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 Reporter-News Archives


Saturday, August 4, 2001

The NFL's resistance to black quarterbacks is fading away
By Rick Cantu
c. 2001 Cox News Service

WICHITA FALLS, Texas — There have been only 56 black quarterbacks in the 81-year history of the NFL.

Willie Thrower, a Chicago Bear in 1953, is the answer to a tough trivia question: Who was the first black man to throw a pass for a professional football team? Thrower was a pioneer in his day, whether he knew it or not.

At least two generations after Thrower threw that pass, the shade of the position is still changing.

This year, the Dallas Cowboys are the first team in NFL history with three black quarterbacks on their roster: Tony Banks, Anthony Wright and Quincy Carter. They are the chosen ones to replace retired icon Troy Aikman, the 12-year veteran who led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl championships before injuries and frequent concussions forced him out of football.

For the first time since 1989, the Cowboys are in training camp without Aikman in the huddle.

Fifty-four years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line, Carter spoke openly about his easy transition from high school to college to the NFL. Growing up close to Georgia, he was accepted as a leader, a quarterback whose skin color has been no obstacle. There already had been black starting quarterbacks at Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and other states in the Deep South.

“I see everybody as the same color,” the 23-year-old Carter said after a Cowboys training camp practice this week at Midwestern State.

There were others who paved the way for men such as Banks and Wright and Carter.

People such as Marlin Briscoe, the first black man in the old AFL or NFL to start at quarterback when he played for Denver in 1969. People such as James Harris, Doug Williams and Warren Moon.

Silence over the Cowboys' quarterback competition in Wichita Falls underscores this theme: A lot of bigotry and ignorance have been sacked in the NFL. Imagine how Williams felt when a reporter asked him this question before the 1988 Super Bowl:

“How long have you been a black quarterback?”

Williams went on to win the Super Bowl MVP trophy. Moon, who played for the Houston Oilers, Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs, recently retired from a Hall of Fame career. Last year, 14 black quarterbacks started games for NFL teams.

Three black quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 1999 draft. That matched the total selected in the first round of the previous 63 drafts.

Progress?

“It's about what's right and what's wrong,” said Harris, a former Rams quarterback and current executive for the Baltimore Ravens organization. “What's right is: The best guy plays. It's getting to be that situation because coaches want to win. They're going to play the best players. You look at what's happening (in this era). That's what's right.”

Football was a different game when Briscoe played for the Broncos 33 years ago. Blacks had already left their mark in the game — as running backs, wide receivers, defensive ends. Ask anyone to name the best black football player of all time and you'll likely hear the names Jim Brown (running back), Jerry Rice (wide receiver), “Mean” Joe Greene (defensive end), Lawrence Taylor (linebacker), Ronnie Lott (safety) and Gale Sayers (running back).

Tearing down barriers

Williams helped tear down barriers with his near-perfect performance in the 1988 Super Bowl, when he led Washington to a 42-10 trouncing of Denver.

Williams, now head football coach at Grambling University, is the first black quarterback to win Super Bowl MVP honors. On the night of his biggest triumph, Williams said he felt vindicated from all the criticism aimed his way during his career.

“I was thinking about it, but I wasn't consumed,” he told the Tampa Tribune earlier this year. “It'll eat you up if you make it about revenge. But when it's over it hits you. You think about what you went through and what made you stronger.

“But none of that matters because you just did something nobody else is ever going to take away. Like they say in the Bible, `It is written.' ”

Moon, arguably the best black quarterback of all time, played in eight straight Pro Bowls, a quarterback record. He passed for 291 touchdowns and nearly 50,000 yards in his 17-year career, mostly with the Oilers.

But when Moon announced his retirement this year, he said his greatest achievement was helping Michael Vick become the first black quarterback selected with the first pick of the 2001 draft. Vick made his pro debut with the Atlanta Falcons Friday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first NFL preseason game of the year.

“There have been a lot of blacks who've been the first pick in the draft. But not at this position,” Moon said. “This is the position on the football field that commands the type of intelligence, leadership and respect that go along with making an organization successful. For an organization to take that kind of stand with a quarterback who happens to be black is pretty significant.”

Donovan McNabb, drafted by Philadelphia in 1999, has played so well that he easily is the city's second-favorite athlete behind Allen Iverson. Steve McNair led Tennessee to the Super Bowl two years ago. Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper, a first-round choice in '99, now is considered the prototype quarterback — big, strong and fast enough to elude defensive players when flushed from the pocket. And then there is Vick, one of the most talented quarterbacks — of any color — to come out of college in years.

Cowboys Coach Dave Campo has watched a generation of change. In 1986 Reggie Collier became the first black quarterback in Dallas, playing one season with the Cowboys. Rodney Peete played the position in Dallas in 1994.

In the NFL this season, there could be as many as eight black quarterbacks starting in the 31-team league.

That includes Banks, one of the most intriguing players at Cowboys training camp. He started 61 NFL games for St. Louis and Baltimore before Cowboys owner Jerry Jones signed him to a one-year deal in Dallas.

Banks was lucky while growing up. Several black quarterbacks played at Michigan State before he was a Spartan from 1992 to 1995.

Yet he felt pressure to be nearly perfect because criticism from fans was always just an interception away. That's the price any high-profile quarterback — black or white — pays when leading a high-profile team.

“At times I felt like I had to walk on water,” Banks said. “For me, the thing that still shows a discrepancy is that there are not a lot of black backups in the league. If you've got to walk on water, you're not in the league. But that trend is starting to change, too.”

Carter said he felt little or no pressure at Georgia. When asked if that signals a positive change, he turned, smiled, and said, “I guess so.”

Credit to the colleges

When Wade Wilson, who is white, entered the NFL in 1981 to play quarterback for the Vikings, the few blacks who played quarterback were known for their running ability. Wilson, now the quarterbacks coach in Dallas, has seen many changes in the last 20 years.

“The mindset 20 years ago was that the black quarterback was going to beat you with his legs,” Wilson said. “They said he may not be able to handle everything mentally. You didn't see a lot of black quarterbacks at the time, but now that they're given a better chance to play in college, a better chance to get good coaching, they have shown they have the ability.” Better training in college is the biggest reason there are more black quarterbacks in the NFL, many players and coaches agree. When players such as Moon and Williams started to make headlines in the NFL with their arms, more college teams began to look at blacks as potential quarterbacks.

Of the 63 Division I teams eligible for the Bowl Championship Series last season, 20 teams had minority quarterbacks. One-third of the teams in the SEC — a conference that did not become fully integrated until 1971— were guided by black quarterbacks.

“Black quarterbacks have not had the same legacy that white quarterbacks have,” Campo said. “What you see now are guys who are going from being just an athlete to being quarterbacks. A quarterback is a quarterback.”

Wright agrees. The stereotype of the black quarterback who ran the option in college — but never amounted to anything in the NFL — are over. Black quarterbacks no longer are asked to switch to wide receiver or safety in the pros. Such a move was standard procedure in the '70s and '80s.

“As time has come along, you see more black quarterbacks who are able to drop back and pass as well as run,” Wright said. “Now you have white quarterbacks being able to do the same thing. Evolution has changed the way the game has become.”

Evolution also has changed the way people view the game.

“I don't know if race was a factor” in Dallas having three black quarterbacks, Wilson said. “As far as it having any significance, it's only a matter of whether they can play or not.”

You may contact Rick Cantu at rcantu@statesman.com or 512-445-3953.


All content copyright 2001, AP, KRT, The
Abilene Reporter-News and Reporter OnLine

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