On Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks walked all over the Denver Broncos, 43-8, to win Super Bowl XLVIII. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson passed for 206 yards, ran for 26 more, threw two touchdowns, and made National Football League history. He became the second African-American quarterback ever to start and win a Super Bowl, and the first to be mainly received not as an aspirational or representative figure, but as a man who plays on his own terms: as, more or less, a quarterback.
This project started with my dad on Thanksgiving. He was reminiscing about Doug Williams, who in 1988 became the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl. All these years later, he was still proud of Williams, whose name to some may be that of a half-remembered player from the past but to millions of others remains a powerful symbol of progress. It stayed with me, and it seemed that it was worth telling the story not just of Williams, but of everyone—of all those generations of players who struggled so that Russell Wilson could be, simply, a good young quarterback.
So the Deadspin staff set out to find and name every single black quarterback ever to play in the NFL. First, we had to establish a methodology. For players to be considered, we decided that they had to be black—to define themselves or be defined by others as black, or have a black parent. Second, they had to make the NFL as a quarterback. To "make the NFL," we decided, at least one of the following two things had to happen: They had to be drafted by a franchise in the NFL draft, and/or they had to be rostered on an NFL team for at least one regular season or postseason game. There were many players who were drafted as quarterbacks, but never featured on an NFL depth chart. They made the list. Some players, like Warren Moon, were undrafted but eventually made an NFL roster. They made the list, too. Other players, like Antwaan Randle El, were quarterbacks in college, but were drafted by teams with the express intent of converting them to play different positions. They didn't make the list. (This got tricky, though. In general, we erred on the side of inclusion, because the story of black quarterbacks in the NFL is partly the story of black cornerbacks and black wide receivers who got converted before ever taking a snap in the pros. If this seems like a fuzzy and inconsistent standard to you, take it up with the NFL.) Many people—like you, probably—weren't drafted to play quarterback in the NFL, and didn't make an NFL roster as a free agent. They didn't make the list, either.
Several things were immediately clear. Though black NFL quarterbacks make up one of the smallest fraternities in all of sports, no one anywhere had ever compiled an exhaustive list. No one knows the names of every black quarterback ever to play in the NFL for sure, including us. But we think we're pretty close. There were several lists of black NFL quarterbacks online, which we cross-referenced to get a good base; we trawled through every single NFL draft ever, one by one, and we read thousands of articles, from as far back as the early 1900s, looking for hints of forgotten black quarterbacks. In our search, we found a few players lost to the years but immortalized via a casual name-drop or an off-hand comparison.
There were difficulties. A huge one, for example, is that the modern quarterback position didn't exist before the 1950s. Single-wing tailbacks like Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard, Joe Lillard, and even George Taliaferro were called upon to pass, rush, and kick. They made the list, on the criterion that they threw passes. If not quite quarterbacks, they were the closest thing to it. Second, records grew more incomplete and, in some cases, less reliable the further we delved into the past. There's no telling how many black quarterbacks have been lost to history. If you spot any mistakes or oversights—and we're sure you will—let us know, either in the comments below or at email@example.com.
It took a long time and some real work, but we were able to put together what we think is the most comprehensive list of black NFL quarterbacks ever compiled. More than a compilation of names, this was an opportunity to find and publish these men's stories. Some are brief; others are long. We penned longer pieces on the most notable players, like Fritz Pollard, Warren Moon, Steve McNair, Michael Vick, the immortal Akili Smith, and many more, but every player on this list is part of a broad narrative that traces the history of football and its relationship with the broader society.
As part of this, we tested old stereotypes and answered old questions. Do black quarterbacks run more or less than whites? Are they more accomplished passers? You'll find answers here. We compared these black quarterbacks with each other and their non-black peers, and tracked the development of these players as individuals and as a collective over time. We added photos, videos, and some really great charts.
We did all this not just to learn about black quarterbacks, but to learn about how the position, the NFL, and race relations in this country have developed through time. Ultimately, given the dominance of African-American players elsewhere on the field, telling the story of what they've done under center is about testing the promise of football, the promise suggested by the strange, annual pre-Super Bowl recitation of the Declaration of Independence: that football represents what America is, and what it aspires to be.
This is The Big Book of Black Quarterbacks. Entries were written by me (I'm the "I" wherever you see it), Tommy Craggs, Billy Haisley, Samer Kalaf, and Kyle Wagner; charts are by Reuben Fischer-Baum. Let's get to it.
[Ed. note: Due to technical difficulties, we had to split the book into two separate posts. You can find Part 2 here.]
Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard | 1920-1926 | Akron Pros, Milwaukee Badgers, Hammond Pros, Providence Steam Rollers, Akron Indians
"This dusky half-back was more than a broken field phantom. Pollard was a great football player."—New York Sun
Fritz Pollard was the first—the first black man to play quarterback and the first to coach in the NFL, of course, but also the first to play in the Rose Bowl, the first to be named to a backfield position on Walter Camp's All-American team, and the first in the professional ranks to attract a gate more or less on the strength of his name. That he played the heel in those games shouldn't be surprising. It certainly wasn't to Pollard, who from an early age knew what it meant to be a famous black athlete in America. "You had to understand," his son, the Olympic hurdler Fritz Pollard Jr., would say years later. "You had to play within certain perimeters."
At 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Pollard was considered slight even by the standards of the sport in 1915, the year he left the racist, majority-white neighborhood of Rogers Park in Chicago for Brown University, which itself "was prejudiced as hell," in Pollard's estimation. (Before college, there was a brief detour in semi-pro ball, including a stint with an all-Indian team for whom he played under the name Charlie Lone Star.) There, in his oversized uniform, Pollard dominated as a running back—though he did a little of everything, on both sides of the ball—and in his first year he gained some measure of national fame after a 3-0 victory over Yale. In a research paper by football historian John M. Carroll (whose work was indispensable to us in putting together this biographical sketch), Pollard recalled having to use a separate gate that day in New Haven so "the fans wouldn't get on me." In the game, he broke off a couple big runs, and in response Yale fans chanted, "Kill the nigger."
