James Harris became the first African-American quarterback to open the pro football season as a starter with the Buffalo Bills in 1969. History can thank Martin Luther King Jr. for that milestone.
Harris visited the Talk of Fame Network podcast this week for our “5 Games” series and talked about how Dr. King put him on an NFL track and his subsequent development as a quarterback at Grambling. In this the first of his “5 Games,” Harris revisits the Orange Blossom Classic when his Grambling Tigers squared off against Florida A&M for a national championship.
But first, Dr. King.
Harris recalled as a 14-year-old in 1963 watching Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on television – and that stoked his dream.
“During that time there were no blacks playing quarterback in the National Football League,” Harris recalled, “and I had decided I needed to switch positions. But when I heard that speech by Martin Luther King — and he talked about the content of your character and not the color of your skin — I decided to become a quarterback. It influenced me not to switch positions.”
Harris was an elite high-school quarterback in Monroe, La., leading Carroll to 39 consecutive victories at one point. He had the opportunity to play college football in the Big Ten but would have had to switch positions. So he chose to attend Grambling where coach Eddie Robinson would keep him at quarterback.
“During the recruiting process Coach Robinson was on Howard Cosell’s (radio) show,” Harris recalled, “and that night, he came to my house. He told me Howard Cosell had asked him, `You’ve sent over 200 players to the NFL…why can’t you produce a quarterback?’ He said to me, `Hell, Cat, when you come out, you’ll be ready if you come to Grambling.’
“So it was important to him. During my four years, he committed to working with me and bringing me information so that I would have an opportunity to change Howard Cosell’s mind.’”
Harris started all four of his seasons at Grambling and won four SWAC championships. He won his only national title with that 28-25 victory over Florida A&M in the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic in the Orange Bowl.
“It was one of the most promoted games in black-college history,” Robinson said. “Most of the black scouts were there. We were representing two of the premier black colleges in history. Florida A&M had as many prospects or more than Florida State at the time. Grambling had as many or more as LSU at the time. We were both loaded with players and we had two of the greatest coaches in the history of football, Jake Gaither — who liked his players agile, hostile and mobile — and coach Eddie Robinson who won over 400 games.”
Psychologically, the Tigers won that game that week in practice.
“I remember that week the Florida A&M team came over to our practice and circled our practice, then got back on the bus and drove off,” Harris said. “Coach Robinson called us together and said, “The peace dove flies out the window. We’re going to kill a gnat with a sledge hammer.’ Nobody disrespected Grambling. But that’s the kind of football we played. It was competitive. And we were a better team for it.”
Harris was the MVP of that game. He talked about that game, his development as a quarterback at Grambling, his college rivalry with Ken Riley and much more on this podcast.
You can listen to this podcast – as well as “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.