We’re familiar with names like Jalen Hurts, Russell Willson, and Patrick Mahomes, who hopes to lead the Kansas City Chiefs to their second championship in a row this Super Bowl LVIII weekend. But long before Mahomes even picked up the pigskin there was Willie Thrower, the first Black quarterback to ever play in the NFL and the man who paved the way for the great Black QBs who would follow him.
“My dad always felt like he was the Jackie Robinson for football,” Melvin Thrower, Willie Thrower’s son, told Good Morning America. “[But] he felt like he was… unknown.”
This is likely because Thrower would only play in two professional football games in his whole career, of which there are no highlight reels and not a lot of footage. But that doesn’t mean his talent went unnoticed or that his impact cannot still be felt in the league.
In 1946, Thrower was named quarterback on the New Kensington High School football team. Despite reservations about the Black sophomore’s ability to play the position, Thrower led his school to 24 wins in a row and two state championships, which in turn led him to several football scholarship proposals. But once those Southern universities discovered Wille was Black, they rescinded their offers.
“The QB is not only the leader of the team, he is the smartest person out there,” Dr. Louis Moore, author of “The Great Black Hope: Doug Williams, Vince Evans and the Making of the Black Quarterback,” told GMA. “You got a Black person to play the most important position in all of professional sports, you can see why in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s when we still lived in Jim Crow America, why professional football wasn’t ready for a Black man to lead.”
Due to racism and segregation in the Southern United States, whites and Blacks could not share play against each other. So, Thrower traveled up North and became the first Black quarterback in the Big 10 after joining the team at Michigan State. While he would spend most games on the bench, in 1952, Thrower was able to help Michigan secure their first national championship.
“He was regarded as the strongest and most accurate passer ever developed in the Midwest,” one local paper reported at the time.
However at the time of the draft, all 12 NFL teams at the time passed over the Black QB. The Chicago Bears would ultimately sign Thrower to a one-year contract in 1953. Thrower’s talent didn’t go unnoticed, even though he didn’t get to see much time on the field. Starting QB for the Bears, George Blanda, once told Thrower that if he could throw a football like [Willie], he would be in football for the next 25 years.
When Blanda struggled during one game, Thrower was called in and led the team up the field to the end zone, but when it was time to score the touchdown and tie the game, the coach took him out. He was cut after his season with the Bears and never played in the NFL again.
Thrower only threw eight passes throughout his career, but in doing so, he became the first Black quarterback to ever play in an NFL game.
Another Black quarterback wouldn’t get a chance on the field for another 15 years.
“You can break records, you can break passing yards, you can break passing touchdowns but you cannot break history. History was made October 18, 1853,” Melvin Thrower said of his father’s legacy.
Thrower died of a heart attack in his hometown of New Kensington, Pennsylvania, in 2002 at the age of 71. Despite his short-lived career, Thrower’s legacy helped pave the way for future Black quarterbacks who would make it all the way to the Super Bowl.
“If Willie Thrower was given the time that most white quarterbacks would get, then Willie Thrower could be a household name. He just didn’t have time. He is a pioneer. It just so happens the terrain that he had to go through, was racism in professional sports.” Moore explained. “There are a lot of Black men and women who didn’t get a lot of opportunities not [just] on the football field, but also in life. And that’s what the Black quarterback represented to so many people: the opportunities that they didn’t get.”
These days, it’s not so rare to see Black players leading and dominating in the NFL. We have Willie Thrower to thank for that.
Cover photo: Remembering Willie Thrower, The NFL’s First Black Quarterback Photo credit: Good Morning America