinson watched jubilantly. Moon had tears in his eyes.

For a moment, Williams had shattered the thinking which had prevailed for so long in the NFL. No longer could the league deny Black quarterbacks their opportunities. No longer could the football world turn its collective back on greatness, regardless of the color of the man carrying such talents.

Those narratives were clean, easy to digest. Reality was far different.

After walking off the field at Jack Murphy Stadium that night, Williams started only 12 more games before retiring. In the decades since, Black quarterbacks have made significant and meaningful progress, but the journey remains far from having reached equality.

After all, what does it mean to be a Black quarterback in the NFL?

For most of the league’s history, it has meant not to exist.

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The NFL has been active for 102 seasons. In 55 of them, there wasn’t a single starting Black quarterback.

Prior to 1987, only in ’81 did more than one minority signal-caller helm at least half his team’s games. In 1983, for the final time to date, none did.

For Black quarterbacks, the journey began in 1923 when Fritz Pollard played the position for the Hammond Pros before most official stats were kept. The records show nothing more than games played and three extra points kicked.

After Pollard, the NFL drought for Black quarterbacks lasted 45 years. No minority started a game under center until 1968 when in the American Football League, Marlin Briscoe got one year’s worth of a chance in Denver before his release and subsequent signing with the Buffalo Bills.

Over the next 20 seasons, very few minority quarterbacks broke through, save for Vince Evans, Harris and Moon.

From 1987-96, no season saw more than three Black quarterbacks start at least eight of their games. In 1997, things began to change. Five got the nod including Moon, Jeff Blake, Tony Banks, Steve McNair and Kordell Stewart. However, only McNair was a first-round pick, while Stewart wore the nickname Slash, after predominantly being used as a returner and receiver his first two seasons.

“At certain positions, there was a mentality that African-Americans weren’t made for those positions,” Moon told FanSided. “Those were usually the center positions on the field; quarterback, center, middle linebacker and safety. You just didn’t see a lot of those coming up in the years. But the last barrier after all those others were taken care of was quarterback.”

In 1999, a genuine breakthrough. The NFL saw Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith and Daunte Culpepper drafted in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. After seeing only four Black quarterbacks ever drafted in the first round, three were taken in the initial 11 choices.

By 2000, a movement was afoot. Culpepper and McNabb were Pro Bowlers in their first years as starters, each winning 11 games. McNair joined them in Honolulu, while Shaun King, Charlie Batch, Blake, Smith and Stewart all started at least half their team’s contests. Meanwhile, Banks started eight games for the eventual world-champion Baltimore Ravens. He’s the first Black quarterback to start at least half the games for a Super Bowl winner.

The following year, another barrier fell with Michael Vick being the first-overall pick, going to the Atlanta Falcons. By 2002, Vick was a Pro Bowler, electrifying the league with his arm talent and athleticism. In 2003, McNair made history as the first Black quarterback to be named NFL MVP, sharing the honor with Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts.

Beginning in 2000, there have at least been six Black starting quarterbacks — half their games or more — each season. However, the number has never exceeded 11 in a 32-team league.

Additionally, there have been 66 quarterbacks selected in the first round over this span. Only 19 have been Black.

“One of the things that I’ve always felt was important to me was it’s fine if you find a guy who you know is just a no-doubt, blue-chipper, great player,” Moon said. “Those guys are easy to identify. Now you know you have no problems playing or starting them. You’ll pick one of those guys and start them. But it’s maybe that developmental kid that maybe needs a year or two of seasoning. Would you draft that guy in the third or fourth round and develop him? When they start doing that, that’s when I know they have a lot of confidence in the African-American quarterback.”

Moon believes we’ve seen a few examples such as Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson, two mid-round quarterbacks who have enjoyed tremendous on-field and financial success. Maybe there will be another from the 2022 class, with Liberty’s Malik Willis going in the third round to the Tennessee Titans, Moon’s old franchise by way of Houston.

