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 that in 1968 and three of them told their humiliating and often emotional stories to correspondent Armen Keteyian.
One of those pioneers, 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. Still, Briscoe 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.
Briscoe 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 told Keteyian in 60 Minutes Sports which was due to premier on Showtime this Wednesday and repeated throughout the month on Showtime And Showtime Extreme.
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.
James Harris, the first black to start the season at quarterback, didn’t switch. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. 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,” said 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.
Harris received death threats, was the subject of racial epithets and was never considered the face of any of the franchises he played for. Next up, Warren Moon, who, as quarterback led the University of Washington in 1978 to an upset victory in the Rose Bowl but he was not even drafted by the NFL.
“I was…very, very bitter,” he said.
Forced to go to the Canadian Football League, Moon did so well that, six years later, NFL teams started a bidding war for him. He wound up being, for a time, the highest paid player in the NFL.
Moon 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 told Keteyian.
Keteyian also interviewed 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.
That 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.
Briscoe watched the Doug Williams 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 told Keteyian. Briscoe said he cried tears of joy for Williams and the black race but also tears for himself for being where he was now after helping to pave the way for such a feat.
“And after I got out of the San Diego jail, I moved back to L.A., didn’t do drugs since,” he said. “That day probably saved my life.”
*SHARING MEMORIES: Marlin Briscoe talks about facing down racism in interview with and Armen Keteyian of 60 Minutes Sports. CLEM TAYLOR/FOR 60 MINUTES SPORTS