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.
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.
THERE HE IS, standing tall and comfortably in the pocket, unleashing all kinds of throws: touch passes, deep balls, lasers on timing patterns. Sometimes, he'll roll out, or nimbly escape the pressure. He's like a more mobile Ben Roethlisberger, or a more physical Kurt Warner, and, if you didn't know the clips on the DVD provided by NFL Films were from the '70s, you would think you were watching a Rams quarterback from a much more recent vintage. James Harris was the real deal.
"You should have seen Shack in his prime," Ron Jaworski says. "God, he could sling it. He was the prototypical pocket passer, hanging in there, never flinching. What a pretty delivery. He was smart; he could read defenses; and he was a great leader."
The ESPN analyst we now know as Jaws is sitting in his aerie above the lobby of NFL Films in Mount Laurel, N.J., taking a break from dissecting a Jets-Patriots game. Once upon a time, he was a rookie quarterback on the Rams. When he got to Los Angeles in 1973 after being taken in the second round out of Youngstown State, he found John Hadl and Harris waiting for him.
What you are about to read are remembrances of people who were on or around those Rams, a storied team blessed with star power and cursed by rotten luck: From 1973 until 1980, they didn't miss the playoffs, but they lost in the only Super Bowl (1979) they made. Most of these memories came out of one-on-one interviews, although the quotes from Chuck Knox (coach from 1973-77) come from his autobiography, Hard Knox, written in 1988 with Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke.
James Harris: When I got to the Rams in '72, I was very rusty. Tommy Prothro was the coach, and he got fired after the season. But he had prepared files on all the players, and he gave those to Chuck Knox, and I guess he had some nice things to say about me because they kept me around.
Ron Jaworski: I was excited to get to Rams camp. I had followed Hadl's career, and I had seen Harris play in Buffalo because I was a Bills season-ticket holder. Section 23, Row 13, Seat 3 at the War Memorial. Hell, I had watched Shack, O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings.
John Hadl, now an associate AD at Kansas: I had come over in a trade from the Chargers after 11 seasons, but I have to say, my two years with the Rams were the best time I ever had in football. I loved those guys, Shack and Jaws. Here's how close we were. We used to have weigh-ins, and, if you were over, it was $100 a pound, which was a lot of money in those days. Well, you can take off about six pounds if someone stands behind you and lifts up your buttocks with their fist. Shack and I used to do that for each other all the time.
Harris: Hadl and Jaws lived in Marina del Rey. I lived not too far away in Inglewood --that's where practice quarterbacks tended to say. Every morning, we would ride together down to practice in Blair Field in Long Beach, then have breakfast in the golf club restaurant before the quarterback meeting. Hadl was a genuine guy. Genuine. He would quiz us all the time about different situations and teams. It was like going to quarterback school.
Fred Dryer, Rams Pro Bowl defensive end and an actor for more than 30 years: [Owner] Carroll Rosenbloom had traded in the Colts for the Rams, and he brought in a new coach, new uniforms and a new attitude. In that 1973 season, we went 12-2 and Hadl won NFC Player of the Year. But he lost the playoff game to Dallas, and the quarterback carousel started up again. That was always a problem with the Rams.
Chuck Knox: My second season, 1974, begins, and we win three of our first five games. This would be fine for most teams, but it meant that we had already lost as many games as in all of 1973. And in the public's and management's eyes, that meant trouble. At the same time, Coach Dan Devine of Green Bay calls. He sounds as desperate as I'm starting to feel. He says he needs a quarterback. Bad. He needs our MVP, John Hadl.
Bill Curry, Rams backup center who became two-time SEC Coach of the Year at Alabama: I had played for [Rosenbloom] in Baltimore, so we were pretty close. He called me to tell me he was thinking of trading Hadl and wanted to know my opinion. I was shocked. But I told him I thought James Harris was ready, and that the team believed in him. You know what we called the deal? The Lawrence Welk Trade. We got a one and a two and three. [Actually, the Rams received the first three picks in the '75 draft and the first two in '76.]
Hadl: I was shocked. I did not see that coming. When Chuck told me about the trade, I could see that he had tears in his eyes. But once the trade went down, I could understand it. And I felt that the Rams were in good hands with Shack and Jaws.
Jaworski: When Jim Harbaugh chose Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith last fall, it was totally déjà vu. Knox chose the quarterback with more potential. I didn't really have a problem with it. That first time we sat down to breakfast without Hadl, Shack and I just looked at each other and smiled. It was us now.
