An hour or two before kickoff on the night of August 15, 1969, a rookie quarterback named James Harris noticed a well-dressed man about a foot shorter than him approaching through the tunnel beneath Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. His 5-foot-4 height notwithstanding, the man was a former NFL running back named Buddy Young. More to the point of this encounter, Young was now the first black executive in the league’s front office.
Young had more than a casual interest in the evening’s game between the hometown Lions and the Buffalo Bills, Harris’ team. A product of Louisiana’s Grambling State University, home to the most illustrious football program of any black college in America, Harris represented the best hope to break the color barrier at quarterback in the NFL. Breaking it would require not just physical ability but intelligence, leadership, and character as well—precisely the traits that bigotry claimed no black person possessed.
Harris knew what was at stake. In the immediate moment, if he didn’t play well tonight, he’d probably be cut. In the longer run, he represented millions of black Americans and their quest for equality. Despite Harris’ record-setting career at Grambling, no NFL team had drafted him until the eighth round. That snub was the league’s answer to the defiant vow by Harris and his Grambling coach, Eddie Robinson, that he would only play quarterback as a pro. Rather than integrate the game’s marquee position, pro football franchises routinely switched any black quarterback to wide receiver or defensive back, supposedly a more suitable place for a quote-unquote natural athlete.
As Harris looked around the league he was trying to enter, he saw careers ruined by such twisted thinking. Eldridge Dickey, the Tennessee State star drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders the previous year, had been winning the starting job when he was summarily turned into a back-up flanker. Harris’ teammate on the Bills, Marlin Briscoe, had come off the Denver Broncos’ bench in 1968 to throw 14 touchdown passes and run for three more scores. Rather than anoint a black quarterback as its permanent starter, or even let him compete for the position in 1969, Denver waived Briscoe. He landed with the Bills, who promptly made him a wide receiver.
The Bills-Lions game, the third preseason match for each team, would be the first chance for Harris to get any playing time. He had come into camp as the seventh-string quarterback, and, as if to reinforce his precarious situation, the Bills initially housed Harris in a YMCA and gave him a job cleaning cleats. Every night, Harris walked to the hallway pay phone to call Robinson. His old coach gave him what sounded like two contradictory exhortations: “I know you’re good enough” and “If you don’t make it, don’t blame it on your race.” Reconciling those messages was the timeless mantra that so many black parents, teachers, and ministers had imparted to young people: To get an equal chance, you have to be twice as good.
So Harris got to the practice field early, stayed late, threw more passes than any other quarterback, and set about memorizing the entire playbook. By mid-August, he had moved up to fourth-string on the Bills’ depth chart. The head coach, John Rauch, told Harris he would play the second half against the Lions. Harris spent the days before the game perfecting the five passing plays and five running plays he intended to use. Having heard the news about Harris’ audition, Buddy Young sought out the rookie in the stadium tunnel.
A month into his pro career, Harris was already too well acquainted with the hatred that his aspiration provoked—letters with pictures of nooses and watermelons, boos and slurs from spectators, even teammates who claimed they could not follow his play calling and snap count because of his “diction.” His encounter with Young in the stadium, though, reminded Harris of a very different burden, a positive pressure, the Jackie Robinson-like pressure of carrying an entire people’s hopes on your shoulders. It was like something Coach Robinson had said decades earlier to Tank Younger, when the Grambling running back became the first player in the NFL from a black college: “You’ve got to make it. If you don’t make it, they’ll say we sent our best and our best wasn’t good enough.” As Young put it to Harris, “A lot of people are pulling for you.”
The first half went by in desultory fashion, the Lions taking a 14-6 lead before a skimpy crowd of 34,000. Harris went in as expected in the third quarter and turned it on late in the fourth quarter. He put a sideline pass right into the palms of a striding O.J. Simpson (the number-one draft pick that year, who was also seeing his first action) for a 38-yard gain. Two plays later, Harris threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to fullback Bill Enyart.
