More than any moral imperative or even necessity, quarterback Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement from the Indianapolis Colts last week assured the permanent imprimatur of black quarterbacks on the soul of the National Football League.
We have made these pronouncements before, of course.
In 2001, when Michael Vick became the first black quarterback taken No. 1 overall, I thought for sure that the frustrations of black quarterbacks past — Fritz Pollard, Willie Thrower, Joe Gilliam, Eldridge Dickey — would be avenged and assuaged. That the black dominance that had evolved at running back, wide receiver and every position on defense would take over the quarterback position as well.
It never happened.
“I thought that would happen after Doug Williams won the Super Bowl, and it didn’t,” said Jimmy Raye, a former All-Big Ten quarterback at Michigan State and a veteran of nearly 40 years of college and NFL coaching.
As a college and NFL coach from 1971 to 2013, Raye, 73, observed and worked with a number of black quarterbacks. He is not convinced that all the gushing about this new wave of black quarterbacks is warranted, not as long as racism is the dominant theme of our culture.
“I think the numbers will increase and tilt more toward minority quarterbacks than it did 20 years ago,” Raye told me recently. “But I don’t think it will ever be a full revolution of all the teams in the NFL having black quarterbacks. I find that hard to believe. I think the NFL will disintegrate before that happens.”
A native of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and the product of a segregated school system, Raye came of age at a time when predominantly white Southern colleges were not recruiting black football players. He was part of coach Duffy Daugherty’s football underground railroad that delivered talented black players from the South to Michigan State. Raye was the All-Big Ten quarterback on the team that won the 1966 national championship. He was the Spartans’ quarterback against Notre Dame in the so-called game of the century that ended in a 10-10 tie.
At 6 feet, 185 pounds, Raye was also part of that generation of “athletic black quarterbacks” who did not fit the NFL’s quarterback mold. He was victimized by a mentality that insisted that athleticism and intelligence were mutually exclusive, especially when it came to black quarterbacks.
Today’s new group of black quarterbacks, despite the persistence of racism, has a chance to cleanse the NFL’s murky past. Luck’s sudden exit will escalate the process, and here’s why:
To many fans, Luck was seen, consciously or unconsciously, as a cultural hedge against this latest wave of black players, who threaten to make quarterbacks look like the largely black NFL secondaries and wide receiver groups. He was being counted on to take the torch from Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers as the face of the NFL. The white face.
As soon as Luck came out of Stanford, he was elevated to the pantheon of all-time great quarterbacks. This continued throughout his career, even though his win/loss record did not justify such an instant elevation.
Luck will turn 30 on Sept. 12. Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, both African American, have had demonstrably more successful NFL careers than Luck and in the same amount of time. Wilson, 30, led Seattle to one Super Bowl championship and came an interception away from winning a second. Newton, also 30, led Carolina to a Super Bowl appearance and has been the league MVP. Neither player has consistently been mentioned like Luck as successor to the quarterback throne.
This is not an attack on Luck, or on scouts and front-office personnel who, by and large, are driven by the need to win games. This is a critique of the latter-day incarnation of Jack London’s Great White Hope admonishment to Jim Jeffries that he save white honor by defeating Jack Johnson and take back the heavyweight boxing championship.
This mentality has been perpetuated by an overwhelmingly white sports media — I’ve sat in these press boxes for nearly 40 years — and accepted by a largely white fan base that craves white heroes and mythology at a time when both are disappearing from our landscape.
Quarterback has replaced the heavyweight belt as a marker of white manhood and whiteness in general. In an environment where white nationalism has become more open, Luck’s departure and the rise of black quarterbacks, for some, is another sign of eroding white privilege. There is already unbridled excitement around Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, who checks several boxes: talented, tall, blond, white. It remains to be seen whether Lawrence can stand up under the weight of having to carry cultural hopes and aspirations.
This may have been part of Luck’s problem.
“I think the fans will switch their allegiance from Andrew Luck to the Baker Mayfields of the world,” Raye said, referring to the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback.
