Former Grambling State QBs Raising the profile of HBCU Football

By Lenny Moon

Two native sons of the state of Louisiana have merged their potent resources to comprise a platform for Historical Black College and Universities (HBCU) gridders that’s carrying that product to new heights. Both are proteges of the legendary football coach at Grambling State in Eddie Robinson. Although they toiled in different eras of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), both became historical quarterbacks in their own right. Monroe, La native James “Shack” Harris selected neighboring Grambling as his institution of higher learning from 1965 thru 1968 and promptly won or shared four SWAC titles. This was during the era when Black college football players largely did not have the option of exhibiting their talents anywhere but Black institutions due to segregation. Translation, some of the best gridiron talent in the country resided on HBCU campuses. Harris would go on to be drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the 1969 NFL Draft and became the game’s first Black signal caller to earn the right as the opening day starter with the Los Angeles Rams in 1974. Known as “Shack” by family, friends and teammates, Harris would also become the first Black quarterback in history to earn Pro Bowl status and punctuated his appearance by snaring the MVP of that contest.

Coach Robinson would tap into that same state of Louisiana when he secured another jewel at the quarterback position. A product of Zachary, La (15 miles north of Baton Rouge) Doug Williams tenure on the GSU gridiron scene was (1974-77) and compiled an impressive 36-7 record as a four-year starter and three SWAC championships. The two-time Black College Football Player-of-the-Year finished 4th in the 1977 Heisman Trophy balloting (unheard of for an HBCU QB). He would become the first ever Black signal caller drafted in the 1st round (17th pick of the 1978 NFL Draft by Tampa) and led the talent-challenged Bucs to their first three postseason appearances during his five seasons there. That would serve as a prelude to more history to come down the pipeline from the former GSU star that would permanently embellish his name next to one of the most prolific performances in Super Bowl annals. The setting was San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium (site of Super Bowl XXII) and the opponent was the Denver Broncos on January 31 1988. Williams led a demolition of the John Elway-led Broncos by getting up from a hyper-extended knee in the second quarter and promptly tossed a record 4 TD passes (all in that same quarter) to crush Denver 42-10. This marked the first time that a Black QB started a Super Bowl contest and saw the Washington signal caller break most of the existing significant passing standards in the game’s annals.

That lays the foundation for these two former star signal callers from the same collegiate football program, both mentored by the legendary Eddie Robinson (albeit different eras) that went on to stardom in the professional ranks as players and both spent considerable time in NFL front offices. This collaboration produced the establishment of the Black College Football Hall of Fame in 2009. A few years later, the HBCU Legacy Bowl would come into existence. In partnership with the National Football League, the Legacy Bowl which is an all-star game comprised of draft eligible seniors from the entire Black college football landscape for the purpose of exposing their talents to NFL scouts. Since the advent of integration, HBCU players drafted by the NFL has gone down considerably. Although there is still quality talent on those respective campuses the opportunity to be appropriately scouted by the NFL goes largely untapped. February 24, 2024 marks the 3rd year that the “Allstate HBCU Legacy Bowl” hosted by the Black College Football Hall of Fame and housed at Yulman Stadium on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans will transpire. Kickoff is slated for 3:00 pm cst and in collaboration with the National Football League, aired nationally on the NFL Network. Additional ticket information can be obtained by contacting http://www.hbculegacybowl.com.

Sponsors of the 2024 “Allstate HBCU Legacy Bowl” include Coors Light, the New Orleans Saints, Allstate Insurance, the National Football League, Adidas, 15 and the Mahomies Foundation (Patrick Mahomes foundation), Riddell, the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Additionally Coca Cola, Zebra Technologies, Cisco, New Orleans & Company, Bobby Wagner (NFL player), Jameis Winston (NFL player), Terron Armstead (NFL player), Tulane University, Hyatt Regency-New Orleans, Alexander & Kennedy Financial Group and Teamwork Online.

This past calendar year, the sports world lost, in my humble opinion, the greatest athlete of any era that also evolved into one of the most impactful social activist of his era. James Nathaniel “Jim” Brown (1936-2023) played his entire nine year career with the Cleveland Browns and changed the standards of the running back position in the National Football League forever. At 6-2, 230 pound, the muscular Brown was larger than most of his era’s linebackers whose duty it was to attempt to bring him down. He combined a gracefulness with his sprinter’s speed and complimented that with an innate intellect that usually placed him slightly ahead of his competition. Brown led the league in rushing 8 of his 9 NFL campaigns. Also noteworthy was leading the “Cleveland Summit” when influential Black athletes of that era were called upon in support of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali who was on the verge of being sent to prison for objecting to being drafted into the military for religious reasons. Among those that the recently retired Brown brought together in1967 was Bill Russell, Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes, John Wooten, Lew Alcindor, Bobby Mitchell and Willie Davis among others.

Other high profile athletes that the world of sports mourn who transitioned during the 2023 calendar year were Ralph Boston (USA Olympic star who became the 1st person to break the 27 ft barrier in the long jump and earned medals in the 1960 Rome Olympics, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Vida Blue was a fireballing left-handed major league baseball pitcher that was an integral part of three consecutive World Series titles by Oakland As from 1971 to 1974. Formerly the world’s fastest human, Jim Hines of Texas Southern University became the first sprinter to officially break the 10 second mark in the 100 meter dash by posting a 9.95 in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He would add a 4x100m Relay gold medal to his collection in that same Olympics.

George McGinnis was an all-star power forward in both the American Basketball Association (ABA) as well the National Basketball Association (NBA). McGinnis earned the MVP Award in 1975 while with the Indiana Pacers of the ABA and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017. Willis Reed spent his entire pro basketball hall of fame career with the New York Knicks. The Grambling State product led the Knicks to two titles and was the NBA Finals MVP in both 1970 and 1973. The 6-10 center was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. Otis Taylor spent his entire 11-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs and led his team to two American Football League championships in 1966 and 1969 as a standout wide receiver. The Prairie View A&M product exhibited one of the glorious moments in the history of the AFL when he snared a screen pass from QB Len Dawson and secured the Chiefs 23-7 Super Bowl IV victory over the Minnesota Vikings with a 46-yard game clinching touchdown.

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