Before the March to Montgomery, before equal opportunity, Brown v. Board of Education, or affirmative action, athletics were the great equalizer for black Americans.
In a time when a black woman couldn't sit at the front of a Montgomery, Ala., bus, and drinking fountains were porcelain statements of racial superiority, Bill Russell was MVP of the National Basketball Association, and Hank Aaron was baseball's home-run king. They and their colleagues were more than peers with whites, they were the pioneers of the games they played.
Since blacks first broke the sports color line more than 50 years ago, though, one position - perhaps the most celebrated in American sports - had remained the province of whites: quarterback. From Johnny Unitas to Joe Montana, the legendary field generals who stirred our imaginations with pinpoint passing and last-minute drives were all, without exception, white.
For the first time in history, four of the eight teams remaining in the National Football League playoffs will be marshalled by black quarterbacks.
What's more, with the way this weekend's games line up, there's the possibility that both teams in Super Bowl XXXV will feature black signal-callers.
The emergence of premier black quarterbacks is no millennial anomaly. Football is changing. Pernicious stereotypes that blacks have neither the intelligence nor the capability to lead have been refuted on the field, and the handful of African-American coaches have given opportunities to players who might have been overlooked in the past.
These new threads - combined with a new emphasis on athleticism that embraces typically more-mobile black quarterbacks - have moved names like Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper to the top of the league's marquee. At the same time, they've broken down one of sport's oldest race barriers.
"It's only a matter of time before you see more and more African-Americans at quarterback," says Charles Ross, a history professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and author of a book on the integration of the NFL. "The competitive nature of the game will make it a non-issue within the next 10 years."
They can do it all
Indeed, it is competition, perhaps more than any other factor, that has brought black quarterbacks to prominence this year. The competition to win games, to be bigger, faster, stronger, meaner, has created men like Jason Taylor and Jevon Kearse. These men are specimens of physical prowess - as tall as basketball players, as fast as running backs, and as solid as two feet of concrete.
And they play defense.
During the past few years, defenses - once peopled by lumbering mastodons in face masks - have become lightning quick. And quarterbacks who can't evade the pressure are becoming an endangered species.
It didn't used to be this way. The indelible image of football past is Roger Staubach, or Bart Starr, the statuesque quarterback, calm amid the siege. These days, however, those guys would get planted like Kentucky fescue.
That's meant a revival for players like Doug Flutie and Mark Brunell - those with winged heels and an art for improvisation. And it's also been a boon for many black quarterbacks.
For years, white coaches and general managers had seen black players only as "athletes." At big colleges, they ran the wishbone offense, which packed the backfield with more runners than the Boston Marathon and seemingly only passed when mandated by an act of Congress.
In the pros, they were shuffled off to other positions that required speed and agility - Tony Dungy, for one, was converted into a defensive back after he broke most of the passing records at the University of Minnesota.
"In the '60s, '70s, and '80s, many teams would not draft a black quarterback," says Jon Entine, author of "Taboo," a book that looks at race in sports. "The kind of player who would be a great quarterback of the past was slow of foot but with a great arm. The prejudice was not only against blacks but against mobility.
"That's changed with the injection of speed in today's game," he adds.
More mobility helps
Just look at the 1999 draft. Five quarterbacks were taken with the first 12 picks; three are mobile African-Americans. The only real stationary passer of the bunch, No. 1 pick Tim Couch, missed the better part of two seasons because of injuries. By contrast, the No. 2 pick McNabb and No. 11 pick Culpepper have thrived, while two other black, agile quarterbacks taken much later in the draft - Shaun King and Aaron Brooks - have also won starting jobs.
Although some commentators deride as racist the suggestion that blacks have an inherent physical advantage in sports, any discussion of today's black quarterbacks inevitably touches on their athletic ability. After all, six of the top eight rushing quarterbacks in the NFL this year were African-Americans.
According to Mr. Entine, physiology must be addressed. He says blacks of West-African heritage - which last year included all the blacks in the NFL - are ideally suited biologically for sprints and quick bursts of speed because of a number of factors, such as lower natural body fat and more-efficient metabolism.
This is witnessed, he says, by the fact that 494 of the top 500 times for the men's 100-meter dash are held by people of West-African heritage. Hence, the new need for more-mobile quarterbacks has benefited many blacks.
"This interest in black quarterbacks is a great opportunity to discuss the importance of human diversity," Entine says. "Different body types are distributed among different populations, and there's nothing wrong with that."
For the black quarterbacks themselves, though, it's just an opportunity to compete at the highest level.
In many cases, they've gone to second-tier football schools just to make sure no one would try to make them into a wide receiver. Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to appear in and win a Super Bowl, in 1988, attended Grambling State in Louisiana. Steve McNair, who took his Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl last year and is expected to do so again this year, went to Alcorn State in Mississippi.
Others who didn't make it to the NFL migrated to the Canadian Football League, where the fields are bigger, and scrambling passers who can exploit the open space are at a premium.
Now, the same is true south of the border. And with two black head coaches in the league - including former Minnesota standout Dungy - there are more people willing to look to new places for quarterback talent.
You probably wouldn't see "Daunte Culpepper or Shaun King get the opportunities they are getting with a different coach," says Professor Ross. "Let's face it, coaches are conservative, and they don't want to take chances on a new guy - especially at that position."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society