Certain perimeters. Pollard had followed the boxer Jack Johnson as a youth, had watched his rise and his fall and absorbed the central lesson of his career. "Black athletes could succeed in the white-dominated athletic world," Carroll writes in his biography of Pollard, "but only if they abided by an unwritten code of conduct both on and off the playing field."
In 1916, Pollard was named to the Walter Camp All-America team. He left Brown to pursue a dentistry degree and join the military, but he popped up again in 1919 as a football coach at Lincoln University, a historically black college (HBCU). That's when he was recruited by the Akron Pros, a professional football team that would join the American Professional Football Association in 1920. Here's where things get a little tricky for milestone seekers. The APFA was the precursor to the National Football League, and in a sense we can say that in 1920 Pollard became the first black quarterback in the NFL. But this requires some qualification on both ends. He wasn't a quarterback in the modern sense—the offense, out of the single-wing formation, still flowed through him, but the forward pass wouldn't be widely adopted in the pros until the 1930s—and neither was pro football the pro football we know today. The college game was still king, and the pro version was thought somewhat distasteful.
Whatever the case, Pollard was an instrumental figure in the formative days of the NFL, an exciting athlete whom Walter Camp reckoned "one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen." He knew his role was to play the villain. "Opposing teams and fans delighted in raining both physical and verbal abuse on Pollard," Carroll writes. "To protect himself, Pollard developed a habit of rolling over when tackled, cocking his legs, and flailing them bicycle style to discourage piling on. On occasion Pollard had to be driven to mid-field in a car moments before kickoff to avoid a shower of bricks and bottles often thrown by unruly fans."
In 1921, he served as Akron's head coach, becoming the first black coach in the history of the NFL. In 1922, he moved to the Milwaukee Badgers, which he also coached. In 1923, he joined the Hammond Pros. He played his last game in 1926, back in Akron, the team cutting him loose because the 32-year-old had "failed to play up to the form expected of him." This was most likely a lie. The upstart AFL, led by the barnstorming Red Grange, had folded after a single season. Historian Charles K. Ross has argued that the demise of the AFL created a glut of available white players eager to sign on with the NFL, rendering black players expendable. The NFL went from five black players in 1926 to just one in 1927. By 1934, no black players were signed to NFL contracts. "Probably," suggested Chicago Bears patriarch George Halas, whom Pollard always blamed for the de facto segregation of football, "the game didn't appeal to black players at the time."
Fritz kept coaching, though. In 1928, he founded the Chicago Black Hawks, an all-black team that played all-white teams in Illinois and throughout the country to show that blacks and whites could compete against each other without incident. He later coached the Brown Bombers, an all-black professional football team in Harlem whose players would sing spirituals and dance during games, the air of minstrelsy offset in part by the team's undeniable excellence. (In 1936, the Bombers trounced the Newark Bears of the newly formed APFL, 41-0.)
Pollard went into the newspaper business, too, creating the country's first black tabloid, New York's Independent News. He was exceptionally savvy about the media. In 1935, according to Carroll, he planted a story in the Associated Negro Press that claimed his son had gotten an offer to play for Halas's Bears. There was apparently no such offer, and Carroll speculates that Pollard was trying to draw Halas out "on the color ban issue." He failed, but the trick was in keeping with a man who worked against the status quo from within the system, who didn't attack those "perimeters" black athletes were forced to play within so much as nudge them outward.
18 games (12 starts) | 372 yards passing | 2 passing TDs | 19 INTs | 28.4 comp. % | 10.8 QB rating | 494 yards rushing | 1 rushing touchdown | 0 fumbles
"Joe Lillard of the Chicago Cardinals was undoubtedly the most outstanding player on a white professional eleven."—Baltimore Afro-American
If he'd played in another era, Joe Lillard might be remembered today as one of the best athletes in the history of football. Growing up in the boomtown of Mason City, Iowa, he excelled in everything— football, basketball, baseball, track. At Oregon, he played and dominated two games as a freshman halfback before he lost eligibility when it was discovered he'd played baseball and basketball for semi-pro black teams. So in 1932, he went pro, and was signed by the Chicago Cardinals as the only black player in the NFL. For a year, he was used to rush, kick, return punts, and throw. In 1933, he was released. He and Ray Kemp share the honor of being the last black men to play in the NFL before an unofficial ban on African-Americans took hold. This "gentlemen's agreement" lasted until 1946.
For a number of reasons, race relations between blacks and whites in the 1930s were more strained than they had been at any time since Reconstruction. Racial inequality and segregation were written into law, as ever, but when the Great Depression hit, many Americans, both white and black, lost everything. And many Americans, both white and black, were suddenly fighting for the same menial jobs.
Minorities were vilified during the Great Depression, as they usually are in times of economic strife. In and out of the workplace, blacks were perceived and treated as threats. We think of this now as a Southern matter, which it was, but it was a Southern matter because so many blacks in the South were written out of FDR's New Deal, their access to new federal programs horsetraded away to secure the support of a Southern bloc unwilling to budge on Jim Crow. (The Social Security Act, for instance, exempted domestic and agricultural workers.) Policy and culture conspired to reinforce one another, the flaws of the former giving warrant to the bigotry and predations of the latter. Blacks were harassed. They were beaten, shot, dragged, and hanged.
Into this context burst Joe Lillard. He was special. He was electric. The Chicago Defender called him "easily the best halfback in football." A Boston columnist wrote: "Lillard is not only the ace of the Cardinal backfield but he is one of the greatest all-around players that has ever displayed his wares on any gridiron in this section of the country."
The problem was that he knew it. He was an arrogant black man in a white man's game. He had a live-wire temper, nearly causing a riot after one game when he launched a retaliatory uppercut at the chin of an opponent. Opposing teams lit him up with dirty shots, and some of his teammates hated him so much that they supposedly refused to block for him. "Football players, like anyone else, will always be jealous," Rocky Wolfe, the team's PR guy, said, echoing the things people would say many years later about Richard Sherman. "But a fellow can always clear up such a situation by living, walking and breathing in a manner that does not bespeak supremacy—a thing Lillard hasn't learned."
