Former Black NFL quarterback honors those denied the opportunity

Listening to Greatness: Part 3

Each of the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Sam Lacy Pioneer Award winners has a historical tale worth knowing about. The MSR heard them all at this year’s banquet during the NABJ’s August convention in New Orleans. We will share them with our readers over the next few months in our “Listening to Greatness” series.

This week: James Harris

Former Bills QB James Harris MSR File photo

James Harris never played in a Super Bowl, but he earned a Super Bowl ring as Baltimore’s vice president of pro personnel after the team won the 2000 NFL championship. He largely credits his pioneering status to his late college football coach.

Harris was ready to give up football. He starred at Grambling as quarterback under the tutelage of legendary coach Eddie Robinson. “Coach Robinson said to me [that] in four years America will be ready for a Black quarterback,” he remembered the coach telling him when he first arrived at the school.

At the time he was drafted in the late 1960s the NFL wasn’t ready for that yet — Blacks who played quarterbacks in college often were switched to other positions. The 6’-4” Harris, after four years at Grambling (1965-68), winner of four SWAC titles, and 1967 Orange Blossom Classic MVP, was Buffalo’s eighth-round pick, the 192nd player drafted in the 1969 NFL Draft.

James Harris at NABJ (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

But Harris playing quarterback wasn’t in the Bills plans. As a result, he was ready to take his education degree and go into teaching, he recalls. But Robinson talked him out of “early retirement.”

“He encouraged me to reconsider,” Harris told us after receiving the 2017 Sam Lacy Sports Pioneer Award in New Orleans. “We were sitting in the stadium, just he and I. He said to me [playing in the NFL] is going to be unfair. As a Black ‘you got to be better’ to make it there as a QB. The coach also advised him to not use being Black as an excuse if he doesn’t make it.

“I took those profound words with me to the Buffalo Bills, and in spite the unforgettable thought [by White coaches] that Blacks weren’t smart enough [to play quarterback], that Blacks couldn’t read [defenses], that Blacks couldn’t be the face of the franchise,” where usually quarterbacks are placed, continued Harris. “But with the support of family and friends, I was able to overcome and became the starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.”

On September 14, 1969, the man whose nickname is “Shack” became the first Black quarterback to start a season-opening NFL game. The Bills didn’t win that day, but history was made nonetheless.

Harris played 12 years in the league, where he recorded a couple more firsts: the first Black QB to play in a Pro Bowl and to win the game MVP honors (1974), and leading the Los Angeles Rams to their first playoff victory in 23 years.

After retirement as a player, Harris carved out a successful front office career in Baltimore (personnel director, 1997-2003), Jacksonville (player personnel vice president, 2008), and Detroit (player personnel executive, 2009-15) before he retired from football for the “third” time in 2015, 46 years after he took his first NFL snap.

As he accepted the Lacy Award, Harris said, “There are a lot of people I need to thank — a lot of coaches and teachers. Tonight I like to share this honor with the Black quarterbacks who were denied the opportunity to play quarterback. I also want to share with other contributors — Marlin Briscoe, Warren Moon and many other (Black) quarterbacks who contributed to this journey — to all of you here tonight and across America that supported me, I say thank you. I hope I represented you well, and I hope I made a difference, and I hope you’re proud.

“For a young guy from Monroe, Louisiana, my family and I want to say thank you.”



Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to