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Jamie Foxx’s ‘Any Given Sunday’ character pioneered a shift for black quarterbacks

Willie Beamen was a quarterback willing to run — and lead — on his own terms

It’s the fourth quarter, with the game tied 17-17, when Willie Beamen arrives at the line of scrimmage. No one — not even his coach or offensive coordinator — knows the play he’s about to run. When the ball snaps, he drops back into the pocket. Rolls out. Makes a run for the open field. From 5 yards out, Beamen catapults himself toward the goal line, but not before a defensive back clips his leg, somersaulting Beamen into the end zone.

Touchdown.

“A new breed of athlete and man,” the sportswriter Jack Rose writes of Beamen’s ingenuity and athleticism. “Welcome to the 21st century.”

Recounting this sequence from Oliver Stone’s 1999 sports drama Any Given Sunday as though the play were real honors the 10-year-old boy who knew Beamen was a fictional character — played by Jamie Foxx — yet I still stood in the middle of my living room transfixed by a film exalting a black quarterback who didn’t stay in the pocket.

But a lot has changed in the 20 years since Any Given Sunday was released in theaters.

In 2000, the year I first watched Any Given Sunday on DVD, there was a disparity between the wealth of my wants and the poverty of my predicament. I remember wanting to be a cop, rich, a wrestler, a video game designer and to have my own room.

Though my family endowed me with the understanding that I could get anything I wanted if I put my mind to it, this endowment came with the caveat that some nefarious figure — white and male and powerful — would always undermine it. If they allowed me anything, it was because I didn’t threaten their program. In other words, any white man’s blessing was a black man’s curse.

Earlier in that game where Beamen front flips to victory, coach Tony D’Amato — played by Al Pacino — chides Beamen for running a different play from the one he called. A play, mind you, that resulted in a touchdown.

From left to right: Jamie Foxx, Al Pacino and LL Cool J star in the movie Any Given Sunday.

Photo Warner Bros. Pictures / Online USA

“You run the plays. I call them,” D’Amato tells Beamen, “You with me, son?”

“I’m with you, boss,” Beamen answers, never once looking in his direction.

Beamen’s casual disregard for a coach who cared more about the quarterback listening to him than winning was gospel. In the zero-sum game of football, where your gain necessitates another’s loss, making the sacrifice or becoming one is the line between winning and losing. When Beamen removes his helmet to stare D’Amato down after winning the game with his own plays, his gaze shows what side of the line he’s on and why.

“You can feed the press and the fans that whole sacrifice and glory of the game crap, but I been there because it’s about the money,” Beamen tells D’Amato in a later scene.

“The coaches tryin’ to up their salaries. And the whole time what are they lookin’ for? The next black stud to take you to the top 10. Get you in a bowl game. It’s the same way in the pros. ’Cept the field hands get paid. I was a great football player, but nobody gave me a time or a day or a season, so they traded me out. So I’m gonna stay who I am.

Willie Beamen presented a new possibility for the black American quarterback that changed the course of how the team leader leads, which is now on their own terms.

“And with the time I got left, I’m going to play my way. So when you go to waive me, trade me, injury reserve me — or whatever the f— you do — I’ll be worth 10 times what I was worth before I got here.”

His audacity to play on his own terms and win with style and swagger won me over at 10, but it’s the truth of this scene that resonates with me 20 years later. Though a work of fiction, Beamen is the product of a winner-take-all industry where scores of black athletes will never be known because they sacrificed everything for the game they loved, hoping it would love them back, only to realize, often too late, that the love is unrequited.

For all that could be said about Beamen’s Cinderella story — the interviews, magazine covers, endorsements, and the iconic “My Name is Willie” music video after winning two games — his monologue articulates what anyone who’s ever played the position given, and not the one chosen, understands: Fairy tales end. And when they do, you better have something real to show for it.

“When I’m done with this game, or when this game is done with me, I don’t wanna be a ghost on the wall,” Beamen says. “I wanna be more.”

Even in my attempt to retreat from the pernicious narratives on television — that black quarterbacks were inferior to white ones — there was always something else, jabbing me like a finger to the forehead. In retaliation, whenever I played the Madden NFL video game, I’d edit the black quarterback ratings and create Beamen in every game I owned. Beamen would be rated higher than everyone. Writing the wrongs of the Madden rating system was vengeance.

At least in my game, black quarterbacks wouldn’t have to push up daisies to receive their flowers. I didn’t have the language for this then, and it was precisely this lack of language that maddened me, but the ratings symbolized the game designers’ refusal to reckon with reality.

In 2000, Daunte Culpepper’s Minnesota Vikings had a better record than Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers (11-5 to 9-7). Culpepper threw more touchdowns than Favre (33 to 20) with the same amount of interceptions (16). Culpepper was on the 2002 cover of Madden and yet Favre had the higher rating (92 to 97) in the video game.

Living in a world where Favre could have a higher rating as quarterback than Culpepper, Steamin’ Willie Beamen would be more than the best quarterback. He’d be the best football player to never exist.

My best friend Michael and I bonded over a mutual love for the Beamen: how he threw up in the huddles, ran his own plays and had a music video, endorsements and national recognition after winning only two games. For teenagers who witnessed how black quarterbacks were given half as much for being twice as good, we read Beamen’s premature stardom as overdue.

Then Michael Vick happened.

What was better than Vick’s speed, agility, or ability to throw the ball 50 yards off his back foot was that I didn’t have to create or edit him. He was real. Vick was everything I watched Beamen be in the film, a black man who thumbed his nose at a bygone era when to play quarterback, you had to stay in the pocket. On the field and off.

In the 20 years since Any Given Sunday was released in theaters, a lot has changed.

Photo By Getty Images

When I’d watch Vick in real games, running with the football like a loaf of bread in one hand and directing teammates to block with the other, I saw him as a conductor who played the orchestra instead of an instrument to be played.

Atlanta Falcons’ Michael Vick throws a pass against the Dallas Cowboys during an NFL football game in Atlanta.

AP Photo/Rob Carr

Beamen pioneered a shift in the way black quarterbacks conducted themselves on and off the field. He presented a new possibility for the black American quarterback that changed the course of how the team leader leads — which is now: on his own terms.

So, when asked if I would write this piece, it never crossed my mind to say no. I wanted to gift the boy who saw Steamin’ Willie Beamen fly through the air all those years ago with the language he didn’t have then to describe the feelings he didn’t know mattered. Where others saw a showboat, that boy saw someone who had just set sail. That boy recognized Beamen’s mobility in the context of a game that would protect him so long as he stayed in place.

What I understand now is Beamen’s desire to be “more” in a sport that treats black athletes like they should be grateful for whatever they get is the reason that I stopped watching football. Though I am disenchanted about most things relating to football, what still resonates with me is seeing a black quarterback such as Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, or Patrick Mahomes run.

I no longer need to believe in fairy tales because their mobility speaks to what I understand to be true about life: that anyone who’d sacrifice freedom for safety deserves neither, and loses both. The moment they understand that staying in the pocket only presents the illusion of safety, freedom becomes the only option worth taking a hit for.

Yahdon Israel is an educator, entrepreneur, editor, writer and founder of Literaryswag, a cultural movement that intersects literature and fashion to make books cool. He teaches creative writing at The New School and City College. He is the former editor-in-chief of Brooklyn Magazine. He has written for Avidly, The New Inquiry, LitHub, Poets and Writers and Vanity Fair. And he hosts the Literaryswag Book Club, a Brooklyn-based subscription service and book club that meets every last Wednesday of the month.