Year of the Black QB

For black fans in Baltimore, Lamar Jackson’s success ‘resonates way beyond football’

Black excellence, black love, a nappy ‘fro and an MVP-caliber season for the Ravens quarterback

More than a dozen Baltimore Ravens fans spread out over two rooms in a home in northwestern Baltimore last weekend to cheer, drink and perfect their celebratory moves while watching Lamar Jackson, the most electrifying player in the NFL, lead their team against the Buffalo Bills.

Watch the ankles! That’s Steph Curry-type stuff. You can’t teach that! they hollered over the play-by-play commentary blasting from two jumbo TV screens.

For many black NFL fans who thrill to Jackson’s football smarts and physical gifts, the 22-year-old is more than just that dude who can lead the Ravens back to the Super Bowl. He’s part of a wave of 13 black starting quarterbacks who are not only changing the game on the field, but are expanding conceptions of leadership and affirming black excellence to themselves and the nation.

“It resonates way beyond football,” says Antonio “Rod” Womack, a real estate developer, human resources director and today’s host. Jackson’s success “might change the way CEOs decide who’s going to sit on the board.” The lesson here “is really about give us a true shot — without tying one arm behind us — and we can win at any level. At anything.”

Antonio “Rod” Womack (second from left) has been watching or attending Baltimore Ravens games for more than a decade. From left to right: He’s joined at the watch party by Baltimore fans Rod Carter, Faris Womack, Mark Cahill and Mike Miller.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Womack has been watching or attending Ravens games with friends for more than a decade and the Dec. 8 game marked the second time in a row he’d hosted a watch party in his newly renovated man cave in the wealthy, predominantly African American neighborhood of Ashburton.

Theo Bell, a commercial real estate developer and broker who heads his own consulting firm, compares the situation of black quarterbacks in the NFL to his experience as a Black Hawk pilot in the first Gulf War. “I was the only black pilot in my class,” he says, at a time “when they thought black people couldn’t fly.” Just like there was a time “when they thought black quarterbacks couldn’t play.”

People told Bell he was special — code for being different from other black people — and how he must have brought something extra to his training, when the thing that’s the most different for black people in high-profile positions is just getting the opportunity to show what they can do.

Bell remembers the 1979 Soldier Field matchup between Chicago Bears quarterback Vince Evans and Doug Williams of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that marked the first time in NFL history that two black starting quarterbacks had competed against one another.

Baltimore Ravens fan Theo Bell on Lamar Jackson: “There’s already enough pressure on him. Let him be what he was called to be.”

André Chung for The Undefeated

This year, a class of elite quarterbacks, including MVP candidates, are improvising and extending plays in ways that are changing the contours of the position, with none more exciting than Jackson. Not only are defensive coordinators having to adjust their game plans for the different styles of black quarterbacks, seeing these athletes have the chance to compete “feels absolutely fantastic,” he says.

And they are doing it on their own terms. Jackson sports box or wash braids, sometimes a “Cruddy” or perhaps a nappy ‘fro and talks like a 22-year-old black kid from southeastern Florida. And Baltimore has fallen in love. “Let him be that,” says Bell. “There’s already enough pressure on him. Let him be what he was called to be.”

Womack’s 17-year-old son, Faris, used to play wide receiver and says that all he ever saw “was just the usual white, 6-foot-5 dropback quarterback.” He thinks it’s great seeing black athletes in that position. “I’m happy that we got Lamar and he’s just changing the whole game for the Ravens,” Faris says. “But it’s nice for the whole NFL and just for kids who play football who are African Americans and want to be quarterbacks. It’ll probably influence them a lot.

Ayana Lugo, a director of business development for a medicinal cannabis firm in downtown Baltimore, was a physiology and sports major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she ran track. “When I went to school, we had a black quarterback for a little while, and he caught hell,” she says. “I figured this is the South. I’m from New York, so I had different experiences.”

But fast-forward a few years, and she points out what she considers the disparate treatment of former Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who spent 18 months in federal prison for helping run a dogfighting ring, was sentenced to more time than “a white woman who just hung [a] baby.” Move forward to the era of Colin Kaepernick, and “ain’t nothing changed, and in some ways it’s even worse.” Kaepernick peacefully protested to call attention to police brutality, whereas “you look at people like Richie Incognito,” a white offensive guard for the Oakland Raiders whose legal troubles include threatening to shoot up a funeral home, “who’s been given so many chances, and Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job.” If you can’t see the disparities in race and football, you’re blind, Lugo says.

