Books: William C. Rhoden – Third and a Mile (2007)

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by Nick DeRiso

The timing couldn’t have been better: ESPN Books issues “Third and a Mile,” focusing on black NFL quarterbacks like Grambling products James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams. And it happens just as two African-Americans advance to the Super Bowl as head coaches for the first time ever.

That’s given these two local heroes a chance to reflect, even as they continue to marvel at how far they’ve come.Williams and Harris shared storylines (from Grambling to pro starter to NFL front office) and a college mentor in Eddie Robinson. It’s kindled a shared admiration.

“I’ve got so much respect for ‘Shack’ as a person, because I know what he had to go through,” Williams said. “‘Shack’ never talked about those things, though. The only thing he ever did with me was say: ‘If you can throw at Grambling, you can throw in the league.’”

“Third and a Mile,” by William C. Rhoden, has Harris and Williams — the first black passer to start an NFL game and the first to win a Super Bowl — as an understandable focus. They form the center of book that expands to feature fellow pioneers like Marlin Briscoe (first to throw a pass in the modern era) and Warren Moon (first to earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame) as well as current players like Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper.

Before those later successes, however, there were mighty struggles. At first, Harris, a Monroe native, didn’t even let himself dream about starting.

“I thought I was capable, but I didn’t think the opportunity would ever be there,” he said. “Nobody was playing then. It was unrealistic to think about it.”

The world was turning, but slowly. Harris, fresh off his selection in the 1968 NFL Draft, arrived to find this headline in The Buffalo Evening News: “A 6-4 Negro QB, Harris, Drafted 8th by the Bills.” Black quarterbacks were still a novelty for a league that had seen just two attempt a pass between 1953 and 1968. Even then, Briscoe did so only because of injuries to the two quarterbacks ahead of him.

He set several rookie records as a passer in Denver — then found himself released at season’s end, anyway. Briscoe would play nine NFL seasons and eventually win two Super Bowls with Miami, but as a receiver. That didn’t exactly bode well for Harris, despite the fact that he had led five championship teams in northeastern Louisiana — one at Carroll High and four at Grambling.

“The interviews that he had, they didn’t want him as a quarterback,” said former Carroll coach Dorth Blade. “He had the kind of talent that he could have played defensive back; he had the skills to play any position. (In fact, in the closing moments of Carroll’s 1962 state championship, Harris was actually spelling at safety.) But he wanted to play quarterback.”

Harris was never given a fair shake. He bounced from Buffalo to Los Angeles — where, during a rare period where he saw consistent starting time, the Rams won divisional titles and advanced to the NFC championship game in 1974 and ’75. Despite becoming the first black passer to lead a team into the playoffs, Harris was shipped off to San Diego.“I never really got a chance to play up to my capabilities,” said Harris. “I was always trying to play perfectly, because if you made a mistake — you were out.”

Still, the yeoman’s work done by Briscoe and Harris opened the passway for Williams, who would become the most valuable player of the 1988 Super Bowl for the Washington Redskins. The now ailing Robinson would often recall telling Williams that the significance of that moment would only deepen with time.

“Coach was right, as usual,” Williams said. “In a way, seeing (Chicago Bears coach) Lovie Smith and (Indianapolis Colts coach) Tony Dungy coach in this Super Bowl will have more impact on me than my playing in the game did. I’ve lived a little history now, and I know exactly where we started with black coaches.”

Harris looks back with more than a little regret on his pro playing days. Still, his steady resilience made it easier for those who came later. Moon was so determined to follow Harris into quarterbacking that he decided not to run at full speed when he was clocked in the 40-yard dash as a college athlete at Washington — all to avoid being moved to wideout or cornerback. He and Randall Cunningham would bridge the gap between the widely accepted black superstar passers of today and Grambling’s groundbreakers of the ’70s.

“The only thing I knew,” Harris said, “is I wasn’t switching positions. I was going home before I was going to do that.”

Harris’ more remarkable contribution was to follow that 12-year career on the field with nearly two decades as a pioneer in pro personnel. He’s helped build rosters for the Jets, the Ravens (including the 2000 Super Bowl champions) and the Jaguars, where he was worked since 2003. Robinson often made special note of the fact that Harris “broke restraints on the field as a player, and then in proving blacks could be leaders in the team’s front office.” Williams, who later succeeded Robinson as Grambling’s coach, is also a personnel executive — working for Tampa Bay, the NFL club that selected him 17th overall in the 1978 draft.

Though they once endured a withering spotlight focused on their skin color, Harris and Williams have been witness to an amazing transformation: In some ways, the game itself has become bigger than race. McNair and McNabb have led teams into the Super Bowl over the last decade — and with far less scrutiny.

“The thing about a Super Bowl is, they may call you a black quarterback,” Williams said, “but the truth is that they can’t color that experience.”

Rhoden wanted you to walk a while in their shoes. So the New York Times writer took a gutsy approach with “Third and a Mile.” He presents an oral history, rather than weaving in the expected prose. These raw and riveting accounts give the book its power, and its poignancy. About 80 different voices are heard, loud and clear — including Harris and Williams. Their words become an ever-more resounding rebuke, even if the book’s stark style means Rhoden disappears a bit in the telling.

“We left it up to him,” Harris said, “and that was the way he thought it was best to present it — since there were so many different angles and personalities to the story. We like it because it’s easy to read.”

“Third and a Mile” also includes accounts from Warren Moon, Vince Evans and Marlin Briscoe, among others. Each played his own role in the struggle of black passers to earn equal opportunity in the National Football League. Their thoughts are laid bare, without interruption or tacked-on transitions. Eventually, the quarterbacks are joined by others, black and white, to provide insight and context.

“The writer did a good job, because he didn’t deviate from what we said,” Williams said. “It’s not just told from the individual quarterback’s point of view, but also from other people’s. You get it from a different view, and see what everybody else thought about what was going on.”

For Harris and Williams, these were not new thoughts. It was new, though, to voice a few of them.

“Some of the things you go through, you have not shared with anybody else or hadn’t wanted to talk about,” Harris said. “Some of those things were said for the first time, once we sat down and started thinking about it. But those are things you never forget.”

Harris — who once won 39 consecutive games as a prep quarterback at Monroe, Louisiana’s Carroll High — would become the first black in league history to open a regular season as a starting quarterback, and the first to lead an NFL team to the playoffs.

Williams was the first to be selected in the first round of the draft, the first to lead a team to the Super Bowl, the first to win it, and the first to be named most valuable player. Leading the way meant absorbing withering criticism — in print and in person — from those who questioned whether a black quarterback could lead a football team.

“There are things that have been on your mind for a long time, and maybe you only shared them with a few people,” Williams said. “Now, you can share it with whoever wants to read it — and they are things that people probably didn’t even think about. All you know was what you saw on TV on Sundays. You may not know the roads that were traveled to get there.”

Rhoden’s intriguing examination is an important reminder for those who once thought too little of the struggle to even football’s playing field for blacks. But as players like Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb have helped us move beyond the question, it’s no less meaningful for a new generation who might not be as mindful of what came before.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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