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There is no position like it in all of sports. You can gather up all the baseball pitchers and basketball point guards and hockey goalies. You can combine all the soccer strikers and tennis players and golfers and downhill racers and 100-meter sprinters. You can put all of them together and still they do not equal the quarterback. For it is the quarterback who commands the most complex and violent game on earth; it is he whom we watch, our eyes frozen on his form, our ears attuned to his signals. It is he who gets the money, the power and the girl. The quarterback is king, and the NFL quarterback is the king of kings.
He comes in all forms. He can be coolly elegant, like Joe Montana, or a wild gunslinger like Brett Favre. He can have the intellectual brilliance of Peyton Manning or the exuberant athleticism of Steve Young. He can be drafted early, like Terry Bradshaw (and many others), or he can be drafted late, like Tom Brady, or not even drafted at all, like Kurt Warner. He can emerge from the black-and-white images of a bygone NFL like Sammy Baugh and Norm Van Brocklin; or he can help usher in the new era of the multiskilled athlete like Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson. His arm can be a quick-release cannon like Dan Marino’s or a deadly accurate popgun like Drew Brees’s. He can be big like Daunte Culpepper or small like Doug Flutie. He can stand still in the pocket like Dan Fouts or he can run around like Fran Tarkenton. He can be white, like almost all quarterbacks in the history of the game, or he can be black, like more with every passing season until, blessedly, it’s nearly not worth mentioning. There is no template for the NFL quarterback except that he must lead and he must win. For this he reaps the greatest rewards and suffers the most punishing critiques. He stands at the top of the hill, and he is alone.
From Tim Layden’s Introduction to NFL QB: The Greatest Position in Sports.
Tough can be good (“tough as nails”) and tough can be bad (“tough luck”) and tough can be good and bad at the same time (“tough love”). Tough can cut both ways—or can’t be cut at all, in the case of a tough steak—leaving us with a serious question: Is tough a compliment (“He’s one tough SOB”) or a pejorative (“What are you, a tough guy?”) or something in between? This ambiguity is at the heart of football tough guys, who have long been praised for playing through pain and lately—given all we now know about the concussed brain and chronic traumatic encephalopathy—criticized for wantonly abusing their bodies.
Those players most deeply acquainted with professional football’s theater of pain are NFL quarterbacks, who were once collectively described—by pain-inflicting Hall of Famer Warren Sapp—as the “piñatas of sports.” Of these piñatas, Packers quarterback Brett Favre was renowned as especially tough, resistant to the assaults of men like Sapp, who once hit Favre so hard that officials on the field were scanning the tunnels for an ambulance even as the defensive tackle was bearing down on Favre from the blind side.
But Favre remained very much alive after Sapp’s epic hit. Only the play was blown dead, after which Favre instantly popped to his feet and shouted at Sapp: “Is that the hardest you can hit, you [everloving] [sissy]?”
Favre’s pain threshold was off the (hospital) charts, so fans and journalists naturally projected that quality onto his interior life as well. When his father died in 2003, and the next night Favre played in a Monday Night Football game against the Raiders—and threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a 41–7 win—he appeared to possess a superhuman capacity to absorb physical and emotional pain.
That he struggled with addiction to painkillers was understandable, because few players had quite so much pain to kill—kill being a word often linked to the word quarterback, homicide apparently being the first motive of an NFL defensive lineman when the ball is snapped. “The name of the game is ‘Kill the Quarterback,’ ” Joe Namath has said many times, most recently in 2014, when he acknowledged his own brain damage from multiple concussions. And while quarterbacks in the modern era are often seen as overprotected—coddled is a word that comes up often, spoken mostly by men who never played quarterback in the NFL—they weren’t protected at all for most of the game’s history.
Bobby Layne played smash-mouth football when mouths could still be comprehensively smashed: The Lions and Steelers quarterback was among the last players to start using a face mask. He didn’t wear pads in his pants so as not to inhibit his running. What’s more, Layne frequently played hungover, so that his toughness took on a kind of Rat Pack grandeur in that decade—the ’50s—when going on stage buzzed or hungover was looked on as a badge of manliness.
Colts lineman Art Donovan claimed to have smelled booze on Layne’s breath at the bottom of a pile and asked the quarterback, one tough guy to another: “Were you drinking last night?” To which Layne replied, “I had a couple at halftime.”