Compared to where the struggle for Black quarterbacks was even 25 years ago, the NFL has taken considerable steps in a positive direction. Many of the game’s premier faces of today are men who wouldn’t have been allowed to play before 1946 when Kenny Washington and Woody Strode broke the color barrier with the Los Angeles Rams.

Still, in the decades following the integration of professional football, the opportunity for Black men was limited to unspoken quotas.

For Black quarterbacks, that number was zero.

Until Marlin Briscoe arrived.

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Marlin Briscoe tragically died during the writing of this story at age 76 due to heart failure.

He needn’t have read it, though. He lived it.

Briscoe was the first Black quarterback in modern-day pro football. Unfortunately, the vast majority of NFL fans don’t know his name.

“Marlin had a great makeup in terms of, he was a guy who was trustworthy, a good friend, you could depend on him,” Harris said. “Marlin was smart. Back in those days, it wasn’t as prominent as it is today to discuss world issues, and Marlin kept up with those kinds of things. Marlin was a serious, serious kind of personality, but he had a great sense of humor. A great combination.”

In 1968, Briscoe was a 14th-round rookie quarterback out of Nebraska-Omaha by the Broncos. After initially being transferred into the secondary by head coach Lou Saban, Briscoe found his way under center after two injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. Across 11 games (five starts), Briscoe threw 14 touchdowns, a team rookie record which still stands. The talent was undeniable.

Moon remembers seeing Briscoe dazzle that year in the American Football League, the first time he — or anybody else — turned on a television and saw a Black man taking snaps. He also remembers the impact of that image.

“For a young kid growing up at the time when I saw him start, I was 12 years old,” Moon said. “I was playing quarterback in Pop Warner, in my third year. I had dreams playing in the NFL but there was nobody who kind of gave me a hint I could play in the NFL. I saw Marlin and thought ‘ok, there is a Black guy at the quarterback position.’ … I was trying to find minority role models I could pattern myself after and Marlin became the first one who looked like me.”

Yet the following offseason was a disaster.

The Broncos quietly held quarterback meetings with Briscoe in Nebraska. When he returned to Denver, he was released. The Broncos told the press it was because of his height, with Briscoe standing 5-foot-11.

Crushed, Briscoe signed with the Bills. He roomed with James Harris. The two became lifelong friends, sharing both dreams and their frustrations about what it meant to be Black and have aspirations of playing quarterback at that time.

“We talked in detail about it,” remembered Harris, who stayed in Buffalo during the offseason to avoid the same fate Briscoe suffered in Denver. “I understood why he was bitter. I was bitter for him. I thought that was wrong. When that happened to him, I was a senior in college. We both shared the same dream. I wanted to play quarterback, and all of a sudden he goes from quarterback to wide receiver. I realized that’s going to impact my opportunity to play as well.”

In Buffalo, Briscoe developed into a star. He notched a 1,000-yard season in 1970, becoming a Pro Bowl receiver. After the ’71 season, Briscoe was dealt to the Miami Dolphins, where he won a pair of Super Bowls over the following two campaigns. After three more stops, Briscoe retired following the ’76 season.

He moved to Los Angeles. Two doors down from Harris.

Unfortunately, retirement wasn’t an oasis from the pain of having his moment ripped away. It proved to be an extension of it.

“I think it really bothered him,” Moon said. “… He knew he could play because he went out there and did it. And then to not even get invited back to be able to compete in the offseason for meetings and minicamps, none of that. You’re just told ‘we used what we needed out of you last year, and we’re done with you.’ That’s devastating for somebody who is in this business. That’s what you put your whole life into.”

In the upcoming years, Briscoe was dogged by substance abuse, leading to jail stints and homelessness.

“I think it led to Marlin’s abuse,” said Moon of Briscoe losing his opportunity to play quarterback. “Marlin got involved in drugs and alcohol for a period of time there, and I think a lot of it had to do with his depression from not being able to play the position he always wanted to play. That’s how he remedied it. He talked about that too.”

