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This Hall of Fame friendship spans race, distance and 50 years

This Hall of Fame friendship spans race, distance and 50 years

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Story Courtesy of The Defeated

CANTON, Ohio — Joe Horrigan writes history. James “Shack” Harris made history. And together they are forging hall of fame history.

Wait, that’s getting ahead of the story. First, let’s meet these guys, who ought to have their story told in a buddy film someday.

Horrigan is the author of NFL Century: The One-Hundred-Year Rise of America’s Greatest Sports League. His chapter titled A Starting Quarterback is devoted to Harris, who became the first black quarterback to start a season for an AFL or NFL team 50 years ago.

Chapter 22 begins with this Harris quote: “The Buffalo Bills thought so much of me they drafted me in the eighth round and sent the ball boy to the airport to pick me up.”

Horrigan’s book leaves out a crucial fact: He was the ball boy.

And thus began what decades later would blossom into a remarkable friendship that is now resulting in the Black College Football Hall of Fame finding a permanent home inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“If this was a made-for-TV movie,” Horrigan said, “it’d be too corny for the Hallmark Channel.”

TWO HALLS OF FAME IN ONE

The ball boy would go on to be executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The quarterback would go on to co-found the Black College Football Hall of Fame. And you can draw a straight line from that airport pickup in Buffalo, New York, 50 years ago to the hall-within-a-hall that’s coming to Canton.

When Harris and Doug Williams co-founded the Black College Football Hall of Fame a decade ago, they consulted with Horrigan on best practices for how halls of fame operated and how they selected their members. The Black College Football Hall of Fame had a posh annual dinner and induction ceremony in Atlanta, but didn’t have a physical place to be.

Then Horrigan had a thunderbolt of an idea: Why not house the Black College Football Hall of Fame within the Pro Football Hall of Fame — and thereby build up both?

“Over the years there were so many great players at historically black colleges,” Harris said. “We didn’t want to see that history fade away.”

The shared history of Harris and Horrigan could itself have faded away but for a chance meeting in the late 1990s. By then Horrigan was an established executive at the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Harris was working in front offices for a succession of NFL teams, which is how Harris happened to be scouting a game in Canton when Horrigan recognized him and reintroduced himself. They hadn’t seen one another since their Buffalo days.

“We talked,” Harris said, “and went down memory lane.”

Halls of fame are memory lanes in physical form. Horrigan said funds are currently being raised to renovate 5,000-7,000 square feet of existing space at the Pro Football Hall of Fame to be the permanent home for the black college football hall. That space will open as early as next year. In the meantime, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has been using temporary space since 2016 for an exhibit on the black college hall.

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The pairing of these halls makes sense as a Venn diagram shows 29 greats who are members of both, including all-timers such as Walter Payton and Jerry Rice, Buck Buchanan and Michael Strahan, Deacon Jones and Art Shell.

Harris and Horrigan were among those who cut a ribbon in August for the first part of the permanent space — an honor roll listing members of the Black College Football Hall of Fame. The ceremony was part of the festivities for the first annual Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton. Alabama A&M beat Morehouse College 35-30 in that game on Sept. 1.

It is a lovely grace note that Morehouse was in the inaugural game, as it is the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr., whose Letter from a Birmingham Jail famously cites the biblical figure Meshach (along with two others) as a model of civil disobedience for a higher cause.

Harris is known as “Shack” — short for Meshach — a nickname he picked up from his father, a Baptist preacher. Meshach, in the Book of Daniel, is thrown into a fiery furnace but comes out unscathed, which is a fair metaphor for Harris’ NFL journey.

It began when the Bills met the New York Jets at Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium on Sept. 14, 1969, in O.J. Simpson’s first game as a pro and the first for Joe Namath’s Jets after they won Super Bowl III in an upset for the ages.

Those are the elements that looked most important at the time, but that chapter in Horrigan’s seminal book tells the story of the game’s most consequential first: Harris, on that sunny afternoon, being the first black quarterback to open an AFL or NFL season as a starting quarterback.

