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Pioneering quarterback Jimmy Raye sees Super Bowl as a culmination of a ‘life of denials’

New documentary about Michigan State legend tells how he helped prepare the way for Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts

MESA, Ariz. — On a warm evening, the first Black quarterback I became aware of screened his film in a building named after the first Black winner of the Academy Award for best actor.

The quarterback was Jimmy Raye, the venue, the Sidney Poitier New American Film School. In 1964, Poitier won the Oscar, and Raye was an 18-year-old freshman at Michigan State University.

Like Poitier, Raye was destined for great things.

The documentary, The Indelible Legacy of Jimmy Raye, tells the story of a talented young quarterback from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who hurdled segregated barriers, accepted a football scholarship to Michigan State and became part of one of the greatest teams in college football history. The film is eye-opening and, on this historic Super Bowl week, timely as the nation celebrates the first meeting of two African American quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts.

Throughout the week, Hurts and Mahomes, when asked about their historic meeting, have pointed out how they stand on the shoulders of those who have paved the way. Both players have discussed how they are playing for those African American quarterbacks who never received the opportunity.

Raye is one of those individuals. His documentary tells a familiar but still painful story about what African Americans of a certain age had to endure as a matter of routine. But it also tells a familiar story of African American perseverance and triumph.

Last week’s screening marked the first time that Raye, who turns 77 next month, had seen the film, produced by NFL 360 and directed by Osahon Tongo.

“When I was watching I was thinking, ‘Wow. This is basically my life, from segregated South to my professional life, being played out on the screen for the world to see,’ ” he said. “I was humbled by it, I was proud and thankful all at the same time. I’m glad that I had some small part to play in what’s going to happen on Sunday.”

San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye during training camp in Santa Clara, California, in 2010.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

When you watch the documentary, watch Raye’s life through his eyes and hear him tell his story to former NFL player Emmanuel Sanders, it’s understandable why Raye — as he would tell me later — believed the day might never come when two Black quarterbacks would face each other in the Super Bowl. Or, for that matter, that the day would come when the United States would elect a Black man to be president.

A few years ago, I asked Raye if he thought Black NFL quarterbacks would ever become as numerous as Black defensive backs and wide receivers. He was doubtful: “I think the numbers will increase and tilt more toward minority quarterbacks than it did 20 years ago,” he said. “But I don’t think it will ever be a full revolution of all the teams in the NFL having Black quarterbacks. I find that hard to believe. I think the NFL will disintegrate before that happens.”

During Raye’s early life, every aspect of Black existence that could be controlled was prescribed by segregation and racism. What could not be controlled was his spirit.

Raye was raised at a time and in an environment in which grand opportunities for African Americans were difficult to come by. In one part of the film, Raye recalled being in the local Woolworth store and inadvertently reaching up to take a drink of water from the water fountain. His mother grabbed him and pulled him away because he was getting ready to drink from the “Whites Only” water fountain. His mother knew the potential consequences of breaking one of the segregation codes.

Raye made the bold move to skip the traditional journey to a historically Black university, a journey made by so many of his teammates and classmates. Instead, he took a leap of faith. He was recruited by a Michigan State assistant coach and decided to go to East Lansing, Michigan, and the Big Ten.

He had little idea in 1964 that he was setting the table for what the world will watch on Sunday.

“It’s satisfying,” Raye said. “I was a lone ranger in Division I football in 1966. Today, because of the opportunities that the young men are being given, the combination of all of that will manifest itself on Sunday in the Super Bowl.

“It makes me feel proud that they’re referred to as ‘quarterbacks.’ You don’t hear ‘Jalen Hurts, the Black quarterback,’ or ‘Patrick Mahomes, the Black quarterback.’ They’re just ‘the quarterback.’ ”

Michigan State defensive end Bubba Smith (left) in action against Michigan during a game in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Oct. 14, 1967.

Warner Bros./AP Photo

Raye was one of a core group of Black players recruited to Michigan State from the South — Raye, from North Carolina; Hall of Fame defensive end Bubba Smith, from Texas; Hall of Fame linebacker George Webster, from South Carolina; and receiver Gene Washington, from Texas. They were all part of head coach Duffy Daugherty’s so called “Underground Railroad” that recruited supertalented Black players from the South to East Lansing.

In 1966, Raye led Michigan State to a Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl victory and a national championship. The highlight of the 1966 season was a game against Notre Dame, at the time the No. 2 ranked team behind Michigan State. It was Michigan State’s integrated team against a Notre Dame team that had one Black player, Allan Page. The game ended in a 10-10 tie.

That 1966 team was the beginning of a blast that would shatter the wall that kept talented Black athletes out of predominantly white universities. To think that 60 years ago, Mahomes and Hurts likely would not have been recruited by their respective universities: Texas Tech, Alabama and Oklahoma.

What’s intriguing about the action segments of the Raye documentary is that, while the footage is nearly 60 years old, Raye’s style of play — his mobility, and ability to run and throw — reflects the current style of quarterback play that will be on display on Sunday by Hurts and Mahomes. Raye was ahead of his time.

“That style of play has expanded the game because they’re no longer looking for the 6-foot-4, 220-pound, strong, rifle-arm guy [with] blond hair, blue eyes,” Raye said. “They’re looking for the guys who have the throwing ability and the off-schedule ability to extend plays.

“These two guys [Hurts and Mahomes] are the epitome of that.”

But in 1966 and for decades later, that style of play was rejected by the NFL, and Raye was one of hundreds of talented Black athletes whose dreams of playing quarterback were dashed.

In a 2019 interview, Raye told me that he would have gone to Tennessee State University but declined because of Eldridge Dickey, who would have a legendary college career as a quarterback at TSU. In 1968, Dickey was drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders, ahead of Alabama’s Ken Stabler, becoming the first African American quarterback to be drafted in the first round. Dickey was switched to wide receiver. Raye was drafted in the 16th round by the Los Angeles Raiders and was switched to defensive back before reporting to training camp.

For all of the history he made and represents, Raye stood on the shoulders of giants as well. In 1960, six years before Raye led Michigan State to a national title, Sandy Stephens, an African American quarterback at the University of Minnesota, led that school to a national title and a Rose Bowl victory. Stevens became the first Black All-American quarterback.

Raye was my introduction to Black quarterbacks because I was playing high school football at the time and Raye’s Michigan State team was a powerhouse, one of the best college football teams in the nation.

Raye was preceded at Michigan State by Willie Thrower, who became the first African American quarterback to play in the Big Ten in 1950. In 1952, Thrower was an integral part of Michigan State’s national championship team. Thrower was also one of the first African Americans to play quarterback in the NFL’s modern era. He played for the Chicago Bears in 1953.

The point is that everyone stands on someone’s shoulders. On this historic week, as Hurts and Mahomes prepare to make history, Raye said that he was honored to have played a role. As the theater emptied on Wednesday, I asked Raye about the significance of two Black quarterbacks facing each other for the first time in a Super Bowl.

“Sunday is the culmination of a life of denials come full circle,” he said. “Blacks being given the opportunity and showing what can be accomplished, I wasn’t sure I was going to see that in my professional lifetime.”

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 Andscape.