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The History of Black Quarterbacks in the NFL

Fritz Pollard, the first African American coach and quarterback in the NFL.

Fritz Pollard, the first African American coach and quarterback in the NFL.

Five years ago, I wrote a five part series detailing the history of the black quarterback. With February being Black History Month and Super Bowl XLVII marking the 25th anniversary of Doug Williams becoming the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, I figured it was worth another trip down memory lane.

The history of black quarterbacks in professional football is complicated. As recently as 2007, the New York Giants had never had a black quarterback throw even a single pass. On the other hand, as far back as 1921, Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard not only quarterbacked the Akron Pros, but was also the first black head coach in NFL history.  A year earlier, Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the first two black players in professional football history and helped the Pros win the championship in the NFL’s inaugural season.1 The Pros ran the single-wing, and Pollard was the player lined up behind the center who received the snaps. At the time the forward pass was practically outlawed, so Pollard barely resembles the modern quarterback outside of the fact that he threw a few touchdown passes during his career.2

According to the great Sean Lahman, at least one African American played in the NFL in every year from 1920 to 1933, although Pollard was the only quarterback.3 Beginning in 1934, that there was an informal ban on black athletes largely championed by Washington Redskins owner George Marshall.   It wasn’t until 1946 that black players were re-admitted to the world of professional football, when UCLA’s Kenny Washington4 and Woody Strode were signed by the Los Angeles Rams; in the AAFC, Bill Willis and Marion Motley were signed by Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns that same season.

After George Taliaferro played quarterback in the AAFC in 1949, he became the second black quarterback in NFL history when he joined the New York Yanks in 1950.5 Taliaferro was a jack-of-all trades: in both 1952 and 1953, he accumulated over 200 passing, rushing and receiving yards, and scored a touchdown via all three methods. But despite making three Pro Bowls, Taliaferro never led his team in passing, and was more a utility player than a quarterback.

The next African American quarterback in the NFL was unquestionably a thrower. Literally. Willie Thrower became the third black quarterback in league history in 1953 when he threw eight passes in one game for the Bears (and did not record a rushing attempt or a reception). Two years later, Charlie “Choo Choo” Brackins was signed by the Green Bay Packers, marking another milestone. While Pollard (Brown), Taliaferro (Indiana) and Thrower (Michigan State) came from major schools, Brackins was the first in a small line of quarterbacks from historically black colleges, paving the way for quarterbacks like Doug Williams and Steve McNair.

Brackins and Thrower combined to throw just ten passes, and the NFL did not enlist another black quarterback for twelve seasons. That’s because players like Pete Hall, a quarterback at Marquette, switched to receiver when they made it to the NFL. Sandy Stephens led Minnesota to the Rose Bowl and was selected in the first round of the AFL draft and the second round of the NFL draft in 1962. But since both the New York Titans and Cleveland Browns wanted him to switch positions like Hall, Stephens instead moved to Canada to play quarterback in the CFL. In 1968, the Raiders drafted Tennessee State’s Eldridge Dickey in the first round, but used him as a utility player and returner. Thirteen rounds later, Denver drafted Marlin Briscoe, who became the first modern black player to start at quarterback in the NFL. Briscoe ranked sixth in the AFL in passing yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating, while leading the league in yards per completion as a rookie.

After the season, Denver informed Briscoe that they intended to go with Pete Liske as their quarterback in 1969 (with Steve Tensi as the backup); as a result, Briscoe asked for his release, and signed on with the Bills as a wide receiver. In 2002, Briscoe wrote an autobiography chronicling his struggles as a black quarterback in professional football.

In the fifth round of the 1969 draft, the Patriots drafted Onree Jackson. The Patriots player personnel director said “Jackson could be the Willie Mays of pro football” but he was released just months later; the only explanation provided was that Jackson “was behind the other three quarterbacks.” But another black quarterback from that draft had much more success. In the eighth round, James Harris was drafted by the Bills and was the team’s opening day starter. Harris played sparingly in ’70 and ’71, before being out of football in 1972. But he joined the Rams in 1973, and the next season became the first black quarterback to make the Pro Bowl. But there has been at least one black quarterback in the NFL in every season starting in 1968. In 1972, Joe Gilliam was drafted by the Steelers; Gilliam would play four seasons, with the majority of his work coming in 1974. That season, the year Pittsburgh won its first Super Bowl, Gilliam arguably outplayed Terry Bradshaw in the regular season, but he was unable to wrest the job from the former number one overall pick.

J.J. Jones (New York Jets), Dave Mays (Cleveland), John Walton (Philadelphia), Parnell Dickinson (Tampa Bay) and Vince Evans (Chicago) all entered the NFL in the mid-to-late ’70s, serving as a bridge until the next breakthrough. By the end of the 1977 season, no black quarterback had been selected before the sixth round of the draft. That changed when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Doug Williams with the 17th pick in the first round of the 1978 draft.