“History happened right in front of me,” Horrigan said, “but I was too young to recognize it.”

Horrigan’s book details the few times in NFL history that African Americans had played quarterback before then. Fritz Pollard sometimes lined up at quarterback in the NFL’s early years, but he was primarily a halfback. Willie Thrower played briefly in one game for the Chicago Bears in 1953. George Taliaferro started two games for the Baltimore Colts that same year. And Charlie “Choo-Choo” Brackins threw a couple of passes for the Green Bay Packers in 1955.

Brackins, who was a three-year starting quarterback at Prairie View A&M, was the first quarterback from a historically black college or university (HBCU) to play quarterback in the NFL, but he was 0-for-2 passing in the closing minutes of one game and was soon placed on waivers.

That was the entire list until 1968, when Marlin Briscoe came off the bench for the Denver Broncos after the starting quarterback broke his collarbone. That year Briscoe played in 11 games and started seven as the first black quarterback in pro football history to play regularly.

“So many quarterbacks with the ability to play before me,” Harris said, “were denied because of the color of their skin.”

And so, against that bleak backdrop, the Bills drafted Harris in 1969. Today he’d probably be a first-round choice given his prototypical size (6-feet-4, 215 pounds) and rocket arm. The Bills took him as their second pick of the eighth round, 192nd overall.

Harris would have been drafted earlier had he agreed to be moved to another position, as often happened in those days. But he’d had a stellar quarterbacking career at Grambling State under legendary coach Eddie Robinson, who firmly believed in Harris’ abilities and who counseled him to play his natural position in the pros.

When Harris arrived at training camp, he didn’t have far to look for an example of how pro football teams asked black quarterbacks to switch positions. By now Briscoe was in Buffalo — as a wide receiver, a position he’d never played before. (By the next season he was all-pro.) The good news for Harris: Briscoe became his roommate on the team.

“He’d been through some of the things I was going through,” Harris said. “Marlin and I were the only two who could share the black quarterback journey.”

Harris was seventh on the depth chart when camp opened, and those ahead of him included veterans Jack Kemp and Tom Flores, former AFL all-stars. But Harris followed Robinson’s steady counsel, studying hard and working hard so he would be ready for his opportunity.

“He’s coming along well in handling the team,” Bills coach John Rauch said during camp. “He has a fine football mind, and when things go bad he doesn’t seem to rattle or panic.”

Rauch’s words in those two sentences effectively dismissed the libels so long held against black quarterbacks. And as the preseason progressed, Harris appeared to be winning the job.

The New York Times treated this development more as a curiosity than history in the days before the 1969 season opener. The headline on a midweek notes column in the Sports section read: Jets Likely to Face Harris, Bills’ Negro Passer, on Sunday.

Alas, game day did not go as the Bills had hoped. Harris pulled a groin muscle and tried to play through it; he completed just three of 12 passes for 74 yards and was intercepted once before being pulled in the third quarter. Kemp rallied the Bills from 16 points down to tie before the Jets pulled away, 33-19.

Rauch told reporters that Harris would start in Week 2 if his injury cleared up; it didn’t. By the time Harris was ready for Week 4, the job was Kemp’s.

Then, in Week 6 at Oakland, Harris came in to relieve Kemp in a blowout loss and played well, throwing for 156 yards. But then he got hit by two Raiders, resulting in season-ending surgery for torn knee ligaments.

Harris played sparingly for the Bills in 1970 and started just twice in 1971. Then the Bills released Harris and no other NFL team signed him, so he sat out the 1972 season. It looked as if his NFL career was over — as if he’d be little more than a footnote, like the African American quarterbacks in pro football who’d come before.

But then he got a call from Tank Younger, a scout for the Los Angeles Rams who’d played for Robinson at Grambling. Harris was on the Rams’ practice team in 1973. And in 1974, under coach Chuck Knox, Harris won the starting position and led the Rams to wins in seven of their last nine games to make the playoffs.

