AD Main Menu

A dream fulfilled for NFL's first black QB

Samuel G. Freedman

Editor's note: This article is adapted from author Samuel G. Freedman's new book, "Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights."

On a Wednesday afternoon 50 years ago, a month past his 16th birthday, James Harris sat in the living room of his family's home in Monroe, La., staring into a black-and-white television. His parents and his older sister joined him, all of them quietly attuned to the scene on the screen -- throngs of people, tiny as squares of confetti, gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for a civil rights rally.

More than two hours into the rally, after a series of speeches, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to deliver his address. For the first 10 or 12 minutes, he preached with the cadences and metaphors that Harris, a minister's son, recognized. He had heard all his life about how all God's children, black and white, were equal. Then King started to repeat one particular phrase about having a dream.

"I have a dream," he said, "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Harris felt jolted, as if King were speaking directly to him, to his deepest, most impossible desire. In the coming month, Harris would begin his junior year at Carroll High School, returning as the starting quarterback for a team that had gone 12-0 and won a state championship the previous fall. His dream was to play professional football.

The prevailing opinion, however, was that a black man was not intelligent enough to play the position. The most promising black prospects, as Harris well knew, were routinely switched to receiver or defensive back.

Harris had even been thinking of asking Carroll's coach to shift him to defensive back so he would have a better shot at a major college scholarship and ultimately the pros.

Now King's words told him change was coming, not in the hereafter, not in some distant, redeemed era, but imminently.

"I had no chance, I knew that," Harris said. "But then I started listening to that speech."

Inspired by the speech, Harris became the first black player to be a regular, full-time starter at quarterback in the NFL. He was also the first to lead a team to a division title, to play in a conference championship, to be chosen for the Pro Bowl and to lead a conference in passing efficiency.

Heading into this NFL season, there is much hope resting on the shoulders of two young black quarterbacks: Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson. Like Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Steve McNair, Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Cam Newton and others before them, they owe their opportunity in part to Harris.

And none of it happened by accident.

MISSION TO GRAMBLING

Harris had grown up hearing conflicting messages from his parents about being black. He was supposed to be proud but also to be submissive, to know the rules but also stand his ground, to recognize injustice but turn the other cheek. Wherever he looked, he could see the face of white supremacy -- burning crosses outside churches, secondhand books at school, his brother and sister kicked off a city bus for refusing to surrender their seats.

By the end of his junior year, having gone 24-1 as a starter while running an offense that averaged nearly 35 points a game, Harris began receiving interest from colleges. His choice ultimately came down to Grambling, where his high school coach had played, and Michigan State, one of the top teams in the nation. That choice was not so much between universities as it was between mindsets: hope or logic, aspiration or pragmatism.

On Harris' visit to Michigan State in 1964, one of the assistants took him onto a practice field. As they tossed a ball back and forth, Harris caught a few one-handed. Duffy Daugherty, the Spartans' coach, ambled over and said to the assistant, "What kind of arm does he have?" The assistant said, "He has a natural throwing arm, but great hands." Harris realized he was being sized up to play receiver.

In autumn 1964, Grambling coach Eddie Robinson went on Howard Cosell's radio show in New York. Cosell, always the provocateur, noted that Robinson had sent many black players to the NFL -- but that none of them had been a quarterback.

Robinson flew back to Louisiana and drove straight from the airport to the Harris home. Sitting in the living room, the radio exchange still on his mind, Robinson grew agitated and finally erupted. "Damn it to hell," he said, "he asked me about producing a quarterback!" He paused, gathered himself. "There's none playing now," he told Harris. "But in four years, a black is going to get a chance to play quarterback in the NFL."

Harris thought about what Robinson had said. He thought about what King had preached at the March on Washington. He knew he might be giving up his best shot at the NFL. But against doubts, against safety, against history itself, he decided to trust King and Robinson.

'JUST BE BETTER'

At least once a week during the season and almost every afternoon of his college summers, Harris sat in Robinson's office. Invariably, there were napkins or paper place mats or folded lunch sacks on the desk, each covered with diagrams of passing plays or notes about concepts, gleaned from Robinson's visits to pro camps and from former Grambling players now in the NFL.

