Willie Thrower: A perfect name for a trailblazing quarterback
His contributions to the game go well beyond his short NFL career
No quarterback ever had a cooler name: Willie Thrower.
When you hear it, visions of picturesque deep balls, efficient two-minute drills and fourth-quarter comebacks immediately come to mind. Much more important than his great name, though, is what Thrower accomplished during his brief time in the NFL. Because in only two career games, Thrower cleared one of the biggest hurdles in professional sports, paving the way for African-Americans to eventually thrive at football’s most important position.
“He broke the ice,” said Warren Moon, the only African-American quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “He was the first one to give little African-American boys the belief that maybe, just maybe, they could one day play quarterback too. That’s what he did for me.”
In 1953, Thrower became one of the first black men to play quarterback in the NFL’s modern era. The league’s unofficial ban on black players was lifted in 1946, but teams still blocked African-Americans from playing quarterback. Blacks excelled at running back, and many top-notch black players entered the NFL in the 1950s and ’60s. But the highest-profile job was off-limits to blacks, largely because of the racist belief that blacks lacked the smarts and heart to lead white men.
Although George Taliaferro played quarterback among his seven positions in the NFL from 1951-55, Thrower was the first African-American to exclusively play quarterback in the league. On Oct. 18, 1953, Thrower became a trailblazer.
During a 35-28 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Thrower, then a Chicago Bears rookie, replaced starting quarterback and future Hall of Famer George Blanda. Thrower completed 3 of 8 passes for 27 yards. Of course, his performance that day is almost irrelevant. The fact that Thrower got in the game was the story — and what should be remembered most about his football days.
The importance of Thrower in the evolution of black quarterbacks must not be underestimated, Harry Edwards said. Edwards, who since the 1960s has been at the forefront of the discussion about race, sports and politics, has studied Thrower’s career in college at Michigan State and in the NFL. Thrower did a whole lot.
“He was among that first post-World War II cohort of black athletes to step across the color line in professional football,” said Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Thrower was a pioneer playing the leadership, authority and intellectual position of quarterback, which, with the exception of him, was reserved at the time for white players. But he didn’t have many games in which to display his skills.
“Because of this, he is today largely forgotten despite his pioneering contribution. But in every social change situation, there is always somebody who is the first, someone who bears the pressure and scrutiny of the change moment. The first is always a legacy that is more than just worthy of being memorialized. The saga of challenge and change is not only incomplete without encompassing recognition of the first, it is to a substantial degree untrue.”
Thrower, who died of a heart attack at age 71 in 2002, was a standout halfback at New Kensington High in western Pennsylvania. In his 2007 book Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback, The Undefeated’s Bill Rhoden wrote that “Thrower’s talent was so pronounced that he had been invited to play in a 1948 all-star game in Texas — as captain on the East team. But when the game’s organizers discovered he was black, he was told he could not take the field.”
Because of his race, many major college football programs declined to recruit Thrower in the late 1940s. Not only did Michigan State pursue Thrower, but the coaching staff also switched him to quarterback to capitalize on his strong arm and athleticism.
Thrower backed up All-American Tom Yewcic on the school’s 1952 national championship team. Back in those days, the NFL didn’t draft African-Americans to play quarterback.
Nonetheless, Thrower, who went undrafted, made the Bears’ roster and signed a one-year contract. As he explained to Rhoden, “I got in the San Francisco 49er game as a quarterback after [Bears head coach] George Halas got dissatisfied with George Blanda. I completed three out of eight passes and took them from our 40-yard line all the way down to about the 15. All of a sudden, Halas sends Blanda back in. The fans really jumped on him: ‘Leave Willie in! Leave Willie in!’ But that was it; the end of the game for me.”
During one more game in the ’53 season, Thrower played briefly. The Bears released him before the start of the next season. He had a good run in Canada, playing four more seasons. After a separated shoulder ended his football career, Thrower became a social worker in New York and eventually returned to New Kensington and operated two taverns. Thrower deserves more recognition from the NFL.
“On one given Sunday, every QB in the NFL should wear a small ‘WT’ patch on his helmet,” said Edwards, a longtime staff consultant with the 49ers. “Willie Thrower didn’t just open a key and critical door to broadening the foundations of democratic participation for blacks at all player positions in the NFL. His achievement demonstrated what the NFL should stand for as a league while projecting an image of what we should aspire to as a nation.”
Moon and Doug Williams are among the NFL’s pioneering black quarterbacks who haven’t forgotten Thrower.
Just like Thrower, Williams burst through a major barrier: He was the first African-American signal-caller to win a Super Bowl. Partly because of men like Thrower, Williams reached the game’s highest heights.
“When you talk about pioneers, I came into the league in 1978. Willie Thrower set the pioneer bar in ’53. He was a quarter-century ahead of me,” said Williams, in his first season as the Washington Redskins’ senior vice president of player personnel.
“You look at me, I was given more opportunities than Willie Thrower was given. But he still managed to help me and a lot of other guys. He deserves that pioneer crown. And for a quarterback, you can’t get a better name.”
The Undefeated will profile 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marks 30 years since Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the big game.