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The History of the Black QB: Part I

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 1, 2008

Twenty years ago, yesterday, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to ever appear in a Super Bowl, and for at least one more season, he'll remain the only one to ever win the big game. The 2007 NFL season -- in which 15 black quarterbacks took a snap -- marked the fortieth consecutive season where at least one black quarterback was in the NFL. In 2007, the Giants became the final franchise to have a black quarterback throw a pass, when Anthony Wright had six attempts for the Giants in week two. This month, I'll be looking at the history of black quarterbacks in the NFL, with posts every Friday.

The usual place to start -- the beginning -- resides in an NFL far different from the one today. For the most part, everyone now plays clearly defined positions, but that wasn't the case when Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard entered the NFL in 1920. Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first two black players in pro football history, and the next season, Pollard became the first black head coach in NFL history. Pollard was the "quarterback" even if that wasn't the official term back then, as he took snaps from under center. It's worth noting that the forward pass was illegal inside of five yards behind the line of scrimmage until 1933, so Pollard barely resembles the modern QB (although he did throw a few touchdown passes during his career). But on the strength of his legs, he led the Akron Pros to the first NFL Championship and, despite what the modern press would have you believe, the first undefeated season in NFL history.

It took another thirty years for a black QB to enter the NFL, and there were no black players in the NFL at all from 1934-1945. In 1946, Bill Willis and Marion Motley were signed by Paul Brown and the AAFC's Cleveland Browns, while Kenny Washington ended the drought in the NFL. While historians differ on why the league was all white for those dozen years, most agree that there was an informal ban on black athletes championed by Washington Redskins owner George Marshall.

After George Taliaferro played quarterback in the AAFC in 1949, he became the second black QB in NFL history when he joined the New York Yanks in 1950. Taliaferro was a jack-of-all trades: in both 1952 and 1953, he accumulated over 200 passing, rushing and receiving yards, and scored a touchdown via all three methods, as well. Despite making three Pro Bowls, Taliaferro never led his team in passing, and was more a utility player than a quarterback.

The next guy, though, was a thrower. Literally. Willie Thrower became the third black QB in league history in 1953, when he threw eight passes in one game for the Bears (and did not record a rushing attempt or a reception). Two years later, Charlie "Choo Choo" Brackins was signed by the Green Bay Packers -- the first quarterback to come from a historically black college. While Pollard (Brown), Taliaferro (Indiana) and Thrower (Michigan State) came from major schools, Brackins was the first in a small line of quarterbacks from historically black colleges, paving the way for quarterbacks today such as Steve McNair, Tarvaris Jackson and Quinn Gray.

After Brackins and Thrower (ten NFL passes combined), the NFL did not see another black QB for twelve seasons. 1967 marked the last time in NFL history no franchise had a black QB. The Broncos drafted Marlin Briscoe in '68, making him the first modern black player to take snaps under center. Unlike his predecessors, Briscoe was the Broncos main quarterback in all of '68, and ranked sixth in the AFL in passing yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating, while leading the league in yards per completion. The next year, however, Briscoe joined the Bills, was converted to wide receiver, and would play the position for seven years.

In 1969, James Harris was drafted by those same Bills, and started one game at quarterback. He played sparingly in '70 and '71, before being out of football in 1972. He joined the Rams in 1973, and the next season became the first black QB to make the Pro Bowl. Coincidentally, Joe Gilliam was drafted by the Steelers in '72, making him the sole black QB in the league that year. Gilliam would play four seasons, with the majority of his work coming in 1974.

Tony Adams (Kansas City), J.J. Jones (New York Jets), Dave Mays (Cleveland), Parnell Dickinson (Tampa Bay) and Vince Evans (Chicago) would enter the NFL soon thereafter, before history was truly made. By the end of the 1977 season, of the eleven black QBs in pro football history, none had been selected before the sixth round of the draft. Would owners spend a high pick on a black QB? That question was answered definitively when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Doug Williams with the 17th pick in the first round of the 1978 draft.

After Williams, no black QBs entered the league for five years. During the 1983 season, Vince Evans was the only black QB in the NFL (Williams was in the USFL at the time). Evans followed Williams' path, and joined the USFL after the '83 season, which would have left no black QBs in the NFL if help hadn't arrived from up north. And it came in a very big way.

Warren Moon joined the Canadian Football League in 1978, and promptly led his Edmonton Eskimos to the Grey Cup title in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1982. In 1983, he set the single season passing yards record, and won the Most Oustanding Player award. And then, the Houston Oilers won the rights to Warren Moon, the future 9-time Pro Bowler and NFL Hall of Famer. He still ranks in the top five in NFL history in completions, despite not throwing a pass until he was nearly 28 years old. Moon was a classic thrower, not a runner, and showed that black quarterbacks could run any offense -- including the Run 'N Shoot. In 1990 and 1991, Moon threw for an incredible 9,379 yards.

