McNair's rare distinction

Alcorn State's Steve McNair (left) and Grambling's Doug Williams are two quarterbacks from historically black colleges selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Getty Images/Icon SMI

In virtually every appreciation written about Steve McNair since his death on the Fourth of July, the late Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens star has been celebrated for his toughness, grit, poise and competitive spirit.

Such plaudits are well-deserved, since the former quarterback certainly possessed all those attributes.

But it would be hyperbole -- and even McNair would agree -- to suggest that he was the only tough-guy quarterback of this era.

Including playoff contests, Brett Favre has started in 291 consecutive games, and the Iron Man likely will add to that total. Peyton Manning has never missed a start in 11 seasons. Ben Roethlisberger plays with a linebacker-type mentality, as evidenced by the fact that he started every game in 2008 despite suffering 46 sacks and an assortment of injuries. Philip Rivers played in the 2007 postseason, including the AFC Championship Game, with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament.

So while McNair was determined and passionate and tough as nails, he was hardly the last of that breed when it comes to warrior quarterbacks in the league.

What McNair sadly could be, however, is the last NFL quarterback from a historically black college and university (HBCU) ever drafted in the first round. In fact, that might be part of the impressive legacy that McNair leaves behind.

It is an incidental component of his legacy, certainly, and one McNair probably would never mention, but the fact that he played at Alcorn State was probably an element of his tough-guy makeup. Because he was color-blind, as are most NFL players, the "black quarterback" label didn't much faze McNair. Unfortunately, not everyone views the world through the same prism.

While McNair might quietly have championed the cause of black quarterbacks, it was not a role that he openly flaunted or embraced. But sometimes men adopt a mantle; sometimes, as with McNair, the yoke is loaded upon their shoulders. McNair wasn't totally oblivious to the stereotypes, but he was wise enough to know they existed, and to understand that in many ways he had to be a little better because of them.

"He made people recognize you could take somebody from a small school and make a quarterback out of him if he had talent," said Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys personnel chief, to The Baltimore Sun over the weekend.

Not since the Houston Oilers chose McNair with the third overall pick in the 1995 draft has a quarterback from a historically black school achieved first-round status. Since 1967, when the NFL and AFL participated in the first "common draft," there have been only three first-round quarterbacks from black colleges. Tennessee State's Eldridge Dickey (selected by the Oakland Raiders) was the first in 1968, Grambling's Doug Williams the second 10 years later (selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and then there was McNair in '95.

And there might not be another.

The teams in an enlightened NFL clearly have chosen black quarterbacks in the first round more often in recent drafts. Since 1999, there have been nine black quarterbacks selected in the first round, including three in '99 (Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith and Daunte Culpepper), and one each in four of the past five lotteries. None of them, though, played collegiately at a historically black school.

But don't blame the paucity of quarterbacks from black schools on an NFL that has increasingly stressed the importance of diversity on the field and in the front office, because the numbers are not an indictment of the league. More than anything else, the NFL is an unwitting victim of civil rights progress.

"It's simple," said Williams, the coordinator of pro scouting for the Bucs, of the dearth of first-round quarterbacks from black colleges. "The best black quarterbacks just don't go to the black schools as much anymore. Those [black] schools still present a player with opportunity … but it's not like it used to be. … I don't think the scouts put as much emphasis on [the black schools] as they used to. It's not like the times when you could go into a Jackson State and get two or three pro prospects. In fact, I know the scouts don't put as much emphasis on those schools these days."

Consider the major universities at which recently drafted black quarterbacks have played: Michael Vick was from Virginia Tech. Jason Campbell played at Auburn. Vince Young, who was mentored by McNair and was distraught over his passing, won a national championship at Texas. JaMarcus Russell is a former LSU star. There's a definite trend there, and it doesn't bode well for the black schools, or for the students who played quarterback at those institutions.

This is not to say there's a complete void of NFL quarterbacking talent available at HBCUs. Worthy prospects from any school can be found in any round.

In 2006, the Minnesota Vikings selected Tarvaris Jackson -- who began and finished the 2008 season as the team's starter -- from Alabama State in the second round. Before Williams emerged from Grambling State, the Buffalo Bills selected former Tigers quarterback James "Shack" Harris in the eighth round in 1969. Harris eventually became a Pro Bowl player with the Los Angeles Rams in the mid-1970s.

Still, it might be a longer climb for quarterbacks from historically black college programs.

Years ago, when I was young and adventurous enough to take such trips, I traveled to Itta Bena, Miss., to visit with some pro prospects at Mississippi Valley State. At the beginning of the dusty dirt road that leads to Itta Bena, there stood a ramshackle and weather-beaten old barn, which bore a hand-lettered placard that somewhat ominously read "Welcome to Hard Times, Mississippi."

The barn, barely standing 20 years ago, is probably long gone now. And so, too, might be the era when NFL scouts could rely on historically black colleges to produce a prospect like the brilliant McNair.

With the impetus not only on diversity, but also excellence, there were six black starting quarterbacks in the NFL in 2008. At times in the recent past, there have been as many as seven. Of the 25 teams in the final AP college poll for the 2008 season, four were led by black quarterbacks. But that final point also graphically illustrates black quarterbacks' current preference for big-time colleges.

It's been an inexorable process, one accentuated by the integration of SEC teams and the overall acceptance of the African-American athlete, but the basic quality of play in black schools has suffered. Those universities now watch prospects they might have once recruited enroll at bigger universities. Clearly, the odds are stacked against a quarterback prospect's playing at a program like Alcorn State, where McNair honed his skills.

In a way, football at historically black colleges has backslid as society -- including the NFL -- marched forward. Since the 1995 lottery in which McNair was selected, the league has now gone 14 drafts without choosing a black-school quarterback in the first round. Then again, prospects at any position who played at historically black colleges have been scarce. Since the 1996 draft, black schools have produced only four first-rounders. In the past 10 years, the NFL has drafted an average of only 5.5 players from the most prominent black-college conferences, the MEAC, the SWAC and the SIAC.

It will take an extraordinarily talented player, as McNair was, to star at a black school, command the attention of pro scouts, and have a chance to be drafted by an NFL team in the first round. Or, for that matter, in any round.

Since the league implemented the common draft in 1967, there have been 661 quarterbacks chosen overall. Eighty-two of those quarterbacks were picked in the first round, and only 13 of them are black.

In the 43-draft stretch from 1967 to 2009, only 49 quarterbacks from historically black schools were selected in any round. Just twice, in 1969 and 1995, did a first round include more than one black quarterback from any university.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.