NFL pioneer James Harris & writer Sam Freedman

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Freedman and Harris share the backstory of the tale told in the book, Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights.

In 1967, Louisiana's Grambling College and Florida A&M battled for the Black college championship. Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and with strong leadership in the coaching and quarterbacking positions—one of whom was James Harris—the two rivals helped change college football programs in the South, as well as the face of the National Football League. Sam Freedman tells this historic saga /captures this pivotal time in American sport and society in his text, Breaking the Line.

Freedman is an award-winning author of seven acclaimed books, a columnist for The New York Times and a contributor to numerous other publications and websites, including Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, USA Today and Salon. He's also a tenured professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching and was named outstanding journalism educator by the Society of Professional Journalists.

James "Shack" Harris was drafted in 1969 in the eighth round—at the time, one of a few Blacks ever drafted by the NFL as a quarterback. He would go on to play for several teams, including the Buffalo Bills (becoming the first Black in NFL history to open the season as a starting quarterback) and the L.A. Rams, where he was the Pro Bowl MVP in 1975. After his playing days, Harris began his front office career in the league and is a senior personnel executive for the Detroit Lions.


Tavis: In 1967 this country was in the midst of a major civil rights upheaval – protests against the war in Vietnam and in college football. Two teams, two coaches, and two quarterbacks were making history.

This riveting story of our country at a crossroads is vividly brought to life by Samuel G. Freedman in his new book “Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football that Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights.”

Sam Freedman is here alongside the quarterback of Grambling back in the day, James “Shack” Harris, who went on to become the NFL’s first Black quarterback and a member of various halls of fame. Good to have you both on the program.

James “Shack” Harris: Thank you.

Professor Samuel G. Freedman: Great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me jump right in, Samuel. That’s a lot to say, that this season in Black college football not only transformed the sport, but changed the course of civil rights.

For those who bit that might be a bit hyperbolic, let’s take them one at a time. How did what happened in this season transform the sport?

Freedman: Well if we look at football today, look in the NFL, this season you’ve had as many as eight or nine African American quarterbacks starting in any given week.

You have African American head coaches like Marvin Lewis and Mike Tomlin. You have African American GMs – Martin Mayhew, who James Harris works with in Detroit. Ozzy Newsome of the defending Super Bowl champs. Jerry Reese at the Giants. None of that would have existed without the changes that came out of Black college football in 1967 in particular.

Also the fact that schools in the SCC and in the Big 12 and in the ACC that hadn’t desegregated their teams until the late 1960s, early 1970s now field teams that are extensively African American. That’s another major change. So that’s just on the field.

Tavis: Before we get into what happened on the field in detail, how did what happen that year change the course of civil rights?

Freedman: That’s a fair question to ask. The thing you have to remember, Tavis, is that football, particularly in the South, was one of the strongest of the strongholds of the Jim Crow era and of segregation.

For years after the big colleges, the state universities, in places like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, you name it; after they begrudgingly had to admit Black students under the pressure of federal law, they deliberately kept their football teams all white for many more years.

They did that because football had such a huge cultural importance in the South, almost a religious kind of following, that the idea was if we can still win on the field, if we can still be in the top 10, go to bowl games with all-white teams with all-white coaches, then white supremacy is still the custom of this country.

So to be able to push back against that both with the excellence of the football teams and football coaches at the HBCUs and ultimately with one of the events I write about in the book, the creation of the first interracial football game in the South, those changes matter way beyond football.

This was about changing a whole culture of segregation that permeated the South. Football was just one particularly strong part of it.

Tavis: So there are two major things that happen, the book really talks about two major events, and this is our way of getting to James here in just a second here.

So one has to do with James as an individual performer; the other has to do with a particular game that took place in this year. Let’s start with the game.

Freedman: The game is the first, as I was saying, interracial college football game in the South. This is 1969, Florida A&M versus the University of Tampa. Tavis, a lot of people mistakenly think the breakthrough football game in the South was Alabama-USC in 1970.

That was a year later. This was the first one, and it may well have been the largest act of massive desegregation in the history of the South, because you had 45,000 people racially mixed going to that game.

It was a game that Florida A&M won, and there was just this widespread belief at that time that a Black school couldn’t possibly beat a white school on the field, that a Black coach couldn’t possibly out-coach a white coach.

By not allowing such a game to happen, the powers that be in the South made sure that those presumptions never got challenged. So when this game occurred, which was by virtue of years of effort and lobbying by Jake Gaither, who was the head coach at Florida A&M, it was a gigantic blow across the bow of segregation.

Tavis: The other involves the person sitting next to you as an individual performer. Tell me what was happening with James that year, and then we’ll pull James into this conversation.