Randall Cunningham was drafted the next season, and would become a star in his own right. His historic 1990 season saw him throw 30 touchdown passes and rush for 942 yards; no other QB with 30 TDs in a single season has even rushed for half as many yards. After Reggie Collier was drafted by the Cowboys in 1986, a string of black QBs entered the NFL during the strike: Mark Stevens, Walter Briggs, Larry Miller, Willie Gillus, Bernard Quarles, Tony Robinson and Willie Totten. Two years later, Rodney Peete was drafted by the Lions, and the following year, the Lions drafted Andre Ware...with the seventh overall pick in the draft.

Since 1990, there have been at least five black QBs in the NFL every season. Last year there were fifteen black QBs that threw a pass: it took 66 years for the fifteenth black quarterback to enter the NFL. The high-water mark came in 2001, when twenty black QBs were on NFL rosters and had taken snaps. There have been 57 black QBs to play in the NFL, and ten of them were first round picks. And more are on the way.

Andre' Woodson and Dennis Dixon have received a ton of attention this year, and both will be drafted in April. If you're looking for a sleeper, my buddies Cecil Lammey and Sigmund Bloom predict Josh Johnson to be a top-five QB in this draft class, and are in love with his potential. You can listen to them rave about Johnson in this audio clip of them at the Shrine Game; they start discussing Johnson a bit before the halfway mark on there.

I'll close with a list of all black quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. Defining who is a quarterback, and who "played" can be a bit dicey, but I think this list is as exhaustive and accurate as any.

Jamarcus Russell LSU 2007
Troy Smith Ohio State 2007
Tarvaris Jackson Alabama State 2006
Vince Young Texas 2006
Jason Campbell Auburn 2005
Seneca Wallace Iowa State 2005
Quinn Gray Florida A&M 2004
Cleo Lemon Arkansas State 2004
Byron Leftwich Marshall 2003
Henry Burris Temple 2002
Rohan Davey LSU 2002
David Garrard East Carolina 2002
Quincy Carter Georgia 2001
Jarious Jackson Notre Dame 2001
Tee Martin Tennessee 2001
Michael Vick Virginia Tech 2001
Aaron Brooks Virginia 2000
Michael Bishop Kansas State 2000
Dameyune Craig Auburn 2000
Anthony Wright South Carolina 2000
Spergon Wynn Southwest TX St.2000
Daunte Culpepper Central Florida 1999
Shaun King Tulane 1999
Donovan McNabb Syracuse 1999
Akili Smith Oregon 1999
Charlie Batch Eastern Michigan1998
Wally Richardson Penn State 1997
Tony Banks Michigan State 1996
Ray Lucas Rutgers 1996
Steve McNair Alcorn State 1995
Kordell Stewart Colorado 1995
Jeff Blake East Carolina 1992
Shawn Moore Virginia 1992
Andre Ware Houston 1990
Rodney Peete USC 1989
Mark Stevens Utah 1987
Walter Briggs Montclair State 1987
Larry Miller Northern Iowa 1987
Willie Gillus Norfolk State 1987
Bernard Quarles Hawaii 1987
Tony Robinson Tennessee 1987
Willie Totten Miss. Valley St.1987
Reggie Collier Southern Miss. 1986
Randall Cunningham Nevada-Las Vegas1985
Warren Moon Washington 1984
Doug Williams Grambling State 1978
Vince Evans USC 1977
Parnell Dickinson Miss. Valley St.1976
Dave Mays Texas Southern 1976
J.J. Jones Fisk 1975
Tony Adams Utah State 1975
Joe Gilliam Tennessee State 1972
James Harris Grambling State 1969
Marlin Briscoe Nebraska-Omaha 1968
Charlie Brackins Prairie View A&M1955
Willie Thrower Michigan State 1953
George Taliaferro Indiana 1950
Fritz Pollard Brown 1920

Finally, here's a list of when every franchise first had a black QB throw a pass in a game, and when was the last time the franchise had a black QB throw a pass in a game.

team	 first	 last
clt	 1953	 1954
chi	 1953	 2005
gnb	 1955	 1987
den	 1968	 2003
buf	 1969	 1987
pit	 1972	 2007
mia	 1972	 2007
ram	 1973	 1998
kan	 1975	 2000
det	 1975	 2001
cle	 1976	 2000
tam	 1976	 2003
sdg	 1977	 1979
oti	 1984	 2007
phi	 1985	 2007
dal	 1986	 2003
was	 1986	 2007
sfo	 1987	 1987
nyj	 1975	 2004
min	 1987	 2007
rai	 1987	 2007
cin	 1994	 2006
sea	 1997	 2007
rav	 1998	 2007
nwe	 2000	 2004
nor	 2000	 2005
car	 2001	 2004
atl	 2001	 2007
jax	 2002	 2007
crd	 2003	 2004
htx	 2003	 2005
nyg	 2007	 2007