Over his final 30 years, Briscoe lived clean. He got involved in the Boys and Girls Club. He worked with prospective and current NFL Black quarterbacks as part of a group known as the Field Generals, consisting of himself, Moon, Harris, Williams, Evans and Randall Cunningham.

“People need to know as much as they can about him,” Moon said. “His life needs to be celebrated a little bit more than it has been since he passed away and even before he passed away. This guy was definitely a trailblazer in the game, especially if you look at what’s going on with African-American quarterbacks right now and the way they’re flourishing.

“A lot of that had to do with Marlin Briscoe, blazing that trail.”

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James Harris remembers the drive home.

Thirty-six miles in the dead of night, alone with his thoughts.

Harris, a prolific collegiate quarterback at Grambling University, drove from campus to his hometown of Monroe, La. The first day of the 1969 NFL Draft had come and gone, and Harris was convinced; he wasn’t going to be selected at all.

Harris continued his wait. Finally, the eighth round. Pick No. 192.

The Buffalo Bills turned in their card. James Harris, quarterback, Grambling.

The seventh quarterback off the board, matching his new spot on Buffalo’s depth chart.

At Grambling, Harris was elite, helping the Tigers win four Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) titles. As a junior, he was named MVP of the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic, a showcase for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

That same year, Harris played against Eldridge Dickey in front of a sellout crowd in a game billed as showcasing two top quarterbacks. Grambling won, and a few months later, Dickey was made the 25th-overall selection by the Oakland Raiders in the ’68 NFL Draft. For Harris, this was confirmation. If Dickey could be such a high pick, so could he.

“When he was drafted I jumped for joy, because that meant I’d get an opportunity to play quarterback,” Harris said. “…Then he went to Oakland, and he went to receiver. That took a lot of wind out of me. That hurt me as much as it hurt him. If he didn’t get a chance to play, this will effect me too.

“Then I got another ray of light when Marlin (Briscoe) played in Denver and when I watched Marlin and his production and how he could throw the ball, I thought ‘Wait a minute, this may give me some more hope here. Marlin is playing well, and he started quite a few games for them.’ Then the season was over, Marlin had to move on. This was another message. This message was another indication I might not get an opportunity.”

In Harris’ senior season of 1968, he threw for 21 touchdowns. Yet when the draft came around, Harris was largely shunned. Despite the efforts of legendary Grambling head coach Eddie Robinson to get Harris invited to pre-draft showcases, none would admit him as a quarterback. Several teams informed Robinson and Harris that if he’d switch positions, his draft stock would improve. Harris refused.

“When they kept their word they wouldn’t draft me early, I kept my word that I wouldn’t switch,” Harris said.

As he prepared to fly from Louisiana to Western New York, Robinson’s advice was to prepare and not get himself cut. At the airport, Harris’ mother gave him a Bible and the parting words that he can always come home.

Once in Buffalo, the pace of training camp was tough for Harris. He was in a veteran room led by Jack Kemp, who had two AFL titles and 12 years of experience.

With long odds of making an impact with Buffalo and racial barriers to face, Harris went to work. Buoyed by his family’s belief and a strong work ethic, Harris honed his skills by throwing constantly.

“Coach Robinson really instilled in me practice and preparation and being ready for the opportunity,” Harris said. “You may get only one but be ready for it. … Because of all that throwing, I was never in doubt about completing the pass. All the other things about Black quarterbacks, I left all that behind and focused on what I had to do that day. I was confident about my arm, I was not going to get cut because I couldn’t throw the ball.”

In 1969, Harris started one game and played in four with the Bills. In the final action of his rookie campaign, Harris threw his first touchdown pass, coming against the Raiders on Oct. 19 in a 50-21 blowout. That same game, Briscoe caught a 50-yard touchdown pass for Buffalo.

In 1971, Harris threw his final touchdown pass for Buffalo. It was also to Briscoe.

