Super Bowl LVII: Two Black Starting Quarterbacks, 100 Years In The Making

Editorial: Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts are assuming their roles leading one of the world’s biggest sporting events. Here’s what took so long.

The NFL was still in its infancy. The league, which started in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, would rebrand itself to the National Football League in 1922. The following year, a young man from Chicago, Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard would set the stage for what football fans will enjoy Sunday (Feb. 12) during Super Bowl LVII.

Pollard became the first Black quarterback to play in the NFL. Fast forward a century another first will happen when the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts will become the first Black quarterbacks to start in the Super Bowl.

As much as it’s being celebrated, the day is also  a reminder of why this day is so important and of how long it took for the barriers to be removed.

One of the major hurdles had to do with a “gentleman’s agreement” keeping teams from signing Black players in the NFL from 1934 to 1946. During this time, Black football players had to develop their own teams and played against each other, like the New York Brown Bombers coached by Pollard.

The NFL would reintegrate in 1946, but a Black quarterback wouldn’t take another snap until Chicago Bears backup Willie Thrower played against the San Francisco 49ers in 1953. The sight of a Black man playing the position was so uncommon that Thrower was featured in a story on “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.”

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The NFL continued to embrace the backward stereotype that Black players could not excel at so called “thinking positions,” like quarterback, center, and middle linebacker. Which is why for decades the dream of being a full-time Black starting quarterback in the NFL was more of a nightmare, rather than a dream fulfilled, no matter how much you excelled in college.

Sandy Stephens became the first starting Black quarterback to lead a team to a Division I-A national championship with the Minnesota Golden Golphers in 1960 and finished 4th in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1961. He played in the CFL before signing with the Kansas City Chiefs to play fullback. Eldridge Dickey became the first Black quarterback to be drafted in the first round by an AFL or NFL franchise with the Oakland Raiders in 1968. He was moved to wide receiver after training camp.

Even when progress was made, it was short lived. Marlin Briscoe became the first Black quarterback to start for a team with the Denver Broncos in 1968. But was cut after one season and played wide receiver for the rest of his career. Joe Gilliam led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 4-1-1 record during the 1974 season. He would lose his job to Terry Bradshaw, who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl.

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The victories finally came with James Harris, who was the first Black quarterback to start and win a playoff game with the Los Angeles Rams in 1974. Harris was just four points shy of becoming the first Black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl. That distinction belongs to Doug

Williams who became Super Bowl MVP when the then-Washington Redskins routed the Denver Broncos 42-10 in Super Bowl XXII.

Since then, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Mahomes, and now Hurts will join a small fraternity of Black quarterbacks to lead their teams into the biggest game of the year.

The impact of Mahomes and Hurts battling on the field for the Lombardi Trophy on Super Bowl Sunday is secondary. Seeing both quarterbacks shine on the greatest stage is the biggest win 100 years in the making.

Justin Adams is an Emmy nominated News and Sports Anchor/Reporter for CBS News Colorado in Denver. He is also a Play by Play Announcer for the Pac-12 Network and Mountain West Network and has appeared on FOX Sports Radio.

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