Today is a special day for football fans. It is the day when the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles will compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the Super Bowl. But today’s Super Bowl is significant for a special reason for people of color. The Philadelphia Tribune, as well as other news outlets, has highlighted the uniqueness of this day and the reason it is so special.
Super Bowl LVII represents the first time that two Black quarterbacks will face off in a Super Bowl game. This day bears fruit for the spirit of Black History Month, with the appearance of two Black quarterbacks going head-to-head. The absence of Black quarterbacks in football in the past drives today’s trip; a trip that made me review one I took some years ago to examine the Black quarterbacks, back in the day.
The “Birds” were not always the football team that I supported. I root for my hometown team, the Philadelphia Eagles, and will definitely pray for a victory in today’s contest. However, I was once a big fan of the Cleveland Browns. My love for the Browns had much to do with two of the early Black players of the modern professional football era. Marion Motley was one of those players. Whenever I see footage of this player, I watch in awe as he blocks on the line as a defensive player and then moves to the other side of the line as a running back. Another player that kept me routing for the Cleveland Browns was Jimmy Brown. For my money, he is the greatest running back that has ever played the game. I suspect that my support for the Browns had much to do with the fact that this team had some standout players that looked like me.
One thing about professional football, during this era, was disturbing. That was the absence of Blacks as quarterbacks. A number of sports personnel indicated Blacks would never play this position at a professional level. The belief was that Blacks lacked the intelligence to play this critical position. Perhaps you recall that whenever an outstanding Black college quarterback came into the National Football League (NFL), he was moved to positions like defensive back.
I remember well the days of Black quarterbacks breaking this barrier. While the identification of Jackie Robinson, as the first Black to play Major League Baseball, easily rolls off of the lips of most people, the first Black to play in the NFL, in general, and at the position of quarterback, in particular, brings blank looks. While many football fans and civil rights supporters praise the existence of the two Black starting quarterbacks in today’s Super Bowl, I am certain that many are asking who, where and when did Black quarterbacks surface?
Many have always thought that James Harris, of Grambling University, was the first Black quarterback to play in the NFL. Harris played for the Buffalo Bills in 1969 and the Los Angeles Rams in 1974 where he led the team to a conference championship. However, digging into this subject, I discovered that there were Black quarterbacks before the James Harris era.
For die-hard football fans with a keen interest in the history of professional Black quarterbacks and football players, consider pursuing this subject in more detail as space limitations do not permit me to give this subject “full treatment.” I would point out that Blacks played professional football, in the NFL in the 1920s and 1930s. Some Blacks even served as coaches of teams. This was not the NFL as we know it today.
In its early days, professional football was a club sport but became big business in the early 1930s; still it was the NFL. One such player was Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard, who played quarterback in 1920 for the Akron Pros, and also served as a head football coach around the same time. Interestingly, Pollard went on to coach football in our own backyard at Lincoln University.
Yes, back in the 1920’s, there were Black professional NFL players! In fact, according to an internet article by Chase Stuart posted on Feb. 13, 2013, titled “The History of Black Quarterbacks in the NFL,” there were Black players in the NFL from 1920 through 1933. In this same article, Stuart lists a number of Black quarterbacks that played long before the career of James Harris. There was George Taliaferro who played in the early 1950s for the New York Yanks; Willie Thrower in 1953 playing for the Bears; and Charlie “Cho Choo” Brackins who played for the Green Bay Packers in 1955 and was the first to come from a historically black college, Prairie View College.
There was a period of approximately 12 years when Black players disappeared from the NFL. Clearly, this was not due to talent but racism reared its ugly head. Sandy Stephens played in the Rose Bowl in 1962 and was the first Black quarterback to lead his team to the National Championship in 1960. He had the talent to excel in professional football but, like many others, Stephens was forced to switch from quarterback to another position. In 1968, the Denver Broncos drafted Marlin Briscoe who became the first Black quarterback in professional football as the game is known today.
While many talented Black college quarterbacks entered the AFL and the NFL, those that were not “forced” to move to other positions were also not given a fair chance to compete and earn a starting position. A classic case occurred in 1969 when the Patriots drafted Onree Jackson. Within months, he was released with no sound explanation, a typical end for many Black quarterbacks seeking playing time in professional football in the past. Space makes it difficult to list all of the Black quarterbacks that played in the past, but know that the Philadelphia Eagles had their share, back in the day.
As you sit down to watch the Super Bowl today, the winning team is unknown. However, one thing is certain; today’s victorious quarterback will be Black! But, Jalen Hurts or Patrick Mahomes will not be the first as we did have Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins in 1988. The struggles and sacrifices made by Black quarterbacks, back in the day, have helped to make this possible.
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