From the Akron Pros to the Seattle Seahawks: Race and the NFL
Last February, an African-American quarterback won the Super Bowl for the second time ever... and no one seemed to notice. Russell Wilson weighs in on the role race has played throughout the history of pro football, and just how far we’ve come
When the Super Bowl ended last February, after celebrating with my teammates on the field for a few minutes and seeing our owner, Paul Allen, hoist the Lombardi Trophy, it was time to do one big press conference and a lot more individual interviews at my locker in MetLife Stadium. I’m not certain how long I spoke to the press, but it was longer than an hour, easily. I got questions about what it felt like to beat Peyton Manning (I didn’t; our team did), about how dominant our offense and defense were, about specific plays in the game, about being just 25 and winning the Super Bowl … and about a hundred other things too.
But as I thought back afterward, there was one question I didn’t get:
What does it feel like to be the second African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl?
The amazing thing was, I knew. I knew, after the game, the history of it. It matters because our world is changing—for the better. America’s hearts are changing, and the NFL is changing too. The NFL is moving forward.
But it was interesting that no one talked about the black quarterback thing—at least to me—until our team visited the White House in May. President Obama said something about it that day: “Russell became only the second African-American quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl. And the best part about it is nobody commented on it, which tells you the progress that we’ve made, although we’ve got more progress to make.’’
President Obama was right on both counts. It’s a great story that probably is even greater because America isn’t talking about it. I knew that only one black quarterback, Doug Williams, had won a Super Bowl before our victory. I know history, and I know football history. I didn’t want to win the Super Bowl just because of the racial element, although I know that is significant. The Seattle Seahawks winning their first Super Bowl—that was the most important thing to me. Not me being such a young quarterback, or beating Peyton Manning, or not being the prototypical size for a quarterback. Nothing like that. I wanted to win because I wanted to win for my team.
I believe the culture has changed in America, and in the NFL. Nowhere can you see that more than in Seattle. I can tell you without reservation that Paul Allen and our GM, John Schneider, and our coach, Pete Carroll, don’t care what race you are, what color you are. They only care about performance. And yes, there is more progress to be made by minorities in the NFL, but I’m writing this story because I think that in the short time I’ve been in the league, I see a league and individual teams judging people for what they do, not what color they are or how tall they are or anything other than what happens on the field.
You know how I know that? From our practice field in Renton, Wash., throughout this spring.
The five quarterbacks in camp with us had something in common:
Tarvaris Jackson, African-American.
Terrelle Pryor, African-American.
B.J. Daniels, African-American.
Keith Price, African-American.
We call ourselves “The Jackson 5.” I play the role of Michael Jackson. It’s not that Coach Carroll and John Schneider purposely did that. They put the best guys they could find on the roster to help the Seahawks win. But really, considering the history of the league and the quarterback position, how crazy is it that one team has five quarterbacks in camp, and all are African-American?
I believe that says so much about the state of the NFL today.
A generation ago, could you have imagined an NFL roster with five black quarterbacks? We’re not the only one. The Jets could have three African-American quarterbacks on the roster on opening day. Buffalo and Minnesota, in the past two drafts, have spent first-round picks on African-American quarterbacks of the future. We had two NFC playoff games last year featuring African-American quarterbacks starting for each team—Carolina (Cam Newton) and San Francisco (Colin Kaepernick), and then San Francisco and Seattle for the conference championship.
But this is not all about black quarterbacks. It’s about the league progressing to being more of a place where it’s about ability first, second and third, and about the history of a league that has had some blind spots when it comes to race to be sure—but probably has been a little more progressive over the years than you think.
* * *
In 1920, the team photo of the first-place team in the league that would eventually become the NFL had a black face among the players: Fritz Pollard, who played for the Akron Pros. That’s 27 years before Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s hard for me to go back in history, but that is astounding—an African-American player in pro football 94 years ago. The next year Pollard became the team’s player-coach. A year before Robinson played in Brooklyn, two more pro football teams—the Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns—signed African-American players.
Since then it’s been a struggle at times, but we’ve seen the Rooney Rule make every team have to interview an African-American candidate when there’s a head-coach opening. We’ve seen teams like Pittsburgh, Oakland and Kansas City scout the predominantly black colleges to give some Hall of Fame players a shot at making it great. One of those players, Doug Williams from Grambling, turned out to be the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. That was 27 years ago, in Super Bowl XXII. What a trailblazer he was for all the minority quarterbacks who came after him: It’s the mark of a great player that he can have a great game in the biggest game of his life, and he threw four touchdown passes that day to beat Denver 42–10.
