When DeShaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes is drafted in the first round on Thursday night by an NFL team, it won’t be a big deal that they are black.
We crossed the point of surprise on this a long time ago. Let us not kid ourselves, though.
Despite the success of Doug Williams, Donovan McNabb, Cam Newton and so many others, the notion of being a “black quarterback” still has hiccups, misconceptions and outdated stereotypes rooted in good ol’-fashioned stupidity.
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“Don’t get me wrong, it’s gotten better throughout the league. A lot of other black quarterbacks are playing and doing well at what they do by being an athlete and being able to run and throw and handle the position mentally,” Reggie Collier told me. “Look at Dak Prescott.”
Before we do that, we must look at Collier — the first black Dallas Cowboys quarterback.
Collier was one of the quarterbacks from the class of 1983, which included John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. If you haven’t, watch the ESPN 30 for 30, “From Elway to Marino.”
Unlike those synonymous names with the position, you never knew Collier, who was simply far too ahead of his time, a victim of bad timing and his own bad decisions.
When we watch Newton, Dak, Russell Wilson or so many others succeed, a guy such as Collier opened the door back in 1983, when he thrived at Southern Miss and was eventually drafted by the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL.
Too often progress is measured in millimeters, and while the evolution and league-wide acceptance to a black quarterback has been slow and imperfect, guys like Collier created and widened the path. Someone always has to be the first.
At Southern Miss, Collier was one of the original run-pass passers. He was the first quarterback in NCAA Division I history to run for more than 1,000 yards and to throw for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
Collier was a 6-foot-4 freak who could sling it. He carried Southern Miss to wins against Florida State and at Alabama, which ended the Tide’s 57 home-game winning streak.
Rather than go to the NFL in 1983, he elected to take big money as the third overall pick in the USFL draft. On the chance something may change, the Cowboys selected Collier in the sixth round.
The USFL collapsed in 1985, and Collier was off to the Cowboys.
At the time the Cowboys had a reputation of moving players to different positions, and Collier sensed early that Tom Landry did not want him as a quarterback.
“That was the mind-set of the day if you were a black quarterback,” he said. “They had me at wide receiver for half of the year. It was not something that I wanted to do but I did it, reluctantly. I honestly believe the intent was for me to play another position but ... you know? I don’t know.”
He started one game for the Cowboys in 1986, the regular season finale against the defending Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears. He threw a pair of interceptions early, and was pulled in favor of Steve Pelluer in a 24-10 loss.
The Cowboys were simply not ready to try to harness Collier, who in turn freely admits he was not ready to be a grownup.
“If they told me to go right, I instinctively went left,” he said. “Mentally, I wasn’t mature. I was in a marriage that wasn’t going well. I don’t blame anybody but myself for any of that.”
He had begun to abuse drugs in the USFL, and the problem carried into the NFL. He was cut by the Cowboys after one season, and spent one additional year with the Pittsburgh Steelers before he was out of the NFL. He tried the Arena League for a while before he was done in 1993.
Collier successfully kicked his use of narcotics, and works for a bank in Hattiesburg, Miss. He is one of three men to have his jersey number retired by Southern Miss; the other two are Pro Football Hall of Famers — punter Ray Guy and Brett Favre.
Collier is 56, and remains an avid football follower, up to and including Prescott.
What he sees now is an NFL that has embraced a style that the league rejected in the 1980s, with some tinkering of course. A guy still has to be able to throw it to the smallest of spots, but improvising is no longer a weakness.
“Everything has changed from the schemes and what they are doing, spreading things out,” Collier said. “Eventually you got athletes back there playing the position; you have to utilize what they’ve got. These guys can move and make things happen with their feet and their arm and their intellect. It was a completely different time when I played.”
Because his pro career was so brief, Collier does not see himself as a pioneer, even though he was.