After being released by the Bills, Harris’ career was in peril. Yet with help from Robinson’s persuasion, the Rams added him to their practice squad. After sitting behind veteran John Hadl in 1973, Harris finally got his chance in ’74.

“The hardest part is realizing or knowing that there were (no Black quarterbacks) in the league,” Harris said. “You had to play perfect.”

Entering Week 6, Harris was elevated to the starting role. He proved ready.

Until 1974, no Black quarterback started the majority of his team’s games. Harris broke that barrier for the Rams, starting nine contests and going 7-2 to help Los Angeles win the NFC West. By doing so, Harris became the first Black quarterback to reach the playoffs and win a postseason game.

“I was always confident,” Harris said. “I never questioned my ability to complete passes,” Harris said. “I knew I could complete passes and throw the ball, but I didn’t know if the opportunity was there. I was always disappointed in the players who came before and with me that were denied the opportunity.”

After the season, Harris made history by earning a Pro Bowl berth. At game’s end, he was named the MVP, an honor that meant plenty on many levels.

“I was very happy to have been part of the Pro Bowl and representing my team, representing the opportunity for Blacks to come after me,” Harris said. “It was a very exciting time, for me to be a part of that. Representing my school and the SWAC conference. It had never been done before and I was fortunate I was on a good team with a lot of good teammates.”

In 1975, Harris again led the Rams to the NFC Championship Game, posting an 11-2 record in 13 starts. Unfortunately, Harris injured his shoulder in Week 13, keeping him out of the regular-season finale and NFC Divisional win over the St. Louis Cardinals. In the conference title game against the Dallas Cowboys, Harris only attempted two passes — with an interception — before being benched.

The following campaign, Harris was limited to five starts while still dealing with a lingering shoulder problem. Despite posting an NFC-best 89.6 passer rating, it was his last year with the Rams.

Prior to the ’77 season, Harris was dealt to the San Diego Chargers. With San Diego, Harris struggled on a bad team, starting 11 games over three seasons before retiring.

Harris’ final numbers aren’t overwhelming. He threw for 45 touchdowns against 59 interceptions, completing 52.8 percent of his attempts. However, Harris was on two lousy teams with little support, and when given an opportunity for two full seasons, the Louisiana native was a Pro Bowler who went 18-4, winning two division titles and earning a Pro Bowl berth.

Reflecting on his career, Harris believed the racism he endured throughout his playing days took significant toll on his performance. Yet while the numbers aren’t Hall of Fame-worthy, the impact is unmeasurable.

“You were always fighting what you couldn’t do,” Harris said. “There was always a lot of that. … Watching Doug Williams win the Super Bowl and being there with Coach Robinson, was certainly one of the highlights of the Black quarterback movement, and knowing what it meant to coach. Seeing Warren Moon, I was a big fan of his at Washington. Seeing what he did at the Rose Bowl and the Pac-10 and then going to Canada to overcome it. You can’t be nothing but proud of those guys and what they were able to accomplish, and what it meant to so many young kids around the country. Seeing their success and knowing they could be a quarterback in the National Football League.

“They could lay in their bed and realistically dream of what they could be. When I dreamed about being a quarterback in the National Football League, it always ended up being a nightmare. There were none.”

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Almost 45 years later, Moon remembers the pain.

Entering the 1978 NFL Draft, Moon was hopeful but realistic. Represented by a young agent in Leigh Steinberg, Moon’s understanding was most teams had no interest in him unless he became a receiver or defensive back. A few would consider him as a quarterback in the 11th or 12th round.

With the NFL Scouting Combine not yet in place, individual workouts were paramount. Despite coming off a Rose Bowl win for the Washington Huskies, Moon had zero invitations.

“I just wasn’t sure if I was going to get the chance to play quarterback and there was no way I was changing positions,” Moon said. “I knew I had excelled at every level of football that I had played up until that point, and I felt I at least deserved an opportunity to play quarterback at the next level.”