Lillard still produced, though, and still held down a job on the Cardinals in 1932, albeit tenuously. That year—the year in which FDR won his first term in office, carrying 75 percent of the black vote—the NFL changed forever: George Preston Marshall, along with several other investors, founded the Boston Braves. Marshall, born in West Virginia in 1896, was the heir to his father's laundry store empire. He was a visionary and a bigot, and the NFL is still wrestling with his legacy today. In his first year with the NFL, Marshall standardized schedules and carved the league into divisions; he set up a league championship; he made the forward pass legal from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. In 1933, his partners dropped out, and as the sole owner, he renamed his team the Redskins. Then he brokered a league-wide ban on black players.
Well, no one would cop to the ban outright. Writes Thomas G. Smith in Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins:
Professional owners, like their Major League Baseball counterparts, publicly denied the existence of a racial ban. "For myself and for most of the owners," Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers explained to me decades later, "I can say there never was any racial bias." George Halas of the Chicago Bears declared to sportswriter Myron Cope in 1970 that there had been no unwritten exclusionary agreement, "in no way, shape, or form." Tex Schramm of the Los Angeles Rams did not recall a gentleman's agreement: "You just didn't do it—it wasn't the thing that was done." Tim Mara of the Giants also denied that minorities had been blackballed. Despite the disclaimers, however, blacks had disappeared from the game altogether.
Lillard's contract was not renewed after the 1933 season. Was it racism? Smith has written elsewhere:
The black press claimed that Lillard had been "Too Good For His Own Good" and that the "color of his skin had driven him out of the National Football League." In 1935 Coach [Paul] Schlissler conceded that an unwritten rule barred blacks from the game for their own protection. Lillard, he said, had been a victim of racism.
"He was a fine fellow, not as rugged as most in the pro game, but very clever," he explained. "But he was a marked man, and I don't mean that just the southern boys took it out on him either; after a while whole teams, Northern and Southern alike, would give Joe the works, and I'd have to take him out." Lillard's presence, the coach continued, made the Cardinals a "marked team" and the "rest of the league took it out on us! We had to let him go, for our own sake, and for his, too!"
Marshall moved the Boston Redskins to the Southern, segregated city of Washington D.C. in 1937. The racial ban was still in effect, with owners mounting specious arguments in their own defense. Some said there was just no black talent in college football worth drafting. That was untrue.
The 1939 UCLA football team, for example, fielded four blacks. One was a transfer named Jackie Robinson, a four-sport letterman who averaged 12.2 yards per carry. Another was Kenny Washington, a teammate one year ahead of Robinson with a cannon for an arm. Robinson later declared Washington "the greatest football player [he'd] ever seen," and "probably the greatest long passer ever." Time wrote in 1940 that he was "considered by West Coast fans the most brilliant in the U.S. last year." Many regarded him as one of the best players in the history of the sport. When he graduated from UCLA, he was barred by NFL owners from entering the league. He instead played for the Pacific Coast Professional Football League.
Then the United States went to war. Though blacks were still second-class citizens by law, shared service began to erode barriers—blacks, for instance, competed alongside and against whites on service teams. When the All-America Football Conference launched in 1946 as a direct competitor to the NFL, it distinguished itself in one significant way: There was no ban on black athletes.
It was a shrewd move, and forced NFL owners to lift their own ban. (You could put together a pocket history of racial relations in sports by looking at the ebbs and flows of upstart leagues—a little competition in the marketplace has always been good for racial advancement.) Kenny Washington became the first black player signed to an NFL roster in the postwar era when he put in with the newly relocated Los Angeles Rams in March 1946. He played three seasons and retired in 1948. Though he was considered one of the greatest passers ever, he threw only 14 times in that period.
George Preston Marshall, meanwhile, proclaimed that he'd never put a black player on his roster, a promise he kept until 1962. He relented only when President John F. Kennedy threatened to nullify the Redskins' 30-year lease on what's now known as RFK Stadium.
And Joe Lillard? He never got another chance to play in the NFL. He retired from the sport in 1941.
Drafted, 13th round (129 overall) | 61 games | 843 yards passing | 6 passing TDs | 15 INTs | 29.4 comp. % | 22.5 QB rating | 1,794 yards rushing | 10 Rushing Touchdowns | 0 fumbles
"He ran brilliantly, passed adequately, and punted in grand style."—Sammy Banks, Colts PR director
If you asked George Taliaferro, he'd probably say he doesn't belong on this list. He didn't consider himself just a quarterback, and he was drafted as a halfback. But he took snaps from the shotgun formation before the T-formation became fashionable, and he was called on to throw as well as run and punt. For our purposes, we'll call him a quarterback, which would make him the first black player drafted into the NFL to play a quarterback-like position.
In 2008, Taliaferro got to watch the start of a brief vogue for the Wildcat. Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown was taking direct snaps like something out of the single-wing era. "That took me back to 1945, 1947, 1948," Taliaferro told The New York Times's William Rhoden. Watching Brown's highlights, he turned to his wife and said: "You see what this kid is doing? That was the fear of every defensive coordinator when I was in pro football: 'You got to watch out for Taliaferro. You got to know where he is.'"
Drafted, 11th round (135 overall) | 0 games
"The flying Negro from Syracuse."—Ottawa Citizen
Bernie Custis's decision to snub the NFL did not prevent him from making football history. The Cleveland Browns drafted Syracuse's star quarterback with the idea of moving him to defensive back—this would be a common refrain over the next half century—but Custis said thanks but no thanks. Instead, he went to Canada, joining the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. His 1951 season as the Ti-Cats' starting quarterback made him the first black quarterback to play in what would become the CFL.
Even Canada couldn't embrace a black quarterback yet, though the CFL (as we'll see) would later become a proving ground for black QBs outside the NFL. After his inaugural season, Custis was moved to running back. He played there for a few seasons, reluctantly but successfully, but his true desire to quarterback a team would perhaps rear its head in the form of missed practices and accusations of "dogging it." Still, he blazed a trail by pursuing a quarterbacking career in the Great White North. Many fellow black passers would follow.
Undrafted | 1 game | 27 yards passing | 0 passing TDs | 1 INTs | 37.5 comp. % | 7.8 QB rating | 0 fumbles
"An Otto Graham-type Thrower"—Jet Magazine
Willie Thrower was the first black NFL quarterback of the modern mold. He led his Michigan State team to a national championship in 1952, his senior season. Thrower went undrafted but was signed by the Chicago Bears, serving as George Blanda's backup for his one year in the league. His only stats came in relief duty on Oct. 18, 1953, when the coach benched the struggling Blanda for a bit. Baby steps.
