Pride Under Center: The 10 Greatest African-American QBs of All Time
For decades, the National Football League has shamefully regarded African-Americans as inferior quarterback prospects, using the same unfounded and downright stupid belief that skin color precluded them from managing the most important position on the field.
For every Willie Thrower—the first African-American QB of the modern era—there were the likes of Marlin Briscoe, Joe Gilliam and Freddie Solomon, athletically gifted passers who either were moved to a different position or were unable to compete on a level playing field.
Those rumors were forever put to rest on January 31, 1988 when Washington's Doug Williams dismantled Denver in Super Bowl XXII to become the first African-American quarterback to hoist a Lombardi Trophy. Williams's success blew the door open for the likes of Randall Cunningham, Rodney Peete and Warren Moon, who himself paved the way for Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, Michael Vick, and Daunte Culpepper.
Today, the phrase "African-American quarterback" is a thing of the past. Thanks to the efforts of the following signal-callers, what was once a myth has been proven emphatically wrong.
10. Jeff Blake
Spending much of his career in Cincinnati, Blake possessed one of the best arms in the league. The former East Carolina star began his career with the New York Jets but got his chance to display his talent after arriving in the Cincinnati in 1994.
Blake threw 14 touchdown passes in 10 games that season, leading the NFL in yards per completion (13.8). The following year he produced his best numbers, as he fired for 3,822 yards and 28 TDs en route to his first (and only) Pro Bowl nomination.
After leaving the Bengals following the 1999 season, Blake joined the Saints and carried them to a 7-4 record before an injury paved the way for Aaron Brooks to lead New Orleans to the playoffs. Blake bounced around the league (Baltimore, Arizona, Philadelphia, Chicago) before retiring after the 2005 season.
Blake retired with 21,711 passing yards and a very respectable 134-99 TD/INT margin.
9. James Harris
Standing a prototypical 6'4", Harris was groomed for professional stardom by his college coach, legendary Grambling stalwart Eddie Robinson. The Buffalo Bills selected him in the eighth round of the 1969 draft and, although he showed flashes of brilliance, gave up on him after three seasons and three starts.
Signed by the Los Angeles Rams in 1973, Harris took over the starting position from John Hadl and led the team to the NFC West title. He earned a Pro Bowl bid the following season as he took the Rams to the NFC championship, but fell 14-10 to the Minnesota Vikings.
Another NFC West title in 1975 wasn't enough to save his job, as youngsters Pat Haden and Ron Jaworski eventually unseated him in 1976. Harris then moved to San Diego in 1977, starting nine games before giving way to future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts.
Harris's career numbers (8,136 yards, 45-59 TD/INT margin) weren't impressive, but his 25-16 mark as a starter showed general managers that, if given the chance, African-Americans could produce at the position.
To this day, Harris remains a trailblazer, having spent much of the last three decades serving in the front office of several teams, most notably the Jacksonville Jaguars.
8. Michael Vick
Few quarterbacks have been blessed with the athletic gifts bestowed upon the Virginia Tech legend. Fewer have been entangled with as much controversy.
Vick was expected to redefine the position when the Falcons made him the first overall selection in the 2001 draft. With the arm of a siege gun and off-the-chart speed, Vick began to fulfill his destiny when he became the first African-American quarterback to ever win a playoff game in Lambeau Field in 2002.
An injury curtailed his 2003 season, but Vick ran and passed Atlanta to the NFC title game the following season. He earned his third Pro Bowl trip in 2005 before becoming the first QB in league history to rush for over 1,000 yards in 2006, while adding 20 TD passes along the way.
As we all know, Vick's express path to Canton blew up in his face the following spring, as allegations of dog fighting became a reality. One of the sport's most popular and marketable players was suspended while serving much of the next two years between prison and house arrest.
Vick made his return to the NFL last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, showing signs of the greatness that seemed to be once assured. Nearly 30, there is still time for him to regain a semblance of the skills that once made him the game's most lethal weapon.
