The door opening for African-American quarterbacks didn’t occur in September 1969 when James Harris became the first black quarterback to start a pro football season for the Buffalo Bills.
The door opened the previous winter. It opened after the NFL draft. After James Harris, the black college player of the year, slid all the way to the eighth round – officially making him a longshot to make the Bills as a rookie draft pick, much less as a pioneering African-American quarterback. Harris led Grambling to four consecutive SWAC championships but the NFL considered him only the 192nd best player in that draft and the seventh-best quarterback.
“That was frustrating because I knew if I didn’t get drafted early – there were no blacks playing quarterback in the NFL – I had no chance,” Harris said. “So I decided not to play pro football. But coach Eddie Robinson called me to the stadium and we sat down there like so many times before. But this time there was no roar of the crowd, no thrill of victory. Just he and I.
“As we sat there, he said to me the decision was mine, but that he knew I could play quarterback in the NFL … and that I represented the opportunity for so many others. I decided that day that I would play pro football. He said, `Remember when you leave (here), you may get one chance. But you have to be ready for that chance. You have to leave here today preparing for that chance.’ That was my mindset when I came into the NFL.”
Harris visited the Talk of Fame Network’s “5 Games” podcast this week and talked about becoming the first African-American quarterback to enjoy any success in the NFL. He became the first to open a season as a starter, the first to quarterback a playoff team, the first to go to a Pro Bowl and the first to win a conference passing title. But it was a steep uphill climb.
Harris went to his first training camp with the Bills as the eighth quarterback on the depth chart. Robinson’s words rang in his ears – “You may only get one chance.” But he found an ally in his one chance, Buffalo head coach John Rauch.
“The coach believed in my ability and gave me some chances that probably others didn’t get,” Harris recalled. “So I was fortunate in some ways. During those days they cut players every day. That means you couldn’t have a bad day. I had a great summer. I had five good preseason games and, in the end, the coach thought I was the best option.”
Harris drew the opening-day assignment against the New York Jets but he certainly wasn’t the feature attraction that day. Joe Namath and the Jets were beginning defense of their shocking Super Bowl championship and O.J. Simpson was making his NFL debut with the Bills.
Harris learned the difference between a heralded Heisman Trophy-winning running back and an aspiring African-American quarterback that summer.
“I stayed in the YMCA,” Harris recalled. “My room…I could turn the TV on with my foot. O.J. was across the street in a suite at the Hilton. That was the difference.”
Harris recalled that game with the Jets, a friendship he formed that summer with yet another African-American quarterback forced to change positions in the NFL and the difficulties of adjusting to Buffalo, N.Y.
You can listen to this podcast – as well as 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.