Thirty-five years ago a harsh spotlight shone on Washington’s Doug Williams. He was the story of Super Bowl XXII, the first Black quarterback to start in the NFL title game. In the run-up to the game he was blitzed with questions about his race, but this was the one that hit home.
Reporter: “How long have you been a Black quarterback?”
Williams: “I’ve been a quarterback since high school. I’ve always been Black.”
Never mind if that wasn’t precisely what was asked; the question lives in infamy as a low point for sport’s fourth estate. Unsurprisingly, that question isn’t anywhere near people’s minds as Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts brace for this Sunday’s Super Bowl – and in the last state to observe Martin Luther King’s birthday, to boot. Though they figure to be forever yoked as the first Black quarterbacks to face each other in a Super Bowl no matter who wins, the history they’re poised to make has yet to touch off a media frenzy. In one sense, that’s progress.
America has changed a lot since Ronald Reagan feted Williams and his victorious Washington teammates on the White House’s South Portico after the QB’s record-setting MVP performance. Black men read the nightly news, run Fortune 500 companies, run the Department of Defense. Outwardly, it would seem the country has never been more comfortable with letting the Black man lead, even as the contrary has never been easier to prove – starting with the Black president whose mere presence tore the country in half before giving rise to Trumpism. In truth the Super Bowl, America’s grandest cultural expression, doesn’t just belie the state of the nation; it misrepresents the NFL’s own inclusionary fairytale as well.
Despite considerable effort, the NFL – a league in which the overwhelming majority of players are Black – has remained stubbornly white within its ownership, executive and coaching ranks. And yet: the league can at least say that the stars of its franchises are no longer the fair-haired boys. Unlike Williams, who came to the NFL from a historically black college and repeatedly pushed against sly attempts to change his position, Mahomes and Hurts were top-rated high school passers who starred at elite Power Five colleges before landing their current jobs. Even the way they’ve been able to grow into those jobs is unremarkable in a sense.
Where their Super Bowl-era forebears Marlin Briscoe, Joe Gilliam and Vince Evans were treated as square pegs who needed to be hammered into shape to conform to the rigid offensive tactics of the day, the modern NFL quarterback throws hard, runs fast and can call on great athletic ability at a moment’s notice – attributes that used to stereotypically be applied to Black QBs.
But now quarterback play is nowhere near as rigid as it used to be. It couldn’t stay that way, not after Lawrence Taylor and the ‘80s-era Miami Hurricanes overwhelmed the NFL with defensive speed and effectively turned quarterbacks into sitting ducks. All the attributes that (usually Black) quarterbacks were once stigmatized for – their happy feet, sleights of hand and general improvisation wizardry – are highly sought-after now. When the all-Black QB matchup was sealed two weeks ago, Williams had to blink back the tears.
A perceived lack of intelligence, once the biggest knock against Black quarterbacks, has rightly been disproven. The prevailing style of contemporary quarterback play is unapologetically “Black”, that is to say bold, freewheeling and improvisational – and the style is showcased by white stars, such as Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow too. The position as Tom Brady played it isn’t dead per se, but his retirement surely marks the start of the sunset.
The writing’s been on the wall as far back as 2014, the last time there were two Black quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, albeit on the same side. At the Media Day that year, I found Seattle pass rusher Michael Bennett by himself on a dais and asked for his thoughts on Seahawks backup Tavaris Jackson. “I pay attention to every quarterback,” he told me, “especially, um, the … the colored ones. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t get a lot of credit.”
Later that Super Bowl week Russell Wilson guided the Seahawks to championship glory, becoming the second Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl and avenge the defeats suffered by Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb and Colin Kaepernick. Even though Jackson barely made it into that big game (or many more thereafter), the Black QB takeover was already under way.
This year’s Super Bowl is more than mere validation of the Black quarterback. It’s proof of their evolution into a proper institution. It used to be that a Black quarterback had to be an otherworldly talent (Michael Vick, Cam Newton) or an undeniable one (McNabb, Warren Moon) for teams to justify a starting spot for them. Now, it’s plain common sense. Four years ago the Baltimore Ravens were in a long post-championship swoon, and coach John Harbaugh appeared as good as gone. To save his neck, Harbaugh benched Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco and elevated Lamar Jackson, then just a rookie out still figuring out the game, and the Ravens have been AFC threats ever since.
Kansas City’s Andy Reid pulled a similar move earlier that same year, subbing out former top pick Alex Smith for Mahomes as soon as the latter’s talent became undeniable. Instead of finding fault with the younger QB’s quirks, Reid let them inform his imaginative schemes and embolden his playcalling. As Mahomes prepares to start his third Super Bowl in four years, already, he looks like the best to ever do it.
What’s more, he’s at his most magical when he’s jump-throwing touchdowns, completing no-look third-down conversions and otherwise quarterbacking against tradition. To those who might doubt Mahomes’ identity because he has a white mother and lighter skin, consider: he effectively forced the NFL to bow to the social justice movement after recording a video calling on the league to “condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people” and “admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting”.
But the far wilder success story is Hurts, upstaged on his own Alabama team by Tua Tagovailoa in the Crimson Tide’s comeback victory in the 2018 college national championship. In another decade, that moment of ignominy would have doomed Hurts to his cohort’s Kordell Stewart or Antwaan Randle El (read: a quarterback turned catch-all athlete) if it didn’t outright quash his pro potential with scouts. But quite frictionlessly Hurts moved on to rehab his reputation as a passer at Oklahoma before landing in Philadelphia via the second round of the 2020 draft. Thirteen games into that season he unseated franchise QB Carson Wentz.
This season the Eagles cruised to the NFC’s top seed and through the playoffs behind Hurts – who, in addition to speaking in support of the social justice movement, trusts his career to one of the NFL’s few Black woman agents. After the Eagles dispatched the Giants in the NFC divisional round, Philly coach Nick Sirianni went as far as likening Hurts to Michael Jordan – a comparison that feels like a stretch for this Black Eagles QB. Where Randall Cunningham, McNabb and Vick were awe-inspiring dynamos, Hurts is still little better than a reliable decision-maker at this point – albeit one with inborn confidence and an unrelenting reflex for self-improvement. You could call that a diss if this wasn’t a new frontier – one where a Black quarterback is both clutch and just OK.
America is still far from being totally comfortable with letting a Black man take the lead on every stage. But on the football field, at least, there doesn’t appear to be an issue with Black starting QBs (actually running the team is a different matter). No one bats an eyelash when Teddy Bridgewater, Josh Johnson or Tyler Huntley – career clipboard-holders, all – enter the huddle in relief. To paraphrase that noted American sports philomath Winston Churchill: This isn’t the end or even the beginning of the end but, perhaps, the end of the beginning.