Freedman: Right, James should speak for himself, but I’ll just say this. He became the first African American to regularly start in the NFL. This is so hugely important because the beliefs of why you couldn’t have a Black quarterback weren’t just about sports; they’re about the capacity of Black Americans.

The ideas were Blacks are intellectually inferior, so no Black could be smart enough to play quarterback. That’s a very cerebral position. The idea was that Blacks take orders, they don’t give orders, and certainly not to whites.

So you can’t have a Black being the field general, being a signal caller. It was okay for Blacks to be the “natural athlete,” which was a coded way of saying kind of animalistic, but to have a Black who would have the strength of character, the calm under pressure, the aplomb, the wisdom, the leadership, that couldn’t be permitted to happen.

So for James Harris to come into the pros and stick at that position and excel at that position was to take on all these attitudes that had to do not only with a Black being quarterback, but with a Black American being a leader in business or in the academic world or in politics or in media.

Tavis: So the reason why I wanted to get your take on that first, I didn’t want James to have to stick his chest out too much explaining who he was and what he did. (Laughter)

So now that Samuel has kind of laid that out for you, James, you can put your modesty on display here now in this conversation. But all jokes aside, this almost didn’t happen in part because you were pretty firm under all the pressure that was being applied towards you to not switch your position.

This sense that Black men had no business being quarterbacks because it was a cerebral position was so strong that you came up under a lot of push, a lot of pressure, to change your position, and that might have put you higher up in the draft, but tell me more.

Harris: Well first of all, let me say that I’m glad that Sam wrote the book about two outstanding universities, Florida A&M and Grambling, and we are – to keep maintaining the tradition and the great contribution that so many people made, and I think this book, we help keep that history alive, and certainly Jay Gaither and Eddie Robinson being two of the greatest coaches that ever lived.

In terms of switching position, growing up you wanted to – I had a promise and a dream. The promise was that I was going to get a degree from college, and the dream was to play in the NFL.

But at that time, the only opportunity to play would be to switch positions, and going into the draft they asked me to switch, and I had refused several times. I just thought my best opportunity was to play quarterback, and I had decided to not play.

They asked me to switch. They kept their word. They didn’t draft me the first day. I kept my word first, and then they kept their word, so I wasn’t drafted. So I felt that I wouldn’t get the opportunity to play, and going home, I had decided that I just wouldn’t play pro football.

Tavis: What happens next? Because obviously, you did. You kept your word, they kept theirs, but once you decided that you weren’t going to play pro football, obviously something changed, and you did.

Harris: Well, Coach Eddie Robinson, who had worked with me and recruited me to play quarterback summoned me back to Grambling. I had left and gone home. Summoned me back to Grambling. Sitting down talking with him, he explained to me what was at stake.

That if players like me didn’t go, the opportunity to play may be limited for those coming behind me. Knowing how bad he wanted me to play, I decided to consider changing my mind.

But he told me some things that were very helpful and very special to the rest of my life. One, that if I decided to go play pro football, don’t come back and say the reason that you didn’t make it was because you was Black.

You know before you leave that you’re going to have to be better, and you’re going to have to be prepared, because the opportunity to play was going to be very – your opportunity was going to be very limited.

Tavis: How then did you end up in the NFL? After that conversation, what happens where you end up actually playing in the NFL?

Harris: Well I was drafted the second day in the eighth round, and the year before, Eldridge Dickey had been drafted in the first round. Marlin Briscoe had played, and played well, and both of those guys were no longer playing quarterback.

So that was an example for me that America just wasn’t ready for a quarterback. So going to Buffalo, being eighth on the list, I just took the ride. I wasn’t happy to go. Took the ride to Buffalo and decided when I got there to give it my best.

Tavis: And you did.

Harris: And I did. The satisfying thing was my mother wanted me to get a college degree, I did. I was going to become a schoolteacher. (Unintelligible) she asked me to do my best and the Lord would do the rest.

Tavis: How did you end up – it’s one thing to find your way eventually with the urging of Eddie Robinson, and we’ll come back to Eddie in a second. Just a great coach, obviously.

It’s one thing to end up in the NFL. How did you end up as a starter in quarterback in the NFL?

Harris: I was very fortunate, first. So many players came before me that was great players, but just the fact I got the opportunity. One, the head coach kind of liked my ability.

I had an opportunity to play in pre-season games, and each game it came down to if you play well, you stay, if you don’t, you get cut. You went through that on a daily period.

So I probably played my best football during that period of time, and I was able to survive each week. That’s what it was – survive. During those three, four preseason games at the end, they decided that my play earned me an opportunity to start the opening day of the NFL, and I was very proud of that.

Tavis: I wonder, given what’s happening even as we sit for this conversation, I think of – there are two players that come to mind immediately. A Black quarterback for the New York Jets, another African American quarterback for the Washington Redskins, both of whom are taking it on the chin sort of right about now.

