For black quarterbacks … this is their time and ours
Their journey over the years mirrors the travails of African Americans in this country
MIAMI — Whenever anyone asked who I liked in Super Bowl LIV, my answer was always the same: Depends. If the game came down to fundamental, consistent unflashy football, San Francisco would win.
But if magic were needed, give me Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City.
Magic was needed. Fortunately for Kansas City, the electric style of play that Mahomes and fellow African American quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson put on display this season lent itself to magic: sudden shifts, extended plays, scrambling and long throws over discombobulated defenses.
First a word about the magic: Kansas City trailed 20-10 in the fourth quarter and it seemed that a great run by black quarterbacks had ended. Then Mahomes hit a 44-yard pass to wide-open Tyreek Hill, followed by a pass interference call, then a touchdown pass to Travis Kelce pulled Kansas City to within 20-17.
A Kansas City drive later, Mahomes hit Damien Williams for a 5-yard touchdown to give Kansas City the lead for good.
The year of the black quarterback ended Sunday with Mahomes leading Kansas City to a dramatic 31-20 come-from-behind victory over San Francisco.
Mahomes became the third black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, the youngest to win the game’s MVP award.
Going into Sunday’s game, regardless of the outcome, the Year of the Black Quarterback has been a resounding success.
Black quarterbacks had already won.
On Saturday evening, Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback, was fittingly the runaway choice for the NFL’s MVP award.
Jackson’s selection marked the second consecutive year that an African American quarterback has won the award. Last season, Mahomes was the overwhelming winner.
This season, Mahomes reached the Super Bowl and Jackson took home the MVP hardware as the season’s top player.
Perhaps next year Jackson will reach the Super Bowl and Houston Texan quarterback Watson will win the MVP.
For generations of black quarterbacks — those who were not allowed to play, those whose positions were switched, those who never received a fair opportunity to compete — these last two seasons have been a combination of validation and revenge.
But their success goes beyond football. The journey of black quarterbacks mirrors the journey of African Americans in this country.
The dramatic ascent of black quarterbacks this season is a symbol of perseverance and a metaphor for where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going, as a people and a nation.
Even African American coaches around the NFL pulled for Jackson, Mahomes and Watson this season. They knew there was something larger at stake: the elusive pursuit of fair play and equality.
Earlier this week, Johnny Holland, the outside linebackers coach for the San Francisco 49ers, admitted that he was pulling for Mahomes, Jackson and Watson — when they weren’t competing against the 49ers. “You pay attention to who’s the quarterback, you do want guys to get better opportunities,” he told me during a media session Jan. 30.
“There were a lot of good black quarterbacks in college football, in high school football, who never got the opportunity because sometimes they may have gotten labeled: They were not big enough or smart enough to play professional football as a quarterback.”
He added: “Obviously that has been proven wrong, because there are a lot of great quarterbacks who played in this league and had a lot of success when given the opportunity.”
Holland played for the Green Bay Packers from 1987 to 1993. In his second NFL season, Doug Williams, who played for Washington, became the first African American quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory.
“I know how hard it was for Doug, racially, to be a black quarterback in this league,” Holland said. “He overcame a lot of odds to make it and have a successful career. Today, I don’t know that people look at it much because there have been a lot more black quarterbacks who have access to the league.”
Ån eye on greatness
Both Watson and Jackson were drafted much lower than they should’ve been.
“On draft day, a lot of people were saying that they probably couldn’t play quarterback in this league, [that] they wouldn’t have the success that they are having,” Holland said. “It makes me very proud to see them having success.
For Holland, Jackson is an especially important inspiration. “A lot of people passed him up, now he’s a reigning MVP,” Holland added. “A lot of people can relate to him, what he’s been through and what he’s accomplished. He’s given a lot of young kids hope.”
As children growing up in Chicago in the mid-1950s, my sister, brother and I were taught to cheer for the team with the most black players. We cheered for black success wherever it occurred, though successes occurred most visibly on ball fields and in boxing rings.
There is a tradition of this sort of collective identity within a black community whose very presence echoes the dilemma of a democracy built 400 years ago on the backs of slaves.
That community embraces a Lamar Jackson, a Patrick Mahomes, a Deshaun Watson because they represent — as the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, represented — a triumph over artificial barriers to black success.
Several years ago I interviewed Harrison “Bones” Dillard for a column. Dillard, the only male runner in Olympic history to win gold medals in the 100 meter (sprints) and the 110-meter hurdles, spoke about the impact black athletes had on his early life.
“In school, we got no history like we get it now,” he told me in 1996. “For the most part, we didn’t know anything about all those blacks who were accomplishing things in art, literature and medicine. You didn’t read about them that much. But in the newsreels they had in the movies, you would always see Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Henry Armstrong. You’d see the athletes. Those were the people we knew and wanted to emulate.”
For Bobby Turner, the 49ers running backs coach, this season was a tipping point for black quarterbacks.
At age 70, Turner remembers the dark age of NFL sensibilities when African Americans faced quotas and prohibitions when it came to playing so-called “thinking” positions.
Quarterback was the last frontier.
“It’s changed gradually to a degree,” he said. “Bottom line is that people want to win. That’s what’s going on.”
Turner said that during the last two seasons he found himself pulling for Jackson, Russell Wilson and Watson.
“No question,” he said. “On a personal level, yes, I followed them. I root for the underdog. That’s always been my situation, so I’m always pulling for someone was undersize or, of course, people of color.”
Mahomes, Jackson and Watson received most of the attention this season, but there were other notable performances from black quarterbacks.
- Teddy Bridgewater saved the season for the New Orleans Saints when he stepped in for the injured Drew Brees.
- Jacoby Brissett saved the Indianapolis Colts from instant collapse after Andrew Luck abruptly retired before the season.
But the simultaneous emergence of Mahomes, Jackson and Watson as stars made it clear this season that the black quarterback style of play is here to stay — and so are black quarterbacks.
“The bottom line is how many games can you win for your team,” Holland said. “I think it’s going to open the doors for a lot more.”
Even before they were embraced, black quarterbacks were known for their ability to extend plays, for making something out of nothing, for keeping plays alive long enough to allow something positive to happen.
In this respect black quarterbacks are the perfect metaphor for African American survival over the last 400 years. As a people, African Americans have extended plays from one generation to the next.
With the ability to extend plays with their minds and will, black quarterbacks from Fritz Pollard to Patrick Mahomes are a snapshot of progress and perseverance.
More than the year of the black quarterback, we are in the emerging era of black quarterbacks.
This is their time. And ours.