James Harris achieved historic feats on the football field.
Harris was the first African-American to open a season as a starting NFL quarterback, the first to start a playoff game, the first to start a conference championship, the first to go to the Pro Bowl and the first to win a conference passing title.
But you can give an assist on those feats to Grambling coach Eddie Robinson with a second assistant to former Grambling legend Tank Younger. Harris visited the Talk of Fame Network's “5 Games” podcast and recalled how his Grambling connections resurrected his NFL career and put him in position to become the first African-American quarterback to enjoy any success.
Harris rose from an eighth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1969 to opening-day starter as a rookie. But he wound up starting only three games in his three seasons with the Bills. He didn’t win any of his starts, completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (5).
Robinson told Harris when he left Grambling that as an African-American quarterback, he likely would get only one chance to prove himself in the NFL. So when the Bills cut Harris after that third season, he knew it as time to get on with his life.
“When I was driving from Buffalo to Washington D.C., where I was going to take a job, I thought there was no chance of playing,” Harris recalled. “There was no way I could think any differently. There were no blacks playing quarterback in the league anywhere. So there was no reason for me to have hope. I decided I’d just go back, work out and put it in the hands of the Lord. But I had no hopes of ever playing again.”
Harris spent his offseasons with the Bills working for the Department of Commerce, which offered a management program for NFL players. And at that point, he believed his future belonged in the nation’s capital. Instead, it belonged in Los Angeles.
“Tank Younger, another Grambling player, was working in the front office of the Rams,” Harris said. “Coach Robinson talked to him about giving me another chance and Tommy Prothro was the coach. They flew me out, worked me out and kept me on their practice squad.”
Harris spent the 1972 season on the taxi squad and 1973 on the bench as John Hadl was leading the Rams to 12 victories, an NFC West title and NFL MVP honors. But in 1974, when the Rams struggled out of the gate with a 3-2 record, new Rams coach Chuck Knox benched Hadl and started Harris against the 49ers. He passed for 276 yards and three touchdowns and also rushed for a score in a 37-14 victory. The job became his – and Hadl was traded to the Green Bay Packers.
Over the next three seasons Harris would quarterback the Rams to three NFC West titles and an NFC title game. He would win an NFC passing title and go to a Pro Bowl. He also became the first African-American quarterback named MVP of a Pro Bowl. But Harris failed to achieve what he most wanted to achieve.
“In spite of the fact I had started for two different teams in the NFL and had been a part of the team going to the playoffs, the championship game, I had been to the Pro Bowl and made all-pro,” Harris said, “they were still asking the question, `Can blacks play quarterback?’ I was the only starting quarterback from 1969 to 1976. Joe Gilliam started six games. It continued to prove that the NFL was not ready for a black quarterback because it didn’t give other guys an opportunity. And that was always a concern of mine – other guys getting an opportunity. And that opportunity still didn’t come.”
Harris also talked about his relationship with Hadl, the impact Knox had on his career and the difference between playing with the Bills and with the Rams.
You can listen to this as well as the first two Harris “5 Games” podcasts – plus our Talk of Fame Network “5 Games” podcasts with Hall of Famers Jerry Kramer, as Charles Haley, Jam Ham, Mike Haynes, Willie Lanier and more – at VokalNow.com or by subscribing to our podcasts at iTunes. Click the links below.