The rise of black quarterbacks
The rise of black NFL quarterbacks has been both swift and spectacular. Just over 40 years after Doug Williams became the first African American passer to be selected in the opening round of the NFL draft, black quarterbacks now occupy positions of prominence throughout professional sports’ most successful league.
Once dismissed as a group by the NFL’s longtime wrongheaded thinking based on skin color, black signal-callers have proven they possess the mettle, smarts and talent needed to thrive at the game’s most important position. They have been No. 1 overall draft picks. They have won league MVP awards. They have led teams to Super Bowl championships. One is even enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Talk about closing a gap.
And today’s superstar black passers – Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott – are continuing to build on the accomplishments of the trailblazers who kicked down the door for them. Let’s look at some of the most important moments in their climb to the top.
James “Shack” Harris leads the Los Angeles Rams to a 19-10 victory over the Washington Redskins in the NFC divisional playoffs. An eighth-round pick in 1969, Harris became the first black signal-caller to start and win an NFL postseason game.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Doug Williams 17th overall in 1978, making him the first African American quarterback drafted in the first round. A classic dropback passer out of Grambling State, Williams had finished fourth in voting for the 1977 Heisman Trophy.
Doug Williams becomes the first black passer to win both a Super Bowl and the game’s MVP award while leading Washington’s NFL franchise to a rout of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. Said Williams years later: “After that day, a whole lot changed.”
For the first time in NFL history, multiple black passers are selected in the first round of the draft: Donovan McNabb (second overall), Akili Smith (third overall) and Daunte Culpepper (11th overall). Since then, multiple black quarterbacks were taken in the first round in 2017 and 2019.
After trading up in the draft, the Atlanta Falcons make Michael Vick the first black quarterback selected No. 1 overall. The left-hander out of Virginia Tech had a powerful passing arm and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds — an explosive combination at the quarterback position.
Tennessee Titans star Steve McNair wins the AP NFL MVP Award, sharing the honor with Indianapolis Colts signal-caller Peyton Manning. No black quarterback had ever been named the league’s top player.
Michael Vick becomes the highest-paid player in the NFL. His 10-year, $130 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons set a record $37 million in guaranteed money.
In the 2005 NFC championship game, Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles battle Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons. The matchup ensured that Doug Williams would no longer be the only starting black passer to lead a team to a Super Bowl. The Eagles defeated the Falcons.
Moon Lands in Canton
Warren Moon is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Moon, who had stellar stretches in both the Canadian Football League and the NFL, became both the first African American quarterback and first undrafted passer to have a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio.
1, 2 Step
Russell Wilson becomes the second black quarterback to win a Super Bowl after the Seattle Seahawks rout the Denver Broncos. The following season Wilson would become the first black quarterback to appear in two Super Bowls, but his Seahawks would go on to lose to the New England Patriots.
Superman is in the Building
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton wins the AP NFL MVP Award after leading his team to a 15-1 record. Newton, who also won the 2011 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, joined Steve McNair as the only black passers selected as the league’s top player.
After defeating the San Francisco 49ers on the NFL’s biggest stage, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes becomes the first black quarterback in league history to win both the Super Bowl and the league MVP award. Last season, Mahomes won MVP honors after throwing for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in his first year as a starter.