Finally, draft day. Unsurprisingly, no calls came. Despite a stellar college career with the Huskies, Moon made the bittersweet decision to head north, ending up with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian football League.

“Here I am, I’m 21 years old. My dream, and my goal, was to play in the NFL,” Moon said. “My dream and my goal was to be drafted one day. My dream and my goal was to get myself in a position where I could play professional football in the United States were I lived. I watched James Harris, who was the quarterback for the Rams, he was kind of a mentor for me. Someone I could look at and say ‘Hey, this guy can make it to the NFL, maybe there’s a chance for me as an African-American.’”

There, Moon shined. He won five consecutive Grey Cups and earned two Grey Cup MVPs. At one juncture, he considered staying permanently in the CFL with a happy family life and constant on-field success. Additionally, there was little racial pressure from fans and media, as the CFL had already seen All-Star and champion Black quarterbacks, including Jimmy Jones, Condredge Holloway and Chuck Ealey.

However, the itch to prove himself in the NFL became overwhelming.

In 1984, Moon became the NFL’s first free agent. After deliberating between signing with the Seattle Seahawks or Houston Oilers, Moon chose Houston, despite the team going 2-14 the year prior to his arrival. Still, Moon had a friendly face accompanying him, with former Edmonton head coach Hugh Campbell accepting the same role with the Oilers.

“I knew it was going to be a tough build because it was a 2-14 team before I got there,” Moon said. “… We were basically starting from scratch.”

Yet the burden to succeed in the NFL as a Black signal-caller — on a terrible team no less — proved tremendous. When he lined up under center as a rookie, he was the only Black starting quarterback in the league. Moon’s backup, Brian Ransom, was the only other Black quarterback in the NFL until the USFL folded in 1986.

The early going was rough. In Moon’s first three seasons with the Oilers, he threw 40 touchdowns against 59 interceptions, completing 54.4 percent of his attempts. Houston went 12-33 in Moon’s starts, and the pressure mounted from fans and media.

For Black quarterbacks in the NFL, the road has been brutal. For Moon, home was even tougher.

“I didn’t realize how nasty it was going to be, personally, towards me with some of the racism I faced. … I had kids (then), and my kids would go to games and have to listen to a lot of the nasty things people were saying about me. I remember my son coming up to me one day after a loss at my locker, and I’m thinking he’s just upset because we lost the game, but he’s upset because of the names he’s hearing called, and he wants to understand why that is. I had to try to explain that, make some sense of it.

“I could deal with it because I had dealt with it in college, I had thicker skin. But now when you have little ones and a wife, and you have to get a private box so you can have somewhere for them to sit where they don’t have to listen to that type of stuff, or put your kids in the nursery so they’re in the nursery instead of watching the game. That shouldn’t be at your own home stadium.”

Much like Harris, Moon believes the burden of being a Black quarterback at times weighed down his performance. For Moon, it was also his own expectations and those of the Black media which put him under immense pressure to succeed, understanding his success meant more opportunities for those coming behind him.

“I felt like I had to play well in order to help the younger group of quarterbacks to get more opportunities, and then also for the prestige and status of Black people,” Moon said. “Now you have an African-American quarterback, starting in the National Football League. That’s kind of a big deal at that time. They wanted me to do well because the better I did, the better it made us look. It was a responsibility. … I think Doug (Williams) and Randall (Cunningham) felt the same way when they were playing with me during that time. We felt like we would have been better players if we didn’t have that burden from week to week, if we could just play with the normal pressures of a game. We did have that extra burden, and I don’t know how much if affected our games, but we might have been a little bit of better players if we didn’t have that.”

In 1987, things changed. With a new head coach in Jerry Glanville and his run-and-shoot offense, Houston made the playoffs for the first time since 1980. It began a stretch of seven consecutive postseason berths, with Moon leading one of the league’s most explosive attacks.

That same year, the NFL began to shift. Moon was joined by Randall Cunningham in the ranks of Black starters. More importantly, Williams had his historic run in Washington, shattering the ugly stereotype which said Black quarterbacks couldn’t win big.

