James Harris: NFL's First Black Starting QB a Pioneer for RGIII, Wilson, Others

Peter Richman@ peter_f_richmanCorrespondent IAugust 29, 2013

Young QBs Russell Wilson (left) and Robert Griffin III embrace ater a game
Young QBs Russell Wilson (left) and Robert Griffin III embrace ater a gameWin McNamee/Getty Images

James Harris became the first black man to start at quarterback in the NFL—and in all professional football—when he suited up for the Buffalo Bills in Week 1 of the 1969 season.

The Monroe, Louisiana native had recently finished his collegiate career in 1968 at Grambling State University under legendary head coach Eddie Robinson. 

Before he decided upon his eventual alma mater, Harris had been torn between Grambling and Michigan State University, where he probably would have played defensive back, following the professional pipeline to the NFL of so many other young black football players in the 1960s.

Only, Harris wanted to play quarterback one day in the NFL, a position virtually barred to blacks at the time.

There was, inevitably, a time in NFL history that must have paved the way for the current unmatched public scrutiny over Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.

There had to have been an era long ago that has now led to the enormous postseason wishes of the recently revitalized Seattle Seahawks coming to rest upon the back of undersized quarterback Russell Wilson.

What's more, just a few decades before players like Cam Newton, Vince Young, Michael Vick, Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb started at quarterback in the NFL, the opportunity for a black man to start for a pro football team under center did not even exist.

The New York Times' Samuel G. Freedman helps illustrate the modern rise of the young black NFL quarterback with a Wednesday piece on the pioneer James Harris.

He provides some beautiful insight into Harris' early years in America's south in 1960s, his relationship with Robinson and, most importantly, his inspiration—a historic speech made by a historic black activist in the nation's capital in 1963.

The 1960s were a hateful, racist era in the south; and even that is a severe understatement. The effects went well beyond the positions a black man could play in football. As Freedman illuminates:

Harris had grown up hearing conflicting messages from his parents about being black. He was supposed to be proud but also to be submissive, to know the rules but also stand his ground, to recognize injustice but turn the other cheek. Wherever he looked, he could see the face of white supremacy — burning crosses outside churches, secondhand books at school, his brother and sister kicked off a city bus for refusing to surrender their seats.

Exactly 50 years ago on this day, August 28, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered an address generally characterized as the watershed moment of the ensuing Civil Rights Movement.

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and in front of hundreds of thousands of supporters of the March on Washington, King repeatedly and emphatically announced, "I Have a Dream."

The most memorable part of Kings's famed address particularly affected a teenage James Harris, on the cusp of playing college—and dreaming of pro football. According to Freedman:

For the first 10 or 12 minutes, he preached with the cadences and metaphors that Harris, a minister’s son, recognized. He had heard all his life about how all God’s children, black and white, were equal. Then King started to repeat one particular phrase about having a dream.

“I have a dream,” he said, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Harris felt jolted, as if King were speaking directly to him, to his deepest, most impossible desire. In the coming month, Harris would begin his junior year at Carroll High School, returning as the starting quarterback for a team that had gone 12-0 and won a state championship the previous fall. His dream was to play professional football.

But as Freedman explains:

The prevailing opinion, however, was that a black man was not intelligent enough to play the position. The most promising black prospects, as Harris well knew, were routinely switched to receiver or defensive back.

It was not only the prevailing stigma of black footballers in the 1960s that may have prevented Harris from fulfilling his dream; it was also his supreme athleticism, speed and catching ability that held the gaze of many college scouts and coaches, who nearly forced him into forgoing the quarterback position to take advantage of his defensive skills.

After Harris' recruiting visit to the Spartans in the fall of 1964, Robinson probably understood the implications of losing the potential quarterback to the Michigan State secondary.

Additionally, Freedman claims that the coach's fostering of Harris' quarterbacking skills, and pursuance of his continued development toward the NFL, may have been partly a result of a comment dealt by a famous broadcaster:

During that same autumn, Eddie Robinson went on Howard Cosell’s radio show in New York. Cosell, always the provocateur, noted that Robinson had sent many black players to the N.F.L. — but that none of them had been a quarterback.