After Williams, no black QBs entered the league for five years. During the 1983 season, Evans was the only black quarterback in the NFL (Williams was in the USFL at the time). Evans joined Williams in the USFL after the season, but in 1984, the landscape of what a black quarterback could do in the NFL changed forever.

Warren Moon joined the Canadian Football League in 1978, and promptly led his Edmonton Eskimos to the Grey Cup title in each of his first five seasons. In 1983, he set the single season passing record and won the Most Oustanding Player award. That prompted the Houston Oilers to sign the future 9-time Pro Bowler and NFL Hall of Famer. Moon still ranks in the top five in NFL history in passing yards despite not throwing a pass until he was nearly 28 years old.

Randall Cunningham was drafted in 1985, and would become a star using a different style. His historic 1990 season saw him throw 30 touchdown passes and rush for 942 yards; no other player with 30 passing touchdowns in a single season has rushed for even 500 yards. After Reggie Collier was drafted by the Cowboys in 1986, a string of black QBs entered the NFL during the strike: Mark Stevens, Walter Briggs, Larry Miller, Willie Gillus, Bernard Quarles, Tony Robinson and Willie Totten. Two years later, Rodney Peete was drafted by the Lions, and the following year, the Lions drafted Andre Ware with the seventh overall pick in the draft. Since 1990, there have been at least five black quarterback in the NFL every season.

In 2000, Michael Vick became the first black quarterback selected with the first pick. Then in 2006, Vince Young became the first black quarterback to win rookie of the year, and Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III have won the award since then. In addition to Newton and Griffin, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Josh Freeman all ranked in the top 12 in Net Yards pr Attempt in 2012, while West Virginia’s Geno Smith may be the first player selected in the 2013 draft. This sort of success is probably mind-blowing to players like Thrower and Stephens, making this one of the few real-life stories that does have a happy ending.

  1. At the time, the NFL went by the name the American Professional Football Association. It was not known as the NFL until 1922. []
  2. In addition to his NFL exploits, Pollard also achieved a great deal of fame for leading Brown to back-to-back road wins over the powerhouse schools of the time, Yale and Harvard, in 1916. He would become the first African American to be named an All-American and the prior season, he lead Brown to the Rose Bowl. []
  3. It wasn’t just African Americans that had full access during this era: Jim Thorpe coached and starred in a team composed entirely of Native Americans called the Oorang Indians in 1922 and 1923. []
  4. Who occupied the same backfield with the Bruins as Jackie Robinson. []
  5. For what it’s worth, Washington also played a little quarterback with the Rams. []
  • Tim

    A great history lesson Chase. It is worth mentioning that a bias existed during all those early years that African-Americans were not smart enugh to be a pro level QB. This prejudice also existed for the LB position, espeically MLB where doubts about cogntive capabality existed for the “QB of the defense.” A review of positions in the NFL (much less so for the AFL) shows many prominent teams not having african-american LB’s. Dallas’ fisrt consistent African-Amercian starter at LB was Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson in the 1970’s. If my review of starters for GB during the Lombarid era shows that only Dave Robinson was an African-American LB starter during that time. Of course, rosters were more caucasian proportionally.

    As you said, its ice to see this prejudice for QB’s reversed. And brave of you to take on the race issue which can be very sensitive for many people.

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks Tim. I’m glad you enjoyed.

    • Where is your proof of the bias, Tim? Your claim seems to be balderdash. Unless you can produce a preponderance of proof consisting of statements by GMs and HCs over the years to support your claim, your claim will be nothing but race baiting foolery.

      Good luck!

      • Gregory Steven Feltner

        I was thinking the same thing. In fact, me and my brother argued this last night. This article does not confirm racism, it actually says the opposite. If so little blacks played quarterback, yet there was a black qb in the league almost every year, it does not fit with the race issue.

  • dave crockett

    Awesome piece man. I wish I’d seen it in February.

    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks dave!

  • Johnny

    Kaepernick is half white. Freeman is mixed as well, so is Russell Wilson.

    You should redo this analysis and eliminate the biracials.

    • Leo

      keyword: Mixed. They were not remotely considered white b/c of it so your point is invalid. The piece stands its validity.

      • ground 0

        ….thats crazy to even mention……

    • ground 0

      thats crazy to even mention johnny….

    • J

      True I totally agree, and I’m black. Biracials do receive some preference in society, I don’t think Barrack Obama would have got elected President if he were black as coal or looked like his dad and not biracial, and I’m black by the way. Is what it is. But still a great piece of history.

      • Lydia M. Edwards

        I disagree about Barack Obama being elected because he is biracial. He is not light skinned. He looks like many average Black Americans. My father (both parents Black) was 2 shades lighter than Barack Obama; so are many African Americans. Character, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma, along with a platform that resonated with people, are the reasons for Barack Obama’s election. White people don’t particularly care how Black you are, as long as you are descernably Black. There does appear to be an effort cause division and confusion, though. The only folks who loose are the ones left with no sense of identity or alliance. Smh.
        Great article, but who has the title of first contracted Black quarterback?

