Willie Thrower was a pioneering football player who broke barriers in football at the college and professional level. Thrower was not only the first Black quarterback to play for the NCAA’s Big Ten conference, he was also the first Black quarterback to play in the National Football League.
Thrower was born March 22, 1930 in Kensington, Pennsylvania. As a high school athlete, Thrower was heavily recruited but denied several scholarships once colleges realized he was Black. Michigan State University gave Thrower an opportunity to join their squad, as he was one of several players from what is now known as Valley High School to head to East Lansing, Mich.
Although Thrower didn’t start for the Spartans, he did enter several games and shattered the race barrier at the position. Nicknamed “Mitts” because of his large hands despite his 5-foot-11 height, Thrower’s arm strength was lauded by his teammates and coaches. He could reportedly throw a football with complete accuracy for 60 yards.
Michigan State won the NCAA Men’s Football Championship in 1952, and Thrower went undrafted at the next level. However, he was offered a one-year $8,500 contract with the Chicago Bears in a backup role. Playing behind future Hall of Fame player George Blanda, Thrower finally entered the game on October 18, 1953. Although he played just a few series and the team lost to the San Francisco 49ers, Thrower once more made history. The Bears did not retain Thrower after the season and he never played in the NFL again.
Although Thrower attempted to win on a few semi-professional teams, his career never picked back up. At 27, a shoulder injury forced him to retire from the game. After football, Thrower became a social worker in New York City. He then returned to his hometown in Pennsylvania where he owned a pair of popular taverns.
Thrower succumbed to a heart attack on February 20, 2002. He was 71. Amazingly, his story went mostly unnoticed as the NFL was already integrated at the time. Thrower was just the third Black quarterback to play for the league when he was signed in 1953.