Before Patrick Mahomes there was Willie Thrower, the NFL's forgotten first Black quarterback

Thrower's little-known story involves just two games in the NFL.

February 9, 2024, 4:13 AM

Names like Jackie Robinson, the first Black Major League Baseball player, Warren Moon, the first Black quarterback in the NFL Hall of Fame, and Bill Russell, the legendary basketball player and the first Black head coach in the NBA, are ingrained in the collective consciousness of American sports and culture.

The first Black athletes to compete in professional sports shaped the identity of the sports world and are recognized today as heroes who overcame racism, segregation and roadblocks to play the games they loved.

One name, however, has largely been forgotten to time: Willie Thrower, the first Black quarterback to appear in a modern NFL game.

PHOTO: Willie Thrower was the first Black quarterback to appear in an NFL game.
Willie Thrower was the first Black quarterback to appear in an NFL game.
Getty Images/ABC News Illustration

Willie Thrower's lack of name recognition boils down to the fact that his career spanned only two games, despite widespread recognition of his talent by players and media alike.

"He always felt like he was the Jackie Robinson of football," said Melvin Thrower, Willie Thrower's son. "He just felt like he was just unknown."

Willie Thrower's short but significant career began after he exploded onto the high school football scene in 1946, when he began playing quarterback at New Kensington High School in his hometown of New Kensington, Pennsylvania.

The move unlocked the team's success as they won state championships in 1946 and 1947.

"He always felt like he was the Jackie Robinson of football."

Melvin Thrower said he has heard stories about the excitement around his dad and the football team during that era.

"It was a moment in time where the whole city of New Kensington was all together," said Melvin Thrower.

The Pennsylvania native was eventually recruited across the country, including in the football-dominant Jim Crow South, but once Southern schools discovered he was Black, "they pulled his scholarship," according to his son. College football in the South was largely segregated at the time, meaning Black players did not play against white players.

In the end, Willie Thrower attended Michigan State, where he became the first Black quarterback in the Big 10 conference. By his junior year, Willie Thrower had made a name for himself, as sportswriters wrote adoringly about his passing abilities.

"He is regarded as one of the strongest, most accurate passers ever developed in the Midwest," a 1952 article in the Long Beach Independent read.

PHOTO: Sportswriters of the time spoke highly of Thrower's capabilities.
Sportswriters of the time spoke highly of Thrower's capabilities.
Long Beach Independent

Although Willie Thrower was never the full-time starter at Michigan State, when given the opportunity to play, he executed. In one season at Michigan State, he completed 29 of his 49 passes, a higher rate than any quarterback on the team. Thrower played a part in Michigan State winning the national championship in 1952.

Despite praise from media and peers, Willie Thrower was not drafted in the 1953 NFL Draft.

"There becomes this belief in professional football that a Black man can't handle the quarterback position," said Louis Moore, Ph.D., a professor of history at Grand Valley State University, and author of the upcoming book "The Great Black Hope: Doug Williams, Vince Evans, and the Making of the Black Quarterback."

"They said he lacked leadership. This idea that he couldn't lead a team, not just Black players, but white players, especially white players from the South," Moore continued. "The quarterback position is so important because the quarterback is not only the leader of the team. He is supposed to be the smartest person out there...He has to be the most courageous person on the field, and he's also the superstar. It is the glamorous position."

Given these descriptors, Moore said it was not a shock that Willie Thrower was not drafted in that era of professional sports.

"You could see why, in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, where we're still living in Jim Crow America … professional football wasn't ready for a Black man to lead," he said.

In recent years, the NFL has seen a meteoric rise of Black quarterbacks: A record 14 of the 32 starting quarterbacks on opening week this past NFL season were Black.

On Super Bowl Sunday, for the second year in a row, a Black quarterback, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, will play on the biggest stage in the sport.

Despite that progress, Moore said tropes about Black quarterbacks lacking intangible skills still exist in sports.

Moore offered MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, who plays for the Baltimore Ravens, as an example of a Black quarterback who is referred to as a player who lacks the ability to read defenses, and is seen as a better running player than a traditional passing quarterback, a skill that requires intelligence rather than pure athleticism.

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"That's a coded stereotype about Black quarterbacks that impacted guys in the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and even to this day."

The Chicago Bears ultimately signed Willie Thrower to a one-year contract in 1953. George Blanda, the Chicago Bears quarterback who played ahead of Willie Thrower for the entirety of Thrower's time with the Bears, spoke highly of his skill, according to Willie Thrower himself.

"[Blanda] told me, he said, 'You know what, Will? If I could throw a football like you, I'd be in football for the next 20, 25 years,'" he recalled in a rare 2001 interview.

Willie Thrower was given the chance to play in only two games in his entire NFL career. Once, when Blanda was struggling, Thrower was substituted into the game and subsequently threw eight passes, moving his team all the way down the field, at which point he was substituted out of the game, allowing Blanda to come in to record the touchdown.

Blanda went on to have a Hall of Fame career. Willie Thrower was cut from the team after his rookie season.

However short his moment of glory, Willie Thrower became the first Black quarterback to ever play in the modern NFL on that day in October 1953.

Moore said he feels confident that if given the opportunity, Willie Thrower would have found success in the NFL. His style of play and strong arm fit the needs of the game at that time.

PHOTO: Thrower appeared in just one NFL game in 1953, before being cut by the Bears.
Thrower appeared in just one NFL game in 1953, before being cut by the Bears.
Chicago Bears

"He is a pioneer, and in America, we like to celebrate pioneers. It just so happens the terrain that he had to go through was racism in professional sports," said Moore.

Moore said Willie Thrower's story and the plight of the Black quarterback is representative of larger injustices.

"I think it shows you how far we've come along, but it also shows you that there are a lot of guys and a lot of women, you know, Black men and Black women, who didn't get opportunities, not on the football field, but also in life," he said. "That's, I think, what the Black quarterback represented to so many people, the opportunities that they didn't get."

"He is a pioneer, and in America, we like to celebrate pioneers. It just so happens the terrain that he had to go through was racism in professional sports."

Melvin Thrower echoed that sentiment -- that his father, who died in February 2002 at the age of 71, was before his time.

"If he was 15 years later, you would definitely know who he was," he said.

PHOTO: Thrower attended Michigan State University after a successful high school career in Pennsylvania.
Thrower attended Michigan State University after a successful high school career in Pennsylvania.
Michigan State

While Willie Thrower is not a household name, his contributions to the sports world are increasingly evident. Moon, the first Black quarterback inducted into the Hall of Fame, mentioned Willie Thrower by name in his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2006.

"A lot has been said about me as being the first African American quarterback into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's a subject that I'm very uncomfortable about sometimes, only because I've always wanted to be judged as just a quarterback. But because I am the first and because significance does come with that, I accept that. I accept the fact that I am the first," said Moon. "But, I also remember all the guys before me who blazed that trail to give me the inspiration and the motivation to keep going forward, like Willie Thrower, the first Black quarterback to play in an NFL game."

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