  • horn

    And Randall is the only one who could punt 90+ yds as well!

  • Asking questions are really pleasant thing if you are not understanding anything fully, however this post gives nice understanding

  • Wes Henderson


    I like the piece. I have been following B-QB’s for the last (30) yrs. I always wondered how the media/scouts choose the words to describe B-QB’s, and the words used are always athletic runner, needs to work on his ability to learn how to read defenses? Trent Dilfer and John Gruden have finally provided a forum for people to see the up and coming B-QB’s as Equals to their counterparts. A clean slate where the Young guns can market themselves and showcase their talent. Now we have to work on getting the NFL B-QB talent around them, which is what seems to be the biggest reason for our short shelf life today. GM’s are saying you go do it alone and if you can’t your not good enough to be in this league. Where as guys like Matt Cassell, Matt Flynn and Kevin Kolb, can play as few as (1) game or no college experience and get drafted first off as well as get paid like a star with NO RESUME??? So there is work to do

  • charles velek

    Aaron Brooks, Packers, Saints

  • doc

    Really good article, really good

  • Nett

    Nice piece, great info – I wonder if there is any information regarding black punters in the NFL?

    • How about black water boys or black sprint coaches? Because you wouldn’t want to ask obscure questions, would you?

  • Aldo Boyer

    who was the first black pro football player from Philadelphia

  • D

    What about? Willie Thrower/1955

  • P-Daddy

    That was very interesting,enjoyed reading the artical

  • Benjamin F. Hicks

    It was a great article, a lot of good information that one can learn from… Keep up the great work, that will keep us all enlighten…

  • Winston

    Good stuff. I was telling my girl that there were no Black QBs in the NFL for a long time. I stand corrected. A lot of stuff I didn’t know, but many of my faves Warren Moon especially, changed the game for me. I’m from Seattle and black so grew up with him as a Husky and he retired à Seahawk. Love the history lesson. Thank you.

  • natalie

    my friend’s 8 year old grandson just mentioned that he noticed there were so few black qbs,compared to the rest of the team. quite an obsevastion for a young white child. this article is really informative. thank you.

    • Kathy Spease

      That means he’s being raised right by wonderful people!

  • W E Stevens

    Where can I find the documentary of “Run To Glory”, Eddie Robinson and other SBU’s coaches, developing of the pro-style black quarterback?

  • Valerie O’Neil

    Great article! I think it’s worth mentioning Donovan McNabb, who was Rookie of the Year in the 90s and a quarterback.

  • How come no story was ever written on the first white player drafted?

    You whit guilt people keep the segregation going, by celebrating black this, black that… all you doing is segregating.

    You just don’t see your blatant racism by celebrating one color over another.

    • alsaxe

      are u serious?..geesh..get a reality check..the reason for the whole article was to point out that the QB position was white dominated for decaes

    • Ann Thompson

      so in other words according to you a White cannot be validated in anyway and from just the start will be racist. Wrong if you mention black, wrong if you aren’t doing something proactive to help the black community. But, in so doing you cannot mention the race or you are being a white guilt people for talking about the help you try to do. You are full of crap.

    • Lydia M. Edwards

      No. We don’t.

  • sacramento gold miners

    “Jefferson Street” Joe Gilliam did have two good games to open the 1974 season, but fell off over the next four games, starting with an 8-31 dud versus Oakland. It was obvious the Steelers had to make a change, they were a playoff contender, and didn’t have time to be as patient with Gilliam as a rebuilding team would be. While Gilliam had potential, he soon developed a drug problem, and that killed his NFL career.

  • Dasatch

    Ouch Muddbutt Owbama IiI !! Showing your reluctance to recognize a small part of true American Culture is alarming. Football is a form of entertainment. Simply recognizing that African American NFL quarterbacks were 1) did exist; 2) were a small number in representing the totality of football over the decades. Great sport football, but unfair in the regard of race and position. Marlon Briscoe. 1969 Denver Broncos Rookie quarterback. Led the league in ’69 in touchdowns thrown by a rookie 14. The teams best draft pick to that date. Denver’s Coach Saban made in roads in conversation with staff and the media that Marlon would not play quarterback the next season. Upon hearing this, Marlon requested a trade. Trade granted, hello Buffalo. Did not play QB, but became top wide receiver. Traded to Miami the following year and became 2 time Super Bowl winner. I think he will be at Miamii Dolphins 50th year celebration as being the NFL’s only team to go undefeated for an entire season. Mr. Muddbutt, you should try to be there and meet Mr. Briscoe . That will be probably 2023 February after the Super Bowl.

  • Andre Williams

    How do not mention Donovan Mcnabb or Steve McNair? Both quaterbacks displayed consistent success in the NFL for years.

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  • Cmark Taylor

    In the first New York city hall of fame