"This is what you need to know," Robinson said.

Sometimes, Robinson addressed the challenges of succeeding as a black quarterback by saying: "It's a position like any position. Ain't we playing football?" Sometimes he bluntly told Harris: "Don't expect life to be fair. Just be better."

Robinson surrounded Harris with talent that could help him mature as a pocket passer. He hired a backfield coach, Doug Porter, who had designed a pro-style passing offense at Mississippi Valley State. He recruited receivers like Essex Johnson, Frank Lewis, Robert Atkins and Charlie Joiner who would be future pros.

Harris honed his footwork and ball control for misdirection runs and play-action passes. He perfected the seven-step drop-back the Tigers used for their handful of deep passing plays. He devoted hours of time and thousands of repetitions to mastering pro skills. "Customizing my game," he called it.

There was one other little thing. Coach Robinson never let Harris be timed in the 40-yard dash. The quarterback could run a 4.6, and if any pro scouts found out, they would plan for Harris to be switched to receiver or defensive back.

Off the field, Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling's sports information director, put Harris through a tutorial called Interviews 101. Playing a skeptical reporter, Nicholson asked questions: How does it feel being racially heckled? What makes you think you deserve to play quarterback? Then he critiqued the responses. Harris had to sound confident without sounding arrogant; he had to exude gratitude without groveling.

"Don't ever let them see you angry," Nicholson said.

LIMELIGHT AND BACKLASH

On the morning of Jan. 28, 1969, Harris walked into Nicholson's office. By nightfall, the first seven rounds of the professional draft had been completed, six quarterbacks had been taken. None of them were Harris.

Harris knew why he had not been drafted. He and Robinson had made it clear to anyone who had asked that he was not willing to change position.

The next morning, the American Football League's Buffalo Bills chose Harris in the eighth round, with the 192nd pick. The Bills already had two veteran quarterbacks, Jack Kemp and Tom Flores. Harris told Robinson he was not going to a team where he would have no chance to play.

"The decision is yours," Robinson said. "I just want to say this to you. If you choose to go to the NFL, and don't make it, don't come back and tell me it was because of you being black. And if you choose to go, don't expect it to be fair. You got to be better. You got to go out there and prepare yourself better. You got to throw more balls every day. You can't miss a day. You got to be the first one to practice and the last one to leave. I know you're good enough to make it."

On the first Sunday of the 1969 regular season, having followed Robinson's advice about work ethic and perseverance, Harris became the first black pro quarterback to start on opening day. (Marlin Briscoe, a Bills receiver, had actually thrown 14 touchdown passes for Denver the season before -- when he became the first black starting quarterback in the AFL -- but was then traded and switched positions.) Limelight brought with it a harsh backlash. Harris received letters with drawings of nooses and watermelons. Later in his career, he received a credible enough death threat to receive police protection.

Heading into Harris' fourth year in 1972, the Bills cut him, and he landed with the Los Angeles Rams. Several games into the 1974 season, Harris became the starter. He won seven of the next nine games, leading the NFC in passing efficiency as the Rams went to the conference title game. In 1975, with Harris a team captain, the Rams went 12-2, though they lost again in the NFC Championship Game with Harris injured.

From the time Harris entered the league until 1977, except for six games that Joe Gilliam started for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974, Harris was the only first-string black quarterback in the NFL, the focus of all the hope, all the pressure, all the hatred.

"The thing that I regret to this day," he said recently, "is that I personally know I didn't play my best football in the NFL, because of that thing I was mentally dealing with."

After he retired in 1981, Harris became a successful front-office executive, helping to assemble a Super Bowl championship team for the Baltimore Ravens in 2000 and most recently being part of rebuilding the Detroit Lions. One of his roles is evaluating college players, which includes tracking the progress of each new generation of black quarterbacks.

"I just pull for them," Harris said. "Because of my experience, I automatically become a fan. People say to me sometimes, 'It wasn't possible without you.' And I'm appreciative of that. But I don't talk about it. During the season, I'm always involved in what I'm doing. And most of the players now -- I'm in football, I scout them -- don't even know of my contribution."

