On one of the most important dates in NFL history – Jan. 31, 1988 – Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes wasn’t born yet. He would be about seven years later, in Tyler, Texas, approximately 1,400 miles away from the stadium where that history would be made.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts wasn’t born yet, either. He would be in Houston.
As both quarterbacks started what would be a decades long path to this special moment, where Mahomes and Hurts will become the first two Black quarterbacks to start in a Super Bowl, they do so after a legion of Black men fought, bled, endured extensive hatred, and even threats of violence, so they could be here. One of those men was Doug Williams who played on that January day.
Super Bowl 57 comes 35 years after Williams became the first Black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl. He was named the game’s MVP and, in some ways, he’d set the table for this moment.
Just as many Black players before Williams paved the way for him, Williams did the same for Mahomes and Hurts.
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Yet while Mahomes and Hurts starting represents another NFL racial barrier being shattered, which is important, and should be celebrated, it’s also a symbol of something else. It’s staggering that it’s taken so long for something like this to happen. It’s the 21st century. We have robots that can write essays and are planning manned missions to Mars.
But NFL history, like so much of American history, has been a slog when it comes to race. Each battle leading to progress, but always resembling trench warfare. This moment is actually some 100 years in the making and traces back to Fritz Pollard in the 1920s.
As Williams once told me: “We’re always going to talk about race and Black quarterbacks because this is America, and race always matters in America.”
Meaning, in order to truly appreciate the significance of Mahomes and Hurts, you must remember the Black quarterbacks who helped make this moment, you must also remember what those past quarterbacks overcame.
“The mentality and beliefs about Black quarterbacks changed, somewhat, once Black quarterbacks started winning,” Williams said. “But we had to overcome a lot. We had to overcome all of the stereotypes that didn’t impact white quarterbacks.”
One of those Black quarterbacks Williams refers to is James “Shack” Harris. As Andscape.com documented, Harris is the first Black quarterback to start a season opener, the first to start and win an NFL playoff game, the first Black quarterback to play in the Pro Bowl, and the first Black quarterback to win Pro Bowl MVP. At various points in his career, as he once told me, he’d receive death threats from people who hated to see that type of progress.
There were other challenges Black quarterbacks like Harris faced. Black quarterbacks were historically viewed as not having the intelligence to play the position. Many in the media, for decades, played into that ugly stereotype.
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Black college quarterbacks, for decades, would enter the NFL and be forced to change positions to wide receiver or running back. Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian once infamously said that Baltimore Raven quarterback Lamar Jackson was too short to play in the NFL.
“Short and a little bit slight,” Polian said. “Clearly, clearly not the thrower that the other guys are. The accuracy isn’t there.”
Polian added what position he felt Jackson should play instead of quarterback: “I think wide receiver. Exceptional athlete, exceptional ability to make you miss, exceptional acceleration, exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand and that’s rare for wide receivers…”
Jackson, who is 6 foot 2, was the league MVP in 2019 and is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in football.
Before Mahomes and Hurts, there was Warren Moon, who went undrafted by the NFL, and played in the Canadian Football League, winning five Grey Cups. The NFL’s Houston Oilers finally gave him a shot in 1984 where he’d go on to become one of the best pure passers in the history of both leagues.
Moon once told CNN that he didn’t face naked racism, instead, he faced racial stereotyping.
“If it was racism then they (Black players) wouldn’t be allowed to play the game at all,” Moon said. “But the stereotype was that we can only play certain positions. And the quarterback position was the position that a lot of people didn’t think we could play for different reasons, whether it was the leadership, whether it was being able to think, be able to make critical decisions at critical times. You know, be the face of a franchise, all those different things that go along with being a franchise quarterback.”
Fritz Pollard is an historic figure who in 1923 became the first Black quarterback in the NFL. He’d also play halfback and was the first Black coach in NFL history. Along the way, at his various stops, Pollard experienced some frightening bigotry from players and others.
In fact, when he was coaching in Akron in the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan membership in that city was significant and, according to one historical site: “By the mid-1920s the Klan’s membership had grown to 52,000 members and was the largest Klan chapter in the United States. The Klan also controlled the Mayor’s office, the Superintendent of Schools, the County Sheriff, the County Prosecutor, the Clerk of Courts, 2 of the 3 County Commissioners, and 4 out of 7 of the seats of the Akron Board of Education. Influence also extended to the Akron Police Department and the local National Guard.”
That important date – Jan. 31, 1988 – was the culmination of other important dates, and other quarterbacks before Williams, and continues now with Mahomes and Hurts. It is generational progress, literally beginning around 100 years ago.
And 100 years from now, we’ll remember this moment from Super Bowl 57, the way we do those others.
Story Credit: usatoday.com