The National Football League has been home to many great African-American quarterbacks. Beginning with the first black quarterback in 1920, segregation, style of play, confidence and even “swag” has transformed their roles in the league tremendously.
Frederick “Fritz” Douglass Pollard was the first African-American quarterback to play at the professional level. Pollard made history by joining the Akron Pros at a time when the professional football organization was known as the American Professional Football League. During Pollard’s first year, the Pros won the league’s inaugural championship.
Pollard’s only year playing in the league (before becoming the first African-American coach in the league) did not come without adversity. The subject of fan taunts and a target for opposing teams, Pollard knew exactly where to direct his energy.
“I didn’t get mad at them and want to fight them,” Pollard said. “I would just look at them and grin, and in the next minute, run for an 80-yard touchdown.”
From 1972 to 1975, Joe Gilliam Jr. was a quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the midst of receiving death threats and team bomb threats, Gilliam became the first African-American quarterback to open an NFL regular season.
There were many black quarterbacks that came before Gilliam, but many considered him the first due to his accomplishments. Inducted into the Semi-Pro Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, Gilliam beat eventual four-time Super Bowl champion Terry Bradshaw for the starting position in 1974.
Warren Moon was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2006 and had quite the career for the Edmonton Eskimos (Canadian Football League), Houston Oilers, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings. He threw for a record 423 total touchdowns in his career, a record that wasn’t broken until 2007 by Brett Favre. Moon also ranks fifth amongst professional quarterbacks in yards passing (70,553 in the NFL and CFL).
The 1988 season set another milestone for the NFL. Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first black quarterback to start and to be named the MVP of a Super Bowl in Super Bowl XXII. Going up against John Elway, Washington walked away with a stunning 42-10 victory. The Redskins set a record with five touchdowns in the second quarter, four of which came from Williams.
A bar of excellence (black excellence, if you will) had been set by Pollard, Moon, Gilliam, Williams and many others prior to a new generation. Leaping into the 2000s era, new levels of play had begun to surface.
In 2001, Michael Vick became the first black quarterback to be selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. Selected by the Atlanta Falcons, Vick’s innovative style of play made him a nightmare for opposing defenses. Having taken the Falcons to the playoffs twice and been named to the Pro Bowl three times, Vick would be an influence on many football players today.
Frederick Douglass High School’s Devin Butler cited Michael Vick as the “ideal quarterback.”
“Most quarterbacks are mainly pocket passers, not really a dual-threat like Michael Vick was,” Butler said. “When I was growing up watching football, that’s who I wanted to be.”
After committing to Syracuse a few weeks ago, Butler hopes to bring that same dual-threat ability into his college career next year.
Other African-American quarterbacks such as Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb, the late Steve McNair, Randall Cunningham and others have not been forgotten as well.
Bowie High School senior quarterback Jason Epps is a dual-threat on the field as well. In September of 2015, Epps set a school record when he threw for a 422 total yards in one game. He said his style of play echoed Carolina’s Cam Newton.
“Cam Newton’s swag and the confidence he brings to the game is what I like the most,” Epps said. “I’d say Teddy Bridgewater, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have influenced my style of play.”
In only his second year in the league, Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to their first-ever Super Bowl victory against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. Wilson also became the second black quarterback (after Williams) to ever start and win a Super Bowl.
During the 2014 season, Wilson was criticized for not being “black enough.”
“Not being black enough…I don’t even know what that means,” said Wilson, who has an African-American and Native American bloodline.
The opposite would be endured by Newton, who was instead considered “too black.” The Panthers’ signal caller, who was the first to rush for ten touchdowns and throw for 30 more in a season, brought a new style of confidence to the field. It’s a confidence that led to him playing in Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos.
With Newton’s success as a black starting quarterback in the league, many felt the need to wonder who influenced him to play and perform on the field in the manner of which he does.
“I still feel as if I learn more or just as much as I do from Michael Vick, as I do from a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers,” Newton said. “I don’t think race hinders anyone from playing this position in football.”
Throughout the history of the NFL, there have been African-American quarterbacks who have changed the way the game is played, perceived and functioned. And it shows, from Pollard in the 1920s receiving taunts and players set on injuring him, to now, where it has become the norm for a black quarterback to play and succeed in the NFL.