Harris Started Something – The First Black QB to Open an NFL Season as the #1 Quarterback on the Roster Retires from Pro Football
“We know that the history of the N.F.L. can’t be written without mentioning James Harris,” Ozzie Newsome.
With little of the richly deserved fanfare, James “Shack” Harris retired from his front office post with the NFL’s Detroit Lions. He didn’t want the team or the league to make a big deal about his exit, but it is a very big deal. Today here would be no argument about the “hybrid” quarterback like Russell Wilson and Cam Newton or the “mobile” quarterback like Colin Kaepernick without Harris breaking barriers. It was not random. It took some smart maneuvering by a determined football coach, though, to make it finally happen.
One of the most interesting facts buried deep in the James Harris story is his 40-yd dash time – it was an impressive 4.6 seconds. Coach Eddie G. Robinson knew that if the league scouts knew how fast Harris was, they would immediately try to convert him into a receiver or defensive back as they did with all Blacks who played the quarterback position in college. After rounds of draft snubs, Harris was ultimately drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the 8th round. He would start for the Bills on opening day in 1969, becoming the first African-American man to be named starter for an NFL team at the season’s kickoff.
After three years in Buffalo he was waived, but landed with the LA.Rams. He was quite successful, leading the Rams to a division title and a playoff win in 1974. Even with an impressive Pro Bowl appearance, the prevailing racism of team management held him back even though his Coach Chuck Knox rallied for his spot, enjoying the 21-6 team record with Harris at the helm.
This New Yorker article is filled with facts about his playing career and his subsequent role as a team executive with the New York Jets and the Baltimore Ravens. This HOT READ is certainly informative and offers a glimpse of history.
My Dad Al Jackson’s Harris Memory: Shack v. Bradshaw
Shack Harris attended my rival school, Carroll High, in my quaint hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. I saw the story posted today and knew that my father would remember stories about him, so I asked what he recalled about Shack’s northern Louisiana football roots.
” We call him the Original Shack. He was there before Shaquille O’Neal; he was first. I was just getting to Grambling Univerisity during his final year. We always saw him walking around campus.
But the big deal was, at that time, what everybody wanted to know – was who was the best quarterback in Louisiana? Just 6 miles down the road, Terry Bradshaw was the quarterback at Louisiana Tech. They could never play each other to see who would win the battle because the schools couldn’t play each other.”
Dad saw him recently on a trip back for our reunion. Our great aunt married Oakland Raiders’ Tim Brown’s grandfather, so the Brown and Harris were there about town with their families and ran into each other. Quite a small town with some really big heroes.
Thankfully, we get to see Brady v. Wilson today and debate which one has the better spiral or short passing game. If only it would have been possible to see Harris up against the NFL-legend Terry Bradshaw.
Second HOT READ!
EXCERPT: On the first Sunday of the 1969 regular season, having followed Robinson’s advice about work ethic and perseverance, Harris became the first black pro quarterback to start on opening day. (Marlin Briscoe, a Bills receiver, had actually thrown 14 touchdown passes for Denver the season before — when he became the first black starting quarterback in the A.F.L. — but was then traded and switched positions.) Limelight brought with it a harsh backlash. Harris received letters with drawings of nooses and watermelons. Later in his career, he received a credible enough death threat to receive police protection.
New York Times HOT READ – Read More Here: A Dream Fulfilled