Black quarterbacks in the NFL are changing the dreams of middle-school boys
Aspiring athletes – and their parents – see the door opening to a position that was once off-limits
Alpharetta, Ga. — Daylight was breaking over a rain-soaked football field at a sprawling park in this Atlanta suburb, as car after car pulled up to drop off boys eager to turn their athletic dreams into reality.
The two dozen young athletes were all quarterbacks, and, significantly, about half of them were black. They were here to work with a personal coach, the kind of private training that has become a prerequisite for high-level signal-callers, and was once mainly the purview of white boys who aspired to future quarterback glory.
In recent years, an increasing number of young black quarterbacks have become convinced they, too, can make it to the NFL. They are among the leading college performers, more visible atop the recruitment lists put together by high school scouting services, and a growing presence at quarterback training sessions that groom future stars, like this one in Alpharetta.
As some parents sheltered from the rain under a tent with a marketing executive selling a high-tech helmet, the young athletes warmed up at the start of a group class led by Quincy Avery, one of the nation’s hottest quarterback gurus. His sessions are aimed at honing footwork, throwing mechanics, and other basic skills that must be mastered by every big-time quarterback.
“The success of black quarterbacks in the league is changing the perception of young black quarterbacks and what they think they are capable of,” Avery said. “They now know if they are good enough, they will get the opportunity to play quarterback.”
That reality is altering not just the NFL but also the makeup of the quarterback pipeline that winds its way from practice fields to youth travel leagues, through high school and college — and for the few — to the pros. Young black signal-callers like the ones zipping tight spirals across the artificial turf here look at the growing prominence of black quarterbacks in the NFL and they can more readily imagine one day being there themselves.
When Avery started his quarterback training business seven years ago, most of his clients were white. But now that has changed.
“Oh, definitely, my business is seeing many more black clients,” Avery said. “The success of black quarterbacks in the NFL and in college is changing the way we evaluate quarterbacks and how we think about the things they need to be able to do. They need to be able to move and be dynamic with their legs and extend plays. I think that is more important to many evaluators these days.”
Chasing a dream
Avery’s classes are not cheap — a total of two dozen on-field and classroom sessions can run $1,000 — but parents see it as a small price to pay for stardom. And, make no mistake, nearly every one of the young men here is planning for a shining future in football. The middle-schoolers are eyeing starting spots in high school. Those already in high school are hoping to attract the attention of major college programs. Eventually, just about every one of them, odds be damned, want to go pro.
That is why Celeste Miller, a federal contracts manager, was standing here under an umbrella in the pouring rain watching her 11-year-old son, Christopher, work through the drills. Times have changed, she said, and she thinks her son is in a position to capitalize.
“He is inspired by what black quarterbacks are doing. He roots for them,” she said. “They used to say that black quarterbacks did not have the intelligence or the ability to lead others. But the success they are having in the NFL proves otherwise. Everyone can see that they are more than just good athletes.”
She is putting her money and time behind her convictions. Between the cost of quarterback tutoring, youth leagues and equipment, she said, she spends upward of $5,000 a year and countless hours of her time to help her son become the best quarterback possible. A former Division I point guard, Miller also has volunteered in the past as a wide receivers coach for her son’s teams.
“The skills are similar,” she said with a chuckle. “Creating passing angles, and things like that. They transfer. I enjoyed it.”
Christopher, a sixth grader who stands 5-feet-6 and weighs 128 pounds, has had private coaching from Avery for more than a year. Although he’s young, he already has some of the moves of a star. On the field, he always hangs a small towel from the back of his waistband. His mother carries his business card, which has his picture staring clear-eyed into the camera. It reads: “Christopher Miller aka ‘Smoove.’ ” His social media feeds mention his devotion to church and his excellent grades in school, but they are filled mostly with images of his workouts and game exploits.
He seems to have talent to go with the swagger. He was recently invited to play in the 2019 Football University National Championship, which showcases “the very top of the middle-school talent pool.” The tournament culminates in a mid-December championship game in Naples, Florida. The coach at McEachern High School, an Atlanta-area powerhouse, spotted Christopher playing for the school’s sixth-grade feeder team, and he liked the young man’s arm strength and decision-making, even as Christopher works to improve his speed and quickness.
The coach follows Christopher on social media, as well as other middle-school prospects who catch his eye. Miller hopes that the quarterback training her son is getting now will give him a leg up for the starting job by the time he gets to high school.
