Blood, sweat, and tears are what football is all about. A player is giving his all on the field for the team. Football is a sport, where teamwork is most important. Everyone must be in synch in order to make a play work. On the field, color of a man’s skin does not matter. Everyone is family for sixty minutes of controlled chaos. The position that a player occupies is from his skill level to perform the duties that position requires. Even though, this sport is based on having the best player at a position that he perform at a competitive level regardless of race, it has not always been that way. From the past and up to the present, there have been stereotypes on what qualifies a certain individual to play a certain position. Because of race, some athletes have been made to play positions that they did not want to pursue. Many African-American athletes that came into the NFL, from the past to the present, where stereotyped to play many of the non-thinking positions: wide receiver, running back, and defensive back to name a few. Many people perceived, that an African-American athlete was not able to handle the thinking aspects of some of the glamour positions: quarterback and linebacker. People felt these positions were to complex for the African-American athlete grasp. Statements such as, "They are too stupid to handle that position." or " Blacks lack the intelligence of their white counterparts to perform at that position." Were the justifications on why the African-American athlete was not considered to lead a team in one of the so-called glamour positions. Because of this ideology, many African-American quarterbacks were converted into running backs, wide receivers, or defensive backs. On a few occasions, some Black athletes were able to play in a game or start some games, but none were given an opportunity to truly lead a team for a season. Now in the present, more African-Americans are being given the chance to prove themselves on the field; these athletes include: Steve Mcnair, Kordell Stewart, Dante Culpepper, Ray Lucas, Michaels Vick, Aaron Brooks, and Donovan McNabb just to name a few. Many of these athletes must give thanks to the people from past eras, which made it possible for their dreams to finally become a reality.
For, this situation was no only regulated in the sports field, it was all over society. The thinking of many in the White School of History felt from a societal point of view that African-Americans were never as smart as the so-called glorified white race. The struggle for the African-American athlete was not only limited to the playing field, it was all over society. Their fight for an opportunity was helped by the voices of the New Negro, W.E.B Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Martin L. King, and Malcolm X. Also, the struggle was given help by the integration of baseball by Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campenella, and Don Newcomb. The history of the African-American quarterback not only resides on the football field, it is within the struggles of African-American society as a whole.
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My paper will take a look at the history of the African-American quarterback from the Black History School Theory. These thoughts will convey the struggle that many of the pioneers had to endure in order to conquer the racist views of white society. Even though there have been steps taken in order to get an opportunity, the struggle still continues. Still, there are some that feel many African-American quarterbacks are not smart enough or gifted enough to play the position. This behavior can be seen presently at the University of Florida. A white quarterback, by the name of Rex Grossman, guides the Florida Gators football team, and his primary receiver is Jabbar Gaffney. Now, Jabbar Gaffney, who is African-American, was recruited out of high school as a quarterback and was told he would possibly lead the highflying Gator offense. Yes, he would lead the offense but not as the quarterback. Since, Coach Spurrier said they were more than stable at the quarterback position the only way he would get any playing time was to convert to a wide receiver. All the white quarterbacks of the Gators offense were never asked to play another position. This present day situation brings to light that the White School of History is still alive in today’s age. This type of situation was the reason that many pioneers: Fritz Pollard, Willie Thrower, Marlin Briscoe, George Taliaferro, James Harris, Joe Gilliam, Warren Moon, and Doug Williams, endured hatred in order prove this type of thinking wrong. The history of the African-American quarterback is one of determination, hunger, and drive, to get what they justly deserve from the white society, which is equality and respect.
The history of professional football can be traced back to the late 1800s. In 1892, William Heffelinger, a former star guard for Yale University, accepted $500, plus expenses, to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association. In a game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, Heffelinger scored the only points of the game by returning a fumble 25 yards for the score. On this snowy day in 1892 at Pittsburgh’s Recreation Park, professional football was born (75 Seasons: The Complete Story of the National Football League (1920-1995), Multiple authors, pp. 23, 1994).
During the early years of professional football, all the teams were white. These teams were powered by names like: Red Grange, George Halas, Jim Thorpe (Native American), and some African-American athletes played on some of teams that were organized in the 1920s. The teams that some African-Americans played on were, the Milwaukee Badgers, Hammond Pros, Providence Steam Roller, and the Akron Pros. Still during this time African-Americans were not given the true opportunity to quarterback a team. African-Americans were under the confines of Plessy v. Ferguson, separate but not equal. White society viewed many African-Americans in the same stereotype as many plantation owners of the South. This general feeling was not only regulated to just the South, it was also a view in the North. And this stereotypical view was, that African-Americans were not equal to the white counterparts in any aspect of life. This type of social feeling was also, a held view in athletics. But, steps were being taken to burn this house down.
