During pro football’s 100th season, I’ll re-visit important games, plays, players and events from NFL history.
1969: James Harris becomes the first African-American to open a pro season as starting quarterback
Fifty years ago, Harris, an eighth-round rookie from Grambling who played under legendary coach Eddie Robinson, entered Bills training camp seventh on the quarterback depth chart in Buffalo. The previous year, Denver’s Marlon Briscoe became the first black starting quarterback in a pro game, but not at the start of a season. Harris, after the AFL-NFL merger a year later, became the first black quarterback to start an NFL season, in Buffalo in 1971.
We spoke not only about winning the Bills job a half-century ago, but also about how he feels now, seeing African-Americans Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson at the front of the class for the league MVP 50 years later.
“When I got drafted in the eighth round by the Bills, I figured I wasn’t going to play. I figured if I was a first or second-rounder, I’d have a real chance … but eighth? I didn’t really see the chance. But I decided to go and take my chance. Coach Robinson said, ‘If you go, don’t expect it to be fair. You’ll have to be better.’ So I figured, the only way to make it would be out-throw everybody, and come in totally prepared. I threw so many that summer. Maybe 50 deep outs a day. I was ready when I got to camp, because I didn’t feel I could have a bad day.
“The hardest thing for me, being from Monroe, La., and going to Grambling, was I never really talked to white people. And here I was, in a huddle with them. If I could just get to the passing part of it, I knew I’d be fine. But I get in the huddle and call the play, and all my linemen were white. That adjustment was tough. My first call, I call the play to both sides of the huddle, and I’m not looking at anyone, just saying the play. They said, “WHAT?” And I had to repeat it. That wasn’t easy for me. You’re fighting a lot of things people said about black quarterbacks at the time—we couldn’t lead, weren’t smart enough, worried about our character.
“The competition was rough. Jack Kemp, Tom Flores, Dan Darragh, Kay Stephenson—all established guys. I felt like I was fighting for a job every day. Every day, at 6 the next morning, they were knocking on the doors [in the players’ dorm]. Every day it could have been me. Training camp was long in those days—it started right after the Fourth of July. So every day, you wake up, lay in bed, and you hear the knocks. My room was in the middle of the hall. So you hear the knocks starting on one end and going down the hall. You’re just hoping, Skip my door. And they did—every day. Actually, one day they did knock, and I thought that was it. Turned out it was for my roommate. I got named the starter.
“First game was against Joe Namath, coming off the Super Bowl. It was in Buffalo. I’d been through quite a bit of fanfare already—people coming to the hotels, wanting to meet me, coming to the stadium early to see me. That day, I’ll always remember Joe walking across the field to find me and shake my hand, wish me luck. I appreciated that.”
Harris became the first black quarterback to start in the NFL for three franchises: the Bills (1971), Rams (1974) and Chargers (1977). In ‘74, playing for the Rams, he won a playoff game and made the Pro Bowl. He became a long-time scout and personnel official for several teams. Now 72 and living in Florida, Williams is thoughtful about the state of quarterbacking. I thought when I called him to talk about what happened 50 years ago, he might talk about how his career helped pave the way for black quarterbacks. But instead he said: “I can’t help but think about all the guys who didn’t get the chance. I mean, there were black quarterbacks who were really good back then—not just marginal guys who could make a roster, but good quarterbacks who could have started in the NFL for a long time if they got a fair shot.
“Marlon Briscoe was like Russell Wilson is today—he could have been every bit the player Russell is. Eldridge Dickey of Tennessee State [first-round pick by the Raiders in 1968 who got moved to wide receiver in his first training camp] was one of the best quarterbacks I ever saw. Could have been a lot like Steve McNair, only faster. David Mays of Texas Southern, Matthew Reed who followed me at Grambling—best high school quarterback I have ever seen, Parnell Dickinson from Mississippi Valley State, Roy Curry of Jackson State, Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam … all could have been NFL quarterbacks. All of them.
“When Doug Williams had the great Super Bowl he did [Williams threw for four touchdowns and was the Super Bowl 22 MVP], that impacted the next group of black quarterbacks. It was huge—he did it on the biggest stage. Then Warren Moon, playing well enough to make the Hall of Fame.”
I asked: “What does it mean to you that Wilson, Jackson and Watson might be 1-2-3 for MVP right now, and Mahomes might be in the running before the end of the year?”
“It proves only one thing,” said one of the singular figures in black quarterback history. “That it’s always been about opportunity.
“The black quarterback didn’t just come of age recently. We didn’t have the opportunity. As I’ve traveled around playing, scouting, meeting players, it’s always touched me: These guys, so many guys, didn’t get a chance to play because they were black. And I think, That could have been me. We all grew up, we dreamed of playing football, playing quarterback, and in the end, the dream became a nightmare for so many. Today, the dream is realistic. The dream can be fulfilled.”