James Harris is one of the names lost to sports history, until now. Harris is credited as being the first black player to start a season at quarterback in professional football, making his debut in the position for the Buffalo Bills in the American Football League in 1969. (He was not the first to start a game at quarterback, however, that distinction belongs to Marlin Briscoe, who went on to a career as a receiver. Joe Gilliam, Jr., singer Joi’s father, was the first to start an NFL game at QB, but his career was derailed by drug addiction.)
Harris, a former Grambling Tiger who played for four collegiate championships under legendary coach Eddie Robinson is featured in a book “Breaking the Line-the Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights” by Samuel Freedman” about Robinson and FAMU coach Jack Gaither. The two rival coaches played a role in the eventual desegregation of college football.
Now an executive with the Detroit Lions, Harris says that while it was a struggle for him to play during his pro football career, now Black quarterbacks are prized for their combination of athleticism and shot-calling skills.
“I think there are more and more coming,” Harris told the Tom Joyner Morning Show. “I’m real happy for the opportunity for Blacks to get a chance. It╒s getting to the point now where kids can dream of playing quarterback and it can become a reality. It wasn’t always that way.”
Harris played for the Los Angeles Rams and San Diego as well, but his career as a pro quarterback was curtailed by injury and racism as he was passed over for others that were deemed more acceptable if not more skillful. He paved the way for others like Doug Williams, who became the first quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl in 1988 for the Washington Redskins.
Williams was also coached by Eddie Robinson and is now the head coach at Grambling University.
“We feel very fortunate that we were at one time the only two Black starting quarterbacks and one of the reasons was Coach Eddie Robinson. He prepared us.”
Harris laughs when asked what he got paid compared to the starting Black quarterbacks of today. But Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Michael Vick are just some of the Black starting quarterbacks who at least owe Harris, Williams, Briscoe, Joe Gilliam, Jr., Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon, Dante Culpepper and the other pioneers at quarterback a thank you.
“There’s not a lot of interchange because I think the young players don’t really know our history or know us that well. But some of them we talk to and they are all nice young men having a successful career. But you pull for them and you’re fans of theirs and you╒re certainly happy that the game has come to the point where there are more and more opportunities to play.”