As the NFL off-season continues into organized team activities, anticipation is rapidly building for the upcoming season. There are many intriguing headlines concerning many players and teams, however, the most attention will be placed upon Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston.
Winston was selected by the Buccaneers with the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. The Bessemer, Alabama native left Florida State as one of the most decorated college quarterbacks in recent memory. Winston,a former Heisman trophy winner, led the Seminoles to a victory in the 2014 National Championship Game,a pair of ACC conference championships, a berth in the 2015 Rose Bowl, and posted a 26-1 record over two seasons as the signal caller for Florida State. He can now add one more honor to his aforementioned laundry list of accolades: he is the 4th African American quarterback to be selected with the number one overall pick, and one of thirty-six black signal callers drafted since 2001. It is certainly amazing to see how far the NFL and college football has come in regards to opportunities afforded to African American quarterbacks.
Though black quarterbacks are becoming more commonplace in today’s NFL, they were far from that in the 1970’s when University of Washington star field general Warren Moon entered the NFL Draft. During that era, it was widely thought that though African American quarterbacks were great athletes; they did not possess the mental aptitude or cerebral thought processes necessary to effectively play the most important position on the field.
Predictably, Moon was not selected in the 1978 Draft. Having no other options, Moon took his talents to the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. Only after leading the Eskimos to five consecutive Grey Cup Championships,two Grey Cup MVP’s, and a plethora of other honors was Moon able to get his opportunity to play in the NFL in 1984. Moon exceeded all expectations and went on to have an extremely successful 16 year NFL career playing for four different teams and making nine Pro Bowls, being selected as a three time All-Pro, and being inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame in 2006.
By the 1990’s there had some progress made in giving more African American players the opportunity to play quarterback at major Division I football programs, but previous stigmas have not died. Many black players who were the primary signal callers during their high school years are routinely forced to change positions to play major college football due to a perceived lack of intellect.
Steve McNair was like many other talented black prep school quarterbacks. He possessed a strong arm and mobility, but many major Division I programs like Miami, Nebraska,Florida State, and Ohio State wanted McNair to play running back or defensive back. McNair insisted on playing quarterback and eventually enrolled in Division II Alcorn State, a HBCU (Historically Black College and University). By enrolling in an HBCU, McNair joined a long list of black signal-callers such as Joe Gilliam and Doug Williams before him .
McNair proceeded to prove his critics wrong as he threw for a record 14,496 collegiate passing yards, accounted for 16,296 career total yards, and finished 3rd in the 1996 Heisman Trophy voting, the highest finish for a player from an HBCU ever. McNair, drafted 3rd overall by the Houston Oilers, had a productive NFL career that included him winning a MVP Award, leading the Titans to a Super Bowl appearance, being named a three time All-Pro as well as a three time Pro Bowl selection during his dozen year NFL career with the Titans and the Baltimore Ravens.
Fast forward to present day, and black quarterbacks are provided opportunities that their predecessors such as the University of Tennessee’s Condredge Holloway could have only dreamed of. While at one time it was rare to see black quarterbacks at major Division I programs, today 3 of the past 5 Heisman Trophy winners — Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin III — are African American signal callers.
At the NFL level, the fraternity of Black quarterbacks is still relatively small. However, there has been some progress. In 1983, Vincent Evans was the lone African American playing the quarterback position in the NFL, three decades later, there is good reason to expect 8 black starting quarterbacks, an NFL record.
Quite frankly, if it were not for trailblazers such as Warren Moon, Steve McNair, Randall Cunningham, and Doug Williams, today’s opportunities afforded Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, Geno Smith, E.J. Manuel, Robert Griffin III would not exist.