“When Doug (Williams) won a Super Bowl that was monumental, because now all of a sudden every question had been answered,” Moon said. “Could an African-American take you to win a championship? He did that. Here I am, being All-Pro every year, being very, very consistent, and Randall Cunningham is being very electric and exciting, and people are watching this and saying ‘okay, these guys can play.’ It slowly started to change.”

From 1988-95, Moon authored a phenomenal stretch of football. In all eight seasons, Moon reached the Pro Bowl, six times with Houston before making it twice with the Minnesota Vikings after leaving via free agency. Four times in that span, Moon threw for at least 4,200 yards. Over the same stretch, there were only seven such seasons by all other quarterbacks combined.

However, postseason success eluded Moon and the Oilers. Despite making the playoffs repeatedly, Houston never advanced past the Divisional round. In Minnesota and a subsequent stop with the Seattle Seahawks, Moon continued to post Pro Bowl numbers, but his teams stalled.

Yet for all the statistics and accolades, Moon’s most impressive quality was his longevity. Entering the NFL at 28 years old, Moon played 17 seasons (15 as a starter) in the league. In 1997, the 41-year-old reached his final Pro Bowl, throwing for 3,678 yards and 25 touchdowns with the Seahawks.

Looking back, Moon has few complaints but can’t help but wonder what he and his contemporaries would do with today’s liberal NFL passing game.

“I look at the quarterbacks who came during my era, which were Dan Marino, John Elway, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, myself, and Jim Kelly,” Moon said. “Every guy I named right there is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If we were playing in this era of football, my God, the amount of yards we would have thrown the football for — and how long we would have played. I played a long time so I can’t complain, but some of those other guys probably would have played into their 40s. … It would have been unfair the way we were able to throw the football.”

In 2006, Moon made more history as the inaugural Black quarterback enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, getting in on the first ballot.

Sixteen years later, Moon remains the only Black quarterback in Canton, with few probable enshrines lined up over the upcoming years. Moon believes men like McNair, Cunningham and Donovan McNabb all deserve strong consideration, but Cunningham and McNair would need to be Senior selections, and McNabb hasn’t come close during his eligibility.

Yet with the golden age of Black quarterbacks currently unfolding, Moon will certainly be joined at some juncture, even if the wait has been far too long.

“Every year we go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and we have different group pictures,” Moon said. “We have a picture with the quarterbacks and it’s usually 14 or 15 guys who come back and I’m always the token one, right there in the middle. I’m hoping one day to have someone in there who is of my same skin color. Not that I’m complaining about it because the guys who are in there are all great guys and I love being with them, but I’d love to have another African-American quarterback in there because I think there are some other guys who deserve to be there.”

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Doug Williams wasn’t thinking about the racial ramifications of Super Bowl XXII the day before the game. He was thinking about his teeth.

In San Diego, Williams started having mouth pain. Eventually, it led to an hours-long root canal on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, giving him an unwelcome distraction before the biggest game of his life.

For Williams, his path to the precipice of greatness was filled with such potholes and pitfalls. What was one more?

Like Harris, Williams starred at Grambling under Coach Robinson. Unlike Harris, he didn’t need to wait long for his name to be called at the NFL Draft. Had that been the case, Williams was ready to  pursue a different vocation.

“Before the draft, I had already told Coach Robinson that if I didn’t get drafted in the third round, I would go be a schoolteacher and be a coach,” Williams said. “That was my mindset at the time. He was the one who said ‘kid, it doesn’t matter where they draft you, you’ve got to go. You’ve got to go prove to them you can play’.”

Robinson needn’t have worried. Williams was selected 17th-overall in 1978 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a third-year expansion team that had a cumulative record of 2-26.

“Going to Tampa and playing for Coach McKay, when I got there I realized it wasn’t a matter of color, it was a matter of could you play?” Williams said. “That was the bottom line for me. Then I had guys like Shack (Harris) to talk to, Coach Robinson to talk to, my older brother, Robert, to talk to. I had a support system.”