Drafted, 16th round (185 overall) | 7 games (0 starts) | 0 yards passing | 0 comp. % | 39.6 QB rating | 0 fumbles
"Brackins [...] is constantly improving as a passer, shows ability as a runner and versatility as a place kicker"—Milwaukee Sentinel
At 6-foot-2 and 205, Choo Choo definitely looked the part when he became the first HBCU graduate to play quarterback in the NFL. His first time under center for the Packers, though, he went 0-for-2. He was released before the next game and never threw another pass in the league.
"That's why we liked Stephens—he can run the ball."—Jack Jacobs, Montreal Alouettes assistant coach
The first black quarterback at the University of Minnesota was drafted in both the AFL and NFL, but neither the New York Titans nor the Browns would ever use him as a quarterback. Stephens kept his quarterback dreams alive in the CFL. He later gave the NFL another shot with the Vikings when he almost died in an accident that doctors thought would leave him unable to walk. Two years later, Stephens was a fullback for the Chiefs. He retired a short time after, never playing as a quarterback in the NFL.
Drafted, 5th round (109) | 56 games | 57 passing yards | 0 passing TDs | 0 INTs | 42.9 comp. % | 54.8 QB rating | 22 rushing yards | 4 fumbles
"Triple-threat rookie sensation."—Montreal Gazette
Dave Lewis brought a whole new meaning to the term positional flexibility. Drafted by the Giants out of college as a punter, Lewis rebuffed that offer in favor of the CFL, where he played halfback. After a couple seasons in Canada, he returned home to punt and—yes, it's true—return kicks for the Bengals. His college quarterback experience came in handy in 1971, when he was used there for a couple weeks in October as a stopgap between when the injured starter could reclaim his job from the banged-up back-up.
Marlin Briscoe | 1968-1976 | Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots
Drafted, 14th round (357 overall) | 9 games (5 starts) | 1,697 yards passing | 14 passing TDs | 14 INTs | 41.6 comp. % | 62.1 QB rating | 336 yards rushing | 3 rushing TDs | 8 fumbles
"He's probably the fastest quarterback in pro ball."—The Spokesman-Review
Marlin Briscoe was the first black quarterback to start in the NFL. Despite playing under center all his life, "Marlin the Magician" was drafted by the AFL's Broncos as a defensive back. An injury to the starter in his rookie year opened the opportunity for him to play quarterback. He started the final five games of the season and was in the running for Rookie of the Year.
The next season, Briscoe wasn't allowed even to compete for the job. Without notifying him, Lou Saban, the Broncos' coach, had signed a couple new quarterbacks and was conducting offseason workouts to see who would start the season under center. A furious Briscoe confronted Saban and demanded to be included in the QB battle or released. Saban complied with the latter demand, but not before sullying Briscoe's name around the league as an angry, black malcontent, essentially blacklisting him. No one picked him up off waivers.
Briscoe eventually got a shot in Buffalo as a wide receiver, a position he had never played. He hung around the league for eight seasons, playing on two Super Bowl winners in Miami. Years later, he would share what he considered "one of the highlights of my life."
"You won't believe this. Right after my rookie season, one of my receivers was named Jimmy Jones. He used to play for the [Chicago] Bears. I went to Chicago to see my girlfriend. I contacted Jimmy and he took me to this bar called The Presidents. So, Jimmy is introducing me to the bartender, 'This is Marlin Briscoe. He is the first black quarterback in the NFL.' This guy was sitting next to me. He said, 'You weren't the first black quarterback.' I said, 'I was.' He said, 'No, you weren't.' I said, 'Well, who was?' He said, 'I was. My name is Willie Thrower.' It couldn't happen in a million years. I knew that he existed, and he was sitting right next to me. We sat there and we talked for a couple of hours. I met him by happenstance going to this lounge with my receiver. I knew who he was, and for him to be sitting right next to me. It was kind of crazy, but I am glad that I got a chance to meet him."
Drafted, 1st round (25 overall) | 18 games (0 starts)
"[Dickey] has great potential as a quarterback."—Al Davis, Raiders managing general partner
Eldridge Dickey, by both skill and determination, was destined to be the first great black quarterback. He possessed the accuracy and size of a prototypical dropback passer, as well as the brash confidence in his ability to finally break the QB color line. Instead, he started his career as a wide receiver—a temporary move, according to then-general manager Al Davis. "If Dickey doesn't play quarterback in two or three years, then it will be an issue," Davis said as regards fan frustration at seeing Dickey playing out wide in his first game. After three years as a wideout, Dickey was out of the league.
Drafted, 12th round (315) | 0 games
There is almost no information remaining on the life and career of Henry Johnson. There is a story presumably of the teenaged Johnson whose Miami Beach High squad was bashed by Miami Jackson. He's listed correctly as Fisk's quarterback in the History of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, 1913-1990, possibly as a member of an All-Star team. Then there's an article from when the 49ers drafted him and one from when the 49ers cut him. That's all we know.
Drafted, 5th round (110 overall) | 0 games
"Jackson could be the Willie Mays of pro football."—Rommie Loudd, Patriots personnel director
Onree Jackson was touted as the first black quarterback drafted solely to play QB. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, his prototypical quarterback build didn't project too easily at the usual secondary positions. The executive who drafted him, the one who gave that hopeful quote above, was Rommie Loudd, himself a retired black football player. Jackson never played a game.
Drafted, 8th round (192 overall) | 83 games (41 starts) | 8,136 yards passing | 45 passing TDs | 59 INTs | 52.8 comp. % | 67.3 QB rating | 367 yards rushing | 10 rushing TDs | 36 fumbles
"He's a helluva athlete."—John Hadl, Harris's backup in Los Angeles
James Harris is the first black quarterback who got a legitimate shot to prove himself a capable starter in the NFL. After a handful of years developing with the Bills (sometimes throwing to Marlin Briscoe), Harris finally got his shot with the Rams in 1974. The next few years the Rams were consistent contenders. A recurring shoulder injury hampered his career with the Rams and he was eventually traded to the Chargers, starting one year but mainly serving as Dan Fouts's backup.
