By Becky Sullivan, NPR
A couple Sundays ago, Doug Williams was watching football.
He wasn’t rooting for any of the teams, exactly, in the NFL’s two conference championship games, the winners of which would advance to the Super Bowl.
Instead, he said, he was rooting for two players: Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes, the starting quarterbacks of the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively — both of whom, like Williams, are Black.
First came Philadelphia, which cruised to victory over the San Francisco 49ers. “I sat there patiently after Jalen and the Eagles had won that game,” Williams said.
Then came the Chiefs game — a tense back-and-forth against the Cincinnati Bengals that came down to a Kansas City field goal in the final seconds to win 23-20.
“When that ball went through the uprights, I can tell you this — cold chills went through my body, and I got a little emotion,” Williams said in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered. “There wasn’t no tears running, but I had eyes full of water.”
The emotion he felt was decades in the making — 35 long years since Williams became the first Black quarterback to start in, and win, a Super Bowl when he was under center for the Washington football team in their 1988 championship run.
In the decades since then, Black quarterbacks have come to be a common sight in NFL games, thriving in a position once reserved exclusively for white men.
Yet the sport’s biggest stage had never featured two — until now.
On Sunday, for the first time in 57 Super Bowls, both teams will start a Black quarterback. The two players, Mahomes and Hurts, have had superlative seasons. Both are finalists for the Associated Press Most Valuable Player award, and Mahomes is expected to win.
And speaking to media this week, both acknowledged the long history of Black quarterbacks who fought to pave the way for their opportunity this weekend.
“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.
“It’s historic,” said Mahomes. “So many people laid the foundation before us, 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.”
A long history of discrimination
The NFL, once entirely off-limits to Black players, began to integrate in earnest throughout the 1950s. Washington, the last team to desegregate, finally drafted its first Black player in 1962.
Yet even as Black players joined teams in growing numbers, team owners and managers continued to discriminate against them — especially in so-called “thinking positions” like center, middle linebacker and quarterback.
“They felt Black men were inherently inferior, that Black quarterbacks — in their minds — could not lead white players in the NFL, and they just weren’t smart enough,” said Jason Reid, a sportswriter for ESPN and author of the book Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means for America.
White players dominated those leadership positions, he said, while Black players were relegated to positions that were thought to be more physical than intellectual, like running back, cornerback and wide receiver.
“It was just understood that if you were a Black quarterback in college, you were moving to another position [in the NFL]. And it really just came down to systemic racism,” Reid told NPR’s Morning Edition.
For every “first Black quarterback to ____” milestone, there’s a story about how a Black man’s abilities were underestimated by white coaches and owners.
There’s Marlin Briscoe, the first Black player in the Super Bowl era to start a game at quarterback. The Denver Broncos wanted to convert him to cornerback, but soon the team’s white quarterback was injured and the white backup played poorly, forcing the Broncos to give Briscoe a chance.
Then there’s Warren Moon, the first Black quarterback to enter the NFL Hall of Fame.
Despite leading the University of Washington to a Rose Bowl victory in 1978, no NFL team showed an interest in him. Instead, Moon spent six years in the Canadian Football League, where he won five straight championships. After making the switch to the NFL, Moon was named to the Pro Bowl nine times.
“I’m so proud to see Jalen and Patrick as the first 2 African American QBs to face each other in the Super Bowl,” Moon wrote last week when the Eagles and Chiefs advanced to the Super Bowl. “We have come a long way.”
And of course, there’s Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback taken in the first round of the draft, the first Black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl, and the first Black quarterback to be named Super Bowl MVP.
Williams was only scouted by one NFL coach before he graduated from college. He was for a time the lowest-paid starting quarterback in the league. Despite his Super Bowl heroics, his career ended soon after.
“At least I was given the opportunity and was able to do something with it,” said Williams, who is now a senior adviser to the president of the Washington Commanders. “It’s a bittersweet situation. But we take the sweet at this particular time.”
Black quarterbacks became more common throughout the 1990s, but bias remained
By the late 1980s, Black players were no longer a minority in the NFL. And over the decades, as Williams and Moon gave way to Randall Cunningham then Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper, the outright discrimination began to fade away. In 2001, Michael Vick was the first Black QB taken with the top pick of the draft.
Black quarterbacks were being drafted, Black quarterbacks were starting, Black quarterbacks were the faces of franchises. They were here to stay.
“By that point, you start to see more of an acknowledgement that, look, these guys are here, and they can play. And if they can help us win, we need to look to do that,” Reid said.
Yet bias against them lingered, he said — more subtle, perhaps, but still insidious.
Black signal callers were often described as athletic in the same breath that white quarterbacks were praised for their intellect. (That trope, unfortunately, hasn’t totally disappeared.)
Credit for big wins was given to other players while blame for losses came easily. When a Black quarterback succeeded, white commentators speculated about whether the praise had been inflated due to a desire for good publicity.
And sometimes the questions were more overt.
In 2011, Jerry Richardson, the 75-year-old owner of the Carolina Panthers, proudly told The Charlotte Observer that he had asked quarterback prospect Cam Newton, who is Black, whether he had any piercings or tattoos.
Newton, a Heisman winner, was thought to be the best player available in that year’s draft, in which the Panthers had the top pick.
Newton replied that he had no tattoos or piercings, to which Richardson responded, “Good. We want to keep it that way.” (Another prominent player on the team at the time, a white tight end, had tattoos.)
Richardson later told PBS he’d also asked about Newton’s hair, encouraging the player to not to grow it out (which Newton eventually did anyway).
That was only 12 years ago, said Reid. “It brought back to memory a time that was supposed to have been long gone.”
This Sunday, history will be made
These days, there’s no disputing the talent of Patrick Mahomes, the 27-year-old who is on the precipice of his third Super Bowl appearance and second MVP award in just five years in the starting job. His highlight reel heroics have redefined the possibilities for quarterback play in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Jalen Hurts is the biggest star of the Philadelphia Eagles, arguably the league’s most talented team, who have cruised through the playoffs to this Super Bowl berth.
Even more than his football skills — his mobility, his passing game, his creativity — Hurts’ teammates and coaches praise him for his leadership.
“It’s like having Michael Jordan out there. He’s your leader,” said Eagles coach Nick Sirianni after the team’s first playoff game last month. “This guy leads. He brings this calmness to the entire team. He plays great football. He’s tough as they come.”
Beyond the Super Bowl, the 2022 season was already historic for Black quarterbacks.
Just under half of the league’s 32 teams started a Black quarterback at some point this season, and 29% of all NFL games this year featured a Black starter under center, according to Football Perspective. In total, 21 Black quarterbacks threw at least one pass this season, the highest number ever.
“There has never been a better time in the NFL for Black men who aspire to play quarterback. These guys are the faces of franchises. They have massive endorsement deals. They have the biggest contracts,” Reid said.
There is still progress left to achieve for Black men in the NFL, said Doug Williams, especially on the sidelines, where coaching staffs have been slower to diversify than rosters.
But come Sunday, watching Mahomes and Hurts face off in the Super Bowl will be a moment to treasure, he said.
“We can’t lose. We got two in the Super Bowl,” he recalled telling a friend. “It’s a great feeling.”
Destinee Adams and Phil Harrell produced and edited the audio interview with Jason Reid. Gabe O’Connor and Patrick Jarenwattananon produced and edited the audio interview with Doug Williams.