In honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, we explore 10 African-American NFL quarterbacks who influenced the modern era of the NFL. while there have been many Black quarterbacks who impacted the game in some way, these are 10 that made significant contributions through statistical firsts or historical impact.
First, we must note and acknowledge a few names who were pioneers for black athletes in general, and also as professional quarterbacks in the years preceding the NFL/AFL merger. We also acknowledge a few players who played quarterback in the early years of the NFL as we now know it.
Fritz Pollard, according to most historical records became the first African-American player to throw a pass in professional football. In 1920, while playing for the Akron Pros, Pollard threw and completed four passes. The position of quarterback was an extension of running back in those days, and it could be argued that Pollard played half back or wing back at the time.
George Taliafero and Willie Thrower both started at quarterback in the 1953 season, Taliafero for the Baltimore Colts and Thrower for the Chicago Bears. Both men are credited by some accounts as the first Black quarterbacks to start a professional football game.
The new NFL was in its' infancy stage when Marlin Briscoe entered the league in 1968 with the Denver Broncos. Briscoe is credited as the first Black to start a game in the modern era NFL. Briscoe was followed by Joe Gilliam with Pittsburgh in 1972.
James Harris came into the league in 1974 with the Los Angeles Rams. Vince Eveans broke into the NFL in 1977 with the Chicago Bears. Evans' career spanned 20 seasons, and became known as a journeyman back-up quarterback.
Doug Williams was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1978. He was the starter for the Bucs from 1978 through 1982. Williams led the expansion Buccaneers to the playoffs in three of his four years as a starter there.
After the 1982 season, Williams refused to sign what was considered a low-ball offer contract extension with the club. He was by far the lowest paid starting QB in the NFL at the time, and bolted for the USFL. Williams played for the Oklahoma Outlaws in 1984, and in 1985 moved to Arizona in a merger between the Outlaws and the USFL Expansion Arizona Wranglers.
Williams signed with the Washington Redskins in 1986 as a back-up to starter Jay Schroeder. After Schroeder proved in-effective, Williams was given a chance to shine, and started five games for the Redskins. He was 4-1 as a starter, but was benched in favor of Schroeder for the playoffs.
Williams reclaimed his starting role with the team, and became the fist African-American Quarterback to start in a Super Bowl (XXII). His most noted accomplishment as a player came in that game in which Williams threw for a then record of 340 yards and three touchdown passes.
Williams star shined brightest that day as he outplayed Hall of Famer John Elway. Williams won the game's MVP award, becoming the first black quarterback to accomplish that feat as well.
Warren Moon was the first African-American quarterback to challenge conventional wisdom of NFL ownership and scouts. The thinking of the time was that a black quarterback would not flourish in the NFL, as he was said to be a raw athlete, incapable of understanding complex offensive schemes. The black athlete was said not to possess the leadership abilities or intangibles to lead an NFL team.
Moon was not drafted by any team after his senior season at The University of Washington in 1978. He signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League where he went on to star and win a Grey Cup Championship.
Moon tallied 21,228 yards passing in just six seasons in the CFL. In 1984, Moon signed with the Houston Oilers of the NFL, and begin to dispel the misconceptions about black quarterbacks. During his NFL career that spanned 16 seasons, Moon was selected to the Pro Bowl nine times, and threw for a record 49,325 yards. That record stood for many years until it was surpassed by John Elway, Dan Marino, and Brett Favre.
Warren Moon is the first African-American quarterback to be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame, and one of only two men to be in both the NFL and CFL Halls of Fame.
Randall Cunningham was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1985 draft as a true quarterback. A gifted all-around athlete, Cunningham energized a Philadelphia franchise that saw the decline of legend Ron Jaworski and the emergence of a rising star.
Cunningham also fought against stereotypes for black quarterbacks, as he was said to be too frail to sustain the rigors of a starting NFL Quarterback. Cunningham pioneered the notion of a dual-threat quarterback with a unique ability to run and display a rifle-arm.
A supremely gifted athlete, Cunningham was a punter as well as a quarterback in college, and once punted for a record 91 yards in an NFL game. He also passed for a whopping 407 yards in the famed Fog Bowl against the Chicago Bears in 1988.
Cunningham's most successful statistical season came with the Vikings in 1998, where he threw 34 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions. His 29,979 career passing yards ranks 34th best all-time.
Rodney Peete entered the NFL in the 1989 draft and had aspirations of putting to rest questions about black quarterbacks. Peete was a pure passer, and a skilled runner, and showcased his skills while starring at USC. He was also a highly intelligent person, scoring well on the infamous IQ Test administered by the NFL to rookies.
High expectations did not translate to success for Peete during his NFL career. He had several productive years as a starter, but statistically he was just better than average in most categories. Peete played for several teams during a 16 year career, and amassed 16,338 yards.
Andre Ware was the first African-American quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy. He starred in a prolific passing offense at the University of Houston.
Ware was also the first African-American quarterback to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. He was selected by the Detroit Lions in 1990.
