What does it mean that the best HBCU quarterback is white?
Florida A&M and Ryan Stanley say they don’t see color in the historically black program
BALTIMORE — When I first approach Ryan Stanley in the lobby of the Marriott hotel near the city’s waterfront here, the Florida A&M senior quarterback reaches out to shake my hand.
But seeing as I only consider myself professional in age only, I quickly dismiss his handshake and instead extend my arm at a 90-degree angle, hoping — or expecting — Stanley to catch onto the context clues. He does, our palms clasp like a chin strap buckle and we both bring each other in for a hug. The dap takes less than two seconds. We move over to a table in the back of the hotel lobby and commence our interview.
If this story were about almost any other quarterback at a historically black college or university (HBCU), our brief salutation would not be noteworthy. But Stanley, a tall and slender 22-year-old, is a white man playing a predominantly white position at a predominantly black school. And, well, that is noteworthy for a plethora of reasons, no matter how much Stanley — or his teammates and coaches — tries to downplay it.
Stanley is arguably the best quarterback in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), one of two NCAA football conferences made up entirely of HBCUs. He ranks second in the MEAC in passing yards this season (2,181) and touchdowns (19), trailing the conference leader (Juwan Carter of Norfolk State) due to playing two fewer games. The Rattlers’ (8-1, 6-0 MEAC) 32.7 points per game lead the conference. Alabama A&M’s Aqeel Glass (29 touchdowns and 3,064 passing yards in the Southwestern Athletic Conference) is the only HBCU quarterback with a comparable resume.
Earlier this season, Stanley passed Quinn Gray as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, making a case for being the best quarterback in Florida A&M history. The team claims it doesn’t see color when it comes to Stanley. But a white guy as the best quarterback ever at a historically black school is too obvious to ignore.
As unconventional as it seems, white athletes at HBCUs are pretty common. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, self-identifying non-black students makeup nearly one-fourth (24%) of HBCU enrollment, and according to the NCAA, 5% of HBCU football players identify as white. White Americans are mostly found in HBCU baseball programs and make up a sizable number of the kickers and punters on football teams. (Florida A&M’s kicker and punter are Egyptian and Lebanese, respectively.) But they have also appeared on the gridiron at quarterback.
In 1968, Jim Gregory was the first white quarterback to play at Grambling State, which led to a 1981 television movie called Grambling’s White Tiger, starring Caitlyn Jenner, who starred in the film as Bruce Jenner as Gregory. A quarter century later, Michael Kornblau started for Eddie Robinson’s Tigers, as well. Ross Smith was Langston University’s “White Lion” in the early 2000s. Doug Switzer, the son of legendary Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer, played one season as the starting quarterback at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. (Switzer had also considered playing at Langston.) Stanley isn’t even the first white quarterback at Florida A&M: In the early 2000s, Chris Owens and Ben Dougherty started for the Rattlers. Fans called Dougherty, a Mormon from Washington state, the “Great White Hope.” Derrick Ponder is the starter at Jackson State this season. But of all those examples, Stanley stands out as the most talented.
Stanley grew up in Pembroke Pines in South Florida. His hometown is 20% black and 43% Hispanic. His high school, Charles W. Flanagan High School, is part of the Broward County school district, which is 40% black and 36% Hispanic. “It’s like a melting pot of all races,” said Stanley, whose Southern drawl turns every yeah into yay-uh. “Just a bunch of people coming together.” Despite the color of Stanley’s skin, his race is a non-factor both back home and in Tallahassee, where Florida A&M is located. “I just be me,” he says on multiple occasions.
Stanley gravitated to quarterback because at a young age he realized “you touch the ball every play.” To play quarterback, you must possess certain traits: intelligence, composure, leadership. You also need to be a little … different, which makes Stanley perfect for the position, in his eyes. “Like how I stick out and stuff, some people say I’m different, I guess,” he said, somewhat referring to his race. “You just gotta be a little different to be quarterback.”
With his long flowing hair, the position he plays and his proximity to black football players, Stanley of course knows what you’re thinking. Though he was barely 3 years old when Remember the Titans debuted in theaters in 2000, Stanley is well aware of the exploits of one Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass. “I get that name more than anything,” he said. “I’ve heard that forever.” (Like former NBA guard Jason Williams, Stanley is also called “White Chocolate.” He prefers “Sunshine.”)
It is all in good fun, until it isn’t.
Last season, after a rough outing against Bethune-Cookman (three interceptions in a 33-19 loss), Stanley hopped on Twitter and saw messages decrying white people playing for historically black programs. But as he does on the field when, say, facing a blitzer, Stanley isn’t bothered by the comments.
“I don’t really care about none of that,” he said. “Anyone could sit up there on social media and say stuff.”
He doesn’t get comments like that at Florida A&M, which is one of the many reasons he chose an HBCU over other Division I programs. Stanley values loyalty, and Florida A&M showed that through his recruiting process. He had offers from other, non-HBCU schools, including Florida International, Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky, but those programs wanted him to red- or grayshirt. Eastern Michigan offered him a scholarship two weeks before the 2015 signing day after the program’s first option became unavailable. But Stanley didn’t want to be anyone’s last resort. “I definitely made the right decision coming to Florida A&M, where they kept me their first priority.”
The historically black university, ironically enough, was like a home away from home for him. “I got the same vibes [in] South Florida and I just knew God put me in the right spot,” he said.
