TThe Guardian caught up with Jason Reid to discuss his new book, which tells the story of the men who laid the groundwork for today’s superstar black quarterbacks and how modern players like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are navigating the unconscious and conscious bias. racism that continue to permeate American society.
Fritz Pollard is a monumental figure in NFL history, as well as in his book. I know you spent time with your grandson. Can you explain Pollard’s impact on the game?
Jason Reed: Pollard was the first African-American superstar in the NFL. He was listed as a running back even though he played quarterback, not quarterback in the sense that we know with the formations that we know. But he was also a quarterback and he was the first black head coach. He is monumental on many levels. Regarding the quarterback position, someone had to be first. He was an All-Pro in the first year of the league. He was a star in the first year of the league. And in a league that didn’t welcome black men at the time, he was an absolute outlier.
There was a disturbing 12-year period (1934-1946), when there were no black players in the NFL. Do you think the owners had a formal agreement?
Most likely it was a gentleman’s agreement that we will no longer have blacks. You talk about Indiana Jones-type stuff if someone could find and authenticate a document that said we’re not going to have black players in the league. But it probably doesn’t exist. There was probably no need to put it on paper.
Has the NFL done enough to recognize this period?
Many people argue no. I remember thinking to myself that this is clearly a delicate situation for the league. For one thing, a 12-year ban on black players isn’t something the league necessarily wants to celebrate, but I think historical context is always important. But you understand why the league wouldn’t want to draw attention to that part of their history because it’s such an embarrassing part.
Which black quarterback in NFL history doesn’t get enough credit?
This one is easy. Marlin Briscoe played at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, a small school. He was about 5 feet 9 inches, 170 pounds something. His nickname was The Wizard. If Briscoe were playing today, he’d think of Kyler Murray.
The Denver Broncos drafted him in 1968, but black men weren’t drafted to play quarterback in the 1960s. So the plan was to move Marlin to cornerback. Well, he tells the Broncos, to his surprise, “I’m not going to sign with you guys unless you give me a chance at quarterback.” They did it because they knew they would never give him the job. Briscoe performed well on her test, but she was rigged. But then the incumbent gets hurt and the backup is ineffective. You have a situation where the team is struggling, so they throw Briscoe in there because they don’t have anyone else and he turns it on. He ends up throwing 14 touchdown passes, which is a Broncos rookie record that still stands even though John Elway was a Broncos rookie at one point.
He then goes home to work on his degree in Omaha and gets a tip that the Broncos are having quarterback meetings without him. He just got his job taken away. Basically, he got cut late so he couldn’t land anywhere else in the NFL. He ends up going to Candida, as many black quarterbacks do, but Canada wasn’t for him.
He comes back and reinvents himself, he becomes a great receiver for the Buffalo Bills. He then gets traded from the Bills to the Miami Dolphins, where he is on Don Shula’s undefeated team and wins two Super Bowls. He had a pretty good NFL career, except he never played QB again.
Briscoe retires and makes a handsome living in the Los Angeles financial industry. But he ends up hooked on drugs and ends up in jail. In jail one day, he watches [another Black quarterback] Doug Williams beat the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. He feels that Doug’s success on that date is partly due to him. Briscoe got off drugs, got his life together and worked at the Boys and Girls Club of Long Beach for years. She sadly passed away last June.
Fast forward a bit to the modern era, talk about Mike Vick’s early career and the importance of playing in a diverse city like Atlanta.
In Atlanta, you talk about a city with a huge African-American culture and Vick played at a time when the entire hip-hop industry was exploding and he’s a big part of that. Vick played black unapologetically. His style of play was I’m gonna go out here and be me and he was successful with it.
Which modern quarterbacks do you think have followed suit, in other words, being unapologetically black?
I think Lamar Jackson has done it. It’s interesting because black people come from all kinds of backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, different upbringings. So it’s not like we all conform to a certain path. But when you talk about the approach of being who you are, Michael Vick didn’t try to be someone else. Lamar Jackson isn’t trying to be someone else. They act in a way that he says accept me for who I am and if you don’t like it, so be it.
Are there any quarterbacks you think have felt like they had to hide their blackness?
What I will say is that there was a time when black quarterbacks weren’t talking about social justice issues no matter what they thought. Colin Kaepernick obviously changed all of that. We now see that Patrick Mahomes has spoken out on the issues and Dak Prescott has too. Dak initially received some pressure from the black community because they felt he was towing the company line, but he broke with [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones on the protests. I think we’re not at a point where black men in that position feel like they can be authentic in terms of putting forward their views if they want to.
You just mentioned Mahomes and in 2020, following the shooting of George Floyd, he participated in the powerful player-led public service announcement that inspired Roger Goodell to apologize to players for the past and recognize that black lives matter. If Mahomes wasn’t the “face of the league” at the time, would that PSA have had the same impact?
There is no way it will have the same impact. What he did was force Roger Goodell to have a fork in the road. At the time, Mahomes was the guy. He was the league’s MVP the year before. When that video was made, he was coming off a Super Bowl championship. There was no question that he was at the top of the QB list and QB is the most important position in the league. So with him in that video saying what he said, it was inconceivable that the league would be in the opposite position of Patrick Mahomes. It just wouldn’t have worked. And Goodell understood the realities of the country dealing with the horrific videotaped murder of a black man that illustrated what many had said about law enforcement and people in our community. It was so undeniably obvious that what happened to that man was wrong. For the league to come and say black lives don’t matter is not a position the league could have taken.
Do you feel like there were enough prominent white allies in the Colin Kaepernick period and the protests that followed?
There were some white players like Chris Long, who supported Malcolm Jenkins and was genuine, and there were others who were allies of the protesting players. But there were also many players who did not agree with the protests. And not all black players agreed that kneeling was the correct position. Okay, not everyone has to agree. But the thing for me is now you had superstar quarterbacks taking a position like never before. As I write in the book, it would have been shocking to see Joe Montana or John Elway say anything, but Patrick Mahomes literally had skin in the game. It’s a different level when this is something that’s in your house.
Lamar Jackson, despite being the NFL MVP in 2019, is still not considered by some to be a true quarterback. Has the league changed its definition of what a true quarterback is, and maybe it’s just that part of America that’s behind it?
Mike Sando of The Athletic does his QB levels every year and you’ve read about anonymous defensive coordinators saying Jackson can’t pass: “If he has to pass, they can’t win.” Is he the best pocket passer in NFL history? Of course not. But he is not a finished product either. The reality is that he has already exceeded the expectations of many people who said that he could not even play QB. Let’s give it the opportunity to evolve.
In closing, what was the most surprising aspect of your research for the book?
Like anyone who has studied American history, I know that racism is embedded in the fabric of our country. But in my report, it was all the details and anecdotes. Like Warren Moon talking about how when he was a starter at the University of Washington, he was booed before home games. It was Doug Williams telling me about the racist hate mail he received when he was a rookie in Tampa Bay. It was Marlin Briscoe telling me that they gave the job away when he was back in Omaha. He just didn’t have a full idea of how bad overt racism was.