Just before kickoff on a Saturday night in October 1967, in a football stadium so hostile to visitors it was nicknamed “The Hole,” James Harris of Grambling tossed some warm-up passes. The Tigers had come to Nashville to play Tennessee State, which also had a star quarterback in Eldridge Dickey. He was standing almost back-to-back with Harris at midfield, firing off his own practice throws. Two black scouts for the NFL, Tank Younger and Lloyd Wells, watched them and placed a bet on who would have a better game.
That same month in Tallahassee, the Florida Board of Regents assembled for a meeting at Florida A&M, the black university in the state capital. The regents, one part of an entirely white state government, held absolute control over FAMU, as it was known. While those regents treated the school’s Ivy League-educated president, George Gore, like a supplicant, they had been adroitly cultivated over the years by FAMU’s legendary football coach, Jake Gaither. He was working the room at this meeting.
In these two disparate events, 46 years ago, the road to the 2013 football season began. In the NFL this year, all eyes rest on two black quarterbacks, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. The defending Super Bowl champs, the Baltimore Ravens, are led by an African-American general manager, Ozzie Newsome. (Like another black GM, Jerry Reese of the New York Giants, Newsome has won two Super Bowl rings.)
The college season, meanwhile, has begun with Alabama seeking its third consecutive BCS championship, fielding a team with dozens of black players. The one team to beat Alabama last year—and considered among the top threats to its supremacy this year—is Texas A&M, which has a black head coach, Kevin Sumlin.
Before the changes set in motion in 1967, none of these scenarios would have seemed possible. The conventional wisdom in pro football was that no black player was intelligent enough to play quarterback. Black quarterbacks were routinely shifted to wide receiver or defensive back, the better to utilize their “natural athletic ability,” as the bigoted idiom put it. No black men coached for any NFL team, much less served as a team executive.
As for the colleges, despite the fact that segregated state universities like Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana State had begrudgingly admitted black students under federal pressure, all of them had deliberately kept their football teams all-white. “You’re Dixie’s football pride, Crimson Tide,” went Bama’s fight song, and indeed triumph on the gridiron was eagerly interpreted in the South as proof of white supremacy. Not that the North was above reproach: Even there, only a couple of college teams had deigned to hire a black assistant coach.
What changed the course of football history—and, given football’s role as a kind of civic religion in America, the nation’s history—were two sequences of events that unspooled in 1967.
The showdown between Grambling and Tennessee State was more than the confrontation between two of black college football’s most powerful teams and most accomplished coaches, Eddie Robinson and John Merritt. It was also a personal showcase, and a means of comparison, between the nation’s best black quarterbacks, Dickey and Harris.
Heading into the game, Dickey was considered the more likely of the two to break the NFL’s quarterbacking color line. (The aptly named Willie Thrower played one game at quarterback for the Bears in 1953, and a few other African-Americans got a tiny number of snaps in pro football’s early days. But in 1967, there were no black quarterbacks in the NFL, and there hadn’t been one since 1955.) Under his leadership, Tennessee State had gone on a 24-game unbeaten streak. Entering his senior year, he had already put up extravagant numbers: 64 touchdowns, more than 4,700 yards passing, a 68 percent completion percentage. Lithe and sinewy at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, he could throw the ball 60 yards with either hand, and punt or place-kick farther than anyone on the team. His IQ was in the high 130s. Always eager to promote his players, Merritt awarded Dickey the nickname “The Lord’s Prayer.”