'All hell broke loose'

January 20, 2014, 11:18 AM

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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.

As for the significance of the name, Bible readers know that Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego were made to walk into Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace because of their devotion to God. Yet they miraculously walked out alive -- and Nebuchadnezzar changed his tune. (Martin Luther King Jr. cites the same story in his famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail.")

Shack risked heat just by playing football at Monroe's Carroll High: his mother, Lula, had forbidden Harris to play because his older brother had broken his collarbone in the sport.

"I had to sign my mother's name to the permission slip," says Harris' older sister, Lucille. "You're not going to get me for forgery now, are you?" (A retired nurse still living in Monroe, she's on a conference call with her little brother, and they both laugh.) "Eventually, she came around after the coaches convinced her football might get him into college without having to pay for it."

"I still had to report to her at every halftime," Harris says. "She wanted to make sure I was physically OK."

He was more than OK. As a sophomore, he led Carroll to a state championship, then starred in both basketball and semi-pro baseball. "My father was a baseball guy," says Harris, a straight-A student. "Played for the Monroe Monarchs, rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Didn't know much about football."

Football, though, became Shack's greatest love, and playing quarterback in the NFL became his dream. In an interview with Samuel G. Freedman, author of Breaking The Line, a recently published book about the confluence of black college football and the civil rights movement, Harris says he used Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech as inspiration: "When you heard the part about one day we'll be judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin, I started thinking that one day I might get a chance to play quarterback."

At the time, few if any white coaches thought blacks were ready to lead a major college offense, much less one in the NFL. Michigan State was one of the predominantly white schools that recruited Harris, but, when he got to Lansing, he overheard an assistant tell coach Duffy Daugherty about his "great hands" and not his prodigious arm.

To James' great sorrow, his father passed away just as his senior year was starting, but another father figure came into his life, legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson. "He won over my mother by reading the Bible with her," Harris says. "Before long, it was pretty clear I was going to Grambling."

Robinson had another card up his sleeve. As it happened, legendary announcer Howard Cosell had recently asked the coach in a radio interview why he hadn't been able to produce any NFL quarterbacks. "Coach Robinson told me if I came to Grambling, I'd be ready to be an NFL quarterback when I left," Harris says. "He said, 'Howard Cosell challenged me, and I think you could be the one.'"

Harris would lead Grambling to three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles (1966-68), but Robinson did not run a pro-style offense. So, the coach would pick the brains of NFL coaches and tutor Harris one day a week and in the offseason, using Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel as a model. (Gabriel was the first Asian American to start at QB in the NFL, but his size and skills were the real reason Robinson chose him as a role model.) The two of them also conspired to hide Shack's light under a bushel: His speed was never timed in workouts lest scouts try to turn him into a receiver or defensive back.

But Harris' insistence on playing quarterback cost him: The Buffalo Bills didn't take him until the second day of the 1969 draft in the eighth round. Robinson had a heart-to-heart with the disappointed Harris in the Grambling bleachers. "The decision is yours," he said. "But if you choose to go, don't expect it to be fair. You've got to be better. You've got to be the first one to practice and the last one to leave."

Before deciding to go to Buffalo, Harris challenged himself. He went to a park in Grambling with a football and a bandanna. "The standard NFL pass was the down-and-out," he says. "So I set up to throw a down-and-out at a nearby tree while blindfolded. First time, I missed and I had to go chase the ball. Walking back, I debated whether I should give it one more try. I did, and wham! The ball hit the tree. That gave me the confidence I needed."

The Bills lowballed Harris on a contract and put him up in the Buffalo YMCA for $6 a night. First-round pick O.J. Simpson stayed in a suite at the Hilton. The franchise further humiliated Harris by making him work in the locker room, lacing and cleaning shoes. Harris talked to Robinson nearly every night, steeling himself for whatever challenges lay ahead. "Until I got to Bills camp," he says, "I had never really been around white people. And now I had to go into a huddle full of them and call plays."

Fortunately, the Bills had two aging quarterbacks -- future presidential aspirant Jack Kemp and future Raiders coach Tom Flores -- and coach John Rauch kept an open mind. Just as Seahawks starter Russell Wilson would do 43 years later, Harris won the job as a rookie in training camp.

Thus he became the first black quarterback to start the first game of an AFL or NFL season. Coincidentally, the only black quarterback to start any previous AFL or NFL game -- Marlin Briscoe for the Broncos in 1968 -- had just been signed by the Bills to catch passes, not throw them. So, Harris had Briscoe as a target and as a reminder of the league's conventional wisdom.

That first game against Joe Namath and the defending Super Bowl champion Jets did not go well, however. Harris pulled a groin muscle in the first half of what turned out to be a 33-19 loss and wouldn't start again for the rest of the season.

The opportunity turned into an ordeal. He developed an ulcer. His teammates complained about his "diction." White players would pass him in the shopping mall without acknowledging him. The hate mail began to arrive. Before one game in Oakland, he got this message: "Now that you pickaninnies no longer dance for us on street corners it is only right that you do so in stadiums... We will be at the Raiders game to watch you do your act for us, 'boy.' [Signed] White America."

Harris played sparingly in 1970 because of a knee injury, and Rauch was replaced by Harvey Johnson, who started Harris twice in 1971. Then Johnson was replaced by Lou Saban, who cut him right away.

No team picked him up for the start of the '72 season, so Harris took a job in D.C. working for John Jenkins at the Department of Commerce, helping black athletes transition to the business world. "I was through with football," he says. "That was it. At first, I tried to stay in shape, but I stopped working out. That's when the Rams called."

As it turned out, Harris received that call because Tank Younger had received a call from Robinson. Younger, a former NFL great who worked for the Rams as a scout, had played for Robinson at Grambling, and in fact, had become the first alumnus of a historically black college to play in the NFL. Younger convinced Rams coach Tommy Prothro and new Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom to sign Harris to the practice squad, which was then called the taxi squad.

So, Shack decided to take another shot at that tree.