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Black Quarterbacks

For starters, Jeff Blake never lacked confidence

‘You could never bring me around your young quarterback. Because I was gonna take their job.’

From the moment Jeff Blake signed with the Baltimore Ravens in 2002, the veteran quarterback was salivating. As Blake left Brian Billick’s office after a preseason meeting to discuss what was expected of him in Baltimore — he was to back up projected starter Chris Redman — Blake turned around with a message to his new coach.

“I will be your starter before the year is over.”

Blake laughed as he told that story this week, because he always believed during his 13-year NFL career that bringing him onto a team with a young quarterback was like introducing an unhappy girlfriend to actor Idris Elba.

“You could never bring me around your young quarterback,” Blake said. “Because I was gonna take their job.”

In his 13 seasons, Blake played for seven teams and was the primary starter for eight of those years. He was a Pro Bowler on a bad Cincinnati team and helped make a winner out of a New Orleans team that went seven straight seasons without a winning record.

But Blake could never get an NFL team to fully embrace him, which is one of his biggest regrets since leaving the game after the 2005 season with the Chicago Bears.

“I wish I could have at some point in my career gone to a team that was more loyal, a team that gave me a chance to be the guy,” Blake said. “I was never in a position where the team said, ‘Jeff Blake is our quarterback, and we’re going to draft around what he needs to succeed.’ ”

Blake had what he needed at Seminole High School in Florida, where his father, Emory, who starred in the Canadian Football League, was his offensive coordinator. He played well enough at quarterback to garner interest from some of the top college programs in the state.

But Florida wanted him to play defensive back, and Miami and Florida State offered opportunities as a wide receiver during an era in which college coaches urged black quarterbacks to give up their careers as signal-callers.

“I was one of the top-ranked quarterbacks in high school during my senior year, and I had never played any other position,” Blake said. “I wasn’t going to sacrifice my hard work and my destiny to satisfy someone’s limitations on me.”

Three schools offered Blake a chance to play quarterback, and he chose East Carolina. One reason was because the school heavily recruited his high school in Florida. The other? “They were used to having black quarterbacks there,” Blake said. “So in their eyes I was simply a quarterback.”

His progression in college was gradual. He barely played as a freshman, but he saw increased playing time in each of the next two years. After a losing record (3-8) in his first year, the team was 6-5 during his sophomore year in 1989, including wins over Cincinnati and Virginia Tech. After another sub-.500 season in 1990 (5-6), the following season exploded.

The Pirates opened with a loss at Illinois in their only scheduled nationally televised game. They won out the rest of the season, which included regular-season wins over Memphis State, South Carolina, No. 15 Syracuse, No. 23 Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati. By the time East Carolina played No. 21 North Carolina State in the Peach Bowl, the Pirates were ranked No. 12. The 37-34 win helped earn the team a No. 9 ranking and the best record in the nation.

Blake was a stud in that magical season in which he led five fourth-quarter comebacks. He ranked fourth in the nation in passing touchdowns (28) and total yards (3,182) and sixth in passing yards (3,073). By the time his career at East Carolina was finished, Blake had set 32 school records.

“Everything happened so fast and so unexpectedly that I really didn’t have a chance to enjoy what was happening on campus,” Blake said. “With the games, we were just trying to get to the next week. After our bowl game, I was on a plane to Asia for the Japan Bowl, and then my mindset was on the NFL. I really wish I could have soaked everything in.”

Despite his stellar season and being a second team All-American, Blake wasn’t drafted until the sixth round in 1992.

“I took a team that was not on anybody’s radar to a top-10 ranking and put up some good numbers, and would have matched my stats and our record against anyone,” Blake said. “There were guys drafted in front of me that I was better than, and one guy drafted that I had never heard of [Chris Hakel, taken by Washington in the fourth round]. A couple of those guys taken before me never took a snap in the NFL. It was crazy.”

Although the New York Jets took him in the sixth round, Blake didn’t have any guarantees. He didn’t play a down his first season and played in only three games his second. But he credits Jets coach Bruce Coslet with instilling in him the knowledge that allowed him to have a long career. Coslet took on Blake as a project and spent a lot of time with him even though he barely played.

