When a sports fan is asked who is the first African-American MLB baseball player, everyone can quickly fire back the name Jackie Robinson. When asked who is the first black NFL quarterback of the post-war era, you are more likely to get a blank stare fired at you. The answer is the player with a football name too good to be fake: Willie Thrower. Not even Thrower’s hometown neighbors knew he was the first black NFL quarterback, therefore, one can be excused for not having heard of him.
For the first time in NFL history, the game between the Carolina Panthers and the Washington Redskins featured back to back Heisman Trophy Winners Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III. There was a time not too long ago where such an NFL quarterback matchup would have never been possible; not because of Newton’s and RG III Heismans, but because of their skin color. Thanks to league pioneers such as Thrower and many others, who paved the way for the black quarterbacks of today, those times are history.
It is all too easy to forget that not long ago there were few, if any, black NFL quarterbacks. Although he did not get many career throws, Thrower played for the Chicago Bears in 1953, having seen limited action in only one game. Regardless of his lack of longevity, Thrower’s achievement has been recognized by the NFL Hall of Fame as a historic achievement.
In the twenty years following Thrower’s debut, there were only four other African-American quarterbacks who would play in the NFL: Charlie Brackins, Marlin Briscoe, James Harris and Joe Gilliam. Of the four, the most notable was Harris (Grambling State), who played for three NFL teams. As the 1970’s started to see an increase in black quarterbacks, it would be another Grambling State product, whose inspirational story of rags to riches would finally obliterate the color barrier at the NFL quarterback position.
Doug Williams was drafted in the First Round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1978 NFL Draft, joining a colorful group of hapless misfits coached by John McKay. Prior to Williams’ arrival, the Bucs had lost their first 26 games as a franchise, but were riding a scorching hot two game winning streak at the end of the 1977 season, catapulting the franchise record to 2-26.
In 1978, the strong armed rookie led the Bucs to a 4-4 start (doubling the two previous seasons’ win totals) before injuries to him and key offensive team members would take their toll. Williams ended up starting ten games and finishing with a 4-6 record in a disappointing 5-11 campaign. Nevertheless, the team managed to foster some future optimism, which had been sorely missing.
There was no such disappointment the following season, as Williams would lead the 10-6 miracle Bucs to the 1979 NFC Championship Game appearance, succumbing to the Los Angeles Rams 9-0 on three Frank Corral field goals. Despite his poor performance in the game (2-13-12 yds-1 int), Williams had arrived.
Williams would spend another three seasons in Tampa compiling a record of 19-21-1 as a starter. After the strike shortened 1982 season, Williams could not agree to contract terms with the Bucs and the two parted ways. He would not take another NFL snap until 1986, when Washington Redskins Head Coach Joe Gibbs signed him as a backup. Williams would attempt only one pass that season.
In 1987, Redskins starting quarterback Jay Schroeder was hampered with a shoulder injury. In the final game of the season, Williams led the Skins to an overtime victory over the Minnesota Vikings and was named starter for the playoffs. After disposing of the Chicago Bears and the Vikings in the playoffs, the stage was set for an appearance in Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos in San Diego. Williams had now really arrived…to the big show.
His performance in the big game was nothing short of spectacular, as he set Super Bowl records for passing yards, touchdown passes and longest completion. He led Washington to a 42-10 trouncing of the Broncos and was named the game’s MVP. With this performance, Williams became the only black signal-caller to win a Super Bowl, entering the rarified atmosphere of NFL quarterback royalty.
Unlike Major League Baseball, where one man has received most of the credit for busting down the color barrier, the NFL quarterback color barrier was broken down by many individuals, who all played integral roles in the effort. The RG IIIs and the Cams owe a debt of gratitude to all the black throwers, who changed the image of the game for the better.