The play didn’t win the game (it was a 24-12 Lions victory), but Harris made an impression. As he stayed on the field to greet Lions cornerback Lem Barney, a former adversary from the black college circuit, Harris noticed a cluster of black spectators assembling in the first row of seats, cheering him. And as Harris left the field for the locker room, Buddy Young was there waiting.
His trademark cigar in hand, Young had hurried down from the press box to find Harris. “The way you played tonight,” he told Harris, “you can open up some opportunities. You have a chance to make it.” Young added that he had already telephoned the NFL’s commissioner, Pete Rozelle, to pass along a positive report. Then he patted Harris on the shoulder pads and said, “I’ll stay in touch.”
Just shy of a month later, on September 14, 1969, James Harris opened the NFL season as the starting QB for the Buffalo Bills. It was the first of what would be many firsts in his career. Five years later, by then with the Los Angeles Rams, Harris became the first black quarterback to lead a team into the NFL playoffs, to win a divisional title, to lead the conference in passing efficiency, and to be named to the Pro Bowl, where he was selected as MVP. In three years as the Rams’ starter, Harris put up a 21-6 record and twice took them to within one game of the Super Bowl.
Harris’ ground-breaking triumphs, however, were accompanied by plenty of turbulence. Before one Rams game, Harris received such a credible death threat that armed guards were placed outside his room in the team’s hotel and then on the sidelines during the game. Despite the support of the Rams head coach and despite having been elected captain by his teammates, Harris was perpetually undermined by the franchise’s front office. The team brought in four white quarterbacks—Joe Namath, Pat Haden, Ron Jaworski, and Vince Ferragamo—in an effort to dislodge Harris. The controversy merited a multi-part series in the Los Angeles Times and a proposed resolution by the City Council. Ultimately, the Rams settled the matter by shipping Harris off to the San Diego Chargers, where he finished his playing years as a backup.
Yet the Harris saga has a reassuring epilogue. In the wake of Harris’s success with the Rams, the door opened for all the black quarterbacks to follow, Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins and Hall of Famer Warren Moon among them. The 2013 season had the most African-American starting quarterbacks—as many as nine in some weeks—in NFL history. One of them, Russell Wilson, led the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl title. And, as an executive with several NFL teams, Harris followed in the footsteps of Buddy Young, forming part of the vanguard of African-Americans in head coaching or front-office positions. In the 2014 season, as a senior personnel executive with the Detroit Lions, Harris is an integral part of the first NFL franchise ever to have both a black head coach (Jim Caldwell) and a black general manager (Martin Mayhew).
The child of the Jim Crow South, the product of segregated schools, a young athlete forbidden from the best parks in his hometown of Monroe, Louisiana—Harris has seen much change in the 67 years since his birth. But when he speaks of his experience, it is with a measured tone, a sense that racial equality remains a work in progress.
Indeed, the number of African-American head coaches in the NFL entering the 2014 season was four, compared to a high of seven in the 2009 season. Even successful black coaches like Caldwell and Smith, both of whom led teams to the Super Bowl, are quicker to be fired and slower to be rehired than comparable white coaches. The major college ranks are far worse, with fewer than 10 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision teams having black head coaches even as more than half their players are black.
Harris was prepared for the challenges after college, though unsure about how it might all play out. “Coming out of Grambling, I knew that it would not be fair and that I was going to have to be better and that I was going to have to be prepared for the opportunity if it came,” he said. “And hopefully I could be successful and help others along the way. I only hoped that my play could be a ray of hope to young black kids. To this day, I never thought about being accepted.”
is a journalism professor at Columbia University, a religion columnist for The New York Times, and the author of seven acclaimed nonfiction books. He started following James Harris and Grambling football in 1968, when he was 13 years old and saw Jerry Izenberg’s television documentary Grambling: 100 Yards To Glory. Freedman ultimately met and interviewed Harris, as well as many other Grambling players and coaches, in the course of researching his 2013 book Breaking The Line: The Year in Black Football That Transformed the Game and Changed the Course of Civil Rights.
Primary Editor: Jia-Rui Cook. Secondary Editor: Andrés Martinez.
Photos courtesy of James Harris and Samuel G. Freedman.