The first athlete to show that an African-American can lead a football team as a quarterback was Fritz Pollard. Here is a man that the NFL rarely talks about and in contributions to history are just as important as any other athlete of his time. This man was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl in 1915, with Brown University, where he became the first-ever [African American] to be named a collegiate All-American (The History of the NFL Ignores the First Black Quarterback, Evans, pp. PG, 1995). Fritz Pollard was a member of the Akron Pros in 1920 along with Paul Robeson, to become the only Africans-Americans to play in the 13-team league (The History of the NFL Ignores the First Black Quarterback, Evans, pp. PG, 1995). During his time with Akron, Pollard led the team to an undefeated season with a 10-0 record, which was a first in professional football. In 1922 Pollard and Robeson left Akron and played for the Milwaukee Badgers. In Milwaukee they were joined by Fred "Duke" Slater to give Milwaukee the first three African-Americans to play on one team. Next, Fritz Pollard coached the Hammonds Pros in 1923; this was a pioneering move to becoming the first African American coach of a professional team. After coaching 3 seasons, Pollard went back to the Akron Pros for one year in 1926 and then left professional football. Being a pioneer and showing society that African-Americans could compete equally with their white counterparts one might think the resentment toward the African-American athlete would change. After Fritz Pollard’s success in professional football, the NFL secretly kept out all African-Americans athletes from 1933 until 1946. This only showed that the struggle had just begun.
Another pioneer for African-Americans at the quarterback position was Willie Thrower of the 1953 Chicago Bears. In 1953, Willie Thrower played one game where he completed three passes for 27 yards and threw one interception. During the 53 season, there were 15 African-American players in a league that had 12 teams. Willie Thrower was the only [African-American] player on the Bears roster (Just Call Me Quarterback African Americans Struggled for the Opportunity to Play Quarterback in the NFL., Spencer, Sports Illustrated, pp. 48+, 1999). Along with Thrower, there were one other African-American that played the quarterback position in 53; his name was George Tailiaferro. In the 1953 NFL season, George Taliaferro played in 2 games. Looking at this segment of NFL history, one must ask, " Why African-Americans were not given the same opportunity as the white player?" As was stated before society and their view of separate, but not equal can explain why many African-American athletes were not given the same opportunity to compete for this glamour position. During these times excuses came up: You are too good an athlete. Let’s switch you to a speed position; such as receiver or defensive back, You scramble too much. We want quarterbacks who drop back and throw, You may have been a good QB in college, but the pro offense is much more complicated (Just Call Me Quarterback African Americans Struggled for the Opportunity to Play Quarterback in the NFL, Spencer, Sports Illustrated, pp. 48+, 1999). Society was just saying plainly that they did not want African-American quarterbacks in the NFL.
During the 50s and 60s the civil rights movement is becoming louder. The attitude of the New Negro is being felt by more many in the African-American community. With the movement gaining ground the African-American athlete is starting to exploit the traditional thinking of the NFL. Still, the quarterback position was a barrier that was considered off limits, but the wall was being brought down. Many teams would not give African-Americans the opportunity to show off their skills at the quarterback position for an extended period of time; but when some individuals were given the chance they proved they could play the game. One individual that proved that he could play with any of the white quarterbacks and put up the same numbers was Marlin Briscoe. Here was a man that garnered All-American honors as a quarterback at University of Nebraska-Omaha and was selected by the Denver Broncos is the late 60s. In 1968, Briscoe started five games for the Broncos and during this time he threw 14 touchdown passes.
His 14 touchdown passes was a team record for a rookie quarterback at that time. Even though Marlin Briscoe had certainly established himself as a NFL quarterback, he would be switched to the wide receiver position when he signed with the Buffalo Bills in 1969. This common practice showed that the white NFL was not going to let an African-American lead a team for an extended period of time. Black professional athletes say they were underpaid, shunted into certain stereotyped positions and treated like sub-humans by Paleolithic coaches who regarded them as watermelon-eating idiots (The Black Athlete Revisited: The Most Famous Series of Stories Ever Published in Sports, Johnson, Sports Illustrated, pp. 39 1991). Then the old attitude of years pass shows up again: that blacks are too stupid, too lacking in the so-called necessities to be qualified to fill either management jobs in sports or the "thinking" positions on team’s quarterback, middle linebacker, pitcher, catcher, point guard, etc. (The Black Athlete Revisited: The Most Famous Series of Stories Ever Published in Sports, Johnson, Sports Illustrated, pp. 39 1991).
