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The Boston Globe from Boston, Massachusetts • Page 40
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The Boston Globe from Boston, Massachusetts • Page 40

The Boston Globei
Boston, Massachusetts
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40 THE BOSTON GLOBE MONDAY, JANUARY 25, 19R8 'When (Doug Williams) goes out on that field Sunday, my heart, my soul, 90 percent of my being will be with -Joe Gilliam Black QMsi history of crossed signals BLACK QUARTERBACKS Continued from Page 37 Together, they opened the trail to Super Bowl XXII for Williams. They are the ones who know what came before him and they know what he will be facing all week, because they have seen it themselves. They were the first to play this odd position and so they understand what this madness called black-quarterback is all about. To the 4-yard line but no farther Willie Thrower can still remember it clearly. It has been 35 years since he pulled on the helmet of the Chicago Bears at George Halas' request and replaced George Blanda, but it's still as fresh as the crisp, fall afternoon at Soldier Field when he trotted out to greet the San Francisco 49ers back in 1953.

But what's freshest of all is not how it started, but how it ended. "The ball was on our 35-yard line and coach Halas got mad at George and he put me in," Thrower recalled. "A lot of blacks from around Chicago went to the games then and I remember them cheering when 1 went out there. 1 think a lot of them remembered me from playing on a national championship team at Michigan State and they were excited and proud to see me step In. They knew I was a passer supreme.

"I got the team moving and we got down to the 4-yard line. Right down the field to the 4. Once I got there, George Halas yanked me and put Blanda back In. He put the team In for the touchdown. "Evidently, he felt I didn't have the know-how to take the team in.

I felt pretty bad. 1 know 1 would have gotten the team In for that touchdown." A rookie with an arm like a whip had the know-how to lead the Chicago Bears from their 35 to the 49ers' 4, but they sent in the white guy from the University of Kentucky to score the touchdown. Perhaps Willie Thrower (has a quarterback ever been more aptly named?) can tell best what that was all about. "I got a chance, but the opportunity wasn't there," he said. "The time wasn't right for me.

I knew that. I knew I'd be In the background or I'd be gone. I knew it was a problem from the word go. but I'd been the first black quarterback in the Big Ten. too.

It didn't frighten me. I had to take my shot. "There was a lot of pressure, being the first. A lot of the linemen were Southern boys and at that time blacks still couldn't even play at Southern schools. I'd call a play and I'd hear them snicker.

"They all did their Job, but you could feel it In the huddle. You could sense when 1 called a play that there was prejudice among the linemen. But. ah. it was a pioneer situation, so you encounter those things.

I'm not bitter about It. What's the good of that?" A year later, Willie Thrower was gone after playing In Just two NFL games, replaced by a rookie out of i 1 i A "A V.J 1 I vV: jm 1 nzmz i mi i tf A choice two years earlier. Gilliam had shown the strong arm and competitive zeal Chuck Noll was looking for to lead his Pittsburgh Steelers. so the quarterback Job was thrown open in the summer of '74. and Gilliam won it from a teammate named Terry Bradshaw.

James Harris would not stand alone that fall. Two men would play black-quarterback and maybe that would change things. And then again "Harris and I did endure some tough times," Gilliam says today. They started about the same time Gilliam started for the Steelers. Gilliam was a pure passer, plain and simple.

His job was to throw and he was good at it. Some thought he was too good at It. Although perhaps a bit quick on the trigger, he got the Steelers off to a 4-1-1 start and had won three straight when Noll came to him and said he was going back to Bradshaw. "I was getting a lot of threatening phone calls and letters." Gilliam said. "My car was vandalized because they were playing the black kid.

It was a move Chuck Noll thought he had to make. "It hurt. It hurt dearly. But I had no protest. He just said It was time to make a change." By then, both Gilliam and Noll had endured things no man could be expected to stand up under.

It was all too much. "Players were reluctant to stand next to Joey because they didn't know when he'd get it." Joe Gil-Ham Sr. said. "But Chuck Noll was as straight up as you're going to get." Obviously, not everyone was, and the harder Joe Gilliam tried to fight them with his arm, the harder they came after him. In the end, he snapped.

