It might seem hard to believe now, in an era when Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott have redefined the quarterback position in the NFL, or where the current Heisman Trophy race might begin and end with African American quarterbacks: Bryce Young at Alabama, C.J. Stroud at Ohio State, Caleb Williams at USC.
But there was a day when to trust a Black man with the most important position on a football field was a line NFL coaches and executives could not bring themselves to cross. One of the trailblazers who helped break down that resistance was part of a raucous L.A. quarterback controversy in the mid-1970s, and it likely wasn’t totally performance-based.
James “Shack” Harris, a star at Grambling, was the NFL’s first Black opening-day starter at quarterback, winning the job as a rookie for the 1969 Buffalo Bills, but by the end of the 1971 season he was cut after just 18 games and three starts for a team that was 8-33-1 – a team that, in other words, had problems way bigger than quarterback.
He didn’t even play in 1972, working instead for the U.S. Department of Commerce. But by 1973, he was back in the NFL, backing up John Hadl with the Chuck Knox-coached Rams, after former player and then-Rams executive Tank Younger spoke up on his behalf.
By 1974. Harris had supplanted Hadl as the starter at midseason and became the first Black quarterback to (a) win a playoff game, (b) make the Pro Bowl and (c) win Pro Bowl MVP honors. He was 17-4 as the Rams’ starter before hurting his shoulder in a December 1975 game in New Orleans.
By the end of the 1976 season, he’d been supplanted by Pat Haden, after a three-man quarterback controversy that also included Ron Jaworski had inflamed the public to the point that Harris was booed every time he made a mistake. By 1977, he was gone, traded to the San Diego Chargers even though the Rams were 21-6 in the games Harris had started from 1974 through 1976.
As the legendary Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray noted in a 1974 column, writing a sentiment few others of that time were willing to express: “Being a black quarterback is like being a member of the Bomb Squad. You’re allowed one mistake.”
But there is a path from then to now, as laid out by Jason Reid in his recently published book, “Rise of the Black Quarterback” (Andscape, 2022).
It goes all the way back to Fritz Pollard, who found the barrier impenetrable in the 1920s (and whose namesake alliance of NFL personnel is devoted to promoting diversity in the league). The history encompasses Willie Thrower and George Taliaferro in the 1950s, Marlon Briscoe and Eldridge Dickey in the ’60s, followed by Joe Gilliam, Warren Moon, Doug Williams – the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and the game’s MVP with Washington in January 1988 in San Diego – and a host of others over the years who played quarterback in college but either found themselves diverted to other positions when they came to NFL camps or, like Moon, went to the Canadian Football League instead.
Those pioneers paved the way for Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Colin Kaepernick and today’s current collection of star quarterbacks, who have exposed the trope by which NFL coaches and executives lived for so many years.
“Those guys did have to scale incredibly high walls to just get an opportunity to compete,” Reid said in a conversation this past week.
Yet even the opportunity came with a catch.
Reid said Harris told him he never played as well in the NFL as he did in college because he was always worried he’d get pulled after making a mistake.
The best quarterbacks, the ones who not only put points on the board but inspire their teammates’ confidence, play with a freedom that comes from knowing they have a margin for error.
“The people who run the team in management and coaching know that, more often than not, they’re going to do what it takes to win the game,” Reid said. “So (they say), ‘We’re going to ride with them if they make a mistake because, you know, the overwhelming majority of the time, they are going to lead us to where we need to be.’”
But Harris never felt he had that belief from his bosses, telling Reid for the book: “There was always this (undercurrent in the media) that someone else should be starting instead of me, So I felt I couldn’t make mistakes. But to play that position the best, like I did in high school and college, you have to be able to move on from a mistake, like an interception, and just put it up some more. And I just didn’t feel that way in the pros.”
That was, remember, a stretch when the Rams won the first four of seven consecutive NFC West titles from 1973 through ’79, five under Knox and two under Ray Malavasi. It was also a stretch when the Rams reached the NFC championship game four times in six years and lost each one, and the urgency was magnified every year they fell short.
But that pressure to not make a mistake didn’t just exist on teams with championship aspirations. Reid said it was a common feeling among the Black quarterbacks seeking to break into the game in the ’70s and ’80s.
“If you’re being evaluated to be removed on every snap, no one can play that way. I mean, it just doesn’t work,” he said. “What happens is you wind up changing the way you play, and any great athlete, any professional athlete, has to be in a position where they play their game. If you’re not playing your game out of fear of being removed or even kicked out of the league, no one benefits from that.”
Harris paid it forward following his 10-year career – during which, we should mention, he led seven game-winning drives in the regular season and another in the playoffs in 1974 against Washington.
Harris mentored Williams, a fellow Grambling alumnus, and Williams ultimately passed that guidance down as well after his playing career ended in 1989 – two years after that Super Bowl triumph, when he replaced Jay Schroeder as the starter just before the playoffs and ran the table in the postseason.
Williams spent 15 seasons as a coach (including nine seasons over two different stints as head coach at his alma mater) and 18 seasons as an NFL scout and executive, including his current role as a senior adviser with the Washington Commanders.
The current emergence of Black quarterback talent isn’t just a pro or major college phenomenon, either. Reid remembered covering high school sports for the Daily Breeze years ago and attending summer quarterback camps where “you wouldn’t see Black faces anywhere,” he said. “Now, you (see) these four- and five-star recruits, and a ton of Black quarterbacks.
“It would not be shocking if we look at the NFL in another five or eight years and you saw 16 or more superstar Black quarterbacks in the league. That’s just the way it’s going now.”
In the meantime, when you marvel at the performances of Mahomes and Murray, Wilson and Prescott and Jackson and the rest, remember that James Harris helped blaze their trail in L.A.