7. Daunte Culpepper
Built more like a linebacker, the 6'4", 260 lb Culpepper set the NCAA mark for completion percentage as a junior at Central Florida (since broken by Texas's Colt McCoy). Despite having reigning NFL Offensive MVP Randall Cunningham under center, the Vikings selected Culpepper with the 11th overall pick of the 1999 Draft.
Culpepper made the Vikes' decision look good in 2000, when he debuted to the tune of an 11-5 record and a trip to the NFC title game. In the process, Culpepper became a fantasy football deity, throwing for 3,937 yards and 33 touchdowns while running for 470 yards and seven more scores.
Injuries and a penchant for turnovers caused the star to dim over the next couple of seasons, but he returned to form in 2003 by firing 25 touchdowns and airing it out for 3,479 yards. It served as a precursor to his 2004 campaign, when he led the NFL with 4,717 passing yards, threw for 39 TDs, and also ran for 406 yards and two scores.
Culpepper's act in Minnesota wore thin the following season, leading to a trade to Miami, which also began his current path as a journeyman. His stops have included Oakland and—for the last two seasons—Detroit, where he begins the 2010 season as the backup to Matthew Stafford.
6. Doug Williams
Almost a decade after James Harris' arrival to pro football, Grambling's Eddie Robinson produced Williams, a 6'4", 220 lb gunslinger who was drafted by Tampa Bay in the first round of the 1978 draft.
Not much on accuracy early in his career, Williams nevertheless helped turned the fortunes of the Buccaneers, leading them to the NFC Central crown in 1979 despite completing 42 percent of his passes with an 18-24 TD/INT margin. Over the next three years, Williams took the Bucs to the playoffs and was on the way to franchise fixture.
That is, until a contract dispute sent Williams to the United States Football League where, after sitting out the 1983 season, he guided the Oklahoma Outlaws until the league folded in 1986.
Without an opportunity to start, Williams signed with the Washington Redskins in 1986, appearing in just one game.
Williams spent much of 1987 battling Jay Schroeder for the starting job, before finally wresting control of the spot from him late in the season. It would be the jolt the Redskins needed, as Williams led the club to its second Super Bowl title, which he highlighted by throwing four second-quarter touchdown passes during the the 42-10 rout of Denver.
The magic of that January evening didn't find Williams during much of the 1988 season, where he started just 10 games. His career ended the following season, but Williams's poise over a three-week stretch in January 1988 forever solidified his status in league annals.
5. Randall Cunningham
Only John Elway and Michael Vick can rival Cunningham when it comes to the subject of most athletically-gifted quarterbacks in NFL history.
The aptly nicknamed "Robo QB" was a defensive coordinator's nightmare in the late 1980s. The former Nevada-Las Vegas star could throw a football 85 yards in the air with ease, outrun and overpower defenders, and was also a weapon as a punter (he led the NCAA in punting in 1984 and has the fifth-longest punt in NFL history).
His 1990 season remains one of the most jaw-dropping in league history. While leading the Eagles to a 10-6 record, Cunningham threw 30 touchdown passes while running for 942 yards and five scores, averaging 8.0 yards per carry. A knee injury in the 1991 season opener cut into his skills and led to a decline, which resulted in him being out of football in 1996.
A more mature Cunningham returned to the league with the Vikings in 1997 as a backup, but when starter Brad Johnson went down in the second game of the 1998 campaign, Cunningham embarked on a road to redemption, leading Minnesota to a 15-1 record while throwing for 3,704 yards and 34 touchdowns. He won the NFL Player of the Year award (Bert Bell Award) while being named to the All-Pro team.
Cunningham retired after the 2001 season, finishing a career that included 29,979 passing yards, 207 TD passes and 4,928 yards rushing. Most of all, his athletic style and creativity inspired other quarterbacks.
4. Donovan McNabb
Perhaps the most unappreciated quarterback ever, McNabb faced an uphill climb the second he was chosen by the Eagles with the second pick of the 1999 draft, disappointing the majority of a fanbase that wanted the team to select reigning Heisman Trophy winning RB Ricky Williams.
