Nine months on, the lingering images from the last Super Bowl still portray a painful contrast. There’s a jubilant Tom Brady, rescued by the New England Patriots defense from an unforgivable fourth-quarter interception. And there’s the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, vanquished, his shot at being the first repeat Super Bowl champion since Brady did the same a decade ago dashed by his own errant goal-line pass.
The dissonance between them isn’t just a function of who won and who lost that game. Brady landed in Phoenix amid a scandal about improperly inflated footballs, Deflategate, already sullying his winning, golden boy image. Wilson’s star power grew; he resurfaced after the Super Bowl in a humanizing interview about losing the game on HBO’s Real Sports and is in a romantic relationship with R&B princess Ciara. Championship ring, superstar girlfriend: Wilson could be a new millennium Brady, the face of the sport as the nation, literally, browns. More important, America may finally be ready, if not clamoring, for its golden boy to be Black.
In the recent past, nearly 25 percent of the NFL’s quarterbacks were Black. This represents a considerable change from years ago, when our athletes were often steered away from the position, while players such as James Harris, Warren Moon and Doug Williams wrestled with the arc of football history until it bent toward progress. Today’s Black signal callers are free to play the position without anyone batting an eye. The past three Super Bowls have featured Black starting QBs, yet almost no public discussion of those games emphasized the fact. From Wilson to Colin Kaepernick to Cam Newton to Teddy Bridgewater, Black QBs now get drafted, start games and even win Super Bowls without either public backlash or the level of scrutiny endured in the past. In short, the Black quarterback is now as close to fully emancipated as he’s ever been.
“Our world is changing—for the better,” Wilson wrote in a July 2014 Sports Illustrated column. “America’s hearts are changing, and the NFL is changing too. The NFL is moving forward.”
It wasn’t always this way
Twenty-six years before Wilson earned his ring, Williams, a 1978 first-round draft pick from Grambling State University, took the Washington Redskins to the title in 1988 by throwing for 340 yards and four touchdowns in a game that, like Wilson’s, was against the Denver Broncos.
Ten years later, 67 percent of all NFL players were Black, but only 8 percent of QBs were. By the next year, that latter figure exploded to 18 percent, and by 2002, Blacks made up 24 percent. It was progress but not a holy grail: In 2003, Rush Limbaugh was asked to leave his Monday Night Football color commentator gig over racially tinged comments about then-Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb.
Harris became the first Black quarterback to be named a starter for an NFL team when he took the L.A. Rams to the NFC championship game in ’74 and’ 75. He endured hate mail and death threats.
“When I came along, [the country] just wasn’t ready,” says Harris of his stint with the Rams. “At the time, that was America. [It] was segregated, and [the practice] was happening everywhere, not just the NFL.”
For years, teams didn’t believe that Black players could play quarterback, and the colleges, which are a pipeline for the NFL, weren’t helping. “It all starts at the college ranks,” says Jay Walker, an ESPN college football analyst and former QB for the Patriots and the Minnesota Vikings. “When I came out of high school, there were certainly schools that weren’t interested in recruiting me at all, and I thought it had to do with my color. I’ll never forget sitting down with my dad. We looked at [various] schools and said, ‘OK, we know this school’s not going to have a Black quarterback,’ and some of them still haven’t to this day.”
Walker grew up in L.A. and stayed local to attend Long Beach State but decided he’d be better off transferring to an HBCU where Black QBs actually played. “Howard University did wonders for me,” he emphasizes. “It gave me an opportunity to play and to get filmed for NFL teams to see what I was able to do.”
Playing in college isn’t perfect, but it is the best intorduction to going pro. “College systems aren’t necessarily a training ground for learning how to read NFL defenses,” says Harris. “But [athletes] get the opportunity to throw the ball and be familiar with types of reads.”
Even when a Black quarterback got the chance to play in college and do well, he was usually ignored on draft day. That happened to Moon, who in his senior year led Washington to the Rose Bowl. He wound up playing in Canada before coming back to star in the NFL at quarterback. There’s also Charlie Ward, who, playing for Florida State, won the Heisman Trophy—given each year to the top college football player—but ultimately wasn’t drafted. He eventually played in the NBA with the New York Knicks.
The overtly racist idea that Black players were mentally incapable of playing quarterback not only kept players out of the league but also shortened the careers of many QBs who exited the game too young and too healthy. “Jay Walker should’ve been in the league for 10 years or more whether he was a starter or a backup,” explains Williams. “There are a lot of other guys who should’ve been in the league a lot longer, but they weren’t looked at back then the way they’re looked at today. The way I see it, there should be more African-American quarterbacks as the backup and the third guy. That’s where we missed the boat. If you’re not a starter, the chance of you being a backup is gonna be slim.”
The quarterback is the most important team member because he’s in charge of the offense. He’s an on-field extension of the coach and has to know his job on each play in addition to everyone else’s. The QB gets too much of the credit when his team wins and too much of the blame when it loses. He is the team leader by default.
“When people think about quarterbacks,” says Newton, the Carolina Panthers starter now in his fifth year, “it’s probably the only position in all of sports that has that default. You’re a leader whether you want it or not.”
Black quarterbacks often embrace versatility; they move around, as opposed to standing in one spot (the pocket) until they can find an open receiver. If they can’t find anyone to throw to, they’ll just take off and run; most other quarterbacks would either throw the ball out of bounds or just go down on the ground right where they are. Critics like to say that the running quarterbacks can’t read the defenses and have trouble finding an open man to pass to, so they just rely on their speed and agility. “That still happens today,” explains Walker, who, aside from his ESPN gig, is a Democratic member of the Maryland House of Delegates. “I sit there and argue when [NFL insiders] question whether RGIII [Robert Griffin III, of the Washington Redskins] can play quarterback in the NFL. What are they basing that on? This is a young man who was valedictorian of his high school, so don’t tell me he’s not smart enough. He can learn a playbook. The stereotype definitely hurts us.”
But now, history seems to be taking a positive turn. We’re in the era with the largest number of Black quarterbacks ever. The last three Super Bowls featured Black quarterbacks, and most NFL teams are running offenses that require a smart, athletic QB. That sounds like a perfect scenario for us to see the next player walk in Wilson’s shoes.