By Omar Tyree
African-American quarterbacks have come a long way in American football, not just to play and to start, but to win and win big. I remember watching my hometown Philadelphia Eagles in the mid- to late 1980s when athletic quarterback, Randall Cunningham, would only see action off the bench during the third down and 17 plays, with the hope that he would run around and make miracles happen. We had four major universities vying for the first NCAA Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Playoff Championship title, while starting three African-American quarterbacks and one Samoan.
Alabama started a fifth year senior in Blake Sims out of Gainesville, Ga., second-ranked Oregon started the current Heisman Trophy winner and Hawaiian-born and raised Samoan, Marcus Mariota, third-ranked Florida State started last year’s Heisman Trophy winner and champion, “Famous” Jameis Winston out of Bessemer, Ala., and the fourth-ranked Ohio State started Cardale Jones, a third-string redshirt sophomore from Cleveland, who stepped in for only one game after first-string starter J.T Barrette and second-string starter Braxton Miller both went down to season-ending injuries. And get this, all three Ohio State quarterbacks are African-American.
That’s unbelievable. I’m old enough to remember when African-American quarterbacks were still not considered smart enough to lead their teams to championships. I even rooted against Doug Williams out of Grambling University when he lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 9-0 NFC Championship loss to the Los Angeles Rams in 1980. What can I say? I was 10-years old and a huge Wendell Tyler, Vince Ferragamo, Billy Waddy, Jim and Jack Youngblood, Nolan Cromwell and the Los Angeles Rams fan that year. But when Doug Williams later led Washington to a 42-10 NFL Super Bowl XXII win over John Elway’s Denver Broncos in 1988 and became the first African-American quarterback to win in all, I rooted for him then, even though Washington was enemy territory for us Philadelphians.
As a freshman in college that year, I finally understood how big of a deal it was for an African-American quarterback to win it all. And I actually liked John Elway. He was one of my favorite quarterbacks of the 1980s and 90s. However, Doug Williams’ MVP performance and big win was about more than just playing football. His victory represented national pride in our African-American race and culture, along with respect for our continued struggle to fight against stereotypes and discrimination as professionals competing at the highest levels of American society.
So I rooted for Warren Moon in all of his record-breaking years with the Houston Oilers and the Minnesota Vikings with no championships. I rooted again for Randall Cunningham and his high-scoring, 16-1, Minnesota Vikings team in their disappointing 30-27 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the 1998 NFC Championship. I rooted for Kordell “Slash” Stewart in his years of doing everything in Pittsburgh. And I rooted for Steve “Air” McNair when his upstart Tennessee Titans lost Super Bowl XXXIV in a nail-biting 23-16 game against the St. Louis Rams. Until, finally, Russell Wilson was able to win it all for the Seattle Seahawks in last year’s 43-8 demolition of Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
On the college level, African-American quarterbacks have had a lot more success, particularly over the past t20 years. Who could ever forget Tommie Frazier and his back-to-back championships for the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 1995 and 1996? What Peyton Manning was unable to do—bring home a University of Tennessee championship title, while quarterbacking the Volunteers from 1995-1998—was achieved by Tee Martin with MVP honors after an undefeated 13-0 season and a 1999 Fiesta Bowl win over Florida State. Vince Young did the same for the Texas Longhorns in a classic 2006 Rose Bowl Championship win over the heavily favorite USC Trojans.
Then we had Cam Newton, who led the Auburn Tigers to an undefeated season through the torturous SEC for a National Championship title over the high-scoring Oregon Ducks in 2011. Newton won the Heisman Trophy, became the #1 pick in the NFL draft, and changed the way the quarterback position is now played at the professional level.
Last year we had Jameis Winston, a quarterback just as big and as strong as Newton, who led the ACC’s Florida State Seminoles back to a BCS National Championship title by finally dethroning the mighty SEC school’s domination with another great game and a win over Auburn, mostly using his arm.
And please don’t forget Charlie Ward, the all-athletic, 1993 Heisman Trophy winner and 1994 Orange Bowl Champion from Florida State, who eventually went on to play professional basketball for the New York Knicks. Or, the Florida Gators Chris Leak, who won the BCS National Championship Game in 2007 over Ohio State in the middle of early Tim Tebow excitement—who only came in for short yardage running plays or jump-passes at the goal line.
So here we had it in 2015; Blake Sims, Jameis Winston, Cordale Jones and Marcus Mariota in the first 4-team, NCAA Playoff Championship series of FSU Division 1 football.
Diversity is exciting, pulling millions of inspired people to the games for much more than just sports, but for cultural identification, pride and the continuous struggle to compete and win regardless of your race, creed, gender, economics or historical circumstances. That’s what makes sports so great an international equalizer. We all get a chance to line up and go for it. Next year, they all start over again with 0-0 records.
Omar Tyree is a New York Times bestselling author, an NAACP Image Award winner for Outstanding Fiction, and a professional journalist, who has published 27 books, including co-authoring Mayor For Life; The Incredible Story of Marion Barry Jr. View more of his career and work @ www.OmarTyree.com.