The National Football League has been in existence for over a century, but football fans will tune into a historic game when Super Bowl LVII kicks off on Sunday (Feb. 12). For the first time ever, there will be two Black starting quarterbacks. The Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes look to lead their respective teams to the elusive Lombardi Trophy, but it’s been a long road to get there. While it is a feat worthy of celebration, the fact that it has taken this long for it to happen in a league that is nearly 60 percent Black is a bit sobering. However, make no mistake; the demographics haven’t always been as such. As a matter of fact, the league was entirely off-limits to Black players at one point. The movement to integrate didn’t begin until the 1950s — over 30 years after the first NFL season. The league wasn’t fully integrated until 1962 with Washington drafting its first Black player that year.
Still, as the number of Black players grew, there remained a large discrepancy in the racial makeup of the quarterback position. This was largely due to the belief that white players possessed a higher level of intellect and the leadership skills required to command an offense. That belief still lingers amongst some, showing itself in thinly veiled perspectives and “takes” that admonish quarterbacks who are “too athletic.” Let’s not forget that we are only mere years removed from Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian publicly advocating for Lamar Jackson, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, to change positions once he got to the NFL. You read that right. The dynamic playmaker, who became Louisville’s first-ever Heisman Trophy winner and the youngest-ever recipient at just 19 years of age, was told that he didn’t have what it takes to play that very position at the next level. He was dogged so badly for his athleticism and his ability to extend plays with his speed that he elected to skip the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine. “I gotta let these guys know I’m a quarterback,” he stated after being drafted with the 32nd overall pick in 2018.
It was a draft that saw Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen all taken before the unanimous All-American selection, two-time ACC Player of the Year, two-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year, and the 2018 ACC Athlete of the Year. Of those players named, Allen is the only one outside of Jackson who has found success at the NFL level. The others were traded before the end of their rookie contracts, but that’s a discussion for another day. By his second season, Jackson was named NFL MVP en route to smashing several quarterback rushing records, causing Polian to backtrack on his previous statements. “I was wrong because I used the old, traditional quarterback standard with him, which is clearly why John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome were more prescient than I was,” said Polian in a USA Today interview. “And Greg [Roman] found a way in how he’s developed a system to use those dynamic skills,” he added. “Bottom line, I was wrong.” His admission that the definition of “quarterback” has changed passive aggressively addressed the elephant in the room by side-stepping it and avoiding it at all costs.
Ironically, the first-ever Black quarterback in the Super Bowl era almost never came to be as a position change was advocated for back then as well. The Denver Broncos wanted Marlin Briscoe to be a cornerback. However, they were forced to play him at his natural position when the white starter was injured and the backup (also white) performed poorly. Briscoe, who passed away in June of 2022 and was nicknamed “The Magician,” got his opportunity on Sept. 29, 1968 and orchestrated an 80-yard touchdown drive on only his second series. He went on to throw 14 touchdown passes in his five starts and had four touchdowns in one game – Broncos rookie records that still stand today. Yet and still, it wasn’t good enough for him to remain the team’s starter the next season and he asked for a release. He was turned into a receiver for the Buffalo Bills, went on to become All-Pro and later won two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins.
Two decades after Briscoe’s first snap under center, Doug Williams became the first Black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl when he led the then-Washington Redskins to a rout over the Broncos. Now an executive with the Commanders, there was no bigger cheerleader — other than family and friends, of course – for both Hurts and Mahomes during the conference championship a couple weeks ago. Of the nail-biter between the Chiefs and Bengals, Williams told NPR’s “All Things Considered,” “When that ball went through the uprights, I can tell you this — cold chills went through my body, and I got a little emotion. There wasn’t no tears running, but I had eyes full of water.” He explained that while he was not necessarily rooting for any of the teams specifically, he was rooting for two players. It’s been 35 years since Williams’ magical run and despite the recent surge in Black quarterbacks, there has never been a showdown on the sport’s biggest stage — until now.
Of course, it has been the storyline this week as both teams arrived in Phoenix – as it should be. During Monday’s Opening Night media availability, both Hurts and Mahomes acknowledged the historic feat underway. “I think about all the rich history in this game, and to be part of such a historic event, historic moment, it’s special,” said Hurts. Mahomes paid homage to the pioneers who paved the way for him and his upcoming opponent, noting, “There’s so many other greats that battled to get that starting position. So, they gave me the position to be here.” He added, “To play against a guy like Jalen, a genuine, great dude that’s worked his tail off to be in the position that he’s in, it’s going to be a special game and a special moment for a lot of kids to watch and try to assume that role that we’re trying to set the example for.” Hurts added, “Seven African-American quarterbacks to start in this game and now the first time to have two go head-to-head.”
Not only are the two young men — and I do mean young — set to square off in what should be an epic battle with millions watching, they will both be coming off spectacular seasons while remaining cognizant of the platform they have and what that means for the future of the quarterback position in the Black community. “That’s uplifting the next generation of quarterbacks,” said Hurts. “That 4-year-old or 5-year-old kid back in Houston, back in Philly, back in Texas, Louisiana and wherever across the world, that regardless of what someone says or might have an opinion about you, you can do it. You can do it, too.” Both players can be described as “dual-threat” quarterbacks, a term that up until recently was not necessarily viewed as a strength of that particular position — a nod that things are indeed changing. While the NFL still has its share of systemic barriers that need to be addressed, a large chink in that chain will be broken on Sunday evening.