James Harris not only was a marvelous collegiate quarterback; he was so good at Grambling State University that he’s in the Black College Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, with a life-sized photo of Harris prominently displayed there.
But Harris’ career didn’t stop at Grambling. He went on to become a starter with the Buffalo Bills, the first African-American to start at quarterback as an NFL rookie, and, later, the first African-American quarterback to win a playoff game. What’s more, he not only was chosen to the 1974 Pro Bowl but was named its MVP.
But he might not have made it in the NFL — correction: He might not have played, period — were it not for some heady advice given him by his coach, Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, shortly after the Bills made Harris their eighth-round pick of the 1969 draft.
“When I got to Buffalo,” Harris said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast, ” I had put everything behind me. Before I left, going to Buffalo, growing up in the segregated South, I understood about how America … that there were no black quarterbacks, no black governors, no black corporate executives. So I didn’t think I had very much of a chance.
“And once I was drafted in the eighth round, then I decided not to play. But coach Robinson talked me into playing and, with that, said some very powerful words to me. (He said) if I went to pro ball and didn’t make it, ‘Don’t come back and say the reason you didn’t make it was because you’re black. And if you go, don’t expect it to be fair. You know before you leave you’ve got to be better.’ And those profound words kind of prepared me when I got to Buffalo.
“Although I was seventh on the depth chart, (I thought) I may not get the opportunity, but I was representing the opportunities of the other guys who may come after me. And I had to do everything I could to make sure the reason I didn’t get cut was because I (was) studying; I (was) preparing.
“And with this in mind, when I got there I was nervous, but I wasn’t scared. And through the grace of God I was able to play well that year and make it. Some of the things that you had to play through was a lot of hate mail, and the fact that, coming out of the south, I hadn’t talked to a lot of white people during my experience, and now I had to step in the huddle and call the plays. That was as challenging as anything for me.”
Harris was just the second African-American quarterback in the modern era to start at quarterback in the NFL, which he did for four games before Buffalo released him following the 1972 season. Then he moved on to the Los Angeles Rams, and that’s where he achieved his greatest success — leading the team to the playoffs in 1974 and 1975 before a shoulder injury curtailed his career. However, he would return in 1976 to throw for 436 yards in a 1976 game vs. Miami before hurting his shoulder again.
Following his retirement, Harris served as pro personnel director for the Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville’s player personnel executive VP and senior personnel executive for the Detroit Lions.