Football's Jackie Robinson - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Football's Jackie Robinson

Football's Jackie Robinson

By Samuel G. Freedman



Because if you’re a football fan it should be remembered that the game as you know it wasn’t always the way you know it.

By Samuel G. Freedman

As Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson lead their teams into the NFC title game on Sunday, their match-up will be a fitting crescendo to what one might call pro football’s Year of the Black Quarterback. During this year in the NFL, as many as nine African-American quarterbacks started in some weeks – an all-time record for the 32-team league. And the man who opened the door to them all, and who first took an NFL team into the playoffs exactly 40 years ago, is James Harris.

When James Harris reported to the Buffalo Bills in the summer of 1969, the team put him up in a YMCA and gave him a part-time job cleaning other players’ cleats. These were only the latest signs of Harris’ precarious situation. The Bills had not chosen him until the eighth round of the combined NFL-AFL draft, and Harris had not been invited to play in any of the postseason showcases for pro scouts like the Senior Bowl and Hula Bowl.

In the entire history of modern pro football, only three black players had ever taken a snap at quarterback.

Those snubs might have seemed surprising, considering that Harris had led his college team at Grambling to three conference championships and been named the nation’s top college player by the Washington Pigskin Club. Standing six feet four inches, possessed of a powerful arm, and experienced at calling his own plays, Harris clearly had the skill set of a classic, pro-style pocket quarterback.

What outweighed all of those other assets was a single physical fact: Harris was black. In the entire history of modern pro football, only three black players had ever taken a snap at quarterback. Most commonly, black quarterbacks were summarily shifted to wide receiver or defensive back. Blacks had “natural athletic ability,” according to the doublespeak of the time; however, they supposedly lacked the intelligence and character to play quarterback, arguably the most cerebral position in any sport.

As a high school junior, he had seen Martin Luther King Jr. deliver the “I Have A Dream” speech, and since then Harris had set a goal of breaking the quarterback color line. In this goal, Harris was fortified by the aspirational examples of his parents – his father, a minister; his mother, a nurse. One of the most cherished objects in the Harris household was a 2,000-page dictionary. 

Eddie Robinson

Grambling coach Eddie Robinson after 400th win, in 1995.

Eddie Robinson, Grambling’s renowned coach, had recruited Harris with the same achievement in mind. In pursuit of it, Robinson had opened up Grambling’s usual running offense so that Harris could develop his downfield passing skills. And Robinson had made sure that no pro scout ever timed Harris in the 40-yard dash. If they knew he could run a 4.6, then it was all over: speed would supply the excuse for turning Harris into an end.

He became the first black quarterback to play in the Pro Bowl…

The pro football establishment answered Harris and Robinson on draft day with a low pick. It would cost the Bills little to sign Harris and little to cut him. One of Harris’ teammates, Marlin Briscoe, embodied the cautionary tale. After throwing 14 touchdown passes as a rookie on the Denver Broncos in 1968, he’d been traded away and made a receiver. Harris’ great rival in college, Eldridge Dickey of Tennessee State, had been drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders with the promise he could play quarterback. During training camp, he was switched to flanker.

Talking to Eddie Robinson every night for support, James Harris persevered through the Bills’ preseason. On opening day of the 1969 season, he started – the first black quarterback to open the season as a starter. Although Harris was injured a few games into the season, that historic start was the first of many firsts. Waived by Buffalo in 1972, Harris landed at the Los Angeles Rams and ultimately won the starting role there. He became the first black quarterback to play in the Pro Bowl, take his team to the conference championship, lead the conference in passing efficiency and be elected captain by his teammates.

Eddie Harris

James Harris throws against the Minnesota Vikings during the NFC Championship in 1974. 

After all that, the Rams brought in a series of white quarterbacks to wrest away Harris’ job. He ended his career as a backup on the San Diego Chargers. Along the way, he had endured hate mail and death threats, playing one game with security guards on the Rams’ sideline.

Yet despite the obstacles and despite the disappointments, Harris opened the door, one that would never be shut again. His own playing days over, Harris became an executive for several NFL teams, most recently helping to resuscitate the Detroit Lions from a winless doormat to a playoff team.

From Doug Williams and Warren Moon to Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III, every black quarterback in pro football owes a debt to James Harris. Given the importance of football in our national culture, so does America.

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