Hate Mail, Unofficial Bans and Super Bowls: Long Journey of the Black QB | NFL

Tthe Guardian spoke to Jason Reid to talk about his new book, which tells the story of the men who laid the foundations for today’s black superstar quarterbacks and how modern players, like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, navigate the unconscious bias and conscious racism that continues to permeate American society.

Fritz Pollard is a monumental figure in NFL history, as well as in your book. I know you spent time with grandson. Can you explain Pollard’s impact on the game?

Jason Reid: Pollard was the first African American superstar in the NFL. He was listed as a running back even though he played quarterback – not quarterback in the sense we know that with the formations we know. But he was also a quarterback and he was the first black head coach. It is monumental on many levels. With regard to the quarterback position, someone had to be first. He was an All-Pro in the first year of the competition. He was a star in the first year of the competition. And in a league that didn’t welcome black men at the time, he was an absolute outlier.

There was a disturbing 12-year period (1934-1946) when there were no black players in the NFL. Do you think the owners had a formal agreement?

More than likely, it was a gentlemen’s agreement that we just wouldn’t have blacks anymore. You’re talking about Indiana Jones-esque stuff if someone could find and verify a document stating that we won’t have black players in the league. But it probably doesn’t exist. It probably wasn’t necessary to put it on paper.

Has the NFL done enough to recognize this period?

Many people claim not. I remember thinking to myself that it is clearly a delicate situation for the competition. On the one hand, a 12-year ban on black players isn’t something the league would necessarily want to celebrate, but I think historical context is always important. But you can see why the league doesn’t want to draw attention to that part of its history, because it’s a very embarrassing part.

What black quarterback in NFL history doesn’t get enough credit?

This one is easy. Marlin Briscoe played at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, a small school. He was about 5ft 9in, 170lbs something. His nickname was The Wizard. If Briscoe played today, think Kyler Murray.

The Denver Broncos drafted him in 1968, but black men were not called up to play quarterback in the 1960s. So the plan was to move Marlin to a cornerback. Well, to their amazement, he tells the Broncos, “I’m not going to sign with you unless you try me as a quarterback.” They did that because they knew they would never give him the job. Briscoe performed well in his tryout, but it was rigged. But then the starter gets hurt and the backup is ineffective. You have a situation where the team is struggling so they throw Briscoe in because they don’t have anyone else and he lights it up. He ends up throwing 14 touchdown passes, which is a Broncos rookie record that still stands, even though John Elway was a Broncos rookie at one point.

Then he goes home to work on his degree in Omaha and gets a tip that the Broncos are having quarterback meetings without him. They just took the job from him. So basically they cut him too late so he couldn’t land anywhere else in the NFL. Eventually he goes to Candida, like many black quarterbacks do, but Canada was not for him.

Doug Williams was the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl
Doug Williams was the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Photo: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

He comes back and reinvents himself, becoming a top receiver for the Buffalo Bills. Then he is traded from the Bills to the Miami Dolphins, where he is on Don Shula’s undefeated team and wins two Super Bowls. He had a very good NFL career, except he never played against QB again.

Briscoe is retiring and earning a good living in the financial industry in LA. But he becomes addicted to drugs and ends up in jail. One day in jail he watches [another Black quarterback] Doug Williams defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. He believes that Doug’s success that date is in part due to him. Briscoe came off drugs, got his life back on track, and spent years at the Boys and Girls Club of Long Beach. Sadly, he passed away last June.

Fast forward a bit to the modern era, talk about Mike Vick’s early career and the importance of playing in a diverse city like Atlanta

In Atlanta you talk about a city with a huge African-American culture and Vick was playing at a time when the whole hip-hop industry was booming and he’s a big part of that. Vick unashamedly played Black. His playing style was I’m going to come out here and be myself and he had success with it.

Which modern quarterbacks do you think have followed suit — in other words, being unapologetically black?

I think Lamar Jackson does. It’s interesting because black people come from all kinds of backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, different upbringings. So it is not that we all conform to a certain path. But speaking of the approach to being who you are, Michael Vick wasn’t trying to be someone else. Lamar Jackson is not trying to be someone else. They perform in a way that says accept me as I am and if you don’t like it so be it

Are there any quarterbacks that you think have felt the need to hide their blackness?

What I’ll say is there was a time when black QBs didn’t speak out on social justice issues, no matter what they thought. Colin Kaepernick has clearly changed that. Now we see that Patrick Mahomes has spoken out about problems and so has Dak Prescott. Initially, Dak got some warmth from the black community as they felt he was dragging the corporate line, but he broke with [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones on the protest. I believe we are not at a point where black men in that position feel like they can be authentic in terms of getting their point across if they want to.

You just mentioned Mahomes and in 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd shooting, he famously participated in the powerful player-led PSA that inspired Roger Goodell to apologize to players for the past and recognize that black lives matter. to do. If Mahomes wasn’t the “face of the league” at the time, would that PSA have had the same impact?

There is no way it would have the same impact. What that did was force Roger Goodell to have a fork in the road. At that point, Mahomes was the man. He was the league MVP the previous year. When that video was made, he was coming off a Super Bowl championship. There is no doubt that he was at the top of the QB chart and QB is the most important position in the league. So as he said what he said in that video, it was unthinkable that the league would be in the opposite position of Patrick Mahomes. It just wouldn’t have worked. And Goodell understood the reality of the country dealing with the horrific videotaped murder of a black man that illustrated what many had said about law enforcement and people in our community. It was so unmistakably clear that what happened to that man was wrong. To have the competition come and say, no black lives don’t matter is just not a position the competition could have taken.

Do you feel there were enough prominent white allies during Colin Kaepernick’s period and the protests that followed?

There were some white players like Chris Long, who stood next to Malcolm Jenkins and was authentic, and there were others who were allies of the players who protested. But there were also many players who disagreed with the protest. And not all black players agreed that taking a knee was the right position. That’s okay, not everyone has to agree. But the thing for me is you now had superstar QBs taking a stand like they never had before. As I write in the book, it would have been shocking to see Joe Montana or John Elway say anything, but Patrick Mahomes literally had the skin in play. It’s another level if this is something in your house.

Lamar Jackson, despite being the MVP of the NFL in 2019, is still not considered a true quarterback by some. Has the league changed its definition of what a true quarterback is, and maybe it’s just that part of America that’s lagging behind?

Mike Sando of The Athletic does his QB levels every year and you’ve read about anonymous defensive coordinators saying Jackson can’t pass: “If he has to pass, they can’t win.” Is he the greatest pocket passer in NFL history? Of course not. But it is also not a finished product. The reality is that he has already exceeded the expectations of the many people who said he couldn’t even play QB. Let’s give it a chance to evolve.

Finally, what was the most surprising aspect of your research for the book?

As with anyone who has studied American history, I know that racism is sewn into the fabric of our country. But in my reporting it was all the details and anecdotes. As Warren Moon talked about how they booed him for home games when he was a starter at the University of Washington. It was Doug Williams who told me about the racist hate mail he received when he was a rookie in Tampa Bay. It was Marlin Briscoe who told me they just gave the job away when he got back to Omaha. I just didn’t understand how bad the overt racism was.

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