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Third And A Mile

by: William C. Rhoden

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Third And A Mile
by William C. Rhoden
ESPN Books

Third and a Mile is an oral history of African-Americans playing QB in professional football. William C Rhoden is listed as the author, but as an "oral history" the book is actually an amalgamation of quotes from loads of different people from the QBs themselves to other former players and current coaches.

The book chronicles the early black QBs starting with Fritz Pollard who played in the pre-NFL days of professional football from 1919-1926 to groundbreakers like Marlin Briscoe, Joe Gilliam, and James Harris to Warren Moon and Super Bowl winner Doug Williams to the modern era with Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick.

The back story of the black quarterback heavily involves the Swampland Footprint. During segregation, African-Americans didn’t play in either the SEC or the ACC. There was also an unwritten rule (and horribly racist policy) enforced by Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall who was courting his team’s southern base.

This lack of opportunity in the South’s main football stages created opportunities elsewhere, specifically the Big Ten and the Canadian Football League. The Big Ten, especially Minnesota and Michigan State, openly recruited and played black QBs while the SEC and ACC were still segregated. In large part, this answers questions as to why those programs had their best years during the segregation era (and why the SEC seems to beat this conference like a drum today).

Additional to the Big Ten, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities provided major opportunities for African-Americans who wanted to play QB. Joe Gilliam played at Tennessee State in Nashville and legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson groomed two men who became NFL barrier-breakers, James Harris and Doug Williams.

During Robinson’s height at Grambling, Howard Cosell asked him, “You’re producing all these [NFL-quality] players. Why can’t you produce a quarterback?” Robinson took this as a challenge and began to focus his energies on developing a future NFL QB at Grambling.

James Harris was the first. The Monroe, LA native played most prominently for the L.A. Rams. Later, Grambling product Doug Williams became the first African-American QB to win a Super Bowl – ironically for the Redskins, whose former owner had done so much to limit NFL opportunities for African-Americans.

Williams’ accomplishment was earth-shattering for those that had fought so long and for African-Americans at large who wanted to see one of their own have success at the highest levels of society. Cultural critic, novelist, and music writer, Nelson George, explains the depth of Williams’ impact:

When Doug Williams got to the Super Bowl, it was the crystallization of years of hope. It proved black people could be decision makers. Black people could lead a team to the pinnacle of the sports, which means that black people could be leaders in America at its highest pinnacles. For a black person to be at the center of all the action, the entire stadium waiting for him to make his move, that’s an amazing positions of power.

For all the bitter stories of racial injustice (and there are many painful ones recounted in this book), colleges and teams in the Footprint have now become leaders in providing the stage to fame and acclaim. The last two black QBs selected #1 in the NFL Draft, Michael Vick and JaMarcus Russell, were both from Tribal Fever schools - Virginia Tech and LSU, respectively.

In the NFL, Southern Pro Football teams have also been groundbreakers. In the relatively short history of the Tennessee Titans, the face of the franchise has always been defined by black QBs – first, Steve McNair and now, Vince Young. Also, James Harris is now running the Jacksonville Jaguars front office. In his time there, he has drafted many black QBs. Today, the Jags are led by David Garrard who played at East Carolina.  These teams are but two of several other prominent examples.

Third and a Mile also shows that it was incredibly burdens of those players who took the arrows. Briscoe and Harris fought to play at a time when football players didn’t make huge dollars. Both Williams and Moon had to waste precious time playing in other professional leagues to prove their value to the NFL.

Part of their accomplishment is that the idea of a black QB seems so normal today. However, their struggles were real. So that they never forget what they did and what it meant to them and others, Moon, Harris, Briscoe, Willams, Vince Evans, and Randall Cunningham formed the Field Generals, an organization dedicated to teaching and preserving the history of the African American quarterback.

Perhaps the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who played QB at North Carolina A&T, says it best in the book:

Today, when Alabama plays Mississippi, you have players on both sides, black and white, and you’re pulling for uniform color, not skin color. Here’s a white guy hoping that a black guy knocks down another white guy or that a black guy helps a white guy knock a black guy down. Only that field of play allows for the kind of objectivity that takes us to the next level. In so many ways, the political order has not led us there. The church has not led us there. The athletic arena has been the signal for social advancement.

Amen.

- Jim Markel

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