By Alan Pergament
Without taking a scientific poll, I think it is a safe bet that the great majority of Buffalo Bills fans are hoping that first-round draft choice EJ Manuel will win the quarterback duel with Kevin Kolb and start on opening day against the New England Patriots.
And I'd bet the great majority just thinks about winning and the team’s future, and not race.
But it wasn't always that way for African-American quarterbacks as illustrated by a moving, historical 18-minute piece, "The Black Quarterback," by reporter Armen Keteyian that airs on Showtime’s “60 Minutes Sports” at 9 and 11 tonight on the pay-cable channel. Watch a preview of the Showtime piece below.
The report kicks off with the success story of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson last season, who Keteyian noted lasted into the third round of the NFL draft because he was thought to be "too short to play quarterback" and not because he "was too black" as many pioneers before him.
The pioneers include two former Bills – Marlin Briscoe and James Harris – who experienced humiliation in the late 1960s and early 1970s when stereotypes and racism made the quarterback position one for whites only in the National Football League.
Harris' story is particularly damning to the Bills leadership in the 1960s as he explains to an incredulous Keteyian that he had to stay in a $6 a night room in the YMCA away from his teammates in a hotel during training camp. The Bills also asked him to consider playing wide receiver and gave him a job cleaning cleats in the equipment room.
“I knew it was out of line,” said Harris.
His legendary college coach, Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, felt Harris had the height, arm strength, intelligence and emotional maturity to deal with anything thrown at him and he passed that huge test, according to one of Robinson's assistants.
Harris became the first African-American quarterback to start a NFL season, dealing with death threats and being written about as a black quarterback rather than just a quarterback.
Earlier, Briscoe had become the first African-American to start a NFL game at quarterback, throwing for 14 touchdowns in five games for Denver under Coach Lou Saban, who was a legendary Bills coach.
However, Briscoe said he wasn’t invited to quarterback meetings the next season and was switched to wide receiver when he joined the Bills a year later and had an All-Pro career at that position.
It may be hard for younger fans to imagine the humiliations that Harris, Briscoe, Warren Moon and other black quarterbacks endured now that quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton are stars in the NFL.
That is one reason why this feature -- which explains how inspirational Dr. Martin Luther King and Grambling Coach Robinson were in ending the stereotypes endured by black quarterbacks -- should be must-see TV.
The feature ends poignantly with Moon’s 2006 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with Briscoe, Harris and Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams all joining him and sharing in the triumph over racism when he became the first African-American quarterback in Canton, Ohio.
As strong as Keteyian’s feature, it has some minor flaws. Keteyian unnecessarily puts words in the mouths of the interview subjects. The piece also leaves many unanswered questions and ignores specifics about who was behind the humiliations and the stereotyping.
I Googled some areas of curiosity and learned that Harris was in the same Bills backfield as O.J. Simpson during their rookie seasons in 1969 and that he threw only 189 passes in his three years with the team. He eventually played for future Bills Coach Chuck Knox in Los Angeles and led the Rams to a NFC title game in 1974 and to another division title in 1975. In 1976, Harris battled with Lackawanna native Ron Jaworski and Pat Haden for playing time. According to some sources, Knox apparently was overruled by the Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom and forced to play Haden in a NFC title game loss.
The Google search revealed that Harris threw some Bills passes to Briscoe, who became a wide receiver in 1969 when the Bills quarterbacks were Jack Kemp, Tom Flores and Harris.
A longer feature would have better explained some things connected to the Bills and the NFL in general. In other words, the piece is too short. A longer feature would have allowed more details to emerge and to give some time to the villains in addition to the heroes.
It would have been better to devote two or three times the amount of time to it to answer all the questions and put the NFL’s racist past in better context.
Of course, Showtime is presently off Time Warner Cable because of a dispute with CBS, which has the same owner as the pay-cable network.
That’s unfortunate because Keteyian’s laudable and eye-opening feature should be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
If you get Showtime via one of the satellite services and miss the episode tonight, be advised that it is being repeated at 10 p.m. Friday, midnight Aug.14 and at 8 a.m. Aug. 25.
Hopefully, the TWC-CBS dispute will be over by Aug. 25 and TWC subscribers eventually will be able to see the feature.
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