“So when I see Jackson, it does something for my soul,” she says. Seeing him with the “wash braids, you know like how your momma used to do,” when she’d sit you between her knees, part your hair “and get that green grease [Ultra Sheen].” “Seeing him be unapologetically black, be overtly black and not second-guessing himself, feeling strong, it does something good for my soul and my heart.”

Representation matters, Lugo says. Things you see become real and she hopes this season of excellent black quarterbacks portends another wave to come. “I hope people will see Baltimore and recognize that not only is the black quarterback here to stay, but he should have been invited to the table a long time ago.”

Jackson grew up with eight years of President Barack Obama, and it has changed the way black boys have grown up to be young black men, Lugo says. “Things become limitless in your mind, and you work from that space.”

Real estate investor Michael Miller used to teach community college and wrote a memoir and self-help book for troubled youths detailing how he went from getting his GED certificate to his doctorate, It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish. He notes how the improvisational style of many black quarterbacks can be seen as reflecting the black experience of always having to come up with multiple ways to get things done.

From left to right: Antonio “Rod” Womack, Theo Bell and Ayana Lugo have a conversation during the game.

André Chung for The Undefeated

The other thing Miller sees with Jackson is the strength of black love, specifically the love of his mother, Felicia Jones, who was his first trainer and agent and dispensed with any foolishness from coaches who wanted her son to play any position other than quarterback. It was visionary, fierce, and extinguished people who were not coming to them correct. “That black love is just a powerful thing,” Miller says. “When Jackson went to Louisville and they heard he was trying to punt return, his black mama told them, no you will not. I will pull my boy up out of that school.”

Some of the longtime fans at the party didn’t frame football, or the quarterback position, in terms of race. Curtis Collins, president of a real estate investment company in Owings Mills, has been friends with Womack for decades. He brought a Cajun turkey to the party and walked the party urging folks to try his superspicy chili between plays.

When he was a Marine, he says, he didn’t care what color the guy next to him was, “just whether or not the m—–f—– can shoot.” It’s the same with his quarterback. “I think if you’re a football fan, you would like to have a great quarterback. The fact that he’s black, that’s pretty cool. … I’m black and I’m happy that Baltimore has a great quarterback. The fact that he’s black, that’s a nice little icing piece, but I wouldn’t give a rat’s a– as long as [he] wins, that’s it.”

Phil Rhodes’ son, Jackson, and Faris met in kindergarten and grew up playing basketball together. He and Womack watch football together regularly. Rhodes’ kids were often the only white kids on their teams. He’d heard about the hype around this year’s black quarterbacks but wondered, “What’s the big deal? Why is this a thing?”

From left to right: Fans Joe Black, Antonio “Rod” Womack, Theo Bell and Curtis Collins react to a play in the game. In the foreground are fans Rod Carter and Mike Miller.

André Chung for The Undefeated

After hearing some of the decades of history of black athletes being excluded from the quarterback position, Rhodes, who works for corporations trying to roll out new products, wondered if he’d been racist. He’d volunteered with the Peace Corps in Africa and has a diverse group of friends. “I know I have unconscious racism, but I have made it a choice in my life to be very inclusive of very different people than myself. It makes me a better person,” he said.

When he started hearing about Jackson, “I was like, oh, he’s a great quarterback. I didn’t know the history,” Rhodes says. “It’s just never dawned on me that historically positions like quarterback” were encoded as leadership positions and largely kept white. “That makes total sense. I was just not thinking that way.”

Having a black quarterback is like having a teacher who looks like you. It gives children something to aspire to, Rhodes says. But he doesn’t know what white people are going to do with the changes to the position. “They may try to justify it from an athletics perspective,” Rhodes says. “It’s not going to make them change their beliefs.”

As the game wound down, folks cloistered around the 65-inch screen. They held their breath on a fourth and goal by the Bills, and all munching stopped. The Ravens swatted away a last pass, securing their 24-17 victory, and the fans erupted in a cacophony of cheers and high-fives.

“This is a hell of a football! ” team Collins hollered out. And a hell of a time for black fans watching this black quarterback and feeling like the world has changed.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.