To get to where I’ve gotten, I’ve had so much help from standing on the shoulders of people like Doug Williams, James Harris, Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick and so many others.
But I also think in my case, my background and my family is so vital in getting to this point. That’s probably similar to a lot of players.
My family pushed me on the football field, on the baseball field, on every field. I had two very purpose-driven, faith-based parents, put on earth for a specific reason. They raised me to believe that it doesn’t matter where you come from; it matters where you’re going … and can you produce when you get there?
The word “color-blind” throws me off a little bit. My family definitely educated me about the world and what it was like out there. Education was always crucial to our family. My grandfather was a military guy who was an educated man and went on to be the president of Norfolk State University for 22 years. My grandmother was a professor at Old Dominion University. My grandmother, who was from Jackson, Miss., used to have to read old and outdated textbooks at school. At night she would bring home the more updated textbooks from the white schools and study those—then bring them back to their places in the morning. That’s how my mom and dad grew up, with the idea that education was the most valuable thing you could have.
But “color-blind’’ is not the right term. I certainly realized people’s color. My parents told me, “Don’t judge people based on their color. God created everybody.” I wasn’t naïve. I was educated on being African-American. I knew everything about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King. I grew up in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. You realized it was … a little bit different. The way I was raised, though, was about treating people the right way. Yes sir, no sir, work your tail off. It didn’t matter if I was black, white, Latino—and when some people meet me they think I’m Latino.
When I was really young, I knew this was something I wanted to do, and hopefully somebody would give me a shot. But I didn’t stress about it. God put me on earth to be the best person and best player I could be, and I was raised to understand that if I had the ability, I would get a shot. I have had people say derogatory things to me. I heard degrading words on the road in college, in both baseball and football. Most of it came from the opposing fans. But it was nothing that any other player didn’t hear. Did I let it get to me? No. Others before me—civil rights leaders, other quarterbacks—fought for my right to do what I am doing, and they had to take far more abuse than I did. I am grateful for them.
Today, I don’t look at myself as a black guy, or a black quarterback. I look at myself as a person, and a quarterback. My attitude is if I want to be the best, I’ve got to beat the best. And it has nothing to do with color.
Milestones in the History of Race in the NFL
When I joined the Seahawks, I remember walking into the huddle and seeing all the different faces. Here I am, 23, an African-American, a strong Christian. Our center, Max Unger, is from Hawaii. Our running back, Marshawn Lynch, is African-American, from the inner city in Oakland. Zach Miller, the tight end, is a white guy from Phoenix. I don’t care if they’re white, black, Christian, Jewish, atheist. It has no effect how I view them. They’re there for me, I’m there for them. All I want to know is: Are they great teammates? I think we’re all fortunate to have been picked by a team that’s shown over and over that only one thing matters: performance.
I’ll never forget Coach Carroll’s words the day I was drafted. We talked right after the pick. He told me that he believed in me and wanted me to come into camp and compete for the job. He promised me that that if I competed at the highest level I would have a chance to start.
These were his exact words: “I will play the best players. If you’re the best quarterback, you will start.”
Isn’t that really what every football player wants to hear from his coach?
* * *
When I got to meet the President in May we talked for about 15 minutes, about leadership, about performance, about being able to affect people’s lives. It was pretty cool—not only meeting the President, but having him notice me trying to have an impact on people.
Obviously, he’s a very intelligent man. He’s not naïve about some of the barriers. Nor am I. But what is cool is that people don’t think of him now as the “African-American President” as they think of him as “the President.” At least that’s how I see it. I think that’s important for this country, whatever your politics are.
As I stood behind the President at the White House that day, I listened to his amazing speech about the Super Bowl and our team, and it dawned on me how special this moment really was. I realized then and there how the world is changing. I feel blessed to be a small part of that change.
I’m a quarterback. It’s not about color anymore. This off-season, I’ve worked as hard as I can to become a better player. I have to. I know what the situation is with coach Carroll: He’s going to play the best guy. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. The culture is going in the right direction, and the league is going in the right direction. The best player plays. So there is no time to sleep.
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