Layne would eventually accept the minimal protection of a single-bar face mask, which in turn would become the tough-guy hallmark of Billy Kilmer, who was badly injured in a car wreck in 1962 when he fell asleep at the wheel and ended up in San Francisco Bay. Kilmer suffered a compound fracture to his right tibia, and he nearly lost his entire foot after an infection set in. During his rehab he worked in the terrible heat of his father’s dry-cleaning business. Pressing pants in Pomona—now there’s a title for a memoir—Kilmer vowed that he would not do that for the rest of his life. And so this trial by fire, this trial by dry-cleaning steam press, steeled him to all manner of future assaults that he would suffer in the NFL.
Although Kilmer was always called hard-nosed, it was not literally true, as Giants defensive end Jack Gregory demonstrated in 1976, when Kilmer was 37 and the last quarterback in the NFL to still wear a single-bar face mask. Down 17–12, Kilmer had led the Redskins to midfield when Gregory landed on him (as one game story put it) “like a baby grand piano.” Kilmer’s nose was shattered and gashed and he exited the game, bleeding, replaced by the younger Joe Theismann, whose own career would come to a gruesome end against the Giants nine years later. Theismann lasted one play, overthrowing a receiver, after which Kilmer returned to throw the game-winning touchdown pass with 40 seconds on the clock.
Which isn’t to say that tough guys always win. On the contrary, in the second game of his 17th season, Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle was hit by John Baker, the Steelers 6’ 7”, 280-pound defensive end, immediately after throwing a pass. Tittle was concussed on the play, and cartilage in his rib cage was torn, a physical toll captured that day in photographs of the quarterback after the hit—on his knees, bleeding, his helmet behind him like a guillotined head—as the pass was intercepted and returned for a TD.
The quarterback had grown up in East Texas with the name Yelberton Abraham Tittle, which might have hardened him at an early age. He obstinately declined to sit out the next game, though he was barely released from the hospital in time, and he played out the rest of the 2-10-2 season, the last of his Hall of Fame career. He was 38 years old.
But then quarterback toughness doesn’t die, or even fade away. Like any good QB, it keeps on throwing—haymakers, in the case of Joe Kapp. In 2011, the 73-year-old Kapp, late of the Vikings and Patriots and the CFL, attended a luncheon in Vancouver. There, on a dais, Kapp was seated near his longtime nemesis, Angelo Mosca, the 74-year-old former defensive tackle for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and longtime practitioner of that game Namath called “Kill the Quarterback.”
As an apparent peace offering, Kapp gallantly tried to give Mosca a sprig of flowers. Mosca blithely declined by deflecting them with his hand. Kapp hit him with the flowers and Mosca returned the blow with his cane. As the fists began to fly, the truth of what Norman Mailer once said became unmistakable: Tough guys don’t dance, not even at 73.
There is beauty in the deep ball, especially when launched by those who can really air it out. Such men are invariably described with military terminology, They possess “cannons” or “howitzers” where most mortals have only an arm. They throw “rockets” and “bombs.” They are, inevitably, “gunslingers.” And they are indeed a sight to behold. But they are useless without smarts and accuracy and poise, the three most valuable traits for any quarterback.
So let us now praise men of mostly modest arms, those QBs who may not be able to puncture a receiver’s chest at 40 yards but will get you 10 yards when you absolutely need it and, more important, win you the game in the process. These are the Chess Masters, those ball-through-a-tire-swing deadeyes who possess the gift of touch, but more important than that, a preternatural grasp of both their team’s capabilities and their opponent’s. Cerebral players like Peyton Manning, relying on fluttering half-armed passes at age 37; Joe Montana, lofting the ball into the corner of the end zone to Dwight Clark; Tom Brady, completing a surreal 26 out of 28 passes in a playoff game; Bob Griese, a.k.a. “The Thinking Man’s Quarterback,” calling every play for the entirety of his career; and Ken Anderson, a man with a law degree who played the game with a rare precision, dinking and dunking his way to a bevy of NFL records for completion percentage.
