The year? 1974.
The Los Angeles Rams, after finally hitting the post season in 1973, following a 12-2 season and three non-playoff seasons, were looking to rebuild themselves as a force in the NFL again under head coach Chuck Knox.
Led by quarterback John Hadl in 1973, the team got off to a rocky start through five games, despite the fact they were the No. 1 scoring team and the No. 4 scoring defense the previous year. After a 3-2 start, things looked shaky as the team sputtered on the road. Knox felt the team needed a new look, a new feel and boy did they get it! The decision turned the team’s fortunes around as they captured their second-straight division title.
As a result of the 1969 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills, of the AFL, picked James Larnell “Shack” Harris out of Grambling State. They also chose O.J. Simpson in the same draft, with visions of having an all-African American backfield. The Bills fulfilled their intentions by naming Harris as the first black quarterback to start a season at that position.
Fast forward to 1973, Harris was the backup to Hadl after signing with the Rams in December of 1972. Knox’s decision to start Harris against the San Francisco 49ers brought tears to many eyes of the Rams’ fans, and the NFL in general.
Let us not forget Harris’s story was all about race. Knox had to have many discussions with the team’s management to make this move, and in the end, Knox only saw one thing, a chance to change the mindset of his team or jar it into playing better football.
“He was the NFL’s first black regular quarterback, which didn’t mean a thing to me,” said Knox to Steve Wulf of ESPN in 2014. “However, he was the first quarterback that I developed, which did. I really liked James Harris. It was obvious he had the ability and had never gotten the chance.”
“Ground Chuck” as Knox was affectionately nicknamed sought to jump start his stagnant offense against the 49ers. Harris did his part quite well. He completed 12 of 15 passes for 276 yards, three touchdowns and rushed for another touchdown in an easy 37-14 win at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. The game’s achievement earned Harris a perfect passer rating and also led to the Rams trading Hadl to the Green Bay Packers just two days later.
The Rams would go on to win four games in a row and seven of the last nine games under Harris. Their last loss came at the hands of the Washington Redskins in Week 13, at home, its only loss at home during the regular season.
More firsts were hoped to be on the horizon for Harris and the Rams. Yes, he did become the first black quarterback to start an NFL playoff game, which resulted in a first-round playoff win over the Redskins, 19-10.
Now here is the rub in this 1974 story.
Because the NFL rotated playoff sites each year, without regard to team records and tiebreakers as we see in the current NFL era, the Rams were forced to play in the NFC Championship game in Minnesota against the Vikings. Both teams finished with a 10-4 record, but the Rams beat the Vikings in Week 11, 20-17.
Instead of playing in 70-degree weather in L.A., the game was played in -10 degree conditions in the Midwest.
The game was close, and the Rams could not reach the end zone one last time, while they watched the Vikings kill just less than six minutes on the clock and hold on to win, 14-10.
Harris was seconds from becoming the first black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl. It took 13 more years before Doug Williams would get that honorary start with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Harris, in many respects, was the NFL’s answer to Jackie Robinson. His play, demeanor and gracefulness led us to believe that anyone, no matter what race, could play such a demanding, critical and key position in the NFL.
His breaking of the glass ceiling has produced the ability for such stars as Williams, Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson to grace the fields and enamor themselves to all their team’s fans.
Harris went on to play for the Rams in both the 1975 and 1976 seasons. After becoming the AFL’s first black QB to start a season, Harris did the same for the NFL in 1975. He led the team to a 12-2 record, and a third-straight division title, but was injured in Week 13 and was replaced by Ron Jaworski.
Injuries beset Harris in 1976, and he was ultimately benched after rookie Pat Haden took over for Jaworski in the middle of the season’s opener because of an injury. Harris returned for two wins, but during a Monday Night Football game against the 49ers, he was sacked 10 times and re-injured his shoulder.
Harris tried to comeback, but he wasn’t fully healthy and Knox named Haden the starter for the rest of the season.
The Rams have been known for being progressive when it comes to race barriers. Harris is another example by training him to be a long-term starting QB, and was a proven winner.
Boy did he ever win!
Sources: ESPN.com, The Undefeated.com
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