Hair and skin color aside, Stanley looks the part: the swagger and mannerisms of black culture have clearly rubbed off on him. During our interview he’s wearing a camouflage headband and Air Jordan sneakers and his dap is second to only that of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. On the field, his style sometimes resembles that of Robert Griffin III: single arm sleeve and glove on his non-throwing hand. (Stanley also wears bandannas, though those are to keep his hair out of his face when he has his helmet on.)
“I just do my own thing, and what others perceive it as, that’s what it is,” Stanley said. “But at the end of the day, I’m what I’ve grown up around and just being around my brothers and stuff like that.”
As a white man, he had to be cognizant and sensitive to the experience of his black teammates to earn their trust, something he’s been equipped for by growing up and playing football in Broward County.
“That’s the good thing about sports. You grow up playing this game there’s a good chance you’re going to play with guys that don’t look like you,” said Florida A&M head coach Willie Simmons. “And so he’s done that his whole life. It wasn’t uncomfortable for him at all. It hadn’t been uncomfortable for his teammates. They see a brother, they don’t see a white quarterback. He doesn’t see black teammates. They see brothers. And that’s the good thing about football, is it brings us all together in that sense. We never even think about it until we get asked about it by media.”
Defensive back Terry Jefferson, the team’s leading tackler, has known Stanley since high school when the two played on the same 7-on-7 teams (Jefferson went to high school in Miami). The pair were roommates their freshman year and sometimes coordinate the Air Jordan shoes they wear on road trips.
“We don’t look at him as the white guy on the team. We look at him as our brother. He’s got the same skin color as us. Even though it looks different we know inside we’re all the same. We treat him as such, and he treats us as such. And that’s how we’re able to bond together with each other,” Jefferson said.
The idea of not seeing color came up in all my interviews with members of the Florida A&M program. Race appears to be something they either truly didn’t notice or were reluctant to talk about. Admittedly, the term has become so politicized that “seeing color” is sometimes considered a bad thing, even as identifying racial differences goes a long way toward combating the evils that led to the necessity of HBCUs in the first place.
Michael Hurd, the director of the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at historically black Prairie View A&M University and the author of Black College Football, 1892-1992: One Hundred Years of History, Education, and Pride, believes there’s a simple reason black colleges such as Florida A&M wouldn’t make a big deal out of race: They just want quality athletes.
“In not seeing color, you are, you’re just looking at an athlete’s ability, which of course is very different from during segregation and even in some instances now where race is still a factor at PWIs [predominantly white institutions] in their recruiting,” Hurd said. “Black colleges, they don’t go there. If you’re a good player and you can help this program, race, color is really not going to be a factor.”
Stanley — and his teammates — might not see race when he’s on the field, but he for sure sees it in the classroom. At HBCUs, you are exposed to the culture every day and in many ways, and like most Americans, Stanley didn’t learn much about the plight of black people in K-12 outside of the required readings on slavery or the civil rights movement.
“I hear it every day in the classroom with the history, and I’m around them [African Americans], but I obviously don’t go through the same things just because of my skin color,” said Stanley, who is a criminal justice major. “It’s messed up how it is here in America, just how people get treated differently.
“Being at an HBCU you get the full experience and the history and really go into depth about things.”
And it’s not all about athletics. Stanley’s football schedule keeps him busy for most of the fall and spring, but he still makes time to “show my face” around campus. He goes to basketball games and Set Fridays, a weekly student-led marketplace on campus. He most enjoys the renowned homecoming week of HBCUs.
Then there are the, let’s say, perks of being one of the few white men on campus. He’s cagey about his personal life, but they don’t call him “White Chocolate” for nothing. “I don’t want to say too much about that, but I stick out, so it’s not hard to find me,” he said with a laugh. “That’s all I really could say on that situation.”
Jefferson added: “He’s a superstar off the field. I got to hang around him to get some popularity around here.”
During his second year as a starter, Stanley told the Tallahassee Democrat that he had two goals for his collegiate career: win the MEAC championship and be considered the best quarterback in the FCS.
The Rattlers have a two-game conference lead with two games remaining in the season but are ineligible for the conference championship (and the subsequent Celebration Bowl against the SWAC champion) due to NCAA academic infractions.
And while Stanley’s numbers don’t put him at the top of the FCS, he’s clearly the best quarterback in the MEAC — and possibly of all HBCU schools. He has been spectacular all season — the Rattlers cracked the FCS Top 25 for the first time in 10 years — save for the season-opener against non-conference Central Florida, where he completed just 29% of his passes for 52 yards in a 62-0 shutout loss. The matchup with the American Athletic Conference powerhouse was what’s known as a “money game,” in which schools from one of the Power 5 conferences schedule a game against a FCS school in what can best be described as a glorified exhibition. The games normally come with a six-figure payout for the underdog teams — along with lopsided losses.
Stanley is conflicted about risking his health and safety against bigger, faster and stronger opponents “just for the university to get a little check,” though he understands the “bigger picture” of programs like his needing those checks to survive as an institution.
Since the Central Florida game, Stanley’s thrown for fewer than three touchdowns in just three games and Florida A&M hasn’t lost a single game.
“He’s one of those guys where I don’t have to go through different avenues to show him a play. I can tell them something right now and he knows exactly what to do,” said quarterbacks coach Kenneth “KJ” Black. “He’s got a great football IQ, loves football, loves coming to practice, practices hard every day. He’s everything you could ask for from a quarterback.”
For Stanley’s part, he’s aware of all his and his team’s successes this season. When asked now, he won’t say he’s the best quarterback in the conference or the FCS, but said that he still wants to be.
“I’m still working like I’m the backup,” he said. “I’m just never satisfied.”