September marks the 50th anniversary of the most historic season opener in the history of the Buffalo Bills — and one of the most historic in the history of pro football.
The Bills met the New York Jets at War Memorial Stadium on Sept. 14, 1969. It marked O.J. Simpson’s first game as a pro and the first for Joe Namath’s Jets since they won Super Bowl III in an upset for the ages.
Those are the elements that looked most important at the time, but history remembers a more consequential first: James Harris, on that sunny afternoon at the Rockpile, became the first African-American quarterback to start a season opener in the combined histories of the NFL and the AFL.
The moment is captured in a new book, out this week, called "NFL Century: The One-Hundred-Year Rise of America’s Greatest Sports League." The author is Joe Horrigan, the NFL’s de facto historian in residence and a son of South Buffalo who recently retired after 42 years at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Chapter 22, titled “A Starting Quarterback,” begins with this quote from Harris: “The Buffalo Bills thought so much of me they drafted me in the eighth round and sent the ball boy to the airport to pick me up.”
Horrigan’s book leaves out a crucial fact: He was the ball boy.
That’s why Horrigan was on the sideline when Harris started that season opener in an all-rookie backfield with Simpson and Bill “Earthquake” Enyart as running backs.
“History happened right in front of me,” Horrigan says, “but I was too young to recognize it.”
This weekend Horrigan and Harris will make some history of their own. Alabama A&M will play Morehouse College on Sunday at the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s stadium in the first annual Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic.
Harris co-founded the Black College Football Hall of Fame 10 years ago; it honors greats from historically black colleges and universities. Soon that hall will have a permanent home at pro football’s hall. And you can draw a straight line from Harris’ and Horrigan’s friendship that began in Buffalo to the hall-within-a-hall that’s coming to Canton.
If this was a made-for-TV movie,” Horrigan says, “it’d be too corny for the Hallmark Channel.”
Horrigan calls his friend “Shack,” the nickname Harris picked up from his father, a Baptist preacher. Shack is short for Meshach, a biblical figure in the Book of Daniel who is thrown into a fiery furnace but comes out unscathed, which is a fair metaphor for Harris’s NFL journey.
Horrigan’s book details the few times in NFL history that African-Americans had played quarterback. Fritz Pollard sometimes lined up at QB in the NFL’s early years, but he was primarily a halfback. Willie Thrower played briefly in one game for the Chicago Bears in 1953. George Taliaferro started two games for the Baltimore Colts that same year. And Charlie “Choo-Choo” Brackins threw a couple of passes for the Green Bay Packers in 1955.
That was the entire list until 1968, when Marlin Briscoe came off the bench for the Denver Broncos after the starting QB broke his collarbone. That year Briscoe played in 11 games and started seven as the first black quarterback in pro football history to play regularly.
The reason there’d been nearly no black quarterbacks until then was simply this: Pro football execs of the era wrongly believed black players did not have the intelligence or leadership abilities required for the quarterback position.
“So many quarterbacks with the ability to play before me,” Harris says, “were denied because of the color of their skin.”
And so, against that bleak backdrop, the Bills drafted Harris in 1969. Today he’d probably be a first-round choice given his prototypical size (6-4, 215 pounds) and rocket arm. The Bills took him as their second pick of the eighth round, 192nd overall.
Harris would have been drafted earlier had he agreed to be moved to another position, as often happened in those days. But he’d had a stellar quarterbacking career at Grambling State, the historically black university in Louisiana where Harris played under legendary coach Eddie Robinson, who firmly believed in Harris’ abilities and who counseled him to play his natural position in the pros.
When Harris arrived at training camp, he didn’t have far to look for an example of how pro football teams asked black quarterbacks to switch positions. By now Briscoe was in Buffalo — as a wide receiver.
The Broncos drafted him as a defensive back, though Briscoe had played quarterback at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Broncos coach Lou Saban — the once and future Bills coach — played him at quarterback in those 11 games in 1968 but declined to let him compete for the position in 1969.
Briscoe asked to be released and was eventually picked up by the Bills, who switched him to receiver, a position he’d never played before. (By the next season, he was All-Pro.) The good news for Harris: Briscoe became his roommate on the team.
“He’d been through some of the things I was going through,” Harris says. “Marlin and I were the only two who could share the black quarterback journey.”
Harris was seventh on the depth chart when camp opened, and those ahead of him included veterans Jack Kemp and Tom Flores, former AFL All-Stars. But Harris followed Robinson’s steady counsel, studying hard and working hard so he would be ready for his opportunity.
“He’s coming along well in handling the team,” Bills coach John Rauch said during camp. “He has a fine football mind, and when things go bad he doesn’t seem to rattle or panic.”
Rauch’s words in those two sentences effectively dismissed the libels so long held against black quarterbacks. And as the preseason progressed Harris appeared to be winning the job. He started the last preseason game — they played six in those days — and by then it seemed all but certain he would be the starter in Game One.
The New York Times treated this development more as curiosity than history. The headline on a midweek notes column in the Sports section read: “Jets Likely to Face Harris, Bills’ Negro Passer, on Sunday.”
Yet this was a monumental moment in pro football history. The other black quarterbacks who’d played fleetingly over the years had come into games because of injury or for mop-up duty. Harris beat out all comers to win the job in camp.