Then, when the Rams beat Washington, he became the first black quarterback to win a playoff game. Weeks later he was the first black quarterback to play in the Pro Bowl — and the first to win its MVP award.

The next year, Sport Magazine put Harris on its cover with this question: “Will James Harris Be the First ____* Quarterback to Play in the Super Bowl?” An asterisk beneath the headline filled in the blank as “Los Angeles Ram,” but readers understood the meaning.

A dozen years later, Washington’s Williams would be the first black quarterback not only to play in the Super Bowl, but to win it and be its MVP. Behind the scenes, Harris served as a mentor and confidante to Williams, who had also played under Robinson at Grambling.

“The biggest advice I could give was don’t play with the pressure of being a black quarterback,” Harris said. “Just play the position, which he could do. That was one of the real happy days for me, when Doug won the Super Bowl.”

Warren Moon was the first black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As it happens, he was a high school kid in Los Angeles when Harris starred for the Rams, and Moon too found inspiration in Harris’ journey.

Harris was 21-6 as a starter for the Rams in the regular season but always felt as if management was pushing Knox to find someone else to play quarterback. He was traded in 1977 to San Diego, where he quietly finished his career in 1981.

A FRIENDSHIP REKINDLED
Harris worked in business for a few years in Louisiana and then, in 1987, got a job as a scout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From there, he’d work in pro personnel jobs in front offices for the Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions. That’s how Harris happened to be scouting in Canton when he and Horrigan reconnected in the late 1990s.

They talked about the day 30 or so years earlier when Horrigan picked up Harris at the Buffalo airport and drove him to the Bills offices downtown.

“I went in to meet the top brass,” Harris said. “They were wearing white shirts and ties. They wanted me to sign a contract. I told them I needed to make a phone call first to talk to my mother.”

He was really calling Robinson, who would end up negotiating Harris’ deal.

“The Bills put me up at the YMCA for six bucks a night and the room was so small I could lie in bed and turn on the TV with my toes,” Harris said. “O.J. had a suite across the street at the Hilton.”

Harris said he got some support from fans for his historic starting role. “Unfortunately, there was also a lot of hate mail,” he said, “with statements and diagrams.”

Diagrams?

“They’d put pictures of watermelons with my face on it,” Harris said. “Or me hanging from a tree limb. A lot of people didn’t want to be see me play.”

And this season, 50 years after Harris’ seminal start, the leading candidates for NFL MVP are Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson. Patrick Mahomes won the award last season.

“I’m happy so many guys are playing now,” Harris said. “Coach Robinson always knew all we needed was the opportunity.”

Robinson was a member of the inaugural class of the Black College Football Hall of Fame — as was Younger, the man who got Harris back into the NFL with the Rams.

These days, Harris and Horrigan talk by phone regularly. They talk about their halls of fame, they talk about old times, they talk about their families. They’re enduring pals who laugh when they finish each other’s sentences.

Horrigan retired in June after 42 years at the pro hall of fame. He started there in 1977, when Harris was playing for the Chargers. Today, Horrigan continues to work, in his retirement, on the coming hall within a hall.

“Joe has been great for all of football with the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Harris said. “And he has certainly been great for the Black College Football Hall of Fame.”

They could not have imagined, when they met 50 years ago, such a deep and rewarding friendship.

“No, not at all,” Harris said. “Joe was thinking about starting college and I was thinking about starting my pro career.”

“I was 17 and he was 21,” Horrigan said. “He was a man and I was a kid.”

Now Harris is 72 and Horrigan is 68. “That means,” Horrigan said, “we’re the same age now.”

Last summer, when Harris landed in Cleveland for the festivities in Canton surrounding the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic, guess who picked him at the airport — just like old times.

Forget the Hallmark Channel. Maybe the NFL Network — which televised the first classic — could make a buddy film about these guys. Call it Shack and Joe: A Hall of Fame Friendship.

 

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