Book Review: Rise of the Black Quarterback by Jason Reid

I once read a book entitled “Necessities.”  The book is no longer in print, which is a shame for its message resonates thirty years later.  It drew its title from an old Al Campanis quote where, on live television, the former Dodgers general manager, admitted he felt African Americans didn’t have the ‘necessities’ to hold upper management positions in professional sports.

This opinion also applied to Black men playing the most heralded position in all of sports: quarterback. “In a sport full of alpha males, the QB is king. He’s a matinee idol, the smartest guy in the room and the coolest to boot.  He’s everything the average guy wishes he could be but can’t.” 

For all intents and purposes, this person has also, historically, been white.

For a variety of reasons, ranging from the offensive (quarterback is a “thinking man’s position”) to the institutionally exclusionary (they weren’t given the opportunity), by the time they got to either college or especially the pro level, Black males were encouraged if not forced to switch positions.

While it might be difficult for those of this generation to imagine Patrick Mahomes lining up at wide receiver, it wasn’t long ago that this was the norm rather than the exception. “Despite all this focus on the position, for decades, there had been one requirement, never plainly stated, that the game’s owners and coaches had insisted on, an attribute that had nothing to do with talent: whiteness.”

An important new piece of work, one that traces the history of Black men playing the position in the NFL, has emerged.  It relives the near century struggle and progress, and is a worthwhile, informative read for anyone unfamiliar with just how long it has taken us to get to where we are today, with a Black quarterback the consensus best player in the game.

Jason Reid’s “Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means for America” is a history of exactly that, the Black quarterback, and a look into what took us so long.  As if we didn’t know.

Reid, whose writing credits include the L.A. Times, Washington Post, and ESPN the Magazine, reminds us that not only did it take nearly 100 years for the NFL to be okay with the Black quarterback but details the struggle to get to where we are now.

If you think this is an overblown topic that didn’t need further discussion, think again.  This book is probably for you.  As Reid points out, “each season, the AP picks two All-Pro teams.  The first- and second-team members are considered to be the top two players at their positions. That season [2019], with Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson selected, Black QBs occupied both spots on the team for the first time.  The AP has been picking All-Pro teams since 1940.”

This is not, of course, because Black quarterbacks weren’t good enough to earn the honor.  It’s because they were never given the opportunity to prove that they were.

Reid introduces you to names like Fritz Pollard, who was posthumously elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 for his relentless efforts off the field, and his spectacular play on it, this coming in the 1920s.  The NFL would later ban Black players, for twelve years in fact, the ban rescinded in 1946 once the league saw changing momentum with Major League Baseball and Jackie Robinson.  Even “after reintegration, owners and coaches were vehemently opposed to Black players playing the so-called ‘thinking positions,’ such as interior offensive line, middle lineback, and of course, quarterback.”

Reid continues to introduce you to key characters in the struggle and the roles they played, like John Wooten and Willie Thrower “the first Black man to play quarterback in the NFL’s modern era.”  But even baby step progress took place within a context of racial discrimination and societal debilitation in America.  “The NFL’s determination to keep the quarterback position lily-white was economically disenfranchising for generations of Black passers whose professional careers were either adversely affected because they had to change positions or outright ruined because they were incapable of lining up elsewhere and succeeding.”

You’ll read of Jimmy Raye, and of course Tony Dungy, who we all know as cornerback, and ultimately head coach in the NFL, but did you know Dungy played quarterback in college? “Unlike the Black quarterbacks who currently dominate the game, Dungy and others who proved themselves in college during the 1960s and 1970s were too far ahead of their time for a league that was still stuck in its racist past.”

“As late as 1978, most NFL clubs were still not comfortable with the idea of having Black quarterbacks on their rosters, let alone expending valuable draft picks, the main method of roster construction, on them.  Black quarterbacks supposedly lacked work ethic, lacked the intelligence to comprehend NFL playbooks, lacked the confidence to lead white men, and lacked the toughness to play through pain.”

