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Locker Room Talk: James ‘Shack’ Harris on today’s renaissance of black QBs

These young quarterbacks are now role models for another generation

On Sept. 14, 1969, James “Shack” Harris, the Buffalo Bills’ 22-year-old rookie from Grambling State, became the first African-American quarterback to be the starter at the beginning of the season for a pro football team in the United States.

As the NFL completes Week 2 of the 2017 NFL season, Harris at age 70 can reflect on a week in which six black quarterbacks started for their respective teams. Two of them, DeShone Kizer of the Browns and Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans, are rookies, and there are more on the way.

Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts have been outstanding. Watson’s replacement at Clemson, Kelly Bryant, already looks impressive.

“I think the black quarterback has arrived and is here to say,” Harris told me Sunday from his Florida home during a phone interview. “I would still expect, more and more, to get an opportunity to play in the league.”

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Rhoden Fellows – HBCU 468 Podcast: Bill Rhoden gets “Shack” Harris go deep about being a Black QB in the NFL.

I asked Harris, who enjoyed a 20-year NFL career with three teams, whether he thought black athletes would take over the position as they have the defensive secondary and wide receiver corps. Would the quarterback position become Africanized?

“I wouldn’t expect the numbers to get like they are in the defensive secondary,” Harris said. “But I certainly expect more than six to be starters.”

Harris was also a front-office executive with Jacksonville, Baltimore and Detroit.

On Sept. 14, he watched Watson make his NFL start. Watson turned in an uneven but gritty performance against Cincinnati. His numbers were fair — 125 yards passing, 67 yards rushing — but his performance was inspirational.

The game-breaker was Watson’s electric 49-yard touchdown run. That play epitomized precisely why speed and mobility, long resisted at the quarterback position, are now crucial.

“If you can have a little Houdini in you and you can threaten the defense, that puts a lot of pressure on a defense,” Harris said. “Among pass rushers and coordinators, there is some fear of that guy who can run for a first down, who can keep plays alive. That guy can win games.”

In Harris’ generation, which included outstanding players such as Eldridge Dickey, Joe Gilliam and Marlin Briscoe, blacks who aspired to play quarterback almost had to hide their athleticism.

Imagine that.

Harris talked about purposely running a slow 40-yard dash for scouts.

On a recruiting trip to the University of Wisconsin, Harris made the mistake of catching a pass with one hand. One of the coaches reacted by saying he’d make a great tight end.

Don’t fool yourself: This thinking is not entirely dead. As recently as last week, a SiriusXM NFL Radio analyst and Hall of Fame general manager suggested that Louisville’s Jackson should be switched to wide receiver in the NFL.

Everyone cannot play quarterback in the NFL, but Harris remembers and grieves for generations of talented black athletes who never got the chance. “I was fortunate to get the opportunity, but the worst thing about all of this is that there were so many excellent quarterbacks who were denied the opportunity,” Harris said. “There were a bunch of guys who could have played in this league.”

Harris named a laundry list of extraordinary quarterbacks from historically black colleges and universities who were overlooked, passed over or forced to go to the Canadian Football League.

“We were sending droves of players to the league, almost at every position,” Harris said. “We had quarterback play that was just as good, and none of those guys could get an opportunity.”

In 2000, a quartet of former black quarterbacks — Harris, Briscoe, Warren Moon and Doug Williams — formed the Field Generals. They formed the group at the funeral of Joe Gilliam Jr., the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback whose talent was compromised by drug use. A number of Gilliam’s teammates said the drug use was triggered in part by the pressures of competing as a quarterback, a black quarterback, before the NFL and fans were ready for the shift.

The idea behind the Field Generals was that the pressures of being an NFL quarterback were exacerbated by being black. Moon, for example, talked about going to therapy during his career in the NFL.

They also recognized that having role models was critical.

This generation of young black quarterbacks has many frames of reference and sources of inspiration. Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback, was 20, and Watson was 18 in 2013 when Russell Wilson led Seattle to the Super Bowl.

Wilson was 14 in 2002 when Michael Vick had his breakout season with the Atlanta Falcons. Vick was 19 when Steve McNair led Tennessee to the Super Bowl in the 1999 season. Vick was only 5 when Randall Cunningham was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, but he was a teenager at the end of Cunningham’s career with the Eagles and saw Cunningham’s great season with Minnesota in 1998.

Vick could look at Donovan McNabb, and McNabb could look at Cunningham and Williams, the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

Williams was 14 years old when Harris started that regular-season game with Buffalo.

By contrast, Harris’ generation of black quarterbacks had a poorly lighted path.

At the NFL level, Harris looked at the usual suspects: Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. At the college level, he looked at Iowa’s Wilburn Hollis, Minnesota’s Sandy Stephens and Michigan State’s Jimmy Raye. “Back then, there weren’t black quarterbacks,” Harris said. “There just wasn’t a future in it.”

Harris had Dickey, the iconic Tennessee State quarterback. But they were more competitors than role models for each other. Dickey was so good that Oakland made him its first-round draft pick in 1968.

There were three quarterbacks who Harris kept up with: Stephens at the University of Minnesota, Raye at Michigan State and Dickey.

“When Dickey was drafted No. 1 at quarterback, I jumped for joy,” Harris recalled. “That meant I was going to get an opportunity.

“I had no doubt he was going to make it. No doubt.”

Dickey outplayed Ken Stabler in the preseason but was switched to wide receiver for the regular season. Briscoe, who filled in at quarterback in Denver in 1968 but was not invited back as a quarterback, was switched to wide receiver.

“That was when the bottom fell out,” Harris said. “You didn’t know what to expect.” Harris was drafted in the eighth round by the Bills. He contemplated not playing pro ball until his coach, the legendary Eddie Robinson, talked him out of it. Robinson told Harris that if he did not go to the Bills’ training camp, he would damage the hopes of future generations.

There was a time when African-Americans were not allowed to play in the NFL and, once allowed in, were largely blocked from playing quarterback. The deeply entrenched stereotypes insisted that African-Americans could not think under pressure, lacked courage, lacked leadership skills.

For Harris, this new generation of black quarterbacks has an obligation to continue to light and widen the path that he and others helped build.

“They have to continue to make the most of the opportunity so that the young kids coming behind them will be able to realize that they can play in the league.”

The lesson handed down to Harris from Willie Thrower and George Taliaferro, one that Harris has passed down to Prescott and Watson, is simple: Whether you’re a quarterback or a CEO, the hard road to glory never ends.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.