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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. []