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SUPER BOWL XXII : THE BLACK QBs : From Thrower to Williams, a Long Arc

January 28, 1988|BILL PLASCHKE | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The Chicago Bears were stalled. They were losing to the Washington Redskins, 35-21, and the Bear fans were hooting.

With the ball on their 35-yard line and time running out, the Bear coach searched out the rookie quarterback.

"You ready?" he asked Willie Thrower.

"Am I what ?" answered Thrower.

Out came starter George Blanda. In went the kid.

The football felt like a tennis ball. The arm felt like George Blanda's leg. The rookie took the Bears on the drive of his life, covering 60 yards, down to the Redskins' five-yard line.

He walked back to the huddle to call the play for first and goal. Surprise! There was no room for him. Blanda was back. The kid was out.

"The coach didn't think I could finish it," said the kid the other day. "He wanted George to take them in. He wanted George to do it."

The year was 1953. The coach was George Halas.

Willie Thrower was football's first black quarterback.

It's a late December morning, two days before Syracuse is to play Auburn for a chance at a national championship. Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson is sleeping when a phone rings in his New Orleans hotel room. He pulls at the receiver. He holds it over his ear. The voice fades in and out, but this much McPherson understands:

"During the game, (racial slur), you are going to die."

McPherson hangs up, pulls up the covers, and goes back to sleep. Two days later, when he leads his team into the Sugar Bowl, it remains his own little secret.

"Why tell anybody?" he said. "Why? What good would it have done? This stuff happens. This stuff will keep happening."

In 1988, Don McPherson will be pro football's newest black quarterback.

High thinking and bureaucratic yodeling aside, what it means for black Washington quarterback Doug Williams to play in Sunday's Super Bowl XXII is just this: One day, people like Willie Thrower will get to score that touchdown, and Don McPherson will jump out of bed and scream about an indignity.

"Doug is not playing for black America, he's playing for the kids," said Houston quarterback Warren Moon, one of two other black starting quarterbacks in the National Football League, Philadelphia's Randall Cunningham being the other.

"He's playing so maybe our black youth who want to be quarterbacks, they will feel like they can be quarterbacks. He's playing so they won't have to go through what all of us went through."

All of us. They are like old soldiers, wearing their memories like wounds.

Moon is flying in from Texas. Former Ram quarterback James Harris is driving down from Los Angeles. Sometime this week, someplace where the cameras can't find them, they will get together with Williams.

There will be a phone call from Nashville, Tenn., from former Steeler Joe Gilliam.

If a certain young man can get up the nerve, there will be phone call from the University of Nebraska. That's where quarterback Steve Taylor will begin next football season as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Williams counseled him once during a tight time, and Taylor wonders if this wouldn't be a good time to say thanks.

From other spots, there will be inner communication. In Syracuse, N.Y., that quarterback named McPherson will dream. In Dallas, a quarterback named Kevin Murray will wonder.

The bond here is of more than color. It is of death threats, nasty letters, lost chances, and an outside that still doesn't understand.

"They don't think we can think or react under pressure," said Moon. "They don't think we do well in situations that cause you to think and act quickly. So they don't play us at quarterback."

Yet this week, there is also a bond of quiet contentment. Because in a fight the black quarterbacks never asked for, suddenly they are winning.

"When I was playing, it wasn't fair, and I never expected it to be fair," said Harris. "Now, maybe, it won't be like that. Maybe kids who want to be quarterbacks won't be forced to switch positions. Maybe kids who dream about being quarterbacks, maybe that's becoming a realistic dream."

Thrower is now 56 years old and working in construction in Pittsburgh. He doesn't figure he's an expert on society, but he still wonders about some things. Such as, what does it mean that we are still talking about black quarterbacks?

"There still shouldn't be controversy over this, should there?" he asked.

Thrower played only one NFL season, and just two games in that season. He was released by the Bears and approached by no other team, so he finished his career in Canada with Winnipeg, where he threw to tight end Bud Grant for three years.

"I was 20 years ahead of my time," he admits.

The next black quarterback didn't come along until 15 years later, in 1968. But Marlin Briscoe played just one season with the Denver Broncos before going to the Buffalo Bills as a wide receiver.

For depth chart purposes, the first quarterback entered our consciousness in 1972, and the first was not one but two: James Harris and Joe Gilliam, linked inseparably through history, not only as pioneers, but as a recipients of unusual breaks.

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