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The Historic Significance of a Super Bowl With Two Black Starting Quarterbacks

8 minute read

When Doug Williams—the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl—saw the Kansas City Chiefs win the AFC Championship game two weeks ago, he grew emotional. “Tears didn’t come down my eyes,” Williams tells TIME. “But they were in my eyes.” Williams, who led Washington to a 42-10 Super Bowl victory over Denver in 1988, knew that for the first time in NFL history, two Black quarterbacks would be starting in the title game. Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs superstar and just the third Black quarterback in history to win the Super Bowl, after Williams and Russell Wilson in 2014, would be back for his third Super Bowl appearance in four years (his Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers in 2020). Earlier on that championship Sunday, Jan. 29, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts—who’s in his third year in the NFL—propelled the Eagles past San Francisco to secure his first Super Bowl trip.

Williams, now a senior advisor to the president of the Washington Commanders, was the Super Bowl XXII MVP: he finished with 340 passing yards and four touchdown passes. The presence of two Black starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl for the first time reminded him of past injustices faced by Black quarterbacks and gave him hope for a more equitable future. “We have been denied over the years,” says Williams from Phoenix, where he’s in town for Sunday’s big game at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. “I don’t care what anybody says, there’s one word that’s key to this whole thing, and it’s opportunity.”

That opportunity to set up behind center, to become the face of a franchise and perhaps the entire NFL, once eluded Black players. Coaches at all levels slotted Black quarterback prospects into other positions, like wide receiver or defensive back. “I think about all the rich history in this game, and to be part of such an historic event, historic moment, it’s special,” said Hurts on Monday. Mahomes also used the word “historic.” “So many people laid the foundation before us,” he said, “and to be playing with a guy like Jalen, who I know is doing it the right way, it’s going to be a special moment that I hope lives on forever.”

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Of course in these divisive times, the celebration of this Mahomes-Hurts milestone has offended the sensibilities of some Americans. “Enough of the race card already,” goes one typical social media posting objecting to the Black quarterback storyline. “Why is race the first thing leftists notice?” said another Twitter user.

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Such knee-jerk reactions miss the point. The accomplishments of Mahomes and Hurts “gives us a time to reflect and understand history, at a time when history is trying to be erased,” says Louis Moore, a history professor at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan, who specializes in African-American and sports history. Many states have restricted ways race can be discussed in classrooms. Florida has rejected an Advanced Placement course in African American studies for high school students.

“We have to sit with history,” says Moore. “For a lot of people, it’s hard for them to sit with that, because sports is supposed to be about merit, right? Even America as a nation is supposed to be about merit. And here, to tell this story, we have to say, ‘No, wait a minute, there’s a history of discrimination, and it’s pretty obvious.’ We have to have this conversation, because it impacts a lot of people.”

Back in 2007, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith became the first Black coaches to face each other in the Super Bowl. During that season, there were seven Black coaches in the NFL. But since that promising time, progress has stalled for Black coaches. There are currently three in the league, and several former Black head coaches are suing the league for discrimination.

It’s gotten somewhat better on the quarterback front. There are 11 Black starting quarterbacks around the league; Mahomes is 27, and Hurts is 24. It won’t take another century-plus before for two Black quarterbacks play again in an NFL title game. But “as a nation,Moore says, “we’ve never really been comfortable with Black leadership. The people who pushed for Black quarterbacks—the coaches, the writers—wanted them in the position for those to show what Black leadership looks like. To show what Black intelligence looks like. And on Sunday, we get to see that.”

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Williams, who was the first Black quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft—in 1978, out of Grambling—received streams of racist hate mail during his pro career. He was also underpaid, so much so that he left professional football for a year, in 1983, to become a substitute teacher. Williams had led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a franchise that went 7-37 in the first three years of its existence, to the NFC Championship game in 1980 after season four. However, by 1982 he was making $120,000, comfortably below the NFL’s average quarterback salary that season, $161,380. He joined the fledgling USFL in 1984. Washington acquired him in 1986.

At least Williams got to play his position. Marlin Briscoe starred at quarterback for Omaha University in the mid-1960s. But three weeks into his rookie season with the Denver Broncos, he was still practicing at cornerback. A piece on the team’s own website acknowledges NFL attitudes at the time. “The game’s decision-makers deeply abided by racial stereotypes in shaping their rosters, and as such, they decided — whether consciously or not — that Black men were not capable of playing positions that were seen as the realm of the intellectual athlete,” the article says.

After Denver’s starter got injured, Briscoe was called into duty, becoming the first Black quarterback to start a game in an American major professional football league. He threw 14 touchdown passes, a rookie record for the franchise that still stands. He was runner-up in the AFL Rookie of the Year voting in 1968. He received death threats in the mail.

But by the next season, Briscoe was being shunned from meetings between the Denver quarterbacks and coaches. He asked for his release. Briscoe went on to win two Super Bowl titles with the Miami Dolphins, as a receiver. He never played quarterback again.

Such tales were all too familiar. In the early 1970s, the Buffalo Bills converted Grambling quarterback Matthew Reed to tight end after he ran a fast 40-yard-dash in training camp. He left the NFL to play quarterback in the World Football League and the Canadian Football League. James “Shack” Harris went 19-4 as the Los Angeles Rams starter in 1974 and 1975, becoming the first Black QB to start and win a playoff game. In 1976, the team shuffled players at the position, throwing Pat Haden and Ron Jaworski into the mix. Harris was traded to the San Diego Chargers prior to the 1977 season; there, he largely backed up Dan Fouts, an emerging Hall of Famer. He played his last NFL game in 1979.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has said biases still persist. Jackson won the Heisman Trophy at quarterback but was asked to run wide-receiver drills at the 2018 NFL scouting combine. Longtime NFL exec Bill Polian said before that draft that Jackson was “short and a little bit slight and clearly, clearly not the thrower the other guys are.” He recommend that Jackson become a receiver. (Polian has since admitted he was wrong).

The Baltimore Ravens took Jackson at the end of the first round, with the 32nd pick, in that 2018 draft. Four white quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen) were selected ahead of him. Only one of those players—Allen—has lived up to expectations. In 2019, Jackson won the NFL MVP award, as he eclipsed 3,000 passing yards, threw a league-high 36 TD passes, and also rushed for 1,206 yards. Jackson’s contract negotiation with the Ravens, and potential free agency, will likely be the storyline of this NFL offseason.

But first, there’s Sunday’s Super Bowl, between the Chiefs and the Eagles. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Williams says. After Williams won in 1988, he said that older Black men, in particular, went out of their way to thank him for breaking down a barrier. “It makes me mad sometimes, knowing you’ve got people in this country who want to erase the history of Black people,” says Williams. “That’s why this is so important.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com