Harris: At the time, I was trying to figure out how I fit in. Hadl was the present, Jaws was the future. Then Chuck gave me the news -- I'm thinking, does he know I'm black? After I got home, my phone started ringing off the hook. When Coach Robinson called, he was happy for me. But right away -- this is why he was such a good coach -- he was stressing preparation. He wanted me to be ready for the moment.
Knox: He was the NFL's first black regular quarterback, which didn't mean a thing to me. 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.
Phil Olsen, then a D-lineman like his brother, Merlin, and now a motivational speaker: The color of his skin might have been a big deal in Buffalo, but, with the Rams, we truly did not care. Man, he could play. Cam Newton is the closest comparison I can think of. Plus, Shack had a way about him, this quiet charisma that worked really well on a team with a lot of stars.
Lawrence McCutcheon, then the Rams' five-time Pro Bowl running back, now a national scout for the Rams: It's true, the relations between black and white players on the Rams were good. As black men, we took a certain pride in the fact that our starting quarterback was an African-American, but we were a fairly cohesive team. With Chuck Knox, it was about who was going to help you win games.
On Oct. 20, 1974, in his first game as a starter for the Rams, Harris threw for three touchdowns and ran for another in a 37-14 rout of the 49ers. He would go on to lead the NFC in passer rating (85.1) and make his only Pro Bowl as the Rams won seven of their last nine games. They also beat the Redskins in the first round, setting up the Dec. 29 NFC Championship Game at Minnesota.
Tom Mack, then the Rams' future Hall of Fame left guard, now retired from the construction business in Henderson, Nev.: Late in the game [down 14-10], Shack is scrambling all over the place, which he usually didn't do, and he threw the ball to Harold Jackson at the 5. Tommy Bell, the official, looks to [right guard] Joe Scibelli and me and says, "I think that's the best play I've ever seen a quarterback make."
Knox: It's second and goal from the six-inch line. I call a quarterback sneak. Harris is big enough to get in by just falling over the goal line. [Minnesota defensive tackle] Alan Page anticipates and jumps offside, but the umpire says that Tom Mack has drawn Page offsides. Now we're back at the 5-yard, six-inch line. We run John Cappelletti a couple of yards, and then try a surprise pass. The ball is tipped, then intercepted, and the ball game is blown.
Mack: We come off the field, and Chuck is yelling at me for jumping offsides, and I scream back, 'I didn't do anything!' I bet him the game check I didn't do anything, and you know what? The game film backed me up. But I never did get the money.
Harris: I still go to sleep thinking about that game. I'm trying to figure out a way to win it.
Knox: Instead of blaming the ref, or even Mack, the fans and some media had the audacity to blame [Harris] for that call. Blamed it on what they thought was his sometimes-offbeat signal cadence. Can you imagine that? Maybe by then fans had realized that James Harris really was our starting quarterback, and was going to be our starting quarterback until he lost his job. Since they didn't like him, they had to find something against him. And that's how it started.
Actually, the hate mail had already started. And it kept piling up even as Harris went 11-2 as a starter in the 1975 season. Although the color of his skin intrigued some people -- "Will James Harris Be The First _____ To Play Quarterback In The Super Bowl?" asked the October 1975 Sport magazine cover -- it also infuriated bigots.
Jaworski: One time during the '75 season, Shack got a death threat. This is at the Beverly Hilton Sammy Davis Jr. to hang around with us at the buffet the night before a home game. Well, I get up to our room, and Shack is clearly nervous. He tells me some club officials just told him that they were beefing up security because of a death threat. Not to make light of it, but I told him maybe I should ride to the Coliseum with [running back] Rob Scribner -- the Rams couldn't afford to lose both quarterbacks.
Harris: That was the longest night of my life. We had security outside the door. They escorted me to the game. Man, I ran through that tunnel to the field as fast as I could. I don't remember much about the game [Harris actually can't even recall the Rams' opponent]. But I do remember running fast through the tunnel on the way out.
Knox: Harris' life was threatened? He never told me, but I'm not surprised.
McCutcheon: We were fairly close, so I knew about the death threat and the hate mail. You have to say this for Shack: He was troubled by it, but he never let it affect his preparation.
Along with the heat, though, came a little warmth. There were more than a few bumper stickers that read Join The James "Shack" Harris Fan Club. And a young quarterback from L.A.'s Alexander Hamilton High would hang around Rams camp for a glimpse of Harris.
