Thursday, February 13, 2014


In recognition of Black History Month, we honor two NFL pioneers who paved the way for African-American professional quarterbacks.  They are James “Shack” Harris, the first African-American to be a full-time NFL starter, start and win an NFL Playoff Game, selected to a Pro Bowl and to be named its MVP. Doug Williams was the first African-American to start, win and be named MVP in a Super Bowl and was recently honored with the 2013 Davey O'Brien Legends Award.

Both men played at Grambling State University under legendary Head Coach, Eddie G. Robinson, the winningest Division I Head Coach in college football history.

It is clear that Harris and Williams laid the foundation for the success of African-American quarterbacks such as Hall of Famer Warren Moon and Pro Bowlers Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton.

The significant contribution of Harris is chronicled in New York Times journalist Samuel Freedman’s book Breaking The Line. Freedman speaks about the role Harris plays during the 1967 NCAA college football season at Grambling State and their rival Florida A&M. Here’s a great video clip that shares the story…

Discouraging African-Americans from playing quarterback was standard practice in the NFL. The pervasive attitude was for them to play receiver or defensive back. This view almost caused Harris to decide against continuing his football career; but after getting some advice from his mentor Coach Robinson, he made the decision to stick with the game he loved. 

In the book Third and A Mile, author William Rhoden quotes Harris about this meeting with his coach…
“They didn’t draft me the first day.  All these guys I’d played against in the SWAC were getting picked.  What chance did I have?  I decided I wasn’t going to play.  Coach called me and said he wanted to talk.  We went to the bleachers, just me and him, sat down, and I told him that being from the segregated South, understanding that no blacks were playing quarterback, I couldn’t see any reason to go to Buffalo.  He said, ‘I know you can play quarterback in the NFL.  The decision is yours, but if you don’t go, if guys like you don’t go, it’s going to be that much more difficult for the next guy.’  That touched me.” 

Harris was drafted by the AFL Buffalo Bills in 1969, where he eventually became the first black player to start a season at quarterback in the history of pro football.  Harris was released by the Bills and signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1972.  He began as a backup before again becoming a starting quarterback in the NFL.  In 1974, Harris led the Rams to their first playoff victory since 1951 and became the first African-American quarterback to start and win an NFL playoff game.  Later he was named to the Pro Bowl and awarded the MVP of the game.

Doug Williams followed in “Shack” Harris’ footsteps and starred at quarterback for Coach Eddie Robinson’s Grambling State University Tigers.  He was drafted in the first round, 17th overall in the 1978 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, making him the first black quarterback chosen in the first round.  Tampa Bay had never been to the playoffs prior to Williams’ arrival and with him they went three times in four years including a bid in the 1979 NFC Championship Game.  Williams completed the 1982 season which was the final year of his contract with Tampa Bay.  He was 46th on the list of NFL quarterback salaries putting him behind a number of backups.  Unable to agree to a new deal, he left the NFL to join the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaws.  The USFL folded after the 1985 season, and Williams was out of a job, albeit just briefly as referenced in Third And A Mile:

“I signed with Washington because Joe Gibbs asked me if I'd be his backup. I told him, ‘Yeah, I could be the backup.’ At the time, I didn't have a job. The USFL had folded, and Joe was the only guy who called. I'd known him pretty well. He was the offensive coordinator in Tampa when I got drafted in 1978.”  He signed with the Redskins to be the backup quarterback to Jay Schroeder.  Three times in 1987, Williams subbed in for Schroeder and led the team to victory.  Coach Gibbs named Williams the starter for the playoffs, where he led the Redskins to narrow wins to earn a spot in Super Bowl XXII.

Super Bowl XXII started off great for the Broncos as they jumped out to an early 10-0 lead and forced the Redskins to punt on every first quarter drive.  On the first play of the second quarter Williams shook off the early rust and hit Ricky Sanders with an 80 yard touchdown pass.  They again scored on their next possession to go up 14-10 and the rout was on.  The Redskins scored five touchdowns in the second quarter (Super Bowl record), with Williams throwing for four touchdowns (Super Bowl record) in being named Super Bowl MVP.  

After the game, Coach Eddie Robinson said to him, “Doug, you might not understand this, but what happened today had the same impact as Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling.  Twenty to thirty years from now, you’ll understand.” Twenty-six years after Doug's historic achievement, Russell Wilson became the second African-American quarterback ever to lead his team to Super Bowl victory.

The legacy of James "Shack" Harris and Doug Williams continues to shine brightly today.  Their leadership has led to the establishment of the Black College Football Hall of Fame,, which honors the greatest players, coaches and contributors from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  Pioneers indeed.