James Harris was a pioneering African-American quarterback.
He was the first black to open a pro football season as a starter in 1969, the first to quarterback an NFL team to the playoffs, the first to quarterback a team to a conference title game, the first voted to a Pro Bowl, the first selected MVP of a Pro Bowl and the first to win a conference passing championship.
Harris was carrying a heavy flag and he would need help to carry it. He got that help from Doug Williams in 1988 and Warren Moon in 2006. Williams was voted the Super Bowl MVP in 1988 after passing for five touchdowns in the second quarter alone in a 42-10 shellacking of the Denver Broncos. Moon was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
Harris visited the Talk of Fame Network’s “5 Games” podcast this week to discuss his path to becoming the first successful African-American quarterback in the NFL. His play opened the door for Williams, who, like Harris, had played quarterback at Grambling.
“Doug’s impact was felt all around the country,” Harris said. “It was such a big platform, a big stage to win that game and in the fashion that he did, having a big quarter. That big quarter was just a routine day at Grambling. We were accustomed to putting points up like that.”
But what Williams did that day did as much or more for African-American quarterbacks as it did the Redskins.
“I think his impact removed the word `black’ from quarterback,” Williams said. “Prior to that, everybody who came into the league as a black quarterback, every article usually had the phrase “black” before their names. His play removed the word ‘black’ from quarterback. Realistically there were people around the country feeling they did have a legitimate chance (now) of playing quarterback.”
Moon spent six seasons in Canada before finally getting the chance to play in the NFL with the Houston Oilers in 1984. He wound up going to nine Pro Bowls, passing for 49,325 yards and 291 touchdowns.
“Whether you believed it or not, whether you wanted it or not, if a guy can be elected to the Hall of Fame, it means his career is worthy,” Harris said. “That means the myth of blacks not being able to play quarterback was removed. It couldn’t be denied. It’s been proven that blacks can play quarterback in the league.”
Harris himself almost became the first African-American to start in a Super Bowl. The game the Talk of Fame Network focused in this the fourth of his “5 Games” series of podcasts was the 1974 NFC title game between his Rams and the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings prevailed in frigid temperatures at home, 14-10.
“We knew it was a challenge,” Harris said. “We knew we had to play our best football. The weather conditions favored them and we had to put that aside. We played a tight game and had an opportunity to win late in the fourth quarter on the one-yard line. But we made some mistakes and didn’t overcome that. We lost an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl on the 1-yard line.”
You can listen to this as well as the first three Harris “5 Games” podcasts – plus our Talk of Fame Network “5 Games” podcasts with Hall of Famers Jerry Kramer, as Charles Haley, Jam Ham, Mike Haynes, Willie Lanier and more – at VokalNow.com or by subscribing to our podcasts at iTunes. Click the links below.