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February 6, 2014 5:37 PM   Subscribe

"This project started with my dad on Thanksgiving. He was reminiscing about Doug Williams, who in 1988 became the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl. All these years later, he was still proud of Williams, whose name to some may be that of a half-remembered player from the past but to millions of others remains a powerful symbol of progress. It stayed with me, and it seemed that it was worth telling the story not just of Williams, but of everyone—of all those generations of players who struggled so that Russell Wilson could be, simply, a good young quarterback." Deadspin's The Big Book of Black Quarterbacks.
posted by davidjmcgee (16 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
There aren't many reasons I'm specifically happy to have been born in Houston, 1980, but one of them is that growing up watching Warren Moon, it never occurred to me that black QBs were novel, and in fact I never really thought about it until commentators were talking a lot about RGIII and Cam Newton. It's one of my go-to examples of how prejudice can die out quite quickly under the right circumstances.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:03 PM on February 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I was in high school a friend of mine worked in the shoe department at an anchor at the local mega-mall. Sometimes I would go up there and hang with him until he got off work. One night the jealous boyfriend of a girl my friend had been hitting on showed up with Doug Williams at closing time. They asked him if he had been messing around with her and then pushed him into the back room about the beat the crap out of him. The only thing that stopped them was this high-pitched, weasel-like squeal that was coming from his mouth as he freaked out, hyperventilated and screamed "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry!" simultaneously.

Two years later Doug Williams won the Super Bowl for the Redskins. True story.
posted by HyperBlue at 6:06 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

My stepmother, who grew up an LA Rams' fan -- her grandparents had 50 yard line seats at the LA Coliseum going back almost to the team's first season in LA -- never forgave Carroll Rosenbloom and the Rams for trading James Harris to the Chargers.

"But he was hurt."

"That's not why they traded him."


"Well it's like this..."

She's still a Chargers' fan, as far as I know.
posted by notyou at 6:08 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow, there's a whole bunch of quarterbacks for Rush Limbaugh to casually dismiss.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:10 PM on February 6, 2014

Man there's some great stuff in here. I like Dave Mays, who played for the Cleveland Browns while practicing as a dentist.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:13 PM on February 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

That was a fascinating read -- the tone being equal parts matter of fact and awestruck, which is how I can remember feeling about football once upon a time. Very happy to have spent time with this author. Thanks for posting.
posted by sleevener at 6:22 PM on February 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yeah, sleevener, that took me back (hence the story above).

We used to collect NFL football player cards, and on rainy afternoons, we'd line 'em up in formation on the living room floor and play a game. We used a ruler to figure how far they could move each turn, and we used a silver dollar for the ball. To pass you had to flip that dollar from more or less the vicinity of your QB and land it on your receiver's card.

Needless to say, that game sucked. But we sure liked lining up our cards and arguing about what constitutes a tackle.
posted by notyou at 6:30 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nice to see the author note how many of those black QB's got their start or had significant playing time up here in the CFL (for most of my memory the racial makeup of CFL QB's has always been about 60/40 W/B), he did miss a few NFL/CFL guys on his list too (Cleo Lemon for one).

Also, by all accounts, when Warren Moon played in Edmonton not only did he dominate, he was also a really good dude while playing here, this is not always the case with football players trying their hand in Canada.
posted by Cosine at 6:44 PM on February 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I remember Moon in Edmonton. I wasn't particularly a football fan, but it was easy to tell how totally amazing he was. It really is somewhat bizarre that a future NFL hall of famer spent 6 years here. The best football player I've seen play live, by a mile.

I guess, thanks NFL racists of 35 years ago?
posted by alex_reno at 7:49 PM on February 6, 2014

There is a lot of great stuff in here. I particularly liked this incredible story from Marlin Briscoe:

"You won't believe this. Right after my rookie season, one of my receivers was named Jimmy Jones. He used to play for the [Chicago] Bears. I went to Chicago to see my girlfriend. I contacted Jimmy and he took me to this bar called The Presidents. So, Jimmy is introducing me to the bartender, 'This is Marlin Briscoe. He is the first black quarterback in the NFL.' This guy was sitting next to me. He said, 'You weren't the first black quarterback.' I said, 'I was.' He said, 'No, you weren't.' I said, 'Well, who was?' He said, 'I was. My name is Willie Thrower.' It couldn't happen in a million years. I knew that he existed, and he was sitting right next to me. We sat there and we talked for a couple of hours. I met him by happenstance going to this lounge with my receiver. I knew who he was, and for him to be sitting right next to me. It was kind of crazy, but I am glad that I got a chance to meet him."
posted by the thing about it at 8:29 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

