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James ‘Shack’ Harris is prominent on list of groundbreaking quarterbacks

The first African-American to start a season opener also was the first to start and win an NFL playoff game

On a sun-splashed afternoon in late August, two distinguished men stood on the sidelines during Washington Redskins practice in Ashburn, Virginia, observing players for hours, chatting and comparing notes. Doug Williams, who had recently been promoted to Washington’s senior vice president of player personnel, knows how to evaluate talent. He didn’t really need any help. However, Williams has spent much of his adult life learning from James “Shack” Harris. And he has no intention of stopping.

From his days at historically black powerhouse Grambling through his NFL career, Williams followed in Harris’ footsteps and became a pioneer. Many know that Williams, in an MVP-winning performance, was the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. But Harris also had a major role in shattering racist myths about the ability of blacks to thrive at football’s most important position. Williams wishes more people realized that.

“Let me tell you about James Harris,” Williams said. “I have an older brother, but James Harris served as my other older brother. And it’s unfortunate that Shack has not gotten the recognition he so rightly deserves. Because when we talk about pioneers at the quarterback position, and a lot of people are quick to give me that title, I say that the James Harrises of the world are the true pioneers.”

Williams is right: Harris deserves to be high on that list.

In his 10-year career, all Harris did was:

  • Become the first African-American quarterback to start a season opener;
  • Become the first African-American quarterback to start and win an NFL playoff game;
  • Become the first African-American quarterback to play in the Pro Bowl;
  • Become the first African-American quarterback to be selected Pro Bowl MVP.

Talk about a trailblazer.

“All of us have a role to play,” Harris told The Undefeated recently.

The thing is, Harris, 70, almost walked away from his chance to be a game-changer in multiple roles.

After a stellar career at Grambling, which he led to three Southwestern Athletic Conference championships in the late 1960s, Harris, whose nickname is short for Meshach, hoped to prove himself as an NFL passer. But in 1969, when Harris entered the draft, black men weren’t being drafted to play quarterback.

At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Harris had prototypical size for the position, a strong passing arm and the speed to play multiple positions. Pro scouts noticed. If Harris changed positions, teams told him, he likely would be selected high in the draft. Harris wasn’t interested.

“I kept my word by not switching,” Harris recalled. “And they kept their word: They didn’t draft me on the first day.”

Finally, in the eighth round, the Buffalo Bills selected Harris with the 192nd overall pick. Disgusted about being passed over so many times, Harris decided to walk away from the game he loved to become a teacher. Eddie Robinson wasn’t ready to let Harris go out like that.

The legendary Grambling head coach pleaded with Harris to go to Buffalo and fight for not only himself but also for the black quarterbacks who would follow him. Robinson challenged his protégé to break down barriers. And Robinson ended with this: “He told me that if I didn’t try, don’t come back [to Grambling] and say I didn’t make it because of my race.”

Message received.

In training camp, Harris was seventh on Buffalo’s opening depth chart. He also faced exactly the amount of racism you’d think he would from white teammates, coaches and fans. That’s just the way things were back then.

Harris was tough, though. Growing up amid the oppression of the segregated South in Monroe, Louisiana, during the 1950s and ’60s, Harris had to be able to take a punch.

He stayed on the grind and earned the first-string QB job to open the season. As a rookie, a year before the NFL and American Football League merged, Harris started in Week 1 for the AFL’s Bills. Wide receiver Marlin Briscoe was among Harris’ teammates in that Sept. 14 game against the New York Jets.

The previous season for the Denver Broncos, Briscoe became the first black man to start in either the AFL or NFL, and he had success. But Briscoe lost the job because of the institutional racism of the era.

Harris’ debut against Joe Namath and the defending Super Bowl champion Jets didn’t go well. He suffered an injury in the first half of a 33-19 loss. Harris wouldn’t start again that season and wound up playing in only four games.

Because of a knee injury, Harris was slowed for much of the 1970 season, playing in only seven games. In 1971, Harris made two starts and played in seven games. When Lou Saban, who ran off Briscoe in Denver years earlier, became the Bills’ head coach after the ’71 season, he cut Harris. Out of football for the ’72 season, Harris figured his career was over. “I sure did,” Harris said. “But then the [Los Angeles] Rams called.”

As a backup in the 1974 season, Harris came off the bench to lead the team to seven wins in its final nine games. He also directed the Rams to their first playoff victory in 23 seasons. Harris earned the only Pro Bowl appearance of his career and won the game’s MVP award.

Harris had another strong season in 1975, going 11-2 as a starter. However, the Rams’ front office was never fully behind Harris. By the 1976 season, the Rams were playing musical chairs at quarterback. You can’t win that way.

Harris was traded to the San Diego Chargers. As the Rams’ starter, he went 21-6 in the regular season and 1-2 in the playoffs. Harris played three seasons with the Chargers, appearing in 26 games with 11 starts. He had a 4-7 record.

Just as Robinson envisioned he would, Harris kicked open doors for others.

“James used to come back [to Grambling] … and tell me how the league worked as far as being a quarterback,” Williams said. “He told me what I needed to do, what I needed to work on. All he did was encourage me. Even today, we talk three or four times a week. With me in this job, he’s been in the same job. You better believe I still want to know what he thinks.”

Said Warren Moon, the only black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, “Doug’s a good friend of mine, but I definitely was envious of the relationship he had with Shack. I wish I would have had someone to kind of lean on and show me the way like Shack did for Doug.”

Even now, almost 48 years later, Robinson’s words still resonate with Harris.

“Coach Robinson would say, ‘You’re just going to get one opportunity. You have to be ready for it,’ ” Harris said. “That worked out for me. Doug also had a role to play, and he played his role. Along the way, with what we and others did, it has improved for so many other QBs.

“But there’s still work to be done. My biggest regret is for all those guys who came before me. There were so many guys who came before me who could really, really play. But they never got a chance. That’s one of the saddest things for me.”

Although Harris’ playing days were over, his time as a trailblazer wasn’t. He also had a long, successful second career as a player-personnel official.

Steadily, he made the long climb from being a scout to a front-office executive for several clubs. He helped build the Baltimore Ravens’ 2001 Super Bowl championship team. He was the vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. In early January 2015, Harris retired from his role as a senior personnel adviser with the Detroit Lions. Harris wants to see more African-American general managers in the NFL.

“There’s no question that there are a lot of talented guys out there who are ready” for the jobs, Harris said. “There’s no question they’re qualified. We’ve just got to continue to put these young guys in position. They’ve just got to continue to get the opportunity.”

As a player and an executive, Harris got opportunities in the game. Despite the burden of the racism he faced, he capitalized on them and paved the way for others. A pioneer indeed.

Liner Notes

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.

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