Drafted, 3rd round (71 overall) | 0 games
"Has one of the strongest arms in football."—Star-News
Backing up a then-39-year-old Johnny Unitas on the Baltimore Colts, Douglas, a rookie, wasn't given a chance to prove himself. General manager Joe Thomas felt he "didn't fit the bill" and replaced him by trading for San Diego's Marty Domres, who eventually started. Douglas turned to the CFL and played four season for the BC Lions and Calgary Stampeders.
Drafted, 11th round (273 overall) | 20 games (7 starts) | 2,103 yards passing | 9 passing TDs | 17 INTs | 44.4 comp. % | 53.2 QB rating | 64 yards rushing | 1 rushing TD | 8 fumbles
"Tennessee State's answer to Broadway Joe Namath."—Daytona Beach Morning Journal
Joe Gilliam's story is one of loss. He grew up in Nashville during the Civil Rights era. His father, Joe Sr., was a defensive coordinator who coached at the historically black Tennessee State University. Gilliam was the ballboy. When it was time for college, Gilliam followed his dad to Tennessee State. By the time he'd graduated in 1972, he was a two-time All-American. That year, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the 11th round to back up Terry Bradshaw, the face of the franchise and the league's first overall pick two years prior.
Gilliam had the talent and the will to avoid the typical fate of black quarterbacks entering the NFL—position change or exile in Canada. He was a coach's kid and a college star. He was cocky. And he was smart. At the NFL combine, he ran a slow 40-yard dash on purpose, so coaches wouldn't consider him at wide receiver or cornerback. He made the Steelers as a quarterback, and for two years served as a backup to Bradshaw and another young quarterback, Terry Hanratty.
Under Bradshaw—and behind the Steel Curtain—the Steelers were transmogrifying themselves into one of the most formidable organizations in the league. But then came the 1974 players' strike, which lasted between July and August, and ran through the fourth preseason game. Bradshaw and Hanratty picketed, but Gilliam saw this as his opportunity; he didn't care if he was being called a scab. The Steelers were unbeaten in preseason, and Gilliam impressed head coach Chuck Noll. Bradshaw and Hanratty both played in the preseason, but Gilliam was the best. He could run and extend plays with his feet. He had a cannon, and perhaps the quickest release in the league. There were rumors he could even throw with his left hand.
"He's done very well in the preseason," Noll said about Gilliam. "He's been the most productive and that's what we look at."
Reporters made excuses for Bradshaw and Hanratty.
"Both Bradshaw and Hanratty were hurt," said NFL writer Roy Blount, Jr. But even Bradshaw admitted that Gilliam had beaten them clean, in a 1980 interview with Playboy.
"Joe had a phenomenal preseason," Bradshaw said. "He won the job and I lost it."
This was important. No black quarterback had ever been named the starter to open an NFL season. Black Steelers fans packed the stadium. Gilliam was just 23 when he won the starting spot, but he was already being looked at as something bigger, a hero, a symbol. Though there had been black quarterbacks in the NFL before him, Gilliam was seen by many as the first.
Gilliam later said he was never truly aware of his significance, but that doesn't check out. Before he was even drafted, Joe Sr. spoke to media about the pressure weighing on his son.
"He couldn't eat," his father told the Miami News in 1972. "He was losing weight. There was a lot of anxiety involved, and there still is. All eyes are upon him. I told him to expect to be scrutinized, to expect to have his mistakes blown all out of proportion. But it's impossible to adjust to the pressure involved. Maybe he'll never completely adjust."
After an undefeated preseason, the Steelers opened up the year by rolling the Baltimore Colts, 30-0. Gilliam threw for two touchdowns. The second week, the Steelers tied the Broncos 35-35. It wasn't a victory, but the offense scored five touchdowns; Gilliam threw a 61-yard touchdown pass and rushed for another.
He was still a black quarterback in the '70s, though. He received death threats, and hate mail filled his mailbox daily. The Steelers themselves got bomb threats. He later said he always walked around strapped.
Noll stuck with Gilliam, even when the Steelers got blanked the next week by the Oakland Raiders. Bradshaw was so distraught, so certain he wouldn't get another shot, that after the game he asked new Raiders owner Al Davis to trade for him.
Pittsburgh won its next two games, jumping out to a 4-1-1 start. But there were concerns. Gilliam was inconsistent, for one, and Bradshaw had the faith of much of the locker room. There were the familiar reports that Gilliam felt entitled, that he was standoffish. There were rumors that he did cocaine and heroin. After six weeks of Gilliam as the starter, Noll benched him for Bradshaw.
"He gave me my job back," Bradshaw would say, 26 years later. "I didn't earn it back. I didn't beat him out."
According to those close to him, something broke in Gilliam. He never threw another touchdown in the NFL. In January, he looked on as Bradshaw led the Steelers to their first Super Bowl win. Depressed, he increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol; once, teammate Ernie Holmes snatched drugs out of Gilliam's hand in the middle of the locker room and flushed them down the toilet (what drugs, we're not told). The Steelers cut him before the 1976 season when he missed a team meeting in training camp. He was only 25, but Gilliam's career was already over.
Bradshaw and the Steelers went on to win three more championships as Gilliam spent time in and out of rehab, and in and out of prison for drug possession. Addicted to cocaine and heroin, Gilliam would eventually lose his family and his home, and for two years, he lived under a bridge in a cardboard box.
After two decades of addiction, Gilliam fought back. He moved home to Nashville and got clean—for a while, at least. He died Christmas Day in 2000, four days before his 50th birthday. It was a cocaine overdose.
Gilliam is mostly forgotten, and if he's remembered at all, it's as a cautionary tale. He's every scary story that every single kid has ever heard about the perils of drugs, alcohol, and fame. In his death, he's been reduced to the worst kind of symbol.
