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 protected].
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.