'All hell broke loose'

James Harris

A version of this story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 3 Music issue. Subscribe today!

THE DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN settles into his chair in a Washington, D.C., hotel dining room, eyes his breakfast companion the way he did middle linebackers 40 years ago and says with a slight smile, "This isn't going to be about race, is it? I would much rather it be about the importance of opportunity."

Then James Harris turns to the waiter and says, "I'll have the oatmeal, please."

His story is about opportunity. It's about vision and blindness, friendship and hatred. It's about past injustices, present glories and future possibilities. It's about a breakfast club and a dinner party, about the Buffalo YMCA and the Beverly Hilton. It's about a tree, a towel and some ceiling tiles. It's about calls that should have and shouldn't have been made. It features two legendary coaches and a few characters who became way more famous than the story's hero.

But, with all due respect to his mild admonishment, his story is also very much about race. In 1969, a year before the NFL merged with the AFL, Harris started Week 1 for the AFL's Bills, becoming the first black quarterback to start a season opener in either league. The headline previewing that game in the Sept. 10 New York Times read: JETS ARE LIKELY TO FACE HARRIS, BILLS' NEGRO PASSER, ON SUNDAY. Put another way, it's about the door he left ajar so that Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson could push it open.

To think, this season began with nine black men starting under center, the most in NFL history, and ended with two of them fighting for a Super Bowl berth. In 1974, Harris would become the first black QB to even start a playoff game.

So, if you thought it was big news in 2012 when 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh went with Kaepernick over Alex Smith, imagine what it was like when Rams coach Chuck Knox started Harris in the sixth game of the '74 season shortly before trading 1973 NFC Player of the Year John Hadl. As Harris recalls, "I guess you could say all hell broke loose."

Nowadays, he's a senior personnel executive for the Detroit Lions, crisscrossing the country looking for the kind of talent he possessed growing up in segregated Monroe, La. That's where James Larnell Harris got the nickname Shack, a sobriquet that's hard to explain but speaks volumes about what he has gone through.

His father, who was a Baptist preacher as well as a furniture maker, and his older brother were both named Nashall, which was so difficult to pronounce that people started calling his brother Meshach, after the character in the book of Daniel. Meshach soon morphed into Shack; little brother James became Little Shack; and, when Nashall went off to join the Army, folks spared James the "Little" part. Besides, he was growing up to be 6-foot-4, 210 pounds.

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