Warren Moon, then a star QB at LA's Hamilton High, became a nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback and 2006 HOF inductee: I was a huge Rams fan to begin with, and to suddenly have an African-American quarterback I could look up to was a great thing. We'd go to training camp to watch him, and we used to sneak into the Coliseum through a fence to see him in preseason. He had this tremendous arm strength, but what I really tried to emulate was the way he stood in the pocket, so tall and calm. I never got to meet Shack until I went to the University of Washington, but I do know he came to see me at West Los Angeles Junior College. He later told me he watched from his car because he didn't want to get out and cause a commotion.
Mack: One of the knocks against Shack was that he didn't call his own plays, but that was Chuck. He may have had the courage to start a black man at quarterback, but he didn't trust him, or any quarterback save for maybe Hadl, to call his own plays. I kept telling Ken Meyer, our offensive coordinator, that they should give Shack and Jaws more freedom.
Jaworski: We found out what they really thought of us the night before the 1975 Thanksgiving game in Detroit. When you see Shack, don't forget to ask him about the ceiling tiles.
Harris: [Laughs] Our room in the hotel in Detroit is right next to the coaches', and we think we hear them talking about us. So, we lift out the ceiling tiles to listen to what they're saying. They're talking about us, all right, in the most inflammatory way imaginable. I'm kinda used to it, you know, but Jaws … he was shocked that they would bring up his Polish heritage like that. I calmed him down. But I also wrote down everything they said.
Shack beat the Lions 20-0 with three touchdown passes. Then the two quarterbacks conspired in a completely different way in their opening 1975 playoff game against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Jaworski: Shack was still nursing a shoulder injury. So, right before the national anthem, Knox tells me I'm starting. But Shack knows the Cardinals' defense really well. We make this arrangement: He'll hold a red towel. If he drops it, the blitz is coming. Just before the half, I see the red towel on the ground, and I hit Harold Jackson for a 66-yard touchdown pass.
Harris: I was watching the free safety to see where he lined up. On a blitz, he left the post route uncovered. It was funny watching Jaws that day. Wherever he was on the field, he'd be looking over at me to see if I was holding the towel or not.
Knox: Jaws leads us to a 35-23 win and into the conference championship, so he is now the hot hand. But James Harris is looking better and feeling better. By virtue of his play all season long, Harris is more worthy of the start. So Harris started. And history failed. Miserably. We got smashed [37-7 by the Cowboys]. It failed. I failed. Afterward, you could hardly see me for all the fingers.
Dryer: The arc of Shack's story has a lot to do with the Rams' failure to stick with a quarterback. The Cowboys had Staubach, the Steelers had Bradshaw, the Vikings had Tarkenton, and we had the Headless Horseman. I'm surprised they didn't ask me to line up behind center. And then along comes Pat Haden.
Knox: In the winter after the 1975 season, we picked up Haden, local guy, USC Rhodes Scholar, dearly loved by all. For whatever reason, James Harris was in trouble. C.R. [Rosenbloom] invited [wife] Shirley and me to one of his infamous dinner parties at his house in Bel Air. I think maybe Jonathan Winters and Ricardo Montalban were there. We all gathered in C.R.'s living room. With this spark in his eye, he said, "Let's play a game. Let's vote on who we want for President this year, and then, just for fun, we'll vote on who we want for Rams quarterback." So he passed around these little pieces of paper and everybody voted. Shirley and I were the only ones who voted for James Harris.
Skip Bayless, then a Los Angeles Times staff writer and now a writer and on-air personality for ESPN: The 1976 season was total chaos. You literally would not know who was starting until the morning of the game. Shack had the backing of the players, and Jaws was getting antsy because of his potential. But Rosenbloom favored Haden. It became pretty clear that he and Don Klosterman, the GM, were pulling the strings.
Knox: We're heading down to Miami to play in a game that's scheduled for the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur. [C.R.] raised all kinds of hell with commissioner Pete Rozelle about not honoring a Jewish religious event. We play the game anyway, and after being down 21-7, James Harris throws for more than 400 yards and we come back and win 31-28. Afterward C.R. is right there, and, in a big show in the locker room, kisses Harris on the cheek and says, "Great job, from one member of a minority to another." Five games later Harris is benched.
Pat Haden, now the USC athletic director: I was just a naive, 23-year-old kid, and I had no idea about what was happening behind the scenes. All I know is that Shack and Jaws could not have been more welcoming to me. Being the rookie, though, I did have to pay for the breakfasts. To be honest, I felt like I was just along for the ride. I handed the ball off to Lawrence McCutcheon and John Cappelletti, and passed it to Ron Jessie and Harold Jackson when they got open. It's not like I led us into the playoffs.
