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Black Quarterbacks Still a Rarity in NFL

August 24, 1995

The days of noticing black quarterbacks simply because they are black should be long gone from the NFL. From James Harris to Doug Williams to Warren Moon to Randall Cunningham, they have proved beyond doubt they are as worthy as anyone to play the position.

Yet with the drafting of Steve McNair in April, the focus on black quarterbacks has been heightened again. Once more, numbers are being mentioned, questions are being raised about why with 30 NFL teams, there are less than a dozen black QBs. And only three _ Moon, Cunningham and Jeff Blake _ are starters.

``I am disappointed that it is a rarity,″ says Blake, a third-stringer with the Jets who was cut last year, signed as No. 3 by Cincinnati, then elevated through injuries to the starting spot.

Given a chance, Blake excelled for a few weeks and had a decent season with a pitiful team. ``We have to just, as a group of people, keep pushing for it,″ he said.

``We have guys that play quarterback in college football, when they get a chance to go to the pros, stick at quarterback, stick with it; then, if you don’t make it, hey, you tried. But as soon as somebody says, `Well, you play another position,′ they’re quick to say, `OK, I’ll move to that position.′

``But if you stick to it and keep striving to get better at that position, you’re a better player.″

If you’re allowed to. Rarely does that happen.

``Last year, there were only six or seven African-American quarterbacks in the league,″ says Harris, the first black quarterback to play regularly in the NFL, with Buffalo and the Rams in the early 1970s. ``You would think there would be more by now.

``Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham count out of the equation. Their abilities are at such a level they cannot be denied the opportunity. If you find a talent on that level, no matter what color, he will play.

``I think it goes way back to the great high school quarterbacks in Georgia, Alabama, Texas and everywhere. Where is he when he gets to college? How many get into a major program at college and play quarterback?″

Not even McNair could manage that. He chose Alcorn State mainly because he wouldn’t have to switch to defensive back or wide receiver at the traditionally black school. Then he went on to shatter all kinds of records, only to have his achievements doubted because of the level of competition.

Or was it his color that raised the doubts?

``I haven’t run across anything like that at this point in time,″ says McNair, who likely will sit on the bench and learn this year in Houston. ``I’m not saying that I won’t. But everybody’s got their viewpoints on every situation and everything that happens in life. You’ve just got to be strong and take the good with the bad, and do your job and not let that wear on you ... go on out there and play the caliber of football that you normally play.″

When coaches and athletic directors allow it. The NAACP got involved in San Angelo, Texas, this summer after Central High School coach Dan Gandy benched black quarterback Bobby Townsend Jr.

Townsend led District 4-5A in passing last year. But Gandy moved Townsend to wide receiver and installed senior August Pfluger, who is white, at quarterback.

The two shared time at quarterback last season before Townsend won the job outright.

Townsend’s father complained to the school board and the NAACP that the move could cost his son scholarship opportunities. The board ruled that a coach has the right to choose his players as he sees fit.

``Bobby didn’t get a fair chance,″ the elder Townsend says. ``His position was given away.″

Unfortunately, the Bobby Townsends of the football world run into such situations at every level.

``Coming out of high school and going into college,″ Blake says, ``I came out of the state of Florida, and I was like second team all-state. I made high school All-America teams and I wasn’t even recruited by any Florida school. As a matter of act, I was recruited by only one Division I school in the whole nation; that was East Carolina.

``How can you assess that I was misrecruited by all the Division I schools in the country, but now here I am playing in the NFL?″

Had McNair chosen a Division I power, he might be seeking a spot in an NFL secondary this year. Or on a receiving corps.

``Coming out of high school I was a defensive back and also a quarterback,″ he says. ``I had good skills at both positions and I felt like I could go on to the collegiate level and show my skills as a quarterback.

``But most colleges, major colleges all over the country, including the Florida States, the Miamis, the Mississippi States and teams like that, saw that I had more talent as a cornerback than I did as a quarterback.

``So it was up to me to make up my mind and go with it. I wanted to go and feel comfortable doing it. That’s why Alcorn gave me the chance to play quarterback and that’s why I took it.″

Eventually, the Oilers will give him the same chance. But, as Harris mentions, McNair is the exception, like Moon and Cunningham.

More often, black passers go the way of Blake or New England’s Jay Walker, hoping to make an NFL roster as a third-stringer, then hanging on. Vince Evans made a career of being a backup and still is going at 40.

Usually, though, good black quarterbacks leave college and switch positions or, as Moon had to do despite a superb college career, go to the CFL.

Moon telephoned Williams back in 1984, before Moon left the CFL and signed a rich free agent contract with the Oilers. He wanted to know what was in store for a black quarterback in the NFL. At that time, only Harris and Williams had any success as starters in the league.

``The one thing he told me that I really took to heart was we have to be better; we have to be better in order to maintain our jobs. If we fall down a little bit, we’ll be out. They’re not going to be patient.

``If we’re playing well and we can help right away, then we’ll be the guy,″ Moon said. ``But if we’re a guy who might be two or three years away and might need to be groomed, they’re not going to do that. You just don’t see too many young black quarterbacks who are going to be the `quarterback of our future.‴

Rodney Peete, who has started in Detroit and been a backup in Dallas and now Philadelphia after starring at Southern Cal, thinks things are getting better.

``I don’t know if it’s the change in youth in (NFL) organizations, or administration or whatever it is, there seems to be a new attitude across the league. The old guard is gone,″ he says. ``You see that happening not just with the black quarterback issue, but a lot of things around the league. You’re seeing a lot more younger coaches that are more innovative and more willing to take chances and do different things than the norm.″

Such as staking their future on a McNair.

End Adv For Weekend Editions Aug. 26-27

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