PIONEERING BLACK QUARTERBACKS JAMES HARRIS,
WARREN MOON, MARLIN BRISCOE, DOUG WILLIAMS RECALL INTEGRATING THE NFL’S TOP POSITION IN THE FACE OF RACISM ON THE NEXT EDITION OF
“60 MINUTES SPORTS” ON SHOWTIME®
Premieres Wednesday, August 7 at 9 p.m. ET/PT
Marlin Briscoe, the First Black Starting NFL QB, Says Watching Doug Williams Become the First Black QB to Start in a Super Bowl Saved His Life by Inspiring Him to Give Up Drugs
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Two decades after Jackie Robinson broke pro baseball’s color line the NFL still had no black quarterbacks, even as African Americans excelled at every other position on the field. It was pro-football’s open secret: the quarterback position was for whites only. A handful of pioneers began to change this in 1968 and three of them tell their humiliating and often emotional stories to correspondent Armen Keteyian about an unpopular chapter in the history of America’s most-popular sport. Keteyian also talks to the black QBs of the 1980s and ‘90s whose paths were paved by those pioneers in this rarely told story for the next edition of 60 MINUTES SPORTS, Wednesday, August 7 at 9 p.m. ET/PT only on SHOWTIME.
Marlin Briscoe, who still holds the Denver Broncos rookie passing record of 14 touchdowns in five games, was the first African American to start an NFL game on Oct. 6, 1968. Despite this successful beginning, he was not even invited to a post-season meeting about the quarterback position. They would find a white player to replace the starter he substituted for. He joined the Buffalo Bills and then the Miami Dolphins, playing the rest of his career as a wide receiver. Was it institutional racism? “About 95 percent,” Briscoe tells Keteyian.
Star black quarterbacks in high school and college got drafted into the NFL in the 1950s and ‘60s, but a disturbing thing happened when they got there. It happened to Briscoe. “Well, they tell me that, you know, I am an athlete.” The implication was he and other blacks would have to be receivers or defensive backs to be successful in the NFL.
The first black to start the season at quarterback in the NFL, James Harris, didn’t switch. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King and groomed to be the first NFL starting quarterback by his coach at Grambling, the legendary Eddie Robinson, Harris overcame humiliation and frustration. Drafted by the Buffalo Bills, he was told to play wide receiver while learning quarterback, had to stay at the YMCA instead of the players’ hotel and suffered the indignity of working in the equipment room cleaning spikes. “I knew that was out of line,” says Harris. But in 1969, Harris persevered, just as Robinson knew he would. He went on to play 13 seasons; leading the LA Rams to the NFC Championship in 1974, but it was hard.
He received death threats, withstood racial epithets and was never considered the face of any of the franchises he played for. He tells Keteyian he was a black quarterback and every article that was written referred to him in that way. “It affected my play. …I tried to play perfect.”
In 1978, quarterback Warren Moon led the University of Washington to an upset victory in the Rose Bowl. He was not even drafted by the NFL. “I was…very, very bitter,” he says. Forced to go to the Canadian Football League, he did so well there that six years later, NFL teams started a bidding war for him and Moon wound up being, for a time, the highest paid player in the NFL. He played so well for 17 seasons in the NFL that he became the first black quarterback admitted to the Football Hall of Fame in 2006. He, too, earned it the hard way.
Moon endured the racial epithets and death threats like the others. It was a burden, but one he took advantage of he tells Keteyian. “I pretty much played my whole career…with a chip on my shoulder…and that drive helped me play for as long as I did and for as high a level as I did,” he says. “You felt like not only did you have to play well for yourself, but you were playing for your race…You knew you were doing something that was going to help another generation of guys,” says Moon.
Keteyian also talks to Doug Williams, whose exploits took the Washington Redskins past the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII in 1988, earning him the game MVP Award – the first for a black quarterback and a milestone in the integration of the position. It was a special day for men like Moon and Harris and even more important for Briscoe, who had fallen on hard times after his football career and another as a stock broker. He watched the game in a San Diego jail, locked up for drug possession. He had become addicted to crack cocaine.
“I just cried when the game was over…just made me feel so proud. And I felt I had something to do with this,” he tells Keteyian. Briscoe says he cried tears of joy for Williams and the black race, but also tears for himself for being where he was now after helping pave the way for such a feat. “And after I got out of the San Diego jail, I moved back to LA, didn’t do drugs since,” says Briscoe. “That day probably saved my live.”