“Luck was the next generation of greatness after the Bradys, the Brees, Philip Rivers. He was the torch carrier. So I think what’ll happen now is the young guns — the Sam Darnolds, the Josh Rosens and the Baker Mayfields — whichever guy comes out of that and carries his team to a conference championship, I think whoever that is will be the next point of the stability that white people feel comfortable with. They’ll make one of those guys the new hero.”
With Luck retired, not only is the hope of white succession to the throne gone, but the heirs are mostly players of color: Wilson with Seattle, Newton with Carolina, Pat Mahomes with Kansas City, Lamar Jackson with Baltimore, Marcus Mariota with Tennessee. Luck’s replacement in Indianapolis is a young black man. Jacoby Brissett, 24, played last season in Luck’s absence. A season earlier, Brissett filled in for the injured Brady in New England.
The unexpected elevation of Brissett is poignant because he is taking over an Indianapolis team that was constructed for a deep playoff run in anticipation of Luck’s presence. Whether Brissett succeeds largely depends on how well he plays. The opportunity is there, and that is what previous generations of aspiring black quarterbacks, including Raye’s, never received: a fair opportunity, a 50-50 chance to succeed.
‘Shack’ Harris: The prototypical black quarterback
I became intrigued by the black quarterback phenomenon in 1968, my freshman season at Morgan State University. We were scheduled to play Grambling State University at Yankee Stadium, the black college football game of the century, in a game featuring quarterback James “Shack” Harris.
Before reporting to Morgan for summer practice, I worked out at Grand Crossing Park in Chicago with a few Chicago Bears players. The man throwing passes during those workouts was Thrower, although I didn’t know at the time who he was or his significance.
Thrower was one of the first African Americans to play quarterback in the NFL’s modern era — he played for the Chicago Bears in 1953. Not until years later did I learn about Thrower’s backstory, his career at Michigan State, his frustrations as he breached the granite wall of opposition to blacks playing quarterback.
Thrower was a high school star in his native New Kensington, Pennsylvania. He was recruited to play football at Michigan State and was part of the Spartans’ 1952 national championship team. Undrafted, Thrower played for the Bears during the 1953 season. He saw limited action, throwing just eight passes, completing three with one interception. In one memorable game against the San Francisco 49ers, Thrower replaced veteran George Blanda, who was ineffective, and led the team on a drive from the Chicago 40-yard line to the 49ers’ 15-yard line. He was replaced by Blanda, who took the team in for a touchdown. That would effectively be the end of Thrower’s NFL career. He was released before the start of the next season, then played four seasons in the Canadian Football League before a shoulder injury ended his career at age 27.
In black college football circles, the big news of 1968 was that the Oakland Raiders had drafted Tennessee State’s Dickey, aka “The Lord’s Prayer,” in the first round. Dickey became the first black quarterback to receive such a distinction. The Raiders selected Dickey over Alabama’s Ken Stabler. By all reports, Dickey had an outstanding training camp, but he was switched to wide receiver before the season began. He never played quarterback as a professional.
Dickey’s misfortune left Shack Harris as our Great Black Hope. Harris was heralded as the player who would break the mold of what an NFL quarterback was supposed to look like. Aided by Tank Younger, a Grambling alum who was the first player from a historically black college to play in the NFL, Eddie Robinson, the legendary Grambling head coach, set out to make Harris the Jackie Robinson of quarterbacks.
If an African American was going to break through and fit that NFL mold, he’d have to be custom fit. Harris was the prototypical 6-foot-4, 215- to 220-pound guy with a big arm.
“He fit the mold of what the NFL was looking for,” said Raye, who had known Harris since high school. Harris was quite a basketball player and an exceptional athlete, but he was told by Robinson to hide his athleticism lest he suffer the fate of so many other exceptional athletes before him and get switched to another position.
“Eddie Robinson had been going to camps, I think, and he knew what they were looking for because of Tank Younger at the Rams as a scout. He knew the prototypical-type guy they were looking for: tall, rangy guy with a pocket presence and a big arm.”
Harris was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the eighth round in 1969 and became the first African American quarterback to start a regular-season game in NFL history.
Always been exceptional black talent at QB
Raye had planned to attend Tennessee State University, a powerhouse in black college football in the early and mid-1960s. He wound up going to Michigan State. “I didn’t go to Tennessee State because they had Eldridge Dickey,” he said.