Behind an ascending defense and Williams’ powerful right arm, the Bucs soon made their move. They hosted the NFC Championship Game in 1979 and made the playoffs in both 1981 and ’82. Still, despite the success with a young franchise, Williams wasn’t the conquering hero. While some adored him, the racism which plagued those who came before him — and many who came after him — found the Louisiana native as well.

“Let me say this, there ain’t too much further south you can go than Tampa. If you go any deeper, you’re in the Gulf.” Williams chuckled. “For me to say no, I’d be lying. It was there. I grew up in the south. I knew what I was dealing with and I knew how to handle it. You handle it without even dealing with it. You know what it was going to be. It wasn’t going to change overnight. I always understood I was playing in Tampa, and the most important thing for me was my teammates. It was tough times, 1978 with a Black man playing quarterback, that wasn’t something you just accept back then if you’re a fan. That’s something you had to get used to. We just shocked them. I’m sure when I was drafted plenty of people weren’t. happy about it. That’s the way it goes.”

Following the 1982 campaign, tragedy struck. Williams’ wife, Janice, died suddenly of an aneurysm. In the midst of a contract dispute with Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse, Williams walked away after the team wouldn’t meet him halfway in negotiations. He missed the entire 1983 season, working as a substitute teacher. The following year, Williams jumped to the upstart United States Football League (USFL), playing for the Oklahoma Outlaws.

After the USFL folded in 1986, Williams made his return. There was a familiar face wanting him back. Joe Gibbs, who served as the Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator in 1978 and had worked Williams out prior to that draft, was now a Super Bowl-winning head coach for the Washington Redskins.

Gibbs saw an opportunity to reunite and did so, bringing Williams in as the backup to veteran Jay Schroeder. And after sitting for the better part of two years, Williams seized his moment.

Coming off the bench in Week 16 to help Washington win in the Metrodome over the Vikings, Gibbs made the decision to stick with Williams entering the playoffs. There, Williams and Co. stunned the Chicago Bears in the Divisional Round at Soldier Field before dispatching Minnesota the following weekend at RFK Stadium.

Washington was going to its third Super Bowl in five years, and Williams was to be the first Black quarterback to start on Super Sunday.

On Jan. 31, 1988, the sun broke bright and clear in San Diego. The weather was predictably perfect, 56 degrees and a breath of wind. Come game time, Williams was ready.

“I didn’t think about it,” said Williams of the game’s racial importance. “I wasn’t nervous at all. It was a regular ballgame to me. I understood all the significance, but I couldn’t let that get in my head. That was the most important thing. Like I tell people all the time, always look at it from this standpoint: I was the first Black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl, and I knew that. I knew what was at stake. But I didn’t go to San Diego as Washington’s Black quarterback. I went as Washington’s quarterback who just happened to be Black. That’s the way I looked at it. The most important thing was between the lines on the field. Nothing else mattered.”

And yet as Williams’ dream was coming true, it almost turned into a nightmare. Facing the two-time AFC champion Broncos and trailing 10-0 in the first quarter, Williams dropped back to pass at the Washington 25-yard line. At the top of his drop, Williams’ plant leg slid back on the damp, re-sodded field and buckled underneath him. The result was a hyperextended right knee.

“I felt so bad for him when he went down with the knee injury,” Moon recalled. “I said ‘come on, Doug. Come on, this is your chance, man. You’ve got to get up. You’ve got to be able to finish this thing off.”

After missing two plays, Williams came back into the game, kicking off the greatest quarter anybody has ever played.

“I’ll say it like Shack Harris would say it, it was a routine day at Grambling,” Williams laughed. “It was one of those things, when you talk about executing, that was probably one of the best days for any team. … Anything we were able to call, we were able to run in the second quarter.”

Indeed.