Back to the advice you got from Eddie Robinson, that don’t come back and say you didn’t make it because you were a Black quarterback, you knew what you were up against.

I wonder whether or not race is still a factor, or is it all about ability, and if you can play, because they love money, they love the color of green more than anything else, is Black or white still a factor, or is it about the green if, as quarterback, you can handle your business?

Harris: Well this year they had nine Blacks to start opening day, and that’s the most that they’ve ever had. I think that proves that you get more and more of a chance to play, and they’re becoming more and more talented.

The resources in college, where more Blacks get an opportunity to play the position, enhances your opportunity to play in the NFL.

However, I think the more each year you continue to get questions about the position, about Blacks, and I think as long as you’re getting questioned, then that means we may not be quite there yet.

Tavis: Samuel, your thoughts about that?

Freedman: Well, I agree. I think first of all there is a difference between the way the franchises and the owners look at having a Black quarterback, which is they have to do whatever is going to win, because if you win you’re going to fill the seats, sell your luxury boxes, sell your personal seat licenses, et cetera.

But I really wonder about the fan culture. I think it’s certainly not what it was at the time James Harris was getting some of the hate mail and literally death threats he got as a young player.

But I suspect – I’m a New York Giants fan. Eli Manning not having a great year. I seriously doubt that when he gets his nasty mail, it’s racialized. I don’t think people are writing to him and saying, “You dumb cracker, you hillbilly, you redneck,” using those racially charged terms.

But if you went across town to Geno Smith on the Jets or RG III, and went into their mail, I’ll bet you’d find a fair amount of still racially motivated hate in there. So I think that’s still lurking somewhere under the surface, even though the situation’s improved from when Shack came into the league.

The other thing is we’re not totally past this point of describing a Black as “the natural athlete.” I had an experience earlier this fall, I was watching one of the sports cable shows the morning after the Sunday games.

The commentator was asked, “What makes Russell Wilson,” of the Seattle Seahawks, what makes him so good? The commentator, who himself had been an NFL quarterback, though not Black, says, “He’s a natural athlete.”

I thought, this is crazy. Russell Wilson is probably like 5’9″ or 5’10” and 180. You couldn’t be a good enough athlete to be a star quarterback with those physical limits in a big man’s game. So it’s not the natural athlete that makes Russell Wilson excel this year, it’s the brains, it’s the film study, it’s the leadership.

But that wasn’t what they talked about. We still hear more with white quarterbacks about the work ethic and the study and the leadership, and with Black quarterbacks, although it’s improving, it still tends to be described in terms of physical capabilities.

Tavis: One of the things that disturbs me, and maybe it’s just me, and I’ll start with you first, Sam. You and Shack may want to chime in on this. But one of the things that disturbs me beyond the performance on the field, and you started to intimate this earlier in our conversation, Samuel, is that there still isn’t the respect given to the intellect and the capability of African Americans beyond the field.

I’m talking now in the front office, even on the sideline. There are more coaches who have been given an opportunity now of color than in the past, but I could give you a long list of coaches who do not get the benefit of being recycled to another team.

Freedman: Right.

Tavis: If you don’t make it happen when you get that shot, there’s a very good chance that you will not get called next season, whereas the white coaches tend to move around from team to team, division to division.

So there’s still, even though there are those who get an opportunity, there still isn’t the opportunity to try it again, because it didn’t work in one particular program.

Freedman: Right. Well there’s no question when you look at Lovie Smith not getting rehired after being let go by the Bears.

Tavis: Art Shell is still waiting on his phone to ring.

Freedman: Art Shell. Another good example, talking about the Raiders, is Hue Jackson, who’s now an assistant coach on the Cincinnati Bengals who was given just one year –

Tavis: In Oakland, yeah.

Freedman: – in Oakland, and then really as soon as Al Davis passed away, the ownership changed, he’s gone after and eight and eight season. Very few first year coaches, if they’re white, get let go after eight and eight.

So you’re right, there’s this sense of kind of one and done. You get your one shot, and if you’re able to stick and make it work – Marvin Lewis is a great example. He’s been 11 seasons at the Bengals.

But that’s a rare and impressive case of an ownership that has really stuck by its man.

Tavis: Speaking of ownership, I thought the Rooney rule was supposed to fix all this, though, Shack.

Harris: I think the Rooney rule has served us well. The (unintelligible) gotten a lot of guys an opportunity to coach, and they got a lot of them in position. Last year was a bad year. I think it’s something that we still have some work to do in terms of getting more Blacks opportunities.

I think we need to still identify the guys who are capable of doing that, and making sure that we make the owners aware of who they are by making mention during the games, and keeping those guys in front of the ownership.