From the article:
Big-time programs would recruit black high school quarterbacks, but only if they committed to a position switch. That's why it's hard to blame the paucity of black professional quarterbacks throughout history solely on the NFL. The winnowing begins in high school, and maybe even earlier. Old biases get baked into the system. The stereotypes settle and reinforce themselves. How many potentially great black quarterbacks were turned into running backs or safeties before they even hit college?
I have found that some people have a lot of trouble grasping the concept of institutional bias -- like how even if no individual participant is a straight-up, George Preston Marshall-style racist, the whole system still might end up spitting out racist results. Maybe its Americans' obsession with individuality, who knows. I have on occasion used exactly the example of black QBs in the NFL to try to explain how institutional bias can happen.
posted by mhum at 8:54 PM on February 6, 2014 [10 favorites]

Doug Williams didn't just win the Super Bowl, he won it in one quarter:
Then Doug Williams went apeshit.

Less than a minute into the second quarter, Williams threw an 80-yard touchdown strike to Ricky Sanders. The Broncos took the kickoff, then punted. The Redskins got the ball back, ran it down the field, then Williams found Gary Clark for a 27-yard touchdown. Washington's next possession: Running back Timmy Smith scampered into the end zone from 58 yards out. Next possession: Williams passed to Ricky Sanders for a 50-yard score. Next possession: Williams threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Clint Didier. At half, it was 35-10. Williams had just thrown four touchdown passes in 13 minutes.
And that should've forever ended any of this "black quarterback" bullshit, not that it should ever have been a question in the first place.

By the way, Ricky Sanders also had a good day; he "set Super Bowl records for most receiving yards (193), most total yards (235), most touchdowns in one quarter (2), most receiving yards in one quarter (168), and longest touchdown reception (80 yards, tie)." Timmy Smith "set a Super Bowl rushing record, gaining 204 yards and scoring two touchdowns."
posted by kirkaracha at 9:28 PM on February 6, 2014

Nice to see the author note how many of those black QB's got their start or had significant playing time up here in the CFL (for most of my memory the racial makeup of CFL QB's has always been about 60/40 W/B), he did miss a few NFL/CFL guys on his list too (Cleo Lemon for one).

Yeah, it made me proud to be a Canadian that one recurring subplot was "welp, he didn't get respect in the NFL, but he did just fine north of the border".

Warren Moon trivia: He opened a cookie place in Edmonton, W. Moon Chocolate Chippery, and baked cookies before games to calm his nerves. I was at a wedding in Edmonton a few years back, and some of the the bride's sisters who were of the right age to remember went into a nostalgiac gush over the cookies, and how dreamy Warren Moon was.
Two news reports from his bidding war: NYT 1983 before going to the NFL, and SI 1984 after. And a retrospective in Maclean's from 2009.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:13 PM on February 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think my favorite part of this piece is the entry on Charlie Batch, a forgettable, mediocre quarterback who kept playing actual NFL games because he had the good(?) luck to back up injury-prone or self-destructing starters. Batch has a 14-year career made entirely of mediocrity, without ever getting turned into an emblem of the "problem" with black quarterbacks. As the article puts it, "The thing about Batch is that he never disappeared. He stuck. He never flew, but he never had to."

When a member of a historically marginalized group can be well known for being bad at his job without attracting a bunch of racist crap, that's a nice sign. Although I'm not sure how much comfort it was to Charlie Batch personally.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:16 AM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

What a great read. Thanks for sharing this, davidjmcgee.

Although I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, I considered myself a huge Steelers fan as a young wolf, and I'd never heard of Joe Gilliam until today. What a sad, sad story. Sometimes I dream about being a hero, but more often I'm truly grateful I've never been in the spotlight or carried the expectations of an entire group of people on my shoulders.
posted by lord_wolf at 12:43 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

The “mental redlining” thing still happens. Eighty percent of the time, when comparisons are made, white QBs are still compared to other white QBs, and black QBs are compared to other black QBs.

Byron Leftwich illustrated this perfectly — the younger, dumber version of me simply assumed he was a kinda-mobile QB, and it took some time for me to realize he ran about as often as Drew Bledsoe. On the flip side, ask yourself how often you hear a mobile black QB compared to Steve Young or Rich Gannon.

We have conditioned ourselves into thinking that a black quarterback is necessarily a different kind of player than a white quarterback. We imagine two completely separate boxes instead of overlapping ranges on a spectrum.

On another note, a random redditor once pointed out that ESPN's nutso QBR metric thinks Charlie Batch had the best game of any QB ever, which may say more about QBR than it does about Charlie Batch.
posted by savetheclocktower at 9:41 PM on February 7, 2014

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