Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts Represent Progress and Lost Opportunity for Black Quarterbacks

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“If you come to Grambling,” Robinson told Harris, “in four years, America will be ready for a Black quarterback.”

During those four years, Harris closely followed the progress of other Black quarterbacks, often heading to the library on Monday mornings to research how they had played that weekend. Harris stood 6-foot-4 and worked since high school to customize his game as the pocket passer pro teams wanted. But as he watched the careers of his contemporaries hit dead ends, he nearly walked away from the sport.

Harris made it clear to teams before the 1969 draft that he would not switch positions. When he was not drafted until the eighth round, he took it as his cue to instead begin a teaching and coaching career.

“I just thought it wasn’t worth it,” Harris, 75, said. “I had no chance.”

Robinson convinced Harris to stay with football. If he didn’t, Robinson told him, it would be even longer before Black quarterbacks got a fair opportunity.

Harris reported to camp with the Buffalo Bills and was soon throwing passes to Briscoe, who made history the previous year as the first Black starting quarterback. But after throwing for 14 touchdowns that season, a Denver Broncos rookie record, Briscoe was relegated to a backup role and eventually signed with the Bills — as a receiver.

After being drafted by the Patriots, Jackson seemed primed to catch on as a starting quarterback. The league seemed to want this, too, because Commissioner Pete Rozelle sent an assistant to Boston once a week to check in with Jackson and ask him how he was being treated. But the Patriots had hired a new coach, Clive Rush, after Jackson was drafted. No matter how he performed in practice, Jackson said, Rush would tell him, “Joe wouldn’t have done that,” referring to Joe Namath, whom he’d coached with the Jets.