As the 70s came about African-American athletes were starting to fight back. They were not going to change their position for the pleasure of "Charlie" (the white man) and they were going to change the perception that had been held by the NFL for so long. In 1969, James Harris was going to change this perception and no one was going to make him change to another position because of the color of his skin, his athletic ability, or his so-called lack of intellect. Here was an athlete that was the prototype quarterback everyone wanted: smart, big (6" 4′, 210 pounds) and strong (Just Call Me Quarterback African Americans Struggled for the Opportunity to Play Quarterback in the NFL, Spencer, Sports Illustrated, pp. 48+, 1999). Scouts wanted James Harris to play the typical stereotyped position for the African-American athlete, but he declined. Because of his stand, James Harris was not picked until the eight round by the Buffalo Bills. As he states, "You have to know that you are a QB, no matter what." (Just Call Me Quarterback African Americans Struggled for the Opportunity to Play Quarterback in the NFL, Spencer, Sports Illustrated, pp. 48+, 1999). As he played in 1969, James Harris was the only black quarterback in the American and National football leagues (Black QBs Pass Through Barriers NFL’s 6 Starters Stand Out Now Only In Their Play, Mihoces, USA Today, pp01C, 1997). James Harris played from 1969 to 1979 with the Buffalo Bills (1969-71), Los Angeles Rams (1973-76), and San Diego Chargers (1977-79). During his 10-year career he amassed 8,136 passing yards, 45 touchdowns, MVP of the 1975 Pro Bowl, and he played in the NFC championship game twice with the Los Angeles Rams. Another 70s quarterback was Joe Gilliam of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was the first African-American to start for an NFL team on opening day in 1974. Leading the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record in the first six weeks of the 74 season, Gilliam was on of the hottest quarterbacks in the league. But, he started throwing interceptions and he lost his starting job to future Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw after his only loss. After the 74 season Joe Gilliam never started another game. Still, white America was not ready to see an African-American lead a team. Also, the quarterback position in the NFL is the last bastion, the final position on the field that has not been totally dominated by the Black athlete (Why Does the NFL Fear Black Quarterbacks? Evans, New York Amsterdam News, pp. PG, 1995). Although, many athletes had showed that they could play the position and win the prevailing attitude that white America held onto was that Blacks were intellectually incapable to command an offense. So, as one can plainly see it was not the intellect or the athletic ability that hindered many African-Americans a chance to play a position that they thrived in during their college careers it was the attitude of white society. This attitude was not only held to the football field, it was held in the cities and towns all across the country.
All through the years African-Americans have proven time and time again that they could play the position of quarterback. From Fritz Pollard to James Harris, fans and personnel saw that an African-American could play just as good as any of the white ball players. But, the eerie bigotry and ignorance of the white society kept trying to reinforce into the African-American culture that no African-American could ever truly lead an NFL team at all and definitely never to the ultimate goal of a Super Bowl victory. Enter the dawn of the eighties; African-Americans were not backing down to the oppression of white society. They were not going to sacrifice their dream because someone told them they had to change. Many African-Americans who were not given an opportunity to play their position in the U.S., moved north to Canada and excelled in the CFL.
But, some were determined to make it here in the states and they were going to break down all the barriers and succeed. The one quarterback that personified this cause in the eighties was Doug Williams. Williams was picked in the first round of the 1978 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Going Home; Super Bowl’s QB Superhero Doug Williams Returns to Zachary A Local Hero Too, Friedman, People, pp. 91, 1988). When Doug Williams arrived the Buccaneers were a terrible team, but after his arrival he gave them hope. During his career with the Buccaneers, Williams led them to the playoff three times in five years. But, this was not good enough since they were always eliminated in the first round. He would receive racist letters, gifts, death threats but he kept on playing not to be discouraged. Then Doug Williams was involved in a wage dispute with management; he was a man who was being paid a measly $125,000 a season, which was 46th among NFL quarterbacks. Here was a man who started, led a team to the playoff and is 46th out of 83 quarterbacks on the pay scale. This was just another example of white societies dual labor market. After this, Doug Williams left the NFL and played in the USFL. Then, in 1986 the head coach of the Washington Redskins, Joe Gibbs, called Williams and asked him to come play for Washington. Williams accepted the job of being the back up to Jay Schroeder. In 1988 the world was going to witness history and this event was going to shock white America, since it was their views that tried to keep African-American athletes from flourishing in the role as quarterback. On a hunch, Redskins coach Joe Gibbs had benched Jay Schroeder for the playoffs and started Williams in his place, and now Super Sunday had arrived and Williams would go against John Elway and the Broncos (NFL Preview/the Quarterback, Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated, pp. 78+, 1998). Here was Doug Williams going against the great white quarterback and everyone thought this would prove that no African-American could lead a team to victory over the more intelligent white quarterback. In the end, Doug Williams led his team to a 42-10 victory over Denver and he also captured the Super Bowl MVP award. Doug Williams had brought the wall down on white society.
As we look at the present with the Steve McNairs, Michael Vicks, Donovan McNabbs, Aaron Brooks, and Daunte Culpeppers of the league, one must see that the pioneers through the ages paved the way for the present situation. Fritz Pollard, Willie Thrower, Marlin Briscoe, James Harris, Joe Gilliam, and Doug Williams all made key contributions to help the present day quarterback get his shot, his opportunity to play the position that he wants to play and not by the stereotype of white America. Now, these men are labeled quarterbacks and are looked upon as quarterbacks. Has society fully accepted them as an equal to their white counterparts? Only time will tell if white society has truly accepted the African-American quarterback or if their ignorance still prevails. But, these pioneers will continue the history so that the next generation will crush the wall of racism before them, and prove that stereotypes and the ignorant critics wrong once and for all.
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