To Haden's credit, he went 5-1-1 in his seven regular-season starts and beat the Cowboys 14-12 in the first round of the postseason. But again the Rams came up short, losing 24-13 to Tarkenton's Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. Shortly after the season, Bayless wrote a three-part series about the chaotic quarterback situation. In February 1977, Los Angeles city councilman Dave Cunningham introduced a resolution protesting Harris' treatment by the Rams and the media.
In fairly short order, Jaworski was traded to the Eagles, the Rams picked up Joe Namath from the Jets and Harris was traded to the Chargers, where Prothro was then the coach. After his trade, a bitter Harris told Bayless, "I'm not sure people will ever accept or write the fact that a black quarterback can make it in pro football."
Jaws would go on to lead Philadelphia to Super Bowl XV; Namath would retire after only four games with the Rams; and Harris would play three undistinguished seasons in San Diego, mostly as a backup to Dan Fouts.
Harris: The Rams made me, but they also ruined me. I was never the same. My passion, my motivation was gone. After all I'd been through, I didn't want to go through any more.
McCutcheon: I totally understood the way he felt. He had done everything humanly possible to win the job. He was worn down by the whims of the front office; he was fed up with the racism of the fans. Any one of us would have said the same thing had we gone through what Shack went through: What's the use?
Knox: To this day, I think James Harris could have been one of the NFL's all-time great quarterbacks.
ON THE NORTHEAST CORNER of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., is a 1935 sculpture of a woman called Future, with an inscription from Shakespeare's "The Tempest": What Is Past is Prologue.
Inside the building are such documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation. And on this autumn evening, in the McGowan Theater of the Archives, a panel discussion -- "Breaking the Line: Sports as a Catalyst for Social Change" -- is being hosted by Samuel G. Freedman.
That's why James Harris is in D.C., to serve as a living document alongside black college football historian Michael Hurd and retired federal special agent R.C. Gamble, a former running back for South Carolina State and the Boston Patriots.
It's a lively discussion covering the struggles at Grambling, the legacy and future of the HBCUs and the encouraging number of black quarterbacks in the NFL.
Harris also talks about his struggles as a pioneer, that long-ago trip to Michigan State, the fear he felt in his first huddle with white players, the advice and support Eddie Robinson gave him, the shoddy treatment he got in Buffalo.
That walk into the furnace singed Shack a bit -- "My dream of becoming an NFL quarterback became a nightmare," he tells the audience -- but it also made him a powerful champion of possibility. He and fellow Grambling alum Doug Williams -- who became the first black QB to play in a Super Bowl (XXII, with the Redskins) and remains the only black QB to win one -- run a nonprofit foundation dedicated to helping mentor and develop minority students.
Shack was out of football for a few years, raising his four kids with wife Vickie. But then he got a call in 1987 from Ray Perkins, then Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach and Shack's former offensive coordinator with the Chargers. "Shack was such a class act when I was in San Diego that, when I needed a scout in Tampa, I thought of him first," Perkins says. "He was a hard worker who could read people as well as he could read talent. He's one of those four or five friends you want to take into battle with you."
Wherever Harris has worked as a personnel executive -- with the Bucs, the Jets, the Super Bowl XXXV champion Ravens, the Jaguars and the Lions -- he has spread the gospel of opportunity.
Now 66, he's not as spry as he used to be, but he still looks as if he could take a snap or two. And he's still proud of the quarterback he once was. "I remember my first year on the Rams' roster," he says. "Harold Jackson went on a deep route to the post, and I overthrew him because he had slowed down. He came back to the huddle and told me, 'I did not know you could throw it that far.' And I told him, 'Harold, you are not out of my range until you run into the man yelling, "Peanuts! Popcorn!"'"
Harris didn't play long enough to make the Hall of Fame, but he was in Canton in 2006 when one of his former fans was enshrined. "I invited Shack and Marlin Briscoe and Doug Williams because they meant so much to me," Warren Moon says. "You know, we have this little group now called the Field Generals. We want to be there for the African-American quarterbacks coming along, to tell them of our experiences and advise them. Being a quarterback is one thing. Being an African-American quarterback is another."
After the talk at the Archives, Harris is asked whether the players he has found and developed know about his own story.
"Not really," he says. "But that's not important. What's important is that Warren Moon is in the Hall of Fame, that Doug Williams won a Super Bowl. What's important is that millions of kids turn on the TV now and see Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson and all these great young quarterbacks.
"It should never have been about being black. It should always be about being better."
End of story.