A Black History Month Salute to the Black Quarterback


James Harris was the first African-American to regularly start as quarterback in professional football, breaking through, in 1969, with the Buffalo Bills as a rookie out of Grambling State University. He had his finest years with the then-Los Angeles Rams in the mid-seventies. Yet after compiling a 21-6 record as a starter, taking the Rams twice to the N.F.C. championship, leading the conference twice in passing efficiency, being voted Pro Bowl M.V.P., and being selected team captain—after all of that, Harris watched as the Rams’ management brought in four white quarterbacks to try to unseat him, before finally trading him away to be a backup in San Diego.

As bitterly as Harris’s NFL experience ended, it nonetheless blasted open the door for every African-American quarterback that would follow. He began the lineage that leads to Russell Wilson, of the Seattle Seahawks, who will be starting in the Super Bowl. Wilson is not the first black quarterback to start in the biggest game. That honor as most you know belongs to the Redskins’ Doug Williams, who also won the game’s M.V.P. in 1988. Steve McNair, of the Titans, Donovan McNabb, of the Eagles, and Colin Kaepernick, of the 49ers, each made Super Bowl starts in 2000, 2005, and 2013, respectively.

The difference this year is that Wilson will represent the largest cohort of African-American quarterbacks to have played in one season. Williams, McNair, and McNabb stuck out as rarities in their time. During some weeks of the 2013 regular season, as many as nine black quarterbacks started for the N.F.L.’s thirty-two teams, setting a league record. Three of the four quarterbacks who started in the N.F.C. divisional playoffs are black—Wilson, Kaepernick, and Carolina’s Cam Newton.




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