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Jacoby Brissett steps into Tom Brady’s shoes

Looks like the Patriots may start their first black quarterback tonight

Let’s not pretend that Jacoby Brissett is just another NFL player who moved up the depth chart because someone else is injured and somebody else is suspended. Brissett is a black quarterback who’s expected to start for the New England Patriots Thursday night. That makes him unique — perhaps even a unicorn.

If Brissett is in the opening lineup for Thursday night’s game against the Houston Texans in Foxborough, Massachusetts, he would become the first African-American to hold that distinction in the franchise’s 56-year history. Considering the racial discord in Boston’s past, Brissett’s accomplishment seems noteworthy.

Remember comedian Chris Rock’s trenchant line about Boston? “I was walking down the street in South Boston the other day, or was it Johannesburg?” Although Rock was making a joke, the fact that he put Boston in the same category as a city in a foreign country famous for apartheid, well, that’s really all you need to know.

Brissett’s story – the rookie from North Carolina State who was supposed to spend the entire season in the background – should resonate with anyone who knows the city’s history, especially since the beginning of the civil rights movement, USC law professor Jody David Armour said. And with the nation’s ongoing racial strife, it has never been more important for African-Americans to continue to succeed, said Armour, who studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making.

“The racial tension in Boston [in the 1970s] was so thick you could cut it,” said Armour, who received his undergraduate degree from Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1982.

“I can remember walking through Harvard Square with my homie … and whites from South Boston just driving up, shooting the ‘N-word’ and other epithets at us. They’d make special trips. … That was kind of mood that there was in the city.”

Before the 1960s, the Red Sox of Major League Baseball mirrored Boston’s mood.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Until 1959, the Red Sox, MLB’s last team to have a black player take the field, remained all white. The Boston Celtics made legendary center Bill Russell the first African-American coach in the National Basketball Association. The civil rights icon, however, endured despicable racial abuse while leading the Celtics to 11 NBA Finals championships in 13 seasons.

Russell received death threats. Once, his home was invaded. The vandals wrote racial epithets on his walls. They left feces in his bed. Fast-forward decades, and a 23-year-old black man in the Boston professional sports market is on the verge of starting at the key position for arguably the marquee franchise of professional sports’ most powerful league. It was a long road to get here, Warren Moon said.

The only African-American quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Moon is eager to watch Brissett break another barrier. “We’re talking about kind of a last frontier, as far as African-American quarterbacks starting in a major city,” Moon said. “So it’s definitely something to talk about.

“We all know about the Boston area and how segregated it used to be. Even when Bill Russell and all those great Celtics teams were winning there, he never really felt that comfortable living in Boston. For us, it’s significant that there has never been an African-American to start for New England.”

Brissett’s ascent is timely for other reasons, too, Armour added. Again this week, the nation is on edge because of the slayings of two more black men – Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina – at the hands of police. The more positive narratives told about black men the better, Armour said.

“In a lot of ways, sports reflect society,” he said. “Naturally, sports figures, like a black quarterback starting for the first time, at a time when there’s racial trouble roiling cities, is something that will be part of the ongoing discussion” about race relations.

Under head coach Bill Belichick, Moon said, the best players play. And no one is suggesting that the New England organization is behind the times. The Patriots have never had an African-American head coach. But Romeo Crennel served as their defensive coordinator before he became a head coach with the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. He’s currently the Texans’ defensive coordinator. The team also has had a black vice president of player personnel.

It just so happens that superstar Tom Brady is the most successful signal-caller of his generation. Regardless of race, no one has been able to unseat the future Hall of Famer.

Brissett is only in this position because Brady is serving a four-game suspension for his role in the Deflategate saga, and No. 2 quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo injured his passing shoulder in a Week 2 victory over Miami. Garoppolo has been listed as doubtful for Thursday’s home game at Gillette Stadium.

Brissett replaced Garoppolo and played two-plus quarters as the Patriots, who raced out to a 24-3 halftime lead, held on for a 31-24 victory. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called “safe” passes (screens, short routes, slants) and Brissett delivered: He went six for nine for 92 yards. That’s not to suggest Brissett is incapable of doing more.

At 6-feet-4, 235 pounds, Brissett supposedly is razor-sharp in the film room, has a top-notch passing arm and is a big-time athlete. The combination prompted Belichick to use a third-round pick (91st overall) to select the West Palm Beach, Florida, native, who impressed as a two-year starter at North Carolina State after spending his first two years in college as a backup at the University of Florida. So far, Moon, who keeps tabs on the NFL’s black passers, likes what he has seen from Brissett.

“From everything I hear, he has a lot of poise and a lot of maturity,” Moon said. “He’s got a really good arm and he’s very mobile. And one thing about New England’s offense is that you’re not going to hold the ball very long.

“You’re going to get it out of your hands quickly. If you’re paying attention to all the reads, and you understand the offense, you know they’ll make sure he has a lot of those types of high-percentage throws – bubble screens, slants, things like that – especially early in the ballgame to get him some confidence.”

From all accounts, Brissett doesn’t lack for confidence. But he also knows he’s only getting started.

“It’s been a learning process since I’ve gotten here,” he told reporters who cover the Patriots regularly the other day. “It’s going to continue to be throughout my career.”

Some would argue that there’s no need to highlight Brissett’s race. After all, the reigning NFL MVP – quarterback Cam Newton – is black. Black quarterbacks have won Super Bowls. Moon is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. True enough. But there’s still work to do. Noting each important step reminds us how much.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.