Alas, game day did not go as the Bills had hoped. Harris pulled a groin muscle and tried to play through it; he completed just three of 12 passes for 74 yards and was intercepted once before being pulled in the third quarter. Kemp rallied the Bills from 16 points down to tie before the Jets pulled away, 33-19. Namath offered Harris encouraging words after the game.
Rauch told reporters that Harris would start in Week Two if his injury cleared up; it didn’t. By the time Harris was ready for Week Four, the job was Kemp’s.
Then, in Week Six at Oakland, ex-Bills QB Daryle Lamonica threw six TD passes in the first half. Harris came in to relieve Kemp and played well, throwing for 156 yards. But then he got crunched by two Raiders, resulting in season-ending surgery for torn knee ligaments.
Harris played sparingly for the Bills in 1970 and started just twice in 1971. By 1972, Saban was back in Buffalo. He released Harris and no other NFL team signed him, so he sat out that season. It looked as if his NFL career was over — as if he’d be little more than a footnote, like the African-American quarterbacks in pro football who’d come before.
But then he got a call from Tank Younger, a scout for the Los Angeles Rams who’d played for Robinson at Grambling. Harris was on the Rams’ practice team in 1973. And in 1974, under future Bills coach Chuck Knox, Harris won the starting gig again. He’d lead the Rams to wins in seven of their last nine games to make the playoffs.
Then, when the Rams beat Washington, he became the first black quarterback to win a playoff game. Weeks later, he was the first black quarterback to play in the Pro Bowl — and the first to win its MVP award.
The next year, Sport Magazine put Harris on its cover with this question: “Will James Harris Be the First ____ Quarterback to Play in the Super Bowl?” An asterisk underneath the headline filled in the blank as “Los Angeles Ram,” but readers understood the meaning.
A dozen years, later Washington’s Doug Williams would be the first black quarterback not only to play in the Super Bowl, but to win it and be its MVP. Behind the scenes, Harris served as a mentor and confidante to Williams, who had also played under Robinson at Grambling.
“The biggest advice I could give was don’t play with the pressure of being a black quarterback,” Harris says. “Just play the position, which he could do. That was one of the real happy days for me, when Doug won the Super Bowl.”
Which brings us back to the Black College Football Hall of Fame. Harris co-founded it with Williams, and together they leaned on Horrigan for best practices on how halls of fame operate and select their members.
"Over the years there were so many great players at historically black colleges,” Harris says. “We didn’t want to see that history fade away.”
The Black College Football Hall of Fame has a posh annual dinner and induction ceremony in Atlanta. What it didn’t have was a permanent home. That’s where Harris’ and Horrigan’s rekindled friendship comes in. They brainstormed housing it within the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and now that is coming to pass.
Warren Moon was the first black quarterback in pro football’s hall. As it happens, he was a high school kid in Los Angeles when Harris starred for the Rams, and Moon too found inspiration in Harris’ journey.
Harris was 21-6 as a starter for the Rams in the regular season but always felt as if management was pushing Knox to find someone else to play quarterback. He was traded in 1977 to San Diego, where he quietly finished his career in 1981.
Harris worked in business for a few years in Louisiana and then, in 1987, got a job as a scout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From there he’d work in pro personnel jobs in front offices for the Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions. That’s how Harris happened to be scouting in Canton when Horrigan recognized Harris and reintroduced himself 20 or so years ago.
“We talked,” Harris says, “and went down memory lane.”
They talked about the day in May, 50 years ago, when Horrigan picked up Harris at the Buffalo airport and drove him to the Bills offices downtown.
“I went in to meet the top brass,” Harris says. “They were wearing white shirts and ties. They wanted me to sign a contract. I told them I needed to make a phone call first to talk to my mother.”
He was really calling Robinson, who would end up negotiating Harris’ deal.
“The Bills put me up at the YMCA for six bucks a night and the room was so small I could lie in bed and turn on the TV with my toes,” Harris says. “O.J. had a suite across the street at the (Statler) Hilton.”
Harris liked Buffalo, if not the winter weather, and liked Bills fans, even if not all of them liked him.
“The Buffalo fans, there were a lot of good fans who supported me,” Harris says. “Unfortunately, there was also a lot of hate mail, with statements and diagrams.”
“They’d put pictures of watermelons with my face on it,” Harris says. “Or me hanging from a tree limb.”
Some of the hate mail had local postmarks; a lot of it came from elsewhere across the country. Harris’ only sin was trying to earn a living at the position of his choice.
"A lot of people didn’t want to be see me play,” he says.
The haters lost in the end. Today black quarterbacks are so common that the modifier isn’t necessary. They are just quarterbacks, as Harris had always hoped he would be known.
“I’m happy so many guys are playing now,” he says. “Coach Robinson always knew all we needed was the opportunity.”
This week Harris and Horrigan are together again for the pregame festivities before the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic in Canton, which comes 50 years to the month since Harris’ historic start in Buffalo.
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Harris says. “What timing.”
Oh, and talk about timing: When Harris landed in Cleveland on Sunday afternoon, guess who picked him at the airport, just like old times?