Undrafted | 12 games (4 starts) | 937 yards passing | 7 passing TDs | 11 INTs | 51.3 comp. % | 55.4 QB rating | 16 yards rushing | 0 rushing TDs | 0 fumbles
"He's a very capable quarterback with a good arm and a good mind."—Browns coach Forrest Gregg
Mays was a practicing dentist while he played for the Browns. When he got his chance in a game, he ended up beating the Steelers. ''Dave Mays had a career in one Sunday afternoon," offensive tackle Doug Dieken said. "For the people of Cleveland, when you beat Pittsburgh, it was almost like, 'Screw the rest of the season.' You can make or break your season just by beating them.''
Undrafted | 7 games (1 start) | 181 yards passing | 1 passing TD | 5 INTs | 28.1 comp. % | 9.6 QB rating | 59 yards rushing | 0 rushing TDs | 2 fumbles
"A crowd of 52,446 San Diego fans booed bitterly when young J.J. Jones opened at quarterback instead of [Joe] Namath."—Associated Press
The one-season backup for Joe Namath died in a suspicious house fire in 2009.
Drafted, 7th round (183 overall) | 8 games (1 start) | 210 yards passing | 1 passing TD | 5 INTs | 38.5 comp. % | 25.5 QB rating | 103 yards rushing | 0 rushing TDs | 3 fumbles
"He is a rangy 6-2 and 180 with a whiplash arm and what, in football parlance, you call 'quick feet.'"—Lakeland Ledger
There are a whole lot of brothers on this list that you could probably look at and say, "Well … maybe if someone had given them a chance ..." That's probably not Parnell.
Undrafted | 15 games (0 starts) | 338 yards passing | 3 passing TDs | 3 INTs | 47.7 comp. % | 59.6 QB rating | -4 yards rushing | 0 rushing TDs | 1 Fumble
"His spirals are tight enough to make an incision on."—Reading Eagle
Came into the league as a backup, and never shook that that despite apparently impressing on the practice field. To finally find time as a starter, he left the NFL for various offshoot leagues.
Drafted, 6th round (140 overall) | 100 games (39 starts) | 9,485 yards passing | 52 passing TDs | 74 INTs | 50.6 comp. % | 63.0 QB rating | 1,129 yards rushing | 14 rushing TDs | 39 fumbles
"Drafted [...] as an NFL quarterback with a strong passing arm who could also run for big yardage."—Associated Press
Vince Evans was drafted by the Bears in 1977, even though he'd told the Chicago's director of scouting he didn't want to leave California, and would not play for the Bears. He ended up going, and gave Chicago seven years of mediocre football for its trouble. In the two years he was pressed into extended action, 1980 and 1981, he started a combined 26 games and threw 22 touchdowns against 36 interceptions. By the 1984 season, he was playing for Chicago's USFL Blitz, and in 1985 he was run out of town completely. He caught on with the Denver Gold. The next year the USFL collapsed, and he was out of professional football. Then the 1987 NFL strike happened.
The work stoppage in '87 was an ugly one. The league had gone through a strike five years prior, in 1982, that had forced it into an abbreviated nine-game season. This time, it had no intention of shedding games, and so put out word that it would be fielding replacement teams, full of scab players—an audacious act of employer militancy that also revealed the owners' almost-suicidal hostility to their own product.
When the word went out, teams received a massive wave of calls from former and aspiring players, according to the Raiders' coach at the time, Tom Flores. It made sense—whatever the circumstance, this was a chance to play in real-ish NFL games, after all. For many black quarterbacks especially, the calculus was clear: This would be their best, maybe their last chance to get into, or back into, the league. In 1987, the number of black quarterbacks who threw at least one pass tripled. The romance of this is obvious for players like Tony Robinson, the inspiration for Shane Falco in The Replacements, who seized on their one chance and held on for dear life.
But for players like Evans who'd already spent time in league, it was a terrible decision to confront. Do you take this opportunity to make it back into the NFL, and in doing so, betray your former and hopefully future colleagues? Your friends? Can you afford to take a moral stand when external forces have conspired against you for so long? Evans took his shot, though he was ambivalent at best about it.
"When this opportunity presented itself for me to be back in the NFL," he said at the time, "it was kind of a tough decision because of the sensitivity of it, but I had to do what I thought was best for me at the time. I've got a wife and a little girl. I still believe I'm making the right decision. I hope that those guys who are picketing and standing for what they believe is right understand—and I respect them for what they stand for, because I was once part of the union. But given the circumstances I'm in right now, I wanted to go for it."
The striking players didn't see it like that. Here's the scene as Evans entered the stadium for the first game of the season:
So it has come to this for Vince Evans: Slipping in the side entrance on a bus full of strikebreakers, as the real Raiders stood in the rain, taunting him.
"The guys were really looking kind of vicious, calling us 'scabs' and everything," Evans said. "The only one I recognized was (tight end) Todd Christensen. He had some choice words.
"I like to look at things like we're all human beings. Why demean a man for what he believes is right?"
Through the first three scab games, Evans was the best quarterback in the Potemkin NFL. In the first game against Kansas City, which the Raiders won 35-17, Evans threw for 248 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 64 yards and another score. He'd finish his three-game run having thrown for 630 yards, five touchdowns, and four interceptions, and rushing for 144 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
And despite his reputation as a real sonofabitch, Al Davis stands tall in the retelling of this era. He'd been drafting black quarterbacks since back in the '60s, and he rostered Evans without a second thought in '87. Al Davis got it, more through opportunism than any bleeding-heart tendencies. And Davis also understood that the strike, which was focused mainly on bringing free agency to the NFL, risked alienating players from ownership just as they were being granted a greater freedom of movement. So while many owners were trying to break their players and strongarm them back across the picket line, Davis remained silent. But when a few of his own players came to him, pledging loyalty to Davis and the Raiders ahead of the NFLPA, Davis told them to get the hell out of his office and go stand outside with their teammates, until they all came in together.
In spite of this soft approach to the players' union, or perhaps because his decisions had earned him enough leeway to get away with it, Davis kept Evans on after the strike season. He'd play another seven seasons with the Raiders, and become one of the most respected members of the team. He saw the most extended action in his last season, 1995, when he started three games for an injured Jeff Hostetler at age 40.
Evans is a success story, but there's something almost unbearably sad about it. He got his shot. He just had to cross a picket line to get it.
