Growing up, the quarterback position was one I very rarely found a person that I could relate to. It was a bunch of white faces in a pool of black players. Nothing is overtly wrong with that, but having the biggest position in the biggest sport in America not have anyone like you gave a bit of a disconnect from the game. Don’t get me wrong, I watched every game with passion and heart, but it felt like something was missing. I wanted someone to look up to.
I was also not new to the party. I knew that there was a storied pastime of black QB’s in the league. Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon and Doug Williams were big in moving the needle on starters of color. I also knew that they went through a lot to become iconic in the NFL. Moon had to play in the Canadian Football League for years before the Oilers ever gave him a shot. Doug Williams was the first black QB to win a Superbowl and he was a backup for most of the season behind Jay Schroeder. It would take another 25 years before another black QB would replicate that feat.
If you ask a random fan of football to name the top 5 greatest quarterbacks of all-time, how many do you think would list one of color? There just had not been enough set up for their success. There weren’t enough that had the trust of their franchise.
You see, black QB’s have faced an uphill battle when it comes to earning and retaining the starting position. They were judged differently than white quarterbacks from day one. Often getting praised for their legs and athleticism while being considered less intelligent than their white counterparts. Teams were also more likely to bench a black QB compared to a white one after a poor performance, making it a tight rope they would have to walk simply to be successful in the league.
In a research study performed by The Howard Journal of Communications on the description of quarterback prospects from 1998 to 2007 in Sports Illustrated, it was found the words ‘athleticism’ and ‘intelligence’ were divided poorly between black and whites. With black players being praised for being a “physical specimen” but having lower IQ, while white players were “students of the game” but not fantastic athletes.
That was until the trend started to change. The year was 1999 and the NFL was set to have its annual draft of college players. There were 13 quarterbacks that many felt would be drafted and of those 13, 8 were black. Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper were just a couple of those selected in that draft. McNabb (Eagles) and Culpepper (Vikings) would both retire in the top 5 of passing yards in their respective franchise’s history. Then came the 2001 draft, Michael Vick had just taken college football by storm at Virginia Tech and was looking to make a splash in the NFL. The Atlanta Falcons picked him with the #1 overall selection, marking the first time that pick had been used on a black QB. He helped bring an energy to the position with his unbelievable play making ability. He gave young kids of color an idol at the position that had never been seen before. He gave me my first sports hero of color.
Unfortunately, Vick made off field choices that made him hard to root for anymore. What he did do positively however, was light a fire in a new generation. He made the QB position “cool” and obtainable to many. The position saw a huge rise in the minority population, and it started to be more and more common to see a person of color under center.
Fast forward to the 2013 season and 67% of all players in the league were black, while 17% of those were signal callers. It still seems like a low number, but it is a drastic improvement. That year also saw the second black quarterback, Russell Wilson, win a Superbowl. The 25-year drought that was previously mentioned, had come to an end. The momentum was established and it was clear that it would not slow down.
In week 1 of the 2020 NFL season, 10 quarterbacks with known black ancestry (Cam Newton, Teddy Bridgewater, Dwayne Haskins, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, Tyrod Taylor, Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson) started games for their franchises, the most ever on opening week. The previous season saw a black QB (Lamar Jackson) win the MVP award, while a black QB (Patrick Mahomes) won the Superbowl. In fact, of the last 10 Superbowls, there has been a starting QB of black ancestry in 5 of those. With Wilson getting there twice.
I am sure most of the people reading this do not care about the skin color of their quarterback, but there is something prideful for me. There has been a color barrier in every major sport in the United States that African Americans have had to shatter, and this was the last frontier. Well, except for maybe hockey. Some of my white readers may not understand this, because you have always had someone like you to look up to in every sport, but it gives hope to kids like me. Kids of color and multi-racial backgrounds. I am not saying that I want to see all QB1’s be black, not at all. I am saying, it’s refreshing seeing so many on any given Sunday. But then again, I’m biased.