James "Shack" Harris: Why he risked it all to play QB

Posted Feb 25, 2015

Read this Rams+ feature on legendary Rams quarterback, James "Shack" Harris.

“I came into pro football realizing there were no blacks playing quarterback and the opportunity to play was rare and that if I got an opportunity, whenever it became available, I had to make the best of it because no other blacks were playing the position.” - James “Shack” Harris

It's no secret that opportunities for Africans Americans in the late 1960s were rare. This was strikingly true for African-American athletes who fought to break the color barrier in the National Football League. Segregation permeated every facet of American life and the football field was no different. Like the signs that declared “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” in Jim Crow society, the same standard was applied to NFL position groups. The quarterback position, being the most sacred, was reserved for white players only.  

Nearly 50 years ago, this was the playing field for James “Shack” Harris. However, if you ask the NFL’s first African American quarterback to start an entire NFL season about his story, he’ll tell you that in spite of the racial culture of the time, it’s all about opportunity.

“Don’t expect it to be fair, you’ve got to be better.”

On Sept. 14, 1969 – one year before the NFL’s merger with the American Football League – Harris was named the starting quarterback of the AFL’s Buffalo Bills as a rookie. Before that day, no other black quarterback had started Week 1 for either league.

In 1973, Harris was added to the Los Angeles Rams’ roster. He clashed with opportunity the following year and was named the starting quarterback by Week 3. He concluded that season by leading the Rams to the NFC Championship game as the starter and had a repeat appearance in 1975, becoming the first African-American quarterback to do so. Most notably, Harris became the first black QB to start every game in a single season in ’75.

Despite the success that matriculated his way – 27 starts with the Rams, a Pro Bowl appearance, and numerous “firsts” – his road was far from easy. Segregation and prejudices were real and sadly all too familiar to the Monroe,
 La. native.

“The booing, the hate mail, all those things were a part of it,” Harris said. “But just the challenges of every day, proving that you were smart enough, those were the struggles that you had to overcome.”

Because black players were so versatile and gifted athletically, scouts and coaches were known for coercing them away from playing quarterback towards other positions, namely running back, wide receiver, tight end and defensive back. These being the most common positions held by blacks at the time, Harris was no different.

“In high school I was encouraged to switch,” Harris said. “For a college scholarship, I was encouraged to switch. In pro ball I was encouraged to switch and most quarterbacks had switched because they had no choice.”

As a result of this reality, Harris decided to attend Grambling State University. There was also great upside playing at Grambling State under the great Eddie Robinson, who at the time had sent dozens of players to the NFL, although none were quarterbacks.

Robinson, who had been encouraged by renowned sports journalist Howard Cosell to tackle integrating the quarterback position, was eager to finally break through the associated color barriers. With Harris, he didn’t just see a 6-foot-4, 210-pound athlete, but rather a young man with a strong mind and great attitude. He saw potential and convinced Harris that playing quarterback in the NFL was attainable.

“He was very instrumental,” Harris said of Robinson. “One thing that he taught his players, he eliminated any excuses or any reason to say you can’t, and he prepared us to be ready for whatever opportunities may come. He was concerned with us being prepared to overcome obstacles.”

Robinson’s temple was the football field and “preparation verses outside issues” was the gospel he preached to his players. It was this philosophy that propelled Harris beyond the turbulent circumstances he encountered.

“The two things Coach Robinson told me before I left for pro ball was, ‘If you don’t make it, don’t come back and say you didn’t make it because you’re black,’” Harris said. “The other was, ‘Don’t expect it to be fair. You’ve got to be better.’”

Heading into the 1969 NFL Draft, Robinson made it clear to Harris that he was jeopardizing his career by declaring as a quarterback and not being willing to switch to another position. But despite this reality, he supported Harris’ decision.

“I realized I was taking a risk that may eliminate my opportunity to play, and when my opportunity came I realized it would be a small window and I had to be prepared,” Harris said. “That was the choice I made so I had to live with it and at the time it didn’t look like it was going to work.”

“…The way I played could represent an opportunity for others.”

The Bills took Harris in the eighth round of the draft and as history will tell it, they kept him as a quarterback. Despite winning on that front, Harris was routinely tested and forced to endure demeaning assignments in several aspects of his career. One of which was to clean football cleats in the equipment room after he was drafted.

Doug Porter, former Grambling State offensive coordinator, explained in an ESPN Films documentary how disgusted he was by the way Buffalo treated Harris upon his arrival in 1969 and how he knew Harris was prepared for the prejudices.  

“It let us know that we had picked the right guy,” Porter explained. “Someone else would have stormed out of the room, slammed the door, and told them to go stick it. But, we knew James was not going to do that. He was going to keep his emotions under control that this was going to be the guy that almost took the steps like Jackie Robinson had taken.”

While his first four years in the professional ranks were filled with degrading responsibilities and treatment, Harris would exceed all expectations when he assumed the starting role with the Rams.

“I had a lot of positive experiences in that I played with a good team, good players, my teammates were good,” Harris recalled. “I had a lot of respect for Coach Chuck Knox, so those things were all positive. We had a lot of success, nearly going to the Super Bowl three times.”

As a Ram, Harris accumulated many firsts and noteworthy honors. During the 1974 season, Harris led the NFC in passer rating (85.1), was named Pro Bowl MVP, and took the Rams to their first NFC Championship game in nearly two decades. By doing so, he became the first black quarterback to play in a playoff game.  

“I prepared myself,” Harris said. “I felt that some of those years I was in the league I was the only black (quarterback) playing. I felt the way that I presented myself and the way I played could represent an opportunity for some others. It was important and I realized that a lot of quarterbacks before me were denied opportunity.”

“I know I’m fortunate.”

After four years with the Rams, Harris finished out his career with the San Diego Chargers. After retiring in 1981, he spent his ensuing 30 years as a player personnel executive with five NFL clubs, helping young men to capitalize on opportunities along the way.  

“Wherever Harris has worked as a personnel executive – with the Bucs, the Jets, the Super Bowl XXXV champion Ravens, the Jaguars and the Lions,” Steve Wulf of ESPN The Magazine wrote in 2013, “he has spread the gospel of opportunity.”

Looking back on his playing career, Harris will be the first to attest that he was not alone in his experiences as a black quarterback. Throughout his interview for this story, he often pointed to the heroism of his peers:

Marlin Briscoe, the first black quarterback to start an NFL game.

Warren Moon, the first black quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

“I do feel that we have a brotherhood based on similar experiences, unique experiences,” Harris said. “They are the only ones who really know what each of us was thinking during that time. These guys broke through. They had a special makeup that led them to be successful.”

And what about Shack and where he stands in history?

“I know I’m fortunate,” Harris said, “and more fortunate than anything else because other guys couldn’t play and I got that opportunity. I feel that I was prepared for it and I was rewarded for all the work that I put in.”