Drafted, 1st round (17 overall) | 88 games (81 starts) | 16,998 yards passing | 100 passing TDs | 93 INTs | 49.5 comp. % | 69.4 QB rating | 884 yards rushing | 15 rushing TDs | 41 fumbles
"He throws the ball like [1976 MVP] Bert Jones."—Morris Owens, Bucs wide receiver
My dad's from Lynchburg. So is his dad, and his dad, and for all I know, his dad. Lynchburg's a smallish city in the middle of Virginia. It's Redskins country, always has been. When he was young, his parents moved him, his brother, and two sisters a few hours north to the segregated city of Washington D.C. That's where he was raised, and where he discovered football.
My dad was born in 1950, four years after NFL owners had begun to lift their 13-year ban on African-American players. Even after integration, there were still few blacks in the league. None played for the Redskins, because a loud and proud racist, George Preston Marshall, was writing the checks. So on Sundays, my dad would play football out in the street with his brother and the rest of the kids in the neighborhood, then walk up the steps to his cramped row house, plop down on the couch with his dad, and watch the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns were the first NFL team to integrate after the war with Bill Willis and Marion Motley, two players who became perennial All-Pros and, later, Pro Football Hall of Famers. In the late '50s, though, the Browns boasted a backfield of Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell. They ran over everyone. Everyone still talks about Jim Brown, but Mitchell was my dad's favorite player. In 1959, Mitchell's second year in the league, he blasted the Redskins for 232 yards on the ground. In 1962, JFK threatened to kick the Redskins out of Washington if they didn't integrate their team. After 30 years of owning the Redskins and refusing to sign black players, Marshall relented, and the Redskins became the last NFL team to integrate.
They decided on Ernie Davis, an All-American halfback from Syracuse University who in 1961 had become the first black player to win the Heisman. That December, the Redskins made Davis the first black player to be chosen first overall in an NFL draft. He refused to play for Marshall, and Washington was forced to trade Davis to the Browns for Bobby Mitchell. Davis was diagnosed with leukemia in the summer. He never played a down for the Browns, and on May 18, 1963, Ernie Davis passed. He was 23.
With my dad's favorite player in burgundy and gold, geography finally won out, and he slowly started to warm to the Redskins. Then he grew up, got a job, started a family, the works. But his formative years as a teenager and a young man took place in the Civil Rights era. He grew up on the Maryland border, and he tells stories about white kids crossing the line into D.C., spitting on black kids, then sprinting to safety back over the state line. My dad, who played cornerback, would chase them, and fight them if he could catch up. He was fast and angry. When he made enough money to live on his own, he moved to Maryland.
As my dad grew up, he was forced to look on, helpless, as African-Americans fighting for equality in the country were threatened, imprisoned, and murdered. There was something hypocritical, something vile about blacks being told they were incapable of leadership even as their leaders were being blown away. He called it a sickness, but it was one that spilled into NFL locker rooms.
It was always thought that blacks couldn't be quarterbacks, that they lacked the intelligence and charisma to lead a team. So most black quarterbacks, even the ones who excelled in high school and college, had to switch positions in the NFL, or else escape north to play in Canada. When Doug Williams was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1978 from Grambling State, he was one of a handful of blacks ever to get a shot at playing quarterback, at leading a team.
Williams wasn't a great quarterback. He was inconsistent, and threw more interceptions than touchdowns in three of his first five seasons. But he was decent, and considered the heart and soul of the team. With Williams leading, Tampa Bay made the playoffs three times in the same span. By the time his contract expired after the 1982 season, his career record as a starter was 33-33-1.
He made only $120,000 a year; 41 other quarterbacks in the league had a bigger salary, including a dozen backups. He wanted $600,000 a year, but owner Hugh Culverhouse wouldn't go above $400,000. Williams walked.
The quarterback moved to the United States Football league, a competitor to the NFL that launched in 1983. Competition in the USFL was strong, and Williams once again seesawed. In 1984, his first year with the Oklahoma Outlaws, he went 6-12. In his second, he played better, but the Outlaws finished 8-10.
After the 1985 season, the league folded, and Williams was out of work. But Joe Gibbs, who was the offensive coordinator at Tampa Bay when Williams was there, was the head coach in Washington. He coaxed his former QB to join the Redskins as a backup.
Williams's first season in Washington was in 1986. As Jay Schroeder's backup, he threw a single pass all year: incomplete. It was great the 'Skins had signed a black QB, but Williams was one who didn't and probably couldn't really play.
Washington had the Eagles in the first game of the 1987 season. Jay Schroeder went down hurt, and Williams led a comeback win over their conference rivals. That year was a weird year for both quarterbacks. Schroeder would be knocked out of two more games, and both times, Williams pulled out comeback wins over his opponents. Williams also started two games; he lost both. But, you know, that was Doug Williams.
The Redskins finished the season 11-4 and qualified for playoffs. Even though Williams had played in only five games, he'd outperformed Schroeder, throwing 11 touchdown passes and only five interceptions in that span. He was also likable, and his teammates preferred him over Schroeder. Gibbs gave Williams the starting position for the duration of the playoffs.
My dad was happy to see Williams lead his favorite team of the last 25 years. But my dad was a grown-ass man. He was 37 years old. He had a daughter, had met the love of his life, and had a brilliant, handsome, charming firstborn son on the way. Williams was a great story, but my dad had more or less made it. He was old enough now that pro athletes like Williams were younger than he was, which is to say that he was old enough to realize that athletes were flawed humans, too. He didn't need a hero.
But he was lucky. Few people actually need a quarterback to look up to during their formative years, but it's a profound privilege for a football fan. Quarterbacks run the show. They're the leaders. My dad's favorite player, Bobby Mitchell, was a leader on the Browns and Redskins because he was the truth. But someone had to hand him the ball. He may have been the main attraction, but he wasn't running the show.
These are the small things that define your horizons. Only a few black quarterbacks had ever even seen NFL action to that point. None had ever led his team to a Super Bowl. The usual term here is "role model," but there's something a little patronizing about that, as if Williams's principal contribution was to make a bunch of black kids want to be quarterbacks. What he did was make the fantasy lives of a lot of people just a little bit richer, a little less impoverished. What Doug Williams offered, there in the heart of rugged, smash mouth, corporate-approved Americana, was possibility. "You had to play within certain perimeters," the son of the NFL's first black quarterback, Fritz Pollard, once said of his father's experience. Williams in the Super Bowl was the measure of the distance between the old perimeters and the new ones.
