GVSU expert: Super Bowl matchup of Black starting quarterbacks part of deep legacy

Historian Louis Moore said predecessors pushed through barriers, stereotypes for place in NFL

The first Super Bowl matchup of two Black starting quarterbacks represents a milestone given the legacy of their predecessors as well as a hopeful glimpse of the NFL's future, according to a GVSU expert on the intersection between race and sports.

Louis Moore, professor of history and a noted expert on African American history and sports history, called this historic matchup between Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs "huge." 

He noted 35 years ago Doug Williams was the first Black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl, "and there haven't been many since then."

What also makes this matchup interesting is that the two quarterbacks have different styles of play, he said. Mahomes is more of a classic thrower, a quarterback style traditionally favored in the NFL. "He's somebody you look at and say, 'He's going to definitely make it.'"

A person smiles while looking into the camera.
Louis Moore, professor of history, is an expert on African American history and sports history.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

Hurts, on the other hand, bases his style on running. And Black running quarterbacks have historically struggled to find a place in the NFL, said Moore, who is also working on a book about the history of Black quarterbacks and their experiences with coaches, stereotypes, rigid offensive systems and more.

"I think it's always been the players like Jalen Hurts out there since the beginning where the NFL says, 'You have no chance, you have to switch positions' – and in fact, people wanted Hurts to switch positions," Moore said. "But it's the legacy of a lot of Black quarterbacks who said no. There was this idea that, 'I'm either going to make it as a quarterback or I'm just not going to make it.' So there are a lot of guys who just didn't make it because they never really got the opportunity."

Hurts has proven that given the opportunity, a quarterback style based on running can succeed, Moore said. He hopes that since the NFL is a "copycat league," the success of Hurts and the proof that teams can build offenses around a running quarterback will open more opportunities.

Moore points to the experiences of the first Black quarterback to start in the NFL in 1968, Marlin Briscoe, as an example of what many Black quarterbacks with running ability had to overcome. 

"One of the first things opposing coaches said about Marlin Briscoe was, 'Yeah, he's exciting, but you can't win like that,'" Moore said. "The history of the Black quarterback is largely a history to refuse to build around that skill set, to not have the imagination with the offense to move the offensive linemen with the quarterback or to say, 'This guy can run. Let's design some plays where he is actually running.'"

At left, a football player grins while wearing the number 15. At right, a football player wears number one and gazes through the eye shield of his football helmet.
Patrick Mahomes, left, and Jalen Hurts are making history in the Super Bowl.
Image credit - Mahomes photo by Jeffrey Beall is licensed under CC BY 4.0.; Hurts photo by All-Pro Reels is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

He noted that when Eddie Robinson, the legendary Grambling coach, became determined in the 1960s to guide a Black quarterback to the NFL, he sought traits that the league preferred in a quarterback – tall, strong throwing arm – and also downplayed any running ability. In fact, Moore said, in a sign of the times, Robinson wouldn't let his quarterbacks run.

It was understood that NFL teams would quickly look to switch Black quarterbacks with speed to other positions rather than develop them as quarterbacks, said Moore, adding that some players actually ran slower to try to head off that problem.

One of the quarterbacks Robinson guided to the NFL was Doug Williams, who not only made Super Bowl history but was also involved in another key moment for Black quarterbacks in 1979. Williams played against Vince Evans in a regular-season game that marked the first time two Black quarterbacks started against each other, Moore said. 

For Black quarterbacks, gaining visibility as what Moore called the ultimate leader in team sports was crucial, especially given the immense pressure they also endured because of societal forces. Black quarterbacks faced scorn and even death threats from fans as well as questions rooted in negative stereotypes about their leadership ability and capability to manage games, Moore said.

"So, when you have a professional quarterback who is Black, it's important because now you're proving these stereotypes wrong," Moore said.

As he considers this next monumental moment for Black quarterbacks in this year's Super Bowl, Moore said he is hopeful the high-profile matchup will enhance the visibility Hurts and Mahomes have already developed.

"I think that these guys are becoming the face of the league. Patrick Mahomes is on commercials, Jalen Hurts is on commercials, so it shows things are rapidly changing," Moore said.


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