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THE EVOLUTION OF THE BLACK QUARTERBACK By Mark Hollis

mark hollisDuring a recent conversation with my good friend and future Hall of Famer, Isaac Curtis former player with the Cincinnati Bengals, the subject of Cam Newton, quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, came up. The discussion centered on the history of the quarterback’s progression in professional football. From the American Professional Football Association (APFA), to its evolution into the modern-day National Football League (NFL), the game has had a love/hate relationship with African-American players, especially in the position of quarterback.

Historically, Charles Follis is touted as the first black professional football player. He played for two years with the Shelby Steamfitters which was a part of the APFA. In 1920, the APFA had a loose coalition of players and very few minorities. Only nine suited up from 1920 and 1926. Paul Robeson, Bobby Marshall and Fritz Pollard were the notables. Pollard became the first black quarterback for the Akron Pros in 1920. He eventually became the first black head coach in the APFA in 1921.

In 1926, few African-American players became a part of the newly formed NFL. For the next several years, a black player would sporadically pop up on a team – Harold Bradley Sr. who played one season for the Chicago Cardinals in 1928 and David Myers who played for a couple New York City-based teams in 1930 and 1931. In 1933, the NFL had two black players, Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp. Both only played one season.

Segregation and integration was still a problem for African-Americans as a whole in all walks of life in the 1930s. Racism raised its ugly head when in 1934, the owner of the Washington Redskins, George Marshall, headed a movement amongst the other owners to ban African-American athletes from playing in the NFL. He refused to have blacks on his teams. Marshall is best remembered as an unrepentant racist. He continued to refuse to integrate his team, even after every other owner in the NFL had done so. The team signed its first African-American players only after the federal government threatened to revoke its stadium lease in 1961. The then-new stadium that we call RFK Stadium today was built on Department of Interior land, which permitted the Kennedy administration to order the lessee (the team) to adhere to federal nondiscrimination policies. After the ban on blacks that Marshall instigated, it wasn’t until 1946 that players of color would be allowed back into the NFL when Woody Strode and Kenny Washington were signed by the Los Angeles Rams and Bill Willis and Marion Montley were signed by the Cleland Browns.

With the full integration of minority players into the league, there still remained the stigma that black ball players were great athletes, but did not have the intellectual capacity to lead their teams as quarterbacks. Many players chose to bypass the NFL to play in Canada where black quarterbacks were welcomed. They refused to switch to a “utility mode” by playing another position. One such player was Sandy Stephens, a successful college quarterback from the University of Minnesota that was advised he would have to play receiver in the NFL. There were others such as Eldridge Dickey, the first black quarterback drafted in the National Football League by the Oakland Raiders. Dickey was a talented quarterback out of Tennessee State who spent the majority of his career playing wide receiver. Marlin Briscoe was the first, modern-day black quarterback when he started for the Denver Broncos. These progressions opened doors for players such as James Harris, Joe Gilliam, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon. There is an acknowledgement of gratitude for those pioneers that sacrificed so much in order for the Cam Newton’s and Russell Wilson’s to be where they are today.

In my opinion, we all are held steadfast by the shoulders we stand on, lest we forget.