Williams and Washington were up against the Denver Broncos, in their second straight NFL championship game on the shoulders of Pro Bowl quarterback John Elway. The Broncos were favored. The Redskins received the opening kick and went three and out. On the Broncos' first play from scrimmage, Elway threw a 64-yard touchdown pass. Washington got the ball back and punted. Elway marched his team back down the field, and after a Rich Karlis field goal, the Broncos led 10-0. That's how the quarter ended. Then Doug Williams went apeshit.
Less than a minute into the second quarter, Williams threw an 80-yard touchdown strike to Ricky Sanders. The Broncos took the kickoff, then punted. The Redskins got the ball back, ran it down the field, then Williams found Gary Clark for a 27-yard touchdown. Washington's next possession: Running back Timmy Smith scampered into the end zone from 58 yards out. Next possession: Williams passed to Ricky Sanders for a 50-yard score. Next possession: Williams threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Clint Didier. At half, it was 35-10. Williams had just thrown four touchdown passes in 13 minutes.
It was one of the finest quarters of football in the history of the sport. The Redskins went on to win, 42-10, and at the final whistle, Williams became the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl. At the awards ceremony, Williams became the first black quarterback to win Super Bowl MVP.
I asked my dad recently how he felt after the game. "I was proud," he said. "It was probably the same feeling people had when Joe Louis was heavyweight champion, and when Obama became president. Arthur Ashe. The Williams sisters. Any first, really. It's a validation that when given the same opportunity, we can do as well or better."
Doug Williams was still Doug Williams, of course, and in 1988, he was benched for third-year quarterback Mark Rypien. Williams rode pine for one more season, then retired. He finished 8-9 as Washington's quarterback.
He was pretty average, a hot-and-cold quarterback who might've been lost to history but for 15 minutes in Super Bowl XXII, when he wore the same burgundy and gold my dad grew up rooting against, and became more. He became important, in the way that Muhammad Ali was important.
And he remains important. Williams coached his alma mater, Grambling State, from 1998 until 2003, then had a second stint that started in 2011 and ended last September. Now it appears he's coming back to the Redskins, a team that could use some symbols of racial advancement right about now. Williams is in late negotiations with the organization about a front-office position. I know this because my dad told me. My dad's a gruff guy who doesn't get too caught up in too much feel-good symbolism. But even now, all these years later, he loves what Doug Williams stands for.
Drafted, 10th round (255 overall) | 0 games
"He has as much physical ability as anyone I've ever coached."—Vince Gibson, Hall's coach at Tulane
Cheeseheads consider the 1981 draft class the worst in Packers history. The team drafted a punter in the third round, so that doesn't seem too far-fetched. Hall never played in the NFL.
Undrafted | 208 games (203 starts) | 49,325 yards passing | 291 passing TDs | 233 INTs | 58.4 comp. % | 80.9 QB rating | 1,736 yards rushing | 22 rushing TDs | 161 fumbles
"He is like César Chávez or Arthur Ashe or Martin Luther King Jr. He comes in the huddle, and he speaks in that soft voice, like the voice of an angel, and you strain to hear every word."—Haywood Jeffires, Oilers teammate
For years, Warren Moon had to fight to play quarterback. He dodged the position change in high school and, despite scouts waving him off, at a community college where he enrolled so he could remain at quarterback. He eventually transferred to Washington, where he was erratic but hugely promising by his third season, earning the Rose Bowl MVP award in the Huskies' win over Michigan. But scouts saw less value in him because he didn't play in an offense that utilized quarterback mobility enough. Moon was a pocket passer, and since only one black quarterback—James Harris—had even remotely succeeded in the league to that point, Moon wasn't worth the risk. And so Warren Moon went undrafted in the 1978 NFL draft, packed his bags, and took his talents to the CFL, like so many black quarterbacks the NFL had turned down.
After a rocky first season, Moon soared with the Edmonton Eskimos. In 1982, he was the first pro quarterback to pass for 5,000 yards in a season, hitting the number exactly, and the next season, he had 5,648 passing yards and won Most Outstanding Player. Edmonton won the Grey Cup five times in Moon's six seasons. Those 5,600 yards were enough to finally get the NFL off its ass. The Houston Oilers signed Moon, and while he was shaky at times early in the transition, he would become one of the most prolific passers of the era. Looking back at the stats, Moon and Dan Marino are about the only two whose numbers wouldn't be out of place in today's pass-dominant NFL. He threw for more than 4,600 yards in back-to-back years, and in total threw for 49,325 yards in the NFL, still sixth all time, despite spending those six years in the CFL. Moon was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
But while Warren Moon was certainly the best black quarterback to end up in the CFL, he certainly wasn't the first, or only. Bernie Custis was the first, in 1951, and other notable players like Carroll Williams, Chuck Ealey, Jimmy Jones, Damon Allen, and Tracy Ham would follow. And so for three decades, well after the reintegration of the NFL, the CFL served as a sort of latter-day Negro League for black quarterbacks.
Position switches will always happen, at QB and elsewhere—Richard Sherman came into college playing wide receiver, after all—and some guys did get a shot. Sandy Stephens never quite made it as an NFL quarterback, and only accepted a role in a different position at the end of his career, when it was too late. Willie Wood went from a quarterback at Southern California to a free safety for the Packers in the 1960s. Marlin Briscoe was taken by the Broncos to be a defensive back, and only got a chance at calling plays after an injury to the starter. But Moon is so representative of a change in attitude precisely because he wasn't suited to make that sort of switch. He was a pocket passer playing a pro passing style, and no one wanted any part of him.
Today, position changes happen with guys like Josh Cribbs or Antwaan Randle El, but in ways that make more sense. Playing quarterback in college doesn't—and shouldn't—afford divine right to stay there forever, but doing it well enough will at least get you a shot.
Undrafted | 0 games
"Brilliant in camp."—Reading Eagle
Backed up Warren Moon for a few years, making them the first team with two black quarterbacks on the active roster at the same time.