Robert Beck /Sports Illustrated; Pro Football Hall of Fame (inset)
Robert Beck /Sports Illustrated; Pro Football Hall of Fame (inset)

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

By
Russell Wilson
· More from Russell·

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:

Me, African-American.
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.

During the Seahawks' White House visit, President Obama pointed out what no one else had brought up in February: An African-American quarterback had won the Super Bowl. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)
During the Seahawks’ White House visit, President Obama pointed out what no one else had brought up in February: An African-American quarterback had won the Super Bowl. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

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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Week 8 Artifacts

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Frank Reich’s 1993 Wild-Card Hand-Warmer

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Jimmy Johnson’s Super Spray

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Pete Rozelle’s 1989 Retirement Memos

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Red Grange’s Barnstorming Tour

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The Wells Report

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More from The MMQB
76 comments
RichardVert
RichardVert

Yep , almost made it. Maybe next time nobody will feel the need to drag race into it. We were so close.

RickCappucci
RickCappucci

Wilson says he is just another quarterback and race has nothing to do with it but continues to inject race into it.  He keeps pointing out that he doesn't care about being a black QB but says it on his mind all the time! Then he speaks of the worlds biggest race baiter Obama who immediately makes a racial reference to Wilson being only the second black QB to win a Super Bowl.  You can't have it both ways.  I never refer to myself as an Italian American, only an American.  African Americans cannot stop bringing up the race card which is a big reason why we have the divisiveness we have now.

number18
number18

After the SuperBowl nobody talked about an africian american qb winning so " I'se gonna speak up and make sho ery bodies knoes I'se bees an africian merican qb".

PazTres
PazTres

I love this kid...is he a little naive about things?...yes...but he has a great heart. Keep searching young brother.

ProfessorGriff
ProfessorGriff

I really hate the term "african american" that ish is racist and only serves to separate the population.  Should just be 'american' or even black american would suffice.

Q2
Q2

A couple of years ago I was listening to a syndicated sports show that was discussing people of color who were hockey fans. They asked for non-white hockey fans to call in, especially if they actually played at one point in their life, to talk about racism. I think it was around the time of the Wayne Simmonds situation.


One of the guys that called in was black, played in high school and grew up in Canada. He talked about hearing racist comments but it was pretty rare. He talked about how his teammates, coaches and other parents treated him just like any other player on the team.


The end of the conversation was what really stuck with me. The announcer asked if the proper term was African-Canadian? The caller said he had never been called that. The announcer asked what was the preferred title for black Canadians? After a pause of a second or two the caller said "I don't know, we just call each other Canadians, I guess?"


I understand using the prefix of where your family originated is meant to honor your heritage but I just found it refreshing to hear. 



Orange Crush
Orange Crush

"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."

"but we’ve seen the Rooney Rule make every team have to interview an African-American candidate when there’s a head-coach opening."

So which is it? These seem to be contradicting ideas. 

Orange Crush
Orange Crush

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." Tell that to Sherman. He is the biggest race baiter there is. He makes himself a fool and then calls everybody who calls him out on it a racist rather than being able to take accountability for his actions. I know I know......but, but, but he went to Stanford.

BookofTebow316
BookofTebow316

Out of all the people to compare himself to, he chooses Michael Jackson. hahaha

lawrencewht91
lawrencewht91

He's a great quarterback and person. I'm glad he's a Seahawk.

NickCarter
NickCarter

The slide show, "Milestones in the History of Race in the NFL" had at least one glaring item missing.  In 1981 the Raiders won the Super Bowl with a Latino head coach and quarterback.  Pretty significant.

Raiderforlife
Raiderforlife

Do you know what happened in Chicago over the 4th of July weekend thats the biggest race problem in the US or anywhere else.

ILoveMyWife
ILoveMyWife

So coaches in the NFL don't care about race anymore?  Can't wait to see the return of the White cornerback, Safety and Running Back!

Joe Ledgett
Joe Ledgett

Congratulations young man! You are an outstanding role model! Keep up the hard work, and if possible, a Superbowl repeat would be very nice :-)

BushidoBrownsRevenge
BushidoBrownsRevenge

@RickCappucci You also don't refer to yourself as a "European-American". The fact that you know that you are of Italian descent should let you know something.

cascadiapack
cascadiapack

@RickCappucci come on....his article was perfectly reasonable.  Obama is the world's biggest race baiter?  Really?  Enough.

BigSchtick
BigSchtick

@RickCappucci I never refer to myself as an Italian American, only an American

I bet people don't assume you are in the mafia. Bad example

scottdraud
scottdraud

@RickCappucci " African Americans cannot stop bringing up the race card which is a big reason why we have the divisiveness we have now." Sorry Rick. Slavery, Jim Crow,  the KKK, ect. actually created the DIVISIVENESS we have now. Healing and unity comes from a mutual respect. If one guy wants to be called African-American and another guy just wants to be called an American, both guys should have their preference granted. 

shoobug
shoobug

@RickCappucci Your discomfort with race discussion is another reason why we have the divisiveness we have now.  Seriously, why should he bite his tongue to play to your sensibilities?

brettjv
brettjv

@number18 What an absolutely ridiculous comment.  Point was, Obama brought it up.  And I'm sure the idea of writing the article w/this perspective came from SI, not RW himself.  Seriously, I hope a black person beats the crap out you someday.

