James Harris is one of the names lost to sports history, until now. Harris is credited as being the first black player to start a season at quarterback in professional football, making his debut in the position for the Buffalo Bills in the American Football League in 1969. (He was not the first to start a game at quarterback, however, that distinction belongs to Marlin Briscoe, who went on to a career as a receiver. Joe Gilliam, Jr., singer Joi’s father, was the first to start an NFL game at QB, but his career was derailed by drug addiction.)
Harris, a former Grambling Tiger who played for four collegiate championships under legendary coach Eddie Robinson is featured in a book “Breaking the Line-the Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights” by Samuel Freedman” about Robinson and FAMU coach Jack Gaither. The two rival coaches played a role in the eventual desegregation of college football.
Now an executive with the Detroit Lions, Harris says that while it was a struggle for him to play during his pro football career, now Black quarterbacks are prized for their combination of athleticism and shot-calling skills.
“I think there are more and more coming,” Harris told the Tom Joyner Morning Show. “I’m real happy for the opportunity for Blacks to get a chance. It╒s getting to the point now where kids can dream of playing quarterback and it can become a reality. It wasn’t always that way.”