Freedman: Tavis, what I’d add there is what we need now though is the Rooney rule for the NCAA.

Because even though the record this year wasn’t great in the NFL, overall, the NFL is a paragon compared to the NCAA. If you look at the schools in the BCS, about 45 percent of their football players are African American.

Nine percent of their coaches, head coaches, are African American. If you look at Lovie Smith, Tony Dungy, Marvin Lewis, Mike Tomlin, what they’ve accomplished in the pros, you can’t say the coaching talent isn’t there.

You think about coaches – I wrote about Eddie Robinson at Grambling, Jake Gaither at Florida A&M, even after football desegregated, they never got head coaching offers from majority white schools, in spite of having some of the best coaching records and greatest coaching minds in college football.

So not only were they never rewarded on the basis of their talent – and it’s not that they need the approval of the white world. They were in a world that is valid unto itself and needs no defense, certainly not from me.

But you’d think that a school that wanted to bring up their program would look at an Eddie Robinson or a Jake Gaither and at least offer them the job. But here we are, generations later, and at the college level, where there is no Rooney rule, where there is no formal commitment to diversity.

You see that the Black coaches in their legacy, in the years after them, aren’t getting those opportunities either.

Tavis: Is it still the case that in the South they view these head coaching positions through a racial prism? You’re right, there is no formal commitment to diversity in the NCAA, but why is that the case, and do they look at this through that prism of race?

Freedman: Well, I’m going to defer to Shack on some of this, because I’m a Northerner and he’s a Southerner, and lived this firsthand in a way I didn’t. But what I will say is that the power of boosters and alumni –

Tavis: Very important.

Freedman: – and regional “tradition” in the colleges is a factor that pro teams don’t have to deal with. In a weird way, the pure capitalism of pro football contributes to a climate that’s more oriented towards the merit of the individual.

You have these other factors in the colleges, and the evidence is the evidence in terms of what the hiring rates have been. Certainly if you look at where those 9 percent of African American head coaches are, I’d say more of them are outside of the South than in the South, but –

Tavis: It’s one thing, Shack, to have had these decisions made or not made back in the day because of race, but is that still the factor in college football these days?

Harris: I think when you look at the numbers, the numbers speak for themselves in college. There are over a hundred division one universities playing football, and I think that number, I’m not sure of that research right here.

That number may be around 11 or 12 head coaches. So I think the numbers speak for themselves.

Tavis: I suspect that this is an old conversation, but what agency do players actually have to influence this conversation? There are those who say well, if you choose to go to a school, it’s the players who are being recruited.

If they decided they were not going to play at place X, Y, or Z unless something happened, things might change. But of course when you’re an 18-year-old kid, your mom and dad are telling you you go where you get a scholarship, and get the best chance to play and get in the NFL and make some money.

So I’m just trying to figure out what role student athletes actually have, what agency they have in this conversation.

Harris: That’s a –

Tavis: If any.

Harris: That’s a tough question, with the opportunities young kids have today. The major universities, the national TV, the exposure that they have. I guess asking kids to say no to that is a challenge, and their parents.

But I think the role that they have is to certainly speak up for the assistant coaches when they get the opportunity. When you have an outstanding coordinator, to let people know that he’s capable of being a head coach and get those names out there, and continue to still speak on behalf of more African Americans becoming head coaches.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this question, Samuel, but what is it you think that still makes sport such an enduring and powerful arbiter of the way our society runs?

Freedman: I think there’s almost no part of our society in which you see human nature laid bare the way it’s laid bare in sports. Even with all the trappings around it, all the paraphernalia, all the merchandise, commercials, cheerleaders, fireworks.

When the game starts, you see people almost living and dying out on the field in front of our eyes, in real time. You see valor, you see collapsing under pressure, you see courage, you see wisdom – everything – and it’s unmediated by anything else while that game is going on.

I think that draws us to it, and it makes us feel an attraction to it and invest the sport, for better or worse, with an importance that goes beyond the game. These ideas go back to the ancient Greeks, and probably any ancient culture in any part of the world. The athlete as a valorous individual, the hero myth.

It also means that when you have individuals who are in that world who excel athletically, but also stand for something larger – Paul Robeson, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Eddie Robinson, Jake Gaither, James Harris, Ken Riley, (unintelligible) quarterback in this book.

When they stand for something larger, they command a visibility and have an impact in society beyond what many other private individuals or public individuals in other fields could command.

Tavis: James Harris, on behalf of all those players in the NFL, whether they know it or not, who stand on your shoulders, thank you, sir.

Harris: Thank you.

Tavis: The book is called “Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football that Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights.” Written by Samuel G. Freedman. Samuel, thanks for the book.

Freedman: Thank you so much, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to have you both on. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: January 31, 2014 at 5:49 pm