“What he is working on now, is making good decisions when the pocket collapses and the play is disrupted,” she said.
Working with Avery has also given Christopher exposure to some of the top black quarterbacks in college. During an offseason minicamp that Avery calls QB Flight School, Christopher was on the same practice field as Justin Fields, the Ohio State star, and Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts, both of whom are leading Heisman Trophy candidates.
“It feels good to see young black quarterbacks who are starting for their college teams,” Christopher said. “I feel inspired by it. It means a lot because they look like me.”
A skewed pipeline?
Even as black quarterbacks are reaching unprecedented heights, it remains clear that those who want to join them are entering a competition unlike any other. Beyond a strong arm, quick feet, and proven results on the field, the requisite skills for a quarterback are often subtle, and measured subjectively. What does leadership look like? What makes for a good teammate? What does it really mean to be coachable? Or to have a high football IQ?
So far, not many black quarterbacks seem to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to those intangibles. Unusual talents such as Russell Wilson and Cam Newton have found success in the NFL. But who is the black equivalent to Colt McCoy, the Washington Redskins third-string quarterback? McCoy, a star in college, has carved out a nine-year pro career despite having, at best, mixed NFL success. Not many black quarterbacks get second and third chances, or the opportunity to have long careers with only middling talent, Avery noted.
“Things are slowly shifting, but it is still hard when so many of the decision-makers are not black,” Avery said. “You just don’t have as many people in your corner who look like you.”
About one of every 1,000 high school students who plays football is drafted by the NFL, a statistic that is likely even more daunting for would-be quarterbacks. Until recently, making the pros was even more improbable for black quarterbacks, who had to battle not just long odds but also layers of stigma and stereotype to reach the game’s highest level.
For most of the NFL’s century-long history, black quarterbacks were seen as not bright enough, or lacking the leadership qualities to play a position often called the most difficult in sports. If they were quick and fast, they were labeled “dual-threats,” which, in the coded language of football evaluators, was not necessarily a good thing. It often meant that they were seen as excellent runners but erratic throwers and, consequently, not the best fit for the NFL.
But many those old perceptions and strictures are fading as black quarterbacks prove they can both run and throw well. If to be a dual-threat quarterback rather than strictly a pocket passer is to “play black,” then even white quarterbacks want to play black these days.
“You almost can’t get on the field anymore if you can’t extend plays,” Avery said.
It is something that T.C. Lewis, 43, understands well. He was an all-state offensive lineman in high school before going on to play at the University of Connecticut. During his day, there were a few black quarterbacks — Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb — but they were viewed largely as outliers.
His 12-year-old son, Julian, is growing up in a different world, one in which black quarterbacks shine brightly in the center of the NFL galaxy. JuJu, as he is called, hopes to one day join them.
He is off to a good start. He caught the eye of Alabama coach Nick Saban at the Crimson Tide’s camp last summer. After watching JuJu go through a series of drills flawlessly, Saban told him he wants him back “every summer,” his father recounted.
JuJu started working with a private coach when he was 8. Before working with Avery, he trained with Ron Veal, another noted quarterback trainer whose pupils include Clemson star Trevor Lawrence.
For now, JuJu’s goal is to be a Division I quarterback, Lewis said. “Really, his goal is to go all the way, but I try to temper that.” Regardless, he said, the success of black quarterbacks in the NFL “has taken my son’s aspiration from a dream to a real possibility. If he made it, it would not be like he had done something that hasn’t been done before.”
Born to coach
The rise of black quarterbacks has helped Avery build his business, Quarterback Takeover, into one of the nation’s top quarterback training outfits in just seven years.
Avery was born into a football family. His father, Wendell Avery, is a former college quarterback who coached both in college and the pros, including a stint as a head coach at Savannah State University, and assistant jobs on teams including Fort Valley State and Alabama A&M University. He spent a year on the staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and most recently he has been coaching in the Canadian Football League.
All along, Avery was soaking in the game. “I get it honestly. I grew up the son of a football coach,” he said.
The younger Avery played quarterback throughout most of his youth and high school football career, but he was never viewed as top-tier. At 5-feet-10, he was considered too short to be a Division I quarterback. He ended going to Morehouse College, a historically black college that plays in Division II. But after two years as a quarterback, Morehouse moved him to wide receiver. Still, he always believed he had a keen understanding of what it took to play quarterback.