Samuel G. Freedman writes a religion column for The New York Times. This article is adapted from his new book, "Breaking the Line," about black college football and the civil rights struggle.

On a Wednesday afternoon 50 years ago, a month past his 16th birthday, James Harris sat in the living room of his family's home in Monroe, La., staring into a black-and-white television. His parents and his older sister joined him, all of them quietly attuned to the scene on the screen - throngs of people, tiny as squares of confetti, gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for a civil rights rally.

More than two hours into the rally, after a series of speeches, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to deliver his address. For the first 10 or 12 minutes, he preached with the cadences and metaphors that Harris, a minister's son, recognized. He had heard all his life about how all God's children, black and white, were equal. Then King started to repeat one particular phrase about having a dream.

"I have a dream," he said, "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Harris felt jolted, as if King were speaking directly to him, to his deepest, most impossible desire. In the coming month, Harris would begin his junior year at Carroll High School, returning as the starting quarterback for a team that had gone 12-0 and won a state championship the previous fall. His dream was to play professional football.

The prevailing opinion, however, was that a black man was not intelligent enough to play the position. The most promising black prospects, as Harris well knew, were routinely switched to receiver or defensive back.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Harris had even been thinking of asking Carroll's coach to shift him to defensive back so he would have a better shot at a major college scholarship and ultimately the pros.

Now King's words told him change was coming, not in the hereafter, not in some distant, redeemed era, but imminently.

"I had no chance, I knew that," Harris said. "But then I started listening to that speech."

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Inspired by the speech, Harris became the first black player to be a regular, full-time starter at quarterback in the NFL. He was also the first to lead a team to a division title, to play in a conference championship, to be chosen for the Pro Bowl and to lead a conference in passing efficiency.

Heading into this NFL season, there is much hope resting on the shoulders of two young black quarterbacks: Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson. Like Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Steve McNair, Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Cam Newton and others before them, they owe their opportunity in part to Harris.

And none of it happened by accident.

MISSION TO GRAMBLING

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Harris had grown up hearing conflicting messages from his parents about being black. He was supposed to be proud but also to be submissive, to know the rules but also stand his ground, to recognize injustice but turn the other cheek. Wherever he looked, he could see the face of white supremacy - burning crosses outside churches, secondhand books at school, his brother and sister kicked off a city bus for refusing to surrender their seats.

By the end of his junior year, having gone 24-1 as a starter while running an offense that averaged nearly 35 points a game, Harris began receiving interest from colleges. His choice ultimately came down to Grambling, where his high school coach had played, and Michigan State, one of the top teams in the nation. That choice was not so much between universities as it was between mindsets: hope or logic, aspiration or pragmatism.

On Harris' visit to Michigan State in 1964, one of the assistants took him onto a practice field. As they tossed a ball back and forth, Harris caught a few one-handed. Duffy Daugherty, the Spartans' coach, ambled over and said to the assistant, "What kind of arm does he have?" The assistant said, "He has a natural throwing arm, but great hands." Harris realized he was being sized up to play receiver.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

In autumn 1964, Grambling coach Eddie Robinson went on Howard Cosell's radio show in New York. Cosell, always the provocateur, noted that Robinson had sent many black players to the NFL - but that none of them had been a quarterback.

Robinson flew back to Louisiana and drove straight from the airport to the Harris home. Sitting in the living room, the radio exchange still on his mind, Robinson grew agitated and finally erupted. "Damn it to hell," he said, "he asked me about producing a quarterback!" He paused, gathered himself. "There's none playing now," he told Harris. "But in four years, a black is going to get a chance to play quarterback in the NFL."

Harris thought about what Robinson had said. He thought about what King had preached at the March on Washington. He knew he might be giving up his best shot at the NFL. But against doubts, against safety, against history itself, he decided to trust King and Robinson.

'JUST BE BETTER'

At least once a week during the season and almost every afternoon of his college summers, Harris sat in Robinson's office. Invariably, there were napkins or paper place mats or folded lunch sacks on the desk, each covered with diagrams of passing plays or notes about concepts, gleaned from Robinson's visits to pro camps and from former Grambling players now in the NFL.

