CANTON, Ohio – When you carry a burden, sometimes you hold on just a little longer.
Former NFL quarterback James Harris lived that as a player in the 1970s. Harris, a Pro Bowler in 1976 with the Los Angeles Rams, was the first black man in the modern era to start an NFL regular-season game and the first to lead his team to the playoffs.
Harris endured the sleights about lacking intelligence for the position. He sometimes reacted in anger. Mostly, he studied and studied.
And studied some more.
“You never wanted to give anybody even the slightest room to think you couldn’t play because you lacked intelligence,” said Harris, who is now the vice president of pro personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “You’d study a little longer and you’d hold the ball just a little longer when you were out there, just to make sure you did it exactly right.”
Like Harris with a ball in his hand, Warren Moon held onto his dream when others said he should drop it. In 1978, he ignored NFL scouts who told him to give up being a quarterback and headed to the CFL to hone his craft for five years. On Saturday, Moon became the first black quarterback of the modern era to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Appropriately, only minutes after his acceptance speech, Moon spied Harris and Doug Williams and called them over for a photo and the three had a warm embrace.
As great as this moment was for Moon individually, he didn’t get here simply on resolve and talent. Moon walked through the door after men like Harris and Williams broke the barriers.
“A lot has been said about me as being the first African-American quarterback [elected to] the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Moon said. “It’s a subject that I’m very uncomfortable about sometimes only because I’ve always wanted to be judged as just a quarterback. But because I am the first and because significance does come with that, I accept that. I accept the fact that I am the first.
“But I also remember all the guys before me who blazed that trail to give me the inspiration and the motivation to keep going forward … Like James Harris, who is here today.”
Moon also mentioned the likes of Williams, Willie Thrower, Marlin Briscoe, Randall Cunningham and Vince Evans. But with Harris, there is a slightly different connection.
Harris was the Rams' quarterback when Moon was growing up in Los Angeles and eventually ended up at the University of Washington. Harris was an idol, a big pocket quarterback with a cannon arm. Unlike so many black men who were dismissed as merely athletes, Harris was purely a quarterback.
“Sometimes it was hard to deal with all the things that people would throw at you,” Harris said. “But you have to focus on making your dream happen … You look at all those guys who were so good at the high school and college level when I was coming up who never got a chance. They worked hard to enhance the chances for the guys who followed.”
In turn, Moon worked at his career. Five years in the CFL made him a hot commodity in the NFL when he finally got his chance. He then spent 17 years in the NFL, playing until he was 44.
Moon’s career ended in somewhat vagabond fashion as he hopscotched from Houston to Minnesota to Seattle and finally Kansas City. Unlike fellow inductee and quarterback Troy Aikman, Moon didn’t get a chance to be a symbol in his city.
But over Moon’s career, the landscape has changed. There was no better evidence of that than when Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is on a Hall of Fame path, answered questions after Moon was done.
Like Moon, McNabb was told he might be better off playing another position. The difference is that was coming out of high school. By the time McNabb got through the college ranks, there were no more questions.
“I stuck with it and proved those people wrong,” McNabb said.
But it certainly helped that others like Moon stuck it out before him.