“For my first four weeks in New York, me and Bruce would meet every day, and not once did we talk about the offense,” Blake said. “It was all defense. He told me, ‘Jeff, if you can’t read defenses, you can’t play for me.’ And throughout my 13 years, no one could say that I couldn’t read a defense.”

The Jets fired Coslet after the 1993 season, and Cincinnati hired him as offensive coordinator. Coslet urged the team to sign Blake, who had been cut by the Jets. The Bengals at the time were led by David Klingler, who had set all types of passing records in college at Houston and was the top quarterback selected in the 1992 draft (Blake’s draft).

So in 1994, Blake went to a team led by a young quarterback.

We know what happened next.

Actually, Blake didn’t snatch the job: Klingler got hurt in a game where the Bengals fell to 0-7. With Blake starting, the Bengals finished the season 3-13.

That was good enough to hold on to the starting position the next season. He showed why he was worthy of leading an NFL team. He passed for 3,822 yards (eighth in the NFL) and 28 touchdowns (fifth in the league), earning a trip to the Pro Bowl despite playing on a team that finished below .500 (7-9).

The sixth-round pick was looking like a legit star. In 1996, he was sixth in the league in completed passes (308), fifth in passing yards (3,624) and fifth in passing touchdowns (24). That earned him a spot in Hawaii as a Pro Bowl alternate, probably because of the team’s 8-8 record.

That was the last time Blake started an entire season. The Bengals brought back Boomer Esiason the next season, and the veteran wound up starting five games. The following season the Bengals signed Neil O’Donnell, who started 11 of the 13 games he played (Blake started two). Blake started 12 games in 1999 but had to look over his shoulder after the Bengals drafted Akili Smith in the first round.

“They kept bringing more and more guys in,” Blake said. “I only had one year with the Bengals where I didn’t have to fight for my job.”

Blake signed a four-year deal to play in New Orleans in 2000 and thought he had found a home. He had the Saints at a surprising 7-3 record (they were 3-13 the previous season), but he broke his foot in the 11th game against Cleveland. His replacement, Aaron Brooks, carried the baton and led the Saints to the first playoff win in franchise history.

“When they won the playoff game, I knew I was done,” Blake said. “They told me I’d have a chance to win my starting job back the next year, but I didn’t get any snaps in camp.”

He didn’t play in 2001, and the Saints cut him with two years left on his contract.

He went to Baltimore for a season, starting only after Redman went down with a back injury. He said Billick never liked him after he told the coach he’d take Redman’s job.

“I was taking snaps from Mike Flynn one day — and his a– was flat as a table — and Billick starts yelling at me because there are problems,” Blake said. “He comes over and starts screaming at me at the top of his lungs as he tells me I’m doing it wrong. I’m a Pro Bowl quarterback. I can’t help if the man had no curvature in his a– and I couldn’t find a sweet spot. Could you imagine John Elway getting yelled at like that, or Philip Rivers? Billy just didn’t like me.”

That was the start of four teams in four years with stops in Arizona (he started 13 games in 2003), Philadelphia (three appearances in 2004) and Chicago (two appearances in 2005).

Blake was 34 when he retired.

“There were no opportunities, and that’s too bad because I felt I was in my prime — I was in Matrix mode, and I felt the bullets were stopping in midair for me,” Blake said. “But when you’re 34, teams are looking at all the traveling you’re doing around the league. When you go from team to team mainly as a backup, you’re done.”

Blake has settled down in Austin, Texas, since retiring. He enjoyed watching his son Emory win a national championship as a wide receiver for Auburn in 2010.

And he takes pride in working with developing football players, especially quarterbacks. He’s drawing up a business plan to open a football academy.

“Maybe I can get with [Buffalo Bills quarterback] Tyrod Taylor this offseason, because that’s the guy in the league who is most like me, and I’d advise him to be more aggressive and throw the ball downfield more,” Blake said. “I’m happy with what I’m doing. I want to help develop this next generation of players.”

Liner Notes

The Undefeated will profile 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marks 30 years since Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the big game.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.