"He was 20 when he went to Pittsburgh," his father said. "He was like his mother, sensitive. The kind of things he had to face were too much for any guy. He will not talk about It at any length. I assume It's too painful." Gilliam, however, blames neither Noll nor the world for what followed his demotion.

He knows his chance slipped away in a purple haze and he knows In his heart why. But he blames no one. "I learned about my feelings then." Gilliam "That's how I got Involved in drugs In the first place. I couldn't deal with my feelings. "But when I think of Chuck Noll.

It's something positive. He believed In me. OK, he took me out and we went on to win the Super Bowl with Bradshaw. but there were so many other things he did for me. He made me understand.

It wasn't his fault what happened. "After he took me out, I did things to ruin my career. You have to take your own weight. Take the blame for what you do. Don't look for scapegoats." They seem like odd words from a man who, at 22.

did nothing but try to play football the best he could. And he had to take the blame from people he'd never seen, people whose brains were apparently the size of a pea. "I If nur urhu tHv wpm urt-IHnrt A fHHtam cot1 Ul'l photo Joe Gilliam's NFL glory didn't last long, but he never gave up on football. J1! (It A ilk "I was absolutely sure why. My heart went out to them.

To have that hatred In you must be awful. I refused to buy Into It." But the fight was too much, and by 1976. Gilliam was a drug addict who was drummed out of football. He was twice charged with muggings. He was arrested on drug and weapons charges in New Orleans after the Saints claimed him for the $100 waiver price and cut him before he played a down.

He entered a drug rehabilitation program In Virginia, came out and began playing semi-pro football, but nothing seemed to work but his arm. In 1978, he was charged with armed robbery In Nashville, and a year later he was nearly beaten to death In Baltimore by drug dealers armed with two-by-fours. It was then, having sunk to depths he would never have Imagined In 1974, that he began to come back. He worked to get off drugs, took a Job on a New Orleans dock three nights a week and turned back to football. So overpowering was his gift that even after so much, he could still throw four touchdown passes In a minor league all-star game at the Superdome In 1981 and land a contract with the US Football League the next year.

He had not played football In 7'2 years, yet he was back. His skills were dulled by then. He had long ago missed his chance to start a Super Bowl. But he had done the Impossible. He had survived.

"I'm as proud of that as I am of anything I ever did." Gilliam said. "I never quit. "When I was In Pittsburgh, my playing was news. It was the uniqueness of It all. What happened, happened.

I was supposed to play when I played. Just like Doug Is supposed to play now. "I'm terribly proud of the fact I made a contribution to the Steelers and that Harris and I were two of the first black-quarterbacks, who won football games. Apparently we had an Impact on Doug. "I'm terribly proud of Doug, too.

When he goes out on that field Sunday, my heart, my soul, 90 percent of my being will be with him. "I'll be dodging tacklers and looking for the open man for him. I really hope he pulls It out." Williams indebted to the 'pioneers' Doug Williams knows he owes them. He owes a guy In New Kensington and a guy In LA via Tampa and a guy In Nashville. He owes them be Tfl J3 Georgia named Zeke Bratkowskl and a returning Army veteran named Ed Brown.

Just as many Americans sadly believed at the time there was no oom for a black-quarterback In the huddles of the National Football League. So Willie Thrower traveled north and found a new attitude. "I went up to Winnipeg the next year to play in the Canadian League and you didn't have that preju- dice," Thrower said. "I was accepted. I stayed three years and then came home." Home was New Kensington, a mining town near Pittsburgh where winters are long and opportunities short.

Thrower began working construction upon his return, then ran a bar for 13 years before returning to the construction trade as a foreman three years ago. By 1957, he was finished with football, a mere footnote In NFL history, but life goes on. It would be 16 years before anyone else would play the black-quarterback position In the NFL. Willie Thrower doesn't consider that a coincidence. "Quarterback is a sacred position," Thrower said.

"They call the signals. They tell people what to do. You've got to think, and a lot of people wanted to believe we didn't have the ability to cope with that. We still fight It." Sunday. Doug Williams will fight it.