After graduating from Morehouse in 2009, he essentially forced his way into coaching. His dad knew someone who had previously worked at UCLA and Avery drove to Los Angeles from Atlanta and presented himself at the football office for three straight days. Finally, then-head coach Rick Neuheisel gave him a shot as a volunteer, which grew into a graduate assistant position after Avery proved his mettle breaking down film of the team’s quarterbacks.
“You could watch these guys on film and see where they need improvement,” Avery said.
After two years at UCLA, Avery decided to go into private quarterback training. He moved back to Atlanta and started going to local parks and charging people $20 for a lesson. He promoted himself on social media and by word of mouth. For a while, things were slow, forcing him to live out of his car and take showers at a local gym, he said.
His big break came when one of his early clients, Joshua Dobbs, an Atlanta-area high school quarterback whom he met in 2011, developed into a star. Dobbs went on to play quarterback at the University of Tennessee, and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017. He is now a backup with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“The business ended up taking off from there,” Avery said.
Among Avery’s star pupils is Houston Texans star Deshaun Watson, who is among the early contenders to be this year’s NFL MVP. They met in 2013, while Watson was establishing himself as a record-setting high school quarterback in Gainesville, Georgia. The two have been close since.
Watson worked with Avery and other coaches regularly during his All-America career at Clemson. Even now, they often train and travel together. After a rare poor performance by Watson earlier this season, Avery met his pupil on the field of Houston’s NRG Stadium. They broke down Watson’s mechanics, going over details about footwork, gripping the ball and even taking a snap. Avery also provided some confidence-boosting advice.
“He’s like a big brother. I don’t even call him coach, I just call him big bro,” Watson told reporters afterward. “He’s a guy that’s from football to life experiences to business to family, he’s like a big brother to me.”
Through the years, Avery has worked with other black pros and well-known college stars. Hurts. Fields. Oakland Raiders backup DeShone Kizer and Los Angeles Chargers veteran Tyrod Taylor are among them.
“Once you build your core group of guys, it kind of goes from there,” he said.
The early-morning workout in Alpharetta is just the start of a busy day for Avery. He and his business partner, Sean McEvoy, a former high school quarterback, spend nearly an hour and a half leading a session here. Then they hop into McEvoy’s minivan and drive more than three hours to a high school field in Charlotte, North Carolina, where another two dozen pupils are waiting. They are in Charlotte for just under an hour a half, before McEvoy heads back toward Atlanta, while Avery gets on a three-hour flight to Houston to lead a class for yet another 20 aspiring quarterbacks.
On the field at Charlotte’s Mallard Creek High School, the players jump into action as soon as McEvoy and Avery arrive. They remind the throwers to keep their elbows above their shoulders. They set up small, brightly-colored cones in the middle of the field to simulate the outlines of a pocket, and passers are asked to move up and around them before throwing a pass to the sidelines. Other times, the quarterbacks are asked to quickly pivot, roll out and throw on command.
“Watch your base! Keep your base! Why are you running?” Avery yells repeatedly, reminding the throwers to move with both feet close to the ground while maneuvering in the pocket. Likewise, he wants them to develop a habit of quickly setting when throwing on the move.
“What are you bent over for?” he asks one young quarterback, who has a habit of hunching over as he moves around in the pocket. “Bring it up. Bring that chest up.”
After an errant throw, he reminds another quarterback to keep his hips and shoulders closed a little longer before unleashing a pass. When someone executes correctly, he coos approvingly. “You absolutely look like you might get a scholarship when you do it like that.”
The lessons are much the same wherever they teach. And as far as parents are concerned, they can make the difference between their children making it to next level or not.
Every Sunday this fall, Maurice McClellan drives his son, Kamari, two hours from Oxford, Alabama, to be part of the action in Alpharetta. Kamari, 14, is an eighth grader who is already 6 feet tall and one recruiting service website has placed him among the top middle-school quarterbacks in the country. His father believes his son is progressing well, but he wants to ensure Kamari has every possible advantage.
“I make that drive because Quincy is such a good coach and a good mentor,” said McClellan, a former linebacker at Alabama State. He added, “Watching the black quarterbacks in the pros makes us feel like it is possible. He can achieve what he is trying to achieve if he stays at it and keeps working hard.”