You’ll read of Marlin Briscoe, Eldridge Dickey, Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam and a time when “the fear was that white players wouldn’t follow a Black quarterback and fans would be angry.”  You’ll read of hate mail and historically black colleges, death threats and doomed opportunities.  But while Reid’s work details the difficulties, it always keeps its eyes on the prize.

You’ll meet Doug Williams, the first African American quarterback selected in the opening round of the NFL Draft.  This came in 1978, where “in the 42nd iteration of the process, a Black quarterback was finally deemed worthy of being chosen with one of the most valuable picks.”  Despite his early success, Williams would remain one of the league’s lowest paid quarterbacks, prompting him to leave the NFL altogether.  He would return later and win Super Bowl MVP for Washington.

You’ll meet Warren Moon, the next along a line of quarterbacks, who went undrafted.  That’s because, despite a stellar college career at the position and a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan, Moon was deemed for whatever reason (see: skin color) a gamble at the position.  This is a man who was so determined to play quarterback at the professional level, he intentionally slowed down his 40-yard dash at the combines so NFL teams wouldn’t draft him at another position.  Moon would sign with the Edmonton Eskimos and go on to set CFL records that stand to this day.  After playing six years in Canada, Moon finally made it to the NFL.  Over his 17-year career with the Oilers, Vikings, Seahawks and Chiefs, Moon made nine Pro Bowls and passed for just shy of 50,000 which is still good for 13th all-time.  Moon now has a bust in the NFL Hall of Fame.

Today’s Black quarterbacks didn’t just magically appear.  As Doug Williams would say, they stood on the shoulders of giants.  Jason Reid wants to make sure you know their names.  “Today’s superstar Black quarterbacks have benefitted immensely because Briscoe, Harris, Williams and Moon never took one step backward in the face of soul-crushing racism during their eras.  Without the accomplishments of Briscoe, Harris, Williams and Moon, the NFL would have remained stuck on stupid even longer in its racist thinking about Black quarterbacks.  With each achievement by a member of the group, the door was pushed open a little further for the Black QBs behind them.  They eventually rushed through it.”

You’ll eventually meet the “Ultimate Weapon,” Randall Cunningham, when the NFL realized “there may be benefits to having the best athlete on the field occupy the most important position.”  The long-standing stereotype of Black quarterbacks’ inability to make throws or decipher defenses was slowly crumbling.

You’ll meet Steve McNair, drafted third overall in 1995, “the then-highest-drafted quarterback” and a man who “remains the highest drafted offensive player from an HBCU.”  In 1999, the NFL saw three Black quarterbacks drafted in the first round for the first time ever: Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith and Daunte Culpepper.  “That seminal occasion signaled to the world that Black quarterbacks had overcome a narrative that never fit the facts.”

You’ll meet the only quarterback ever to amass over 10,000 passing and 4,000 rushing yards in NCAA history.  That man’s name is Colin Kaepernick, whose protests single-handedly led to an 11% drop in the league’s television ratings.  “At only 29 and physically sound, Colin Kaepernick got the boot from the NFL.  A mobile quarterback, who is his last five seasons started in two NFC championship games and one Super Bowl, was shown the door.  And it was hermetically sealed behind him” after what Reid calls “the biggest public relations disaster in the league’s history.”

And of course, you’ll read of modern-day superstars like Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, and Patrick Mahomes.  “Gone for good are the days when NFL decision-makers would require all Blacks who played quarterback in college to change positions after being drafted merely because of the high degree of melanin in their skin. Club owners and their underlings finally came to accept, albeit begrudgingly, that Black players were not only adept at running with or catching the ball.  Many could throw it with the best of their white counterparts as well.” 

If you’re young, you likely have no recollection of a time when there were no, or at best few, Black quarterbacks.  If you’re older, perhaps you never thought of this as an issue that plagued both the NFL and America.  It remained unquestioned, however, that the most important position in sports had historically been doled out to white men, for the other white men who made those decisions felt they were the only ones capable of playing the position.

Jason Reid is more than happy to remind you that they were wrong.

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