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Dungy glimpsed Black QBs as part of NFL future too early

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  • Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on NBC Sports Bay Area on Thursday, Sept. 30 after the conclusion of "Giants Postgame Live" at approximately 11 p.m.

If you’re truly steeped in football history, as Tony Dungy is, you’d know why Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray and maybe even Patrick Mahomes all look so familiar.

Because you’d already have seen their like, or at least heard of it. Decades ago.

But only at the college level.

“In the 1970s, it actually was not that rare in college,” Dungy says of quarterbacks born to Black parents.

A guest on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” seen Thursday night following Giants baseball, Dungy was a star at the University of Minnesota, leaving the school as a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection and its career leader in completions, touchdown passes and passing yards – as a quarterback.

After the 12 rounds of the 1977 NFL draft had passed, any chance Dungy had of an NFL career meant moving to defensive back.

NFL minds tend to move slowly on racial matters, a full 90 steps behind deliberate, and it was determined to maintain its biases toward quarterbacks who happen to be Black. The NFL routinely steered great college quarterbacks to wide receiver or defensive back, stripping away the power and prestige restricted to quarterbacks. 

One year later, the star quarterback at the University of Washington, a man named Warren Moon, also went undrafted. His only path to quarterback was to sign with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. Five consecutive Grey Cups later, the NFL pulled its collective head out of the mud and gave him a chance, at 27, to prove he belonged. He did. He has been inducted in two pro football Halls of Fame.

 

Moon is familiar to most fans only because he eventually reached the NFL and excelled.

The biggest difference between Moon in the 1970s and Mahomes in the 2020s isn’t arm talent or leadership skills or athleticism. It’s timing.

A few years before Dungy and Moon, there was Chuck Ealey. Led the University of Toledo to 35 consecutive wins. Was voted to three All-America teams. Informed NFL teams that he wanted to continue his career as a quarterback. Was bypassed in a 12-round draft.

“He won the Grey Cup as a rookie,” says Dungy, not bothering to mention Ealey’s 291 passing yards in that game.

At some point, perhaps beginning with Moon or maybe it was with Doug Williams, the NFL began a slooooow turn. In came Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper and Steve McNair and Michael Vick. A few years later, you look up and see Russell Wilson winning a Super Bowl with the Seahawks and Colin Kaepernick destroying defenses while leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl.

How many of these quarterbacks, all of whom reached star level, would have been nudged to wide receiver or defensive back or kick returner if not for a stroke of good timing?

How many would have been shunned by the NFL, as were Moon and Ealey and Condredge Holloway?

“It was just different,” Dungy recalls. “I look at what’s happening now with Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray and Patrick Mahomes. We had guys like that. Chuck Ealy would have been Lamar Jackson, only 40 years ago. But he didn’t get the opportunity. Conredge Holloway would have been Lamar Jackson. He didn’t get the opportunity.”

The roadblocks remained in place, with few exceptions, until the past decade or so. The biggest breakthrough might be Murray, who was taken No. 1 overall by the Arizona Cardinals despite some teams expressing concerns about his height and a physique more befitting a running back or kick returner.

The Cardinals saw a star and didn’t dawdle. Didn’t bother talking themselves out of taking the short kid with the big arm and quick feet to be the most visible representative of their franchise.

This clearly does not mean the NFL has become the meritocracy it always has falsely claimed to be. The obvious case is that of Kaepernick, who erased not on merit but because he was so bold in his attempts to pull America away from social and racial injustices. 

RELATED: Kaepernick's kneeling protest still misunderstood

There remains a double standard, but it’s fading from black and white to shades of gray.

What the visibility of Wilson and Mahomes and Jackson and Murray and Dak Prescott does mean is that when light is seen, even some of the most recalcitrant minds can come open.

“I do sometimes wonder if I was playing 40 years later,” Dungy says, “could I do what Russell Wilson and Patrick (Mahomes) and some of these guys are doing now?”

 

The tragedy is, thanks to so many dull and stubborn NFL minds, we’ll never know.