At first blush they are not intimidating figures, and few had an easy road to the NFL. Bart Starr was drafted in the 17th round of the 1956 draft. Johnny Unitas was released by the team that drafted him, the Steelers—amazingly, head coach Walt Kiesling believed him not smart enough to quarterback an NFL team. Unitas worked construction outside of Pittsburgh to support his family, playing QB on a local semipro team for as little as $6 a game on the weekends before making the Colts in a tryout. Len Dawson completed all of 21 passes in his first five NFL seasons and was released by the Browns before catching on with the Dallas Texans, who would go on to become the Kansas City Chiefs. During scouting workouts, Montana graded out as a 6 on a 1-to-9 scale for arm strength—and 61⁄2 overall—before the 49ers took a chance on him with the 82nd overall pick. Tom Brady? He bears the dubious distinction of running the slowest QB time in NFL combine history in the 40-yard dash, at 5.28 seconds (for comparison, the not-exactly-fleet-footed Aaron Rodgers clocked 4.71). The result: 198 players were selected before Brady in the 2000 draft. Even Drew Brees, a college star who left Purdue as the Big 10’s alltime leader in passing yards and TDs, slipped to the second round of the 2001 draft based on his six-foot stature and perceived lack of arm strength.
Each of these men made some coach, or general manager, look like a genius. (Brady is considered by some the best draft choice in NFL history.) Some, like Manning, succeed through obsessive preparation and an uncanny talent for reading defenses at the line of scrimmage. Others, like Brady and Montana, possessed an ability to maintain their poise under even the most intense pressure. Starr, born into a military family, understood the value of discipline and, above all, teamwork, making him the perfect complement to coach Vince Lombardi. Len Dawson found his coaching muse in Hank Stram, who played to Dawson’s strengths with his “moving pocket” offense. Likewise, Boomer Esiason brilliantly orchestrated Sam Wyche’s then-innovative no-huddle offense. And both Anderson and Montana played in the earliest editions of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense, throwing darts on screen passes to running backs and leading receivers perfectly on slant patterns. When the two squared off in 1982, it was a showdown between perhaps the two most accurate passers in NFL history. Sure, Montana came out on top, but few remember that Anderson completed 25 of 34 passes in the game, setting Super Bowl records at the time for both completions and completion percentage.
What truly unites these men, though, is the most important marker in the game: victories. Forget passing yards and other fantasy football stats. These QBs won, in whatever fashion was required. Starr won five NFL championships, including three titles in a row, a feat unmatched before or since. Griese was the starting quarterback for the Dolphins during the 1970s when the franchise had the highest winning percentage in all of pro sports. Montana retired with a remarkable 133–54 record as a starter. Brady won a Super Bowl when he was but 24. Not only that, he was the quintessential game manager that day, despite his youth: 145 yards and one touchdown in defeating a Rams team favored by 14 points. What’s more, Brady did so by leading the team on an epic drive with 1:21 remaining and no timeouts as, on the TV, John Madden recommended that the Patriots run out the clock and take their chances in overtime. As for Brees, when he finally reached the Super Bowl, he beat the Colts by completing 32 passes, a total matched only by Brady (in 2004) and bettered only by Peyton Manning (in 2014).
To see two Chess Masters square off is to see the game at its cerebral best. It has happened surprisingly often. Montana defeated Anderson in the 1982 Super Bowl, then, seven years later, did the same to Boomer Esiason, famously driving 92 yards in the game’s waning moments and hitting John Taylor in the end zone with 34 seconds left. Brees not only beat Manning in his only Super Bowl win, but two months earlier he beat Brady by throwing five touchdown passes, the only time that’s ever been done against a Bill Belichick team. And of course, Brady and Manning have combined to produce the rivalry of a generation, playing 15 times during their careers. (Manning is 5–10, but he’s 2–1 in AFC title games.)
These men are, if you will, the craft beers of the gridiron, appealing to those of discerning taste. Underestimated, underappreciated at first, they changed the game and, collectively, collected an awful lot of jewelry. Their legacy is in their approach to the game. As Bart Starr’s high school coach, Bill Moseley, once put it, “He was not a big bull of a guy, but he’d use every ounce of ability he had to polish his game the way it was best to win.”
On January 31, 1988, Marlin Briscoe was sitting in a San Diego jail, locked up on drug possession charges, watching Doug Williams become the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. After a nine-year pro career during which he became the first black quarterback in modern pro football history, for the Denver Broncos, Briscoe’s life was in ruins from a crack cocaine addiction. Yet when the Super Bowl ended, the tears that ran down his face were joyful.
“I was so proud at that moment,” he says. “I knew something historic had happened, and I felt that I had played a part in getting us to that day.”
He was right. Briscoe, who ultimately conquered his drug problems and went on to become an administrator at Boys & Girls Clubs in Southern California, was one of the trailblazing black quarterbacks who chipped away at the racial stereotyping that for decades had made quarterback a whites-only position in the NFL. Some of these pioneers had distinguished careers, like Williams and Warren Moon. Others had just a brief chance to take snaps under center, like Briscoe and the aptly named Willie Thrower. But they were all instrumental in breaking down the league’s racial barriers.