Ware did not enjoy much success as a professional, as he was plagued by injuries and played on one of the most futile NFL franchises at the time, the Detroit Lions.
The late Steve McNair was selected by the Houston Oilers in 1995. He was the third selection of the first round, and showcased a rare combination of skill and ability for the quarterback position.
McNair was a rugged, physical runner and a versatile passer as a player. He enjoyed as much longevity with one franchise as any other black quarterback to date, and dispensed of the notion that black QB's were not good leaders.
McNair was in total control of his universe that was the Oilers and later Tennessee Titans. He was the first African-American quarterback to win the MVP award in 2003. He came within a half-yard of becoming the second black quarterback to win a Super Bowl (XXXIV), falling to St. Louis 24-21.
McNair may be most remembered by fans for his death, as he was allegedly slain by a jealous lover, a woman who was not his wife.
His legacy should be the contributions he made to professional football, to the communities in the cities in which he played, and as one of the most influential players of his time, regardless of color or position.
In 1999, Daunte Culpepper became the 11th pick of the first round of the NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings. Culpepper was an imposing figure at 6' 3" and 260 pounds. He had incredible arm strength, and remarkable foot speed for any player, let alone one of his size.
Culpepper came to the Vikings at the perfect time as he was teamed with HOF receiver Chris Carter, Randy Moss, and Jake Reed. The Vikings were aware of the potential for big numbers as departing starter and aging veteran signal caller Randall Cunningham had proven a season before.
Culpepper became the poster child for dysfunction in a quarterback. He was blamed for the demise of coach Dennis Green and, an offense that showed flashes of brilliance for a few seasons under Culpepper's tenure as starter.
Still, he is said to have had one of the most prolific throwing arms of the modern era, and he further showed the potential for gifted black athletes who played the position of quarterback. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and threw for a career 24,153 yards.
No player in NFL history entered the league with less fan support perhaps, than Donavan McNabb. In the 1999 NFL Draft, when his selection was announced at Radio City Music Hall, McNabb was booed soundly by Philadelphia Eagles fans in attendance.
The rocky relationship between fans and player began, and despite more than proving his worth as a player over 10 years, McNabb never fully had the respect of the tough fan base.
Statistically, McNabb was a six-time Pro Bowl selection, and to date has compiled 36,250 passing yards. He became the first African-American quarterback to lead a team to back-to-back conference championship games.
McNabb also started in Super Bowl XXXIX, throwing for 357 yards and 3 touchdowns, but fell short of victory; falling to the New England Patriots 24-21.
McNabb has been a lightning rod for controversy and adversity alike during his career. In 2003, he was the subject of an on-air tirade by radio big-shot Rush Limbaugh. McNabb was also the target of teammate Terrell Owens rumblings following the loss of the Super Bowl that season.
Despite all of the criticisms and rough handling thrown his way, Donovan McNabb will be remembered as a class act and a truly successful quarterback. He has helped do away with any remaining misconceptions about black quarterbacks.
Vince Young was chosen by the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the 2006 draft. He came into the league riding a wave of optimism and expectation, fresh off of a winning Rose Bowl performance for the Texas Longhorns.
Young bested the USC Trojans, who were led by the previous and current Heisman Trophy winners, Matt Leinhert and Reggie Bush. Young's performance tallied 200 rushing yards and 267 passing yards with 3 rushing touchdowns, which included the game winning score on 4th down in the final seconds of the game.
His entry into the NFL was highly anticipated, and he did not disappoint, leading the Titans to six consecutive victories to close out the 2006 season.
While Young's win/loss record is favorable, he has struggled as a player of late, suffering through benchings in 2009 and 2010. The fallout of the 2009 season saw Young reportedly attempt suicide, and later claim that it was merely depression and not suicidal tendencies.
His combination of raw talent as a passer, devastating skill as a runner and a questionable work ethic led to the announcement that after the current season, he would not be brought back to the Titans in 2011. Some say Young's off-field antics have set back the notion of black quarterbacks in the NFL, a point that will be debated in years to come.
Michael Vick has yet to complete his legacy as a player but, has become one of the modern era's most beloved and most notorious figures in professional sports,...ever. He was the first African-American quarterback to be selected first overall in the draft after being chosen by the Atlanta Falcons in 2006
As a player, Michael has no contemporary. He is by far the most physically gifted athlete of any color to play the position of quarterback. He has the speed of a track star, the arm strength of a Howitzer and a knack for escaping would-be tacklers.
Pundits believe that Vick has not mastered the art of Quarterbacking but, they were forced to re-evaluate that thinking after the 2010 season in which Vick has posted MVP type statistics.
He became notorious for his involvement in a dog fighting ring after the 2006 season. Vick was convicted of conspiracy among other things, and served 18 months in Federal Prison. Many believed that his time away from the game would erode his skills to a severe degree, and hinder him from continuing his career.
Vick has proven to most that his skills as a player may have been enhanced by his time away from the game. He has also been a model citizen and is one of the current era's redemption stories for any professional sport.