Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
The upcoming Super Bowl features two Black starting quarterbacks for the first time, and don’t let anyone fool you.
Hell yes, that’s a big effing deal. We’re popping bottles from now until kickoff.
Raise a glass to all the collegiate Black quarterbacks who, not long ago, were switched to halfback, receiver or defensive back in the NFL; Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson might’ve suffered the same the racist practice in 2018 if he had allowed it. Toss one back for Eldridge Dickey, who in 1968 became the first Black QB selected in the first round. He ultimately was moved to receiver and never got a shot under center.
That was a familiar tale, as Marlin Briscoe could attest. He was drafted the same year as Dickey and became the first Black starting QB in the modern era. But after five starts as a rookie, he played receiver for the rest his career — including back-to-back Super Bowl wins with Miami.
Let’s also toast Warren Moon, the G.O.A.T. among over six dozen Black QBs who’ve played in the Canadian Football League since 1958. Moon balled out a Los Angeles prep star but not a single major college recruited him at his position. He opted to set records in junior college and then transfer to the University of Washington — where he became Pac-8 Player of the Year and Rose Bowl MVP. Yet still he went undrafted. Undeterred, he headed north to dominate, winning five rings in six seasons. He finally returned stateside to prove racism is stupid; he’s the only player in both the CFL and NFL Halls of Fame.
Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts, set to face off Feb. 12 at the Super Bowl in Arizona, didn’t have to worry about being undrafted. Mahomes was the 10th overall pick in 2017 and Hurts was a second-rounder three years later. They have company, too, as the NFL opened this season with an unprecedented 11 Black starters at QB.
You best believe we’re celebrating them and commemorating the others. All traveled the same jacked-up tracks leading to Mahomes vs. Hurts.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and like-minded folks are mounting a loud push to whitewash American history, particularly as it pertains to Black people. But we know the connections between now and “back then.” Forgetting about the past would make us susceptible to repeat attacks (actually their goal). We can’t ignore the raging waves of anti-Black policies — old and renewed — we see crashing ashore, in governments like the Sunshine State and businesses like the NFL.
We can’t look at Mahomes and Hurts without remembering James Harris, who was drafted in 1969. The 6-foot-4 Grambling star was a pure pocket passer, atypical for Black players given a shot at QB. By 1974, he was en route to a slew of groundbreaking feats with the Los Angeles Rams. Harris became the first Black QB to regularly start from the Day 1, start and win a playoff game, play in the Pro Bowl and win Pro Bowl MVP.
With two Black passers in the Super Bowl, it’s a fine time to salute another Grambling alum, the OG. In 1978, Tampa Bay made Doug Williams the first Black quarterback selected in the first round since Dickey, 10 years earlier. Williams was neither asked nor expected to play a different position. Progress! He eventually became the Super Bowl’s first Black QB and won MVP honors before the halftime show, passing for 228 yards and four touchdowns in the second quarter alone.
Contrary to NFL lore surrounding that game in 1988, Williams was never asked the asinine question, “How long have you been a Black quarterback?”
That’s merely what Williams repeated after mishearing the query. But reporter Butch John actually asked a pretty thoughtful question: “Doug, it’s obvious you’ve been a Black quarterback all your life. When did it start to matter?”
We know it didn’t matter to legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson. We know it didn’t matter to coaches at other historically Black schools. And we know it didn’t matter to countless scholastic and youth football coaches whose teams played in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
If Williams had heard the original question correctly, he might’ve said “it REALLY started to matter in the pros.”
During the 1970s, Black QBs were ever so slowly gaining acceptance at non-HBCUs. A handful had been NFL quarterbacks in the pre-Super Bowl era, including Fritz Pollard (1920-1926) and the first Black player drafted, George Taliaferro (1950-1955). Rampant racial stereotypes are less overt today, but we’re not far from the days when Black players were considered intellectually insufficient to play quarterback, center or middle linebacker — so-called “thinking” positions that require extensive analysis. (Black coaches can relate.)
Unlike the lynchpin Grambling star QBs, Randall Cunningham was a dual threat with the ability to throw and scramble that shook the establishment as he adjusted to the pro game. In 1990, he rushed for a then-QB record 942 yards and passed for 3,466. By the time he led Minnesota to a 15-1 record in 1998, he passed for 3,704 yards and rushed for a measly 132. Three years earlier, Steve McNair was a first-round pick out of Alcorn State. He became the second Black starting QB to reach the Super Bowl in 2000 and came within one yard of forcing overtime.
Like Mahomes (Texas Tech) and Hurts (Alabama/Oklahoma), Black starters since Williams and McNair have hailed from PWIs. But cheers to them and those who also reached the Super Bowl: Cam Newton (Auburn), Donovan McNabb (Syracuse), Colin Kaepernick (Nevada), and Russell Wilson (North Carolina State and Wisconsin).
Mahomes and DeShaun Watson were first-round picks in 2017 and we’ve recently grown accustomed to Black QBs atop the draft, including Jackson, the late Dwayne Haskins, Kyler Murray, Jordan Love, Justin Fields and Trey Lance.
Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud are projected to be the first QBs taken in the upcoming draft. More are coming and they’ve got next.
For now, give it up for Mahomes and Hurts until the big game ends, especially around haters who question the celebration.
Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.
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