The former Syracuse standout began dispelling doubters during his second season, guiding the Eagles to the playoffs with his arm and legs. In 2001, McNabb took the franchise to the first of four straight NFC title games, but losses in the first three led to fans (and conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh) to question his ability to take the team to the next level.
Finally armed with a talented WR in Terrell Owens, McNabb had his best season in 2004, throwing for 3,875 yards and 31 touchdowns as the Eagles finished 13-3 and finally reached the Super Bowl. He was unable to lead Philly past New England, as his 357 yards and three touchdown passes were offset by three interceptions.
Injuries hounded McNabb over the next three seasons before he took the Eagles to a fifth NFC title game in 2008. The loss to the Cardinals dropped his record to 1-4 in conference championships, and helped to finally usher the end of his stint in Philadelphia when the club traded him to Washington this past Easter.
McNabb's stellar 92-49-1 as a starter has included rewriting most of the Eagles' record books. At 33, the five-time Pro Bowler will enter this season in search of silencing his detractors once and for all.
3. Steve McNair
The most decorated player in the storied history of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Alcorn State's "Air" McNair redefined the word "toughness" during a 13-year career with Houston/Tennessee and Baltimore, which saw him author a 91-62 record as a starter.
Never a quarterback with impressive statistics, McNair focused more on winning, a feat he achieved despite enduring a grocery list of various injuries. Fans, teammates and opponents all were amazed at his threshold of pain.
Injuries could not deter McNair from taking his teams to the playoffs five times, including a trip to Super Bowl XXXIV where his last-ditch drive to tie the score ended with the Titans a mere yard away from forcing overtime.
His best season came in 2003, where he put up 3,215 passing yards and a career-best 24 touchdowns to share co-MVP honors with Indianapolis's Peyton Manning.
McNair also showed a knack for last-minute magic, leading the way to 16 fourth-quarter comebacks and 23 game-winning drives.
2. Damon Allen
Few south of Canada are aware that Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen has a brother that has rewritten the Canadian Football League record books.
After a productive career at Cal State-Fullerton, Damon Allen went up north in 1985, oddly enough, beginning his career as an Edmonton Eskimo, where he attempted to replace Warren Moon. He received his breakthrough role in 1987 when—on the CFL's biggest stage—he replaced injured starter Matt Dunigan and led Edmonton to the Grey Cup title.
Allen then embarked on one of the most remarkable careers of any pro quarterback, winning two more Grey Cups while playing 23 seasons with Edmonton, Ottawa, Hamilton, Memphis, British Columbia and Toronto. Allen finally retired after the 2007 season, having thrown for 72,381 yards and 394 touchdowns.
Almost as remarkable is that Allen rushed for 11,920 yards and 93 touchdowns, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. In 1991, Allen rushed for 1,036 yards, 15 seasons before Michael Vick achieved the feat.
1. Warren Moon
Warren Moon refused to let anyone tell him he could not succeed as a professional quarterback, and his heart, determination, and sheer talent enabled him to help shatter the belief that African-Americans could not shine at the position.
Undrafted out of Washington, Moon went to the Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos in 1978, where he went 9-1 in the postseason while leading Edmonton to five straight Grey Cup titles. Finally convinced he deserved a chance in the NFL, the Houston Oilers signed him in 1984.
After three less-than-stellar seasons, Moon and the Oilers hit their stride in 1987, as he led the club to their first postseason trip in seven years. Houston reached the playoffs from 1987-93, with the last four seasons under the "Run and Shoot" offense that enabled Moon to record a pair of 4,600-yard campaigns.
Moon went to Minnesota in 1994, recording a 4,228-yard, 33-touchdown season in 1995. After an injury caused him to lose his starting job to Brad Johnson in 1996, Moon went to Seattle in 1997 where he became the first player over 40 years old to score a touchdown.
His career ended with Kansas City in 2000, closing out a 23-year professional run that saw him throw for a combined 70,553 yards and 434 touchdowns.
Moon was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 2001 and was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006, one of only two people (Bud Grant) to achieve the feat.