Despite being told that the quarterback position was intended for whites only, James “Shack” Harris, the first full-time* starting black quarterback in the history of the National Football League, knew color didn’t define a person’s ability to fill in the cleats.
Through the 1960s, an era filled with racism, segregation and fear, the Monroe native carried himself with a winning mindset of preparing himself to being the best during the Civil Rights Movement.
On Sept. 14, 1969, Harris replaced Buffalo Bills’ veteran quarterback John Kemp in the season-opener against the New York Jets. The Bills lost. Nevertheless, Harris became a role model to minorities during a time when African Americans weren’t given the opportunity to play the quarterback position in professional football, let alone in college, unless it was an HBCU.
In 1964, Eddie G. Robinson went to New York to be a guest on the radio show of Howard Cosell, a well-known commentator. The two discussed how Grambling State’s legendary coach produced nearly 13 star athletes, who had been drafted at the time. Cosell joked that Robinson had yet to send a quarterback to the NFL.
Furious, Robinson stormed back to Louisiana on a mission to produce the first African American quarterback to play in the NFL. And he did.
As a freshman, Harris came to Grambling with two things, a promise and a prayer. “The promise was that I was going to graduate. I didn’t care what happened, I was going to get a degree and graduate for my parents. The prayer was to get the opportunity to play quarterback in the NFL,” said Harris, a 1969 graduate at what was then Grambling College.
Robinson and his team worked diligently to mold Harris into the perfect quarterback. Robinson and his assistant coaches also recruited players like Charlie Joiner, a future NFL Hall-of-Famer, to take advantage of Harris’ ability to land the perfect pass in the pocket of open wide receivers.
“I worked on my craft,” said Harris. “I always just prayed for an opportunity, but in doing that I had to be prepared for that opportunity by working.
“When I finally got the chance, I was focused on … realizing that I may not get the opportunity. I couldn’t spend much time making excuses or spend time complaining.”
Coming from the clay hills of North Louisiana, Harris was gifted with a natural talent in all sports. During Harris’ high school tenure, he led the Carroll football team to state championship titles his sophomore and junior years.
As a junior, he finished with a 24-1 record and ran an offense that averaged close to 35 points a game. Not only was Harris an honor student, the All-American football player excelled in basketball as well.
Standing at 6’4, the physical education major left an impression on those on campus, on and off the field. He knew how to “pitch the football so accurately” that amazed people like Mildred Gallot, retired head of the History Department, who worked as an administrative assistant in the Business Department at the time.
“Coach Robinson would always say to him that ‘just do what you do here, it’s the same thing,'” said Gallot, who never met Harris. She said Robinson “kept on encouraging him to be the best that he could be because he could be the first one to go to the NFL as a quarterback.”
If Harris was not practicing or throwing balls at a tree blindfolded, he was with Collie J. Nicholson, who worked to prepare Harris for possible questions the press might taunt him with once in the league.
“We knew he had the arm, the height, the intellect, all the things you want to see in a good quarterback,” said Doug Porter, former assistant coach who was offensive coordinator for eight years under Robinson. “But most importantly, he was emotionally ready for whatever he might encounter because in essence, what Shack was going to do was what Jackie Robinson did where baseball was concerned.”
At the end of his season senior year at Grambling, Harris was considered one of the top quarterbacks in the country. But in 1969, he wasn’t drafted until the eighth round, the 192nd pick overall, by the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills. From 1969 to 1977, Harris was the first and only full-time black starting quarterback in the NFL and the American Football League (before the merger).
“It says a lot for Grambling, our environment and Coach Robinson and how we were prepared to go into the NFL and so many people had the ability,” Harris said. “But I think we were prepared in a way to deal with all the components to be ready for the job.”