Robinson immediately visited Harris' Louisiana home where he would convince him to be Grambling's quarterback. Once at Grambling, Robinson helped coach and perfect Harris' pocket skills as much as his off-the-field responses to overt racism. 

The practice Harris received from Grambling State's sports information director was reminiscent of another timeless sports anecdote: Branch Rickey famously launched racist epithets at a young Jackie Robinson in a Brooklyn office in order to test his responses to the vitriol he would encounter.

Rickey had not been attempting to set off Robinson's temper and see firsthand the ways in which he would fight back; he had wanted to see if Jackie would be strong enough not to fight back.

Freedman details Harris' social training:

Off the field, Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling’s sports information director, put Harris through a tutorial called Interviews 101. Playing a skeptical reporter, Nicholson asked questions: How does it feel being racially heckled? What makes you think you deserve to play quarterback? Then he critiqued the responses. Harris had to sound confident without sounding arrogant; he had to exude gratitude without groveling.

“Don’t ever let them see you angry,” Nicholson said.

And if Harris ever doubted his future as a quarterback, Robinson would tell him, "It's a position like any position. Ain't we playing football?"

According to Freedman's article, Robinson was drafted in the eight round, 192nd overall and ultimately needed to beat out two veteran Bills quarterbacks in order to earn the starting role.

Utilizing an unmatched work ethic instilled in him by Robinson, and persevering with the constant reminding voice of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harris won the starting position.

"He thought about what King had preached at the March on Washington," explains Freedman on Harris' following of his own dream.

The Bills cut him in 1972, though the Los Angeles Rams signed him 1974, where he would become the starting quarterback midway through the season and lead them to a conference championship game. The following year, according to Freedman, Harris became the Rams' team captain and led them back to the conference title game (for which Harris was injured and which they lost).

Of course, during many of his tremendous years as a starting quarterback in the NFL, a league and position which had been dominated by white men, Harris was despairingly singled out by racist detractors of his success.

Despite his training at Grambling, moreover, Harris was not invincible and admitted to Freedman that he was indeed affected negatively:

Limelight brought with it a harsh backlash. Harris received letters with drawings of nooses and watermelons. Later in his career, he received a credible enough death threat to receive police protection..."The thing that I regret to this day," he said recently, "is that I personally know I didn’t play my best football in the N.F.L., because of that thing I was mentally dealing with."

By 1981, Harris retired from the game. He first went on to the front office of the Baltimore Ravens, where he worked during the 2000 Super Bowl win, and then the Detroit Lions, where he now assists in scouting college talent—many of which are young black athletes for whom he displays a particular empathy in their attempts to have NFL careers and legacies.

During his playing days, Harris did not stand out on stat sheets and isn't in football's history books for the numbers he compiled.

Rather, it was his ability to stand for his race on the football field—and single-handedly do so as the only starting quarterback—that is remarkable.

In 2013, as we see endless heaping of public and media scrutiny on young black quarterbacks such as Geno Smith, EJ Manuel, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, we should remember who essentially carried all the weight of professional black quarterbacks during the 1970s: James Harris.

As Freedman clarifies:

From the time Harris entered the league until 1977, except for six games that Joe Gilliam started for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974, Harris was the only first-string black quarterback in the N.F.L., the focus of all the hope, all the pressure, all the hatred.

On Wednesday, on this commemorative day in American history, President Barack Obama led the honoring of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

The ceremony was held on the famous Lincoln Memorial steps, with the throng of about 100,000 attendees spread far and wide past the reflecting pool. 

As another NFL season dawns upon us, and we finish compiling our fantasy teams and complete our predictions on the upcoming season's better quarterback—Griffin, Wilson, Newton, Smith or others—we should remember the reality of James Harris' legacy.

Let's also pay respect to his undeniable help in paving the way for the emergence on the national stage for the current depth of talent of young black quarterbacks.


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