Are blacks passed up? Quarterbacks: Once slow to employ black signal callers, the NFL now has five in starting positions, most of them playing well. Yet few have jobs as backups.

November 09, 1997|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN STAFF

James Harris held no delusions about the state of pro football when he joined the American Football League's Buffalo Bills in 1969. His reality check came with the college draft.

Harris had been the MVP of black college football as a senior at Grambling. His team had won the black college national championship. He was a prototype of the big, strong-armed quarterback everyone wanted. Scouts led him to believe he would be a high draft pick.

"High" turned out to be the eighth round. On a team that already had Jack Kemp, Tom Flores, Dan Darragh and Kay Stephenson. At a time when there was not another black quarterback in the league (although there had been blacks who previously played the position in the NFL).

Harris was so underwhelmed he briefly considered a teaching career, only to be persuaded by legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson that he needed to open the door for others.

So Harris reluctantly crossed the color line, leaving a legacy for the nine black quarterbacks on NFL rosters today.

"The thing I was most concerned about, I didn't want to be another excuse to slow progress down by not being smart enough," he said. "So what I did in training camp, when others went out at night, I stayed in and studied."

Harris, who is pro personnel director for the Ravens, certainly didn't slow progress for the black quarterback. He enjoyed a 12-year, three-team, NFL career, twice playing in the NFC championship game with the Los Angeles Rams. But neither did he expedite it. Racial progress travels its own tedious path when it comes to the NFL's power positions -- quarterbacks, coaches and front office executives.

Twenty-eight years after Harris beat out all those other white quarterbacks to start for the Bills as a rookie on opening day, there are five starting black quarterbacks out of 30 teams.

For the most part, they are playing pretty well, too. Kordell Stewart is establishing himself with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Warren Moon is still setting records with the Seattle Seahawks. Steve McNair is hitting his stride for the Tennessee Oilers. The Cincinnati Bengals' Jeff Blake and St. Louis Rams' Tony Banks have struggled with losing teams this season, although Blake is just two years removed from a Pro Bowl start.

A week ago -- and for the previous three weeks -- the NFL had a record six black starters. But then Rodney Peete was benched in Philadelphia for Ty Detmer by one of the NFL's three black coaches, Ray Rhodes.

Have attitudes toward black quarterbacks changed?

"You can't deny that there has been a major improvement in the numbers over the years," said Ozzie Newsome, who is one of the NFL's few black club executives as vice president of player personnel for the Ravens. "When I came in the league [in 1978], there may only have been two or three. Now we've got nine, and five start. That speaks volumes."

The numbers don't speak loudly enough, though, to Doug Williams, who entered the NFL in 1978 as the first black quarterback drafted in the first round, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"It's a matter of opinion," Williams said when asked about changing attitudes. "But that's not our problem. I was proud of Warren Moon when he said the other day our problem is not the kids who are playing, our problem is the backup and practice squad guys. You can't tell me -- out of 30 teams, you're talking 90 [quarterback] spots -- we shouldn't have 15 or 20.

"You look at the job [of third quarterback]. The pay is good for somebody who doesn't do a whole lot of work. But they'd rather the other [white] guy get that job."

The doors of quarterbacking opportunity did not open wide even after Williams delivered a record-setting, MVP performance for the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII in January 1988.

He had conclusively debunked the myth that blacks were incapable of leading a team to a championship, that they weren't smart enough to run a championship offense. Then he sat back to await the fallout.

"There was no impact from that," Williams said from Atlanta, where he coaches Morehouse College. "The only thing that happened, we [accomplished] some things that had never happened before.

"But I'm not blaming the NFL as much as I'm blaming the kids for what offense they end up running at college. Take McNair. If he doesn't go to [Division I-AA] Alcorn State, he'd never have been a quarterback. The kids today are running offenses that don't rely on their arms as much as their legs."

McNair had to go to Alcorn to prove his quarterbacking worth out of high school, much as Moon had to detour to the Canadian Football League in 1978 after resisting the suggestion he change positions.

Blake came out of an option offense at East Carolina; Peete (Southern California), Stewart (Colorado) and Banks (Michigan State) all came from major colleges.

"I think the exceptional black quarterbacks have a chance to play in the league and start," Harris said. "I do feel most of the teams and coaches want to win and will play the best player at the position."

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