Raye enjoyed a fantastic college career. He was called then what he would be called today: an athletic quarterback who relies as much on running and maneuvering as on passing to make plays. The designation had negative connotations then. Today, it’s a badge of honor.
“Back then, mobility and the ability to extend plays wasn’t a big criteria for the pocket passer guys,” said Raye.
Raye never got to play quarterback in the NFL. Black quarterbacks such as Raye and Marlin “the Magician” Briscoe didn’t fit the NFL mold. Briscoe, 5-11, 180 pounds, was a star quarterback at the University of Nebraska-Omaha but was drafted by Denver in 1968 as a wide receiver. When an injury sidelined the Broncos’ starting quarterback, Briscoe stepped in and established a rookie record for touchdowns. Briscoe never played quarterback again.
“Canada was what we were told was more in line with what our game or our abilities dictated,” Raye recalled. Raye was chosen in the 16th round of the 1968 draft by the Los Angeles Rams, who made their intentions clear.
”When I was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, they told me on the phone, before I ever met them in person, that I’d make a great free safety, even though I’d never played defense a snap in my life. Even though I had won a national championship, I was an athletic quarterback. I’d either accept the fact that my position was going to be switched or I could go to Canada. Those were the choices that I had.
“I was somewhat relieved that I was drafted but then disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to play the position that I played.’’
Raye is astounded by the transition in the NFL that has turned players with his build and skill set into valued offensive players. “It’s really amazing. Before, if you were black, you weren’t even considered to play the position. Now, the way the game has transcended, not only are they drafting quarterbacks with the first pick but they are drafting short quarterbacks with the first pick that don’t fit the mold.”
As the NFL celebrates a new season, the game’s most glamorous position, a unique position in sports, is once again being transformed by athletes who have taken mobility beyond being a luxury and made it a necessity.
“The whole spectrum has transformed. What was disdained before is now readily accepted because everybody is trying to be one-up on the competition,” Raye said. “Everybody’s trying to find another Russell Wilson. Another Michael Vick.”
Raye came of age during the heart of the civil rights movement. “I came out during the heights of the civil rights movement, where segregation was at the forefront of American society. So it was a norm for a black man to be considered a non-leader, a non-face of a university, or the franchise.” Being unable to play quarterback was a disappointment but not a surprise.
If Raye were coming out of college today with his same level of success, he’d likely be a top draft selection. “No question. If I played in the biggest game in the history of college football, won a national championship, went undefeated, won the Rose Bowl and Big Ten championship, I would’ve been picked possibly like Lamar Jackson and all of these other guys who are considered to be more athlete than prototype pocket quarterbacks. It would’ve been an asset rather than a disadvantage.”
Raye has been a coach for 15 NFL teams and two major college programs. He has coached several talented young quarterbacks, many of whom have no idea about the racial history of their position. “What they grew up seeing was Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Randall Cunningham,’’ Raye said. “They think that’s the way it always has been. They don’t know that there was a whole lot of blood spilled before this opportunity that has been made available to them.”
He added: “I don’t begrudge them the opportunity they have. I try to instill in them that there’s a tradition that was established before them where blacks weren’t given the opportunity to play quarterback. I try to prepare them going in for everything that they will have to handle. I try to make them aware of the history and the tradition of the game and make sure that they don’t shortcut their opportunity by not being prepared for the nuances of how the game is played at the NFL level.”
Perhaps because he has seen too much, experienced too much and can still see the scars, Raye does not totally buy the idea that the NFL is in the midst of a black revolution at quarterback. He points out that black quarterbacks are still hard-pressed to get coveted backup jobs.
Raye is right: This is not a revolution but an evolution, the type of steady, relentless battle that has defined black life in America for 400 years. The NFL is simply a microcosm of an endless struggle.
For decades, NFL teams denied opportunity to, marginalized, underestimated and devalued black talent. With the imminent retirement of the old-guard quarterbacks, and the sudden retirement last week of a new one, there is a vacuum to be filled. It will be filled by players who look different, who run differently and act differently from anything that has come before.
Those who want to cling to the old status quo will discover that, alas, their luck has run out.