On his first play back, Williams rainbowed a deep shot down the right sideline to Ricky Sanders for an 80-yard touchdown. Five offensive plays later, a 27-yard scoring strike to Gary Clark in the front left corner of the end zone. Following a 58-yard touchdown run by Timmy Smith, Washington regained possession and Williams found Sanders again, this time for a 50-yard bomb for paydirt. Finally, the capstone of the historic quarter, with Williams finding Clint Didier for an 8-yard touchdown.

All told, Williams went 9-of-11 for 228 yards and four touchdowns. He finished the afternoon 18-of-29 for 340 yards, four touchdowns and an interception.

“That’s probably the moment that really did a lot, that stage, that type of success,” Harris said. “That did a lot for young Black people wanting to play quarterback and realizing that they could play quarterback.”

For his efforts, Williams was named Super Bowl XXII MVP, becoming first Black quarterback to start the Super Bowl, win the Super Bowl, and earn the game’s award.

“I found out Coach Robinson was there after the game when I went walking into the tunnel,” Williams said. “We both cried, let me say that. We both just hugged and threw a lot of snot. He told me, ‘Cat, it wasn’t about the four touchdowns, it was about that you got off the turf. It was just like Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling.’ He said ‘you might not understand now, but you will.’”

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Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Since 2018, there have been 36 Pro Bowl roster spots — including nine replacement selections — for quarterbacks. Of those, 17 have been earned by Black quarterbacks, despite just 31 combined starting seasons from minorities (Black and Polynesian quarterbacks) across that span, making up 24 percent of starting signal-callers across the NFL during that time.

Conversely, there were 98 combined starting seasons from white quarterbacks in that time, but only 19 Pro Bowl selections.

Furthermore, in that stretch, two Black quarterbacks have won NFL MVP in Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, with Mahomes also winning a Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP. Each also won First-Team All-Pro honors in their respective MVP campaigns, while Mahomes also earned Second-Team All-Pro in 2020.

So the question is obvious: if Black quarterbacks are this successful, why aren’t there more of them in today’s NFL?

Both Harris and Moon largely believe racism surrounding quarterbacks has been left behind by NFL front offices, with the help of camps, high schools and colleges developing the position into one which combines arm talent, intellect and mobility like never before.

“I’m extremely proud and a big fan,” Harris said of the game’s growth in this regard. “More than anything it lets me know it was never about ability it’s about opportunity. The reason isn’t because the progress we made, but because they’re getting an opportunity to play and play in college. The Black quarterback has been able to throw and run the ball, quarterback a team for as long as I remember. But you can’t help but be proud at how many guys are playing and playing well, starting in the league.”

“For the guys who are playing, they are being treated really, really well by the league,” Moon said. “I think if they could find more, they would. But I also think white quarterbacks are adapting to this game as well, the way the game has changed, where you have to be a little bit more mobile, a little bit more athletic. You see Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, all these guys who can throw the hell out of the ball but also can get moving and not just be the typical statue-like quarterback that used to be back in the days when I was playing. That’s changed too, and everybody’s changed their game.”

The argument over how far the NFL has come in terms of racism is largely about perspective, although there is little argument men like Moon and Harris have the best lens.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Black quarterbacks barely existed, with one bad stretch or injury threatening to derail the movement. There’s no such fear now, but for so many who never got a chance to showcase their talents, who were purposefully excluded despite having the athletic merits, the pain may never go away.

For Harris, who got the chance but was given limited opportunities to truly showcase his abilities, there’s a mix of pride and pain in his voice all these years later.

“I guess when you sum everything up, all of us, all any of us ever wanted was an opportunity to play quarterback,” Harris said. “If we weren’t good enough, we could accept that. Those of us who had the opportunity to play were very appreciative.

“You can’t help but have regret for all those who didn’t get a chance and had the ability to play.”

https://fansided.com/2022/07/19/nfl-history-black-quarterbacks-marlin-briscoe-warren-moon/ Black quarterbacks and their struggle in the NFL

John Verrall

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