Rumrunner11
Rumrunner11

@PazTres He's 25 - of course he's naive about things, but his desire to make a positive impact on this world is inspiring - good on him

Hola
Hola

@ProfessorGriff   I agree, but let me ask a question...When did blacks become Americans?  When did they start to enjoy the rights of being an American like everyone else?  Was it after the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act?

Hola
Hola

@Q2  Canada is/was different than the US in regards to race.  Canada did not have a law separating people based on skin color.  The US need...just a guess.

BigSchtick
BigSchtick

@Orange Crush There is nothing that supports anything you posted about Sherm. Just your opinion....

Hola
Hola

@BookofTebow316 He's the starting QB of the Seattle Seahawks.  Michael Jackson was the star of the Jackson 5.  I understand the analogy.

Q2
Q2

@BookofTebow316 How am I not surprised a Tebow fan didn't understand the analogy. 

ChrisCastleman
ChrisCastleman

@NickCarter Jim Plunkett's mother (Carmen) was part NATIVE AMERICAN also. Technically, he is listed as an AMERICAN.

Tim C
Tim C

@ILoveMyWife Best players play.

You saying white guys are shut out because of their skin color?

ChrisCastleman
ChrisCastleman

@Joe Ledgett A "role model?" Give me a break!  He recently filed for divorce from the woman that he dated all throughout high school. She followed him from Wisconsin to N.C. State.  That's being being a stand-up man....lose the loyal partner when the limelight shines the brightest.  Money can't buy class or integrity.

Orange Crush
Orange Crush

@BigSchtick @Orange Crush There is plenty of proof. Just read any article he has written here in the MMQB. It is right there. Really any one of them. Pick one.

BookofTebow316
BookofTebow316

Oh, he's the starting QB of the Seahawks? I didn't know that. Thanks for clearing that up. 

number18
number18

@Q2 @BookofTebow316 mikey jackson wanted sooooooooo bad to be white--damn near killed himself bleaching his hide.

Jason1988
Jason1988

Then the best coaches should coach. There shouldn't be a quota requirement. 

Rumrunner11
Rumrunner11

@ChrisCastleman @Joe Ledgett 
Ah, so he dumped her when the light shone brightest?  It was calculated this way?


I have a feeling he's done more to support his community in the past month than you have in a lifetime.  Unfair statement?  Way more fair than yours..............

GameisOver
GameisOver

@Joe Ledgett Wow, I didn't realize that being divorced, even if it's not your own doing, makes you an evil person.  I bet you have the skinny on how evil Russell Wilson is, how he planned this all along.  We're waiting...

skewed.and.normal
skewed.and.normal

@ChrisCastleman And you know all of the circumstances surrounding the divorce?  I didn't realize you were on an intimate basis with Russell or Ashton to know the grounds for divorce.  It has been rumored, as I'm sure you well know, that Ashton was fooling around with Golden Tate.  Whether that is true, I certainly don't know.  But if it were, what is Russell's obligation to Ashton?  But I guess that since you are on intimate terms with the Wilson's, you can give us the real skinny on everything, right?  Thanks for giving us all a clear understanding of Russell Wilson's character from an authority on the subject (cough, cough).

lawrencewht91
lawrencewht91

So having marital problems makes him less of a role model?

XeronTafford
XeronTafford

You betray your stupidity with a lack of knowledge about vitiligo, but I suspect this is not the first time you have spouted inanities without a shred of evidence behind you.  Perhaps you will die and make the world a better place.

ProfessorGriff
ProfessorGriff

@Jason1988 there is no 'quota' requirement, just now at least some of the qualified blacks have an opportunity to interview (most often to be told they can't have the job)  You're white so you wouldn't see the impact of the closed circle of the good ol boy networks.

brettjv
brettjv

@skewed.and.normal @ChrisCastleman Well, yeah, I mean, he's a black man, right?  That's *obviously* all you need to know to be able to bash him for seeking a divorce.  After all white men NEVER divorce their wives, especially if they're famous, millionaires, and 24 years old.  That's just not something that a white man would do, you know.  They're 'role models', you see, chock -full of 'class' and 'integrity'.


I knew this comment section would piss me off, but the freaking STUPID (all coming from my own race) on display is truly frickin' embarrassing.

Hola
Hola

@skewed.and.normal @ChrisCastleman    I wonder if that has anything to do with Golden Tate going to Detroit....  In any event, he's doing the right thing in getting rid of her now.

Orange Crush
Orange Crush

@BigSchtick @Orange Crush I will admit that there was a lot of nasty uncalled for racist things thrown his way after his outburst, but he used all that stuff that was said after the fact to excuse his behavior and became hypocritical by making racist comments himself. He took it upon himself to become the Sharpton of the NFL.

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