Like a lot of longtime American institutions, the NFL has a racial history that is in many ways shameful. Although one of its first stars was Fritz Pollard, the black quarterback and coach of the Akron Pros in the old American Professional Football Association, which would become the NFL in the 1920s, the league eventually fell in step with the segregationist times. From 1934 through 1945 the NFL was all-white, as an unspoken agreement among its owners completely excluded black players. Highly decorated college stars were snubbed because of their skin color, including Kenny Washington, a dynamic UCLA running back who led the country in total yards in 1939 yet went unchosen in the league’s 22-round draft. (It was Washington who eventually broke the color barrier when the Rams signed him in 1946, due to pressure from the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission.)
Even after the blackballing ended, opportunities for blacks to play quarterback were limited because of a prevailing belief that they lacked the intelligence and leadership ability to play the position. For years African-Americans who had played quarterback all their lives hit a wall once they reached the NFL. After starting at QB in college at Minnesota, Tony Dungy went undrafted and had to accept a switch to safety when the Steelers signed him as a free agent in 1977. The league was similarly uninterested in Moon as a quarterback, even after a stellar career at Washington that included the Rose Bowl MVP award in ’78. Moon signed instead with the Canadian Football League and starred there for six seasons before attitudes changed enough for him to get his chance in the NFL, where he became a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
It’s regrettable enough that dozens of would-be black quarterbacks from the 1930s to the ’80s experienced similar resistance from the NFL. But there is also no telling how many other young black athletes were either steered away from the position or chose not to play it at the youth level because they saw no chance of a professional future at QB.
After the anomaly of Pollard, progress was slow. In 1949 George Taliaferro became the first black player ever to be drafted by an NFL team when he was selected in the 13th round by the Bears. He signed instead with the L.A. Dons, who took him in the first round of the All-America Football Conference’s draft, and he threw for 790 yards that season. A year later, though, he joined the NFL’s New York Yanks and, while he did attempt seven passes, he was listed as a halfback and never took snaps under center.
It wasn’t until Oct. 18, 1953 that an African-American took a snap as a T formation quarterback in an NFL game. Thrower, a former Michigan State quarterback who had gone—not surprisingly—undrafted, replaced struggling Bears QB George Blanda against the 49ers at Soldier Field in Chicago. Thrower completed 3 of 8 passes for 27 yards before coach George Halas reinserted Blanda. Thrower didn’t throw another pass that season and never played in the NFL again, finishing his career in Canada. But his brief appearance inspired at least one future QB, namely Moon, who thanked him in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech.
Every time a black quarterback took the field, however briefly, it pushed the door open wider for the next one, even if only a sliver. After Thrower, it was 15 years before Briscoe became the next black QB to appear in a pro game. The Broncos turned to him in 1968 after their starter was injured and his backups were ineffective, and although he threw for 14 touchdowns in 11 games, he was released before the next season. He signed with the Bills, who converted him to wide receiver. Briscoe never played quarterback again.
Such were the small advances that black QBs made when opportunities arose. There was no Jackie Robinson, no one who broke through and immediately became such a great player that it was impossible to keep him on the bench. Instead it was the cumulative effect of all of the black QBs, over the course of decades, that slowly made the difference. It was because of them that the idea of an African-American under center became a slightly less foreign concept, which helped lead to James Harris becoming the first black full-time starter at the position for the Los Angeles Rams in 1974.
Then came Williams, whose Super Bowl performance was impossible for the football world to ignore. After a week of pre-Super Bowl questioning from the media about the historical significance of being the first black quarterback to reach the title game, Williams responded to the pressure by throwing for 340 yards and four touchdowns while winning the MVP award in the Redskins’ 42–10 rout of the Broncos.
After that, it was no coincidence that the influx of black quarterbacks became, if not a flood, then at least more than a trickle. Until then, there had rarely been more than one black starter in the league at any time, but in the 10 years after Williams’s MVP performance, multiple QBs, including Moon, Randall Cunningham, Rodney Peete, Jeff Blake, Steve McNair and Kordell Stewart all became starters.
The QBs that would follow them in the decades to come—Donovan McNabb, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson among them—stand on the shoulder pads of these pioneers. With their talent and even more than that, their persistence, they made the NFL a racially more enlightened league in which the sight of a black quarterback is no longer uncommon. The NFL cannot be proud of the discriminatory parts of its history, but at least it’s just that—history.