Willie Thrower will be glad when he does. The Rama take a chance on Harris James Harris had never heard of Willie Thrower or any other black man playing quarterback in the NFL, so. being a pretty Intelligent guy. he didn't think about himself doing It, either. His goal was more modest.

He merely wanted to play this position In college, although he knew not every college felt It needed a quarterback with a strong arm and a quick mind. Not. that Is. if he was a black-quarterback. "I knew LSU wasn't taking any black athletes." said Harris, now a Tampa Bay Buccaneers scout.

"I thought maybe I could play up North. They recruited a lot of athletes In my area (Monroe. but everywhere I went they didn't seem too Interested. They let me know I didn't have much chance (at quarterback)." So Harris did what many a black athlete was doing then he headed for Grambling and its legendary coach, Eddie Robinson. Harris became more than a quarterback there.

He became a star, laying the groundwork for a starting ob with the Buffalo Bills In 1969. But a year later, he was back on the bench behind Jack Kemp and Dennis Shaw and finding it difficult to cope. "1 began to feel I wouldn't make It, no matter how hard I played," Harris said. Three years later, he didn't. He was released In 1972 and no one appeared Interested In his services, so he took a Job In Washington with the Commerce Department and waited.

And waited. And waited. "I finally gave up," Harris said. "I knew I had the ability, but It didn't seem anybody would give me a chance." Willie Thrower knew that feeling, but the following year Los Angeles Rams coach Chuck Knox signed Harris. "The frustration and disappointment had given me time for self-evaluation." Harris said.

"I'd promised myself I'd be ready. I didn't realize being Idle a would hurt so much." His arm throbbed. His passes fluttered. But Knox waited patiently for the old Harris to return, and when It did, Knox used It. In 1974.

Knox demoted and then traded veteran Jchn Had), a controversial move that made room for Harris. The Job of running the Los Angeles Rams was now Harris' at least most of it was. called the plays lcause I wanted to take the Al" phoKi He got the Rams off to a 6-1 start in 1974, but by 1976 James Harris was finished. Some said he never got to show the NFL how good he really was. cause they started what he hopes to finish Sunday.

"This Is like Martin Luther King." Williams said of Super Bowl XXII. "This Is going to the mountain top. "I'm reminded every morning when I look In the mirror what I am. but James and Joe opened the door. No, say It was a wall.

They climbed the wall. I've been through a lot since I went to Tampa (In 1978, where he started for four years, took the Buc-' cancers to the playoffs three times, endured much hatred and personal pain and finally quit after asking for S3 million over five years and receiving an offer of $400,000 a year, take It or leave it). "I never wanted to take the credit of being the first In the Super Bowl because of Harris and Gilliam. They were the pioneers. But at this particular time, if anybody deserves It.

I do. "I understand what this Is all about this week. It's like Jesse Jackson running for president. There aren't too many blacks running for president and there aren't too many playing quarterback In the NFL. That's the reason so many people are making a fuss about this." burden off James' shoulders." Knox explained.

"We didn't want anybody blaming him Just because some play he called didn't work." The Rams started off 6-1 and Harris did some remarkable things (passing for 436 yards against the Miami Dolphins, for example), but somehow he never quite won enough games to keep people quiet, and by 1976 his run was over. He had thrown well enough to be seventh on the all-time Ram list, but few who knew him believe anyone ever saw the real James Harris. play, but that black-quarterback thing was too tough. "You look at what happened to Harris. He went from MVP In the Pro Bowl one year to not able to play In the league.

He won't say It, but he was In one of the most racially biased situations In history." The more things changed. It seemed, the more they stayed the same. Joe Gilliam Sr. would learn that first hand. The rise and fall of Joe Gilliam It was all there for Jefferson Street Joe.

The arm. the mind, the coach, the team, the opportunity. Joe Gilliam the pride of Tennessee State, was ready to make history In 1W74. An 1 1 th-round draft It Is a fuss whose time has come. And by the time Super Bowl XXII Is over.

Willie Thrower. James Harris. Joe Gilliam. Doug Williams and all right-think-ing peole would like to see that tlir finally be gone "I coached against him," StattV oach Joe Gilliam. Sr.

said former Tennessee "He had the Ability to.

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