"This is what you need to know," Robinson said.

Sometimes, Robinson addressed the challenges of succeeding as a black quarterback by saying: "It's a position like any position. Ain't we playing football?" Sometimes he bluntly told Harris: "Don't expect life to be fair. Just be better."

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Robinson surrounded Harris with talent that could help him mature as a pocket passer. He hired a backfield coach, Doug Porter, who had designed a pro-style passing offense at Mississippi Valley State. He recruited receivers like Essex Johnson, Frank Lewis, Robert Atkins and Charlie Joiner who would be future pros.

Harris honed his footwork and ball control for misdirection runs and play-action passes. He perfected the seven-step drop-back the Tigers used for their handful of deep passing plays. He devoted hours of time and thousands of repetitions to mastering pro skills. "Customizing my game," he called it.

There was one other little thing. Coach Robinson never let Harris be timed in the 40-yard dash. The quarterback could run a 4.6, and if any pro scouts found out, they would plan for Harris to be switched to receiver or defensive back.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Off the field, Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling's sports information director, put Harris through a tutorial called Interviews 101. Playing a skeptical reporter, Nicholson asked questions: How does it feel being racially heckled? What makes you think you deserve to play quarterback? Then he critiqued the responses. Harris had to sound confident without sounding arrogant; he had to exude gratitude without groveling.

"Don't ever let them see you angry," Nicholson said.

LIMELIGHT AND BACKLASH

On the morning of Jan. 28, 1969, Harris walked into Nicholson's office. By nightfall, the first seven rounds of the professional draft had been completed, six quarterbacks had been taken. None of them were Harris.

Harris knew why he had not been drafted. He and Robinson had made it clear to anyone who had asked that he was not willing to change position.

The next morning, the American Football League's Buffalo Bills chose Harris in the eighth round, with the 192nd pick. The Bills already had two veteran quarterbacks, Jack Kemp and Tom Flores. Harris told Robinson he was not going to a team where he would have no chance to play.

"The decision is yours," Robinson said. "I just want to say this to you. If you choose to go to the NFL, and don't make it, don't come back and tell me it was because of you being black. And if you choose to go, don't expect it to be fair. You got to be better. You got to go out there and prepare yourself better. You got to throw more balls every day. You can't miss a day. You got to be the first one to practice and the last one to leave. I know you're good enough to make it."

On the first Sunday of the 1969 regular season, having followed Robinson's advice about work ethic and perseverance, Harris became the first black pro quarterback to start on opening day. (Marlin Briscoe, a Bills receiver, had actually thrown 14 touchdown passes for Denver the season before - when he became the first black starting quarterback in the AFL - but was then traded and switched positions.) Limelight brought with it a harsh backlash. Harris received letters with drawings of nooses and watermelons. Later in his career, he received a credible enough death threat to receive police protection.

(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)

Heading into Harris' fourth year in 1972, the Bills cut him, and he landed with the Los Angeles Rams. Several games into the 1974 season, Harris became the starter. He won seven of the next nine games, leading the NFC in passing efficiency as the Rams went to the conference title game. In 1975, with Harris a team captain, the Rams went 12-2, though they lost again in the NFC Championship Game with Harris injured.

From the time Harris entered the league until 1977, except for six games that Joe Gilliam started for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974, Harris was the only first-string black quarterback in the NFL, the focus of all the hope, all the pressure, all the hatred.

"The thing that I regret to this day," he said recently, "is that I personally know I didn't play my best football in the NFL, because of that thing I was mentally dealing with."

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)

After he retired in 1981, Harris became a successful front-office executive, helping to assemble a Super Bowl championship team for the Baltimore Ravens in 2000 and most recently being part of rebuilding the Detroit Lions. One of his roles is evaluating college players, which includes tracking the progress of each new generation of black quarterbacks.

"I just pull for them," Harris said. "Because of my experience, I automatically become a fan. People say to me sometimes, 'It wasn't possible without you.' And I'm appreciative of that. But I don't talk about it. During the season, I'm always involved in what I'm doing. And most of the players now - I'm in football, I scout them - don't even know of my contribution."


By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
The New York Times