James Harris was always fond of the Orange Bowl.
He played the most significant game of his college career there – the 1969 Orange Blossom Classic, which pitted his Grambling Tigers against the Florida A&M Rattlers for the black national college championship. Harris won that game and was named the MVP.
Harris also enjoyed the best game of his 13-year NFL career at the Orange Bowl nine years later. Harris visited the Talk of Fame Network’s “5 Games” podcast to discuss his career as a pioneering African-America quarterback. We conclude his series of podcasts with that game in the Orange Bowl, a 31-28 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
The Rams were a running team under Chuck Knox but in that game they threw, threw and threw some more. Harris completed 17 of 29 passes for 436 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for another score. He rallied the Rams from a third-quarter deficit for 17 fourth-quarter points to claim the victory.
“It as much like my career,” Harris recalled. “Like most of the time in high school and college. I was fortunate to be on some outstanding teams. My role has always been in high school, when a game was late, I would have to make a play to win it. Even in college. It always came down to that. I felt I was in that situation again and felt good about it.”
His performance against the Dolphins was yet another nail in the coffin of the myth that African-Americans could not play quarterback in the NFL. Harris was the first African-American to open a season as an NFL starter, the first to quarterback a team to the playoffs, the first to quarterback a team to a conference title game, the first selected to the Pro Bowl, the first named an MVP of the Pro Bowl and the first to win a conference passing title.
Harris arrived in the NFL as an eighth-round pick in 1969. But what he was able to accomplish on the football field at that position on Sundays cracked the door for other African-American quarterbacks. In 1978, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took another Grambling quarterback, Doug Williams, in the first round of the NFL draft.
Legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson warned Harris that as an African-American quarterback, he would likely get just one chance to prove himself – and prove to the world that a black man can play quarterback at the professional level. It was a heavy, heavy burden to shoulder.
“I didn’t achieve all I expected to achieve,” Williams said. “I don’t feel that I played up to my full potential because under the circumstances, playing under the conditions I had to play under, I tried to play perfect too many times. Sometimes you hold the ball too long, sometimes you’re forcing it. I think my play was affected by the conditions I had to play in and during a time when the opportunity and the chance for us to play was so challenging.”
Not only on the field but off.
“In some ways it’s satisfying being able to survive some of the challenges,” Harris said. “There was a lot of hate mail, a lot of people taking when I was coming in and out of the stadium about me playing the position.
“But so many people helped me along the way. I’m so happy for all those who supported me, fans around the country who sent me letters, who came to games to see me or came to see me at hotels. They are the ones who made me feel special and I will forever be grateful for those people.”
You can listen to this and all five of our “5 Games” podcasts with Harris – 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.