James Harris played only three of his 12 seasons in Buffalo. But he managed to make a little history in his time with the Bills, becoming the first black man in the history of the National or American football leagues ever to open a season as the starting quarterback.
Known throughout his playing and post-football careers as “Shack,” His story is told in “Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback,” a new book by William C. Rhoden of the New York Times. ESPN.com excerpted the book, which presents the experiences of Harris, Warren Moon, Doug Williams and others in oral history form, as part of its Black History Month series.
Drafted in the eighth round of the 1969 draft – seven rounds after a running back from Southern California named O.J. Simpson – the rookie had to be talked into migrating north from Louisiana by his coach at Grambling, Eddie Robinson.
What chance did I have? I decided I wasn’t going to play. Coach called me and said he wanted to talk. We went out to the bleachers, just me and him, sat down, and I told him that being from the segregated South, understanding that no blacks were playing quarterback, I couldn’t see any reason to go to Buffalo. He said, “I know you can play quarterback in the NFL. The decision is yours, but if you don’t go, if guys like you don’t go, it’s going to be that much more difficult for the next guy.”
While the Bills put Simpson up at the Hilton, Harris lodged at the YMCA, forced to earn his keep by working in the team’s equipment room.
Buffalo’s coach at the time, John Rauch, said he was impressed by Harris’ size (6-foot-4 and 200 pounds) and arm strength. Because other black men who played quarterback in college were forced to become wide receivers or running backs in the pros, he hid his athleticism, according to Marlin Briscoe, one player who had already been forced to make the transition.
He was fast off the line, but when we’d run sprints, he’d run slow because he didn’t want them to say, “Wow, look at his speed!” We used to race after practice — he and I and O.J. We’d run sprints when nobody was around, betting against each other, and Shack was right there. But he didn’t want them to discover that he had this quick step.
But it was Harris’ arm, combined with an injury to Jack Kemp, who had co-piloted Buffalo to AFL championships in 1964 and ’65, that won him the starting job for the season opener against the New York Jets at War Memorial Stadium.
His historic moment didn’t last long. A groin injury knocked him out of that first game. Kemp remained the starter for most of what would be his final season, which was also the last before the AFL merged with the NFL for the 1970 season.
Harris would throw only 36 passes in 1969 and 189 during his three years in Buffalo, most of them during the 1-13 campaign of 1971.
But after sitting out the 1972 season, Harris signed with the Los Angeles Rams. Under future Bills coach Chuck Knox, he earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 1975 and won the game’s MVP award. In 1976, he led the NFL in passing rating and threw for 436 yards in a game against Miami. The Rams reached the playoffs in each of the four years Harris played in Los Angeles and he became the first African-American man to start at quarterback in a postseason game.
Traded to San Diego to make room for the ancient Joe Namath in 1977, Harris finished his career as a backup to Dan Fouts.
He’s been a front-office pioneer as well, helping build the Baltimore Ravens team that won Super Bowl XXXV and currently serving as vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars.