By Michael Wilbon
Friday, September 29, 2006
Sometimes, when it's just the two of them, Byron Leftwich will look at Matt Jones and ask, "What is the NFL coming to when one team can have both a slow black quarterback and a fast white wide receiver?"
Leftwich, of course, is the slow black quarterback. At 6 feet 5 and 242 pounds, he is the polar opposite of Michael Vick, a stereotype-defying, in-the-pocket quarterback with zero speed but a cannon of an arm. In one breath, Leftwich says, "I can name 15 quarterbacks slower than me." But in a moment of candor he smiles and says, "You know, my only problem is I can't get it out of first gear." Jones is the 6-6, 238-pound white receiver whose position was changed from quarterback when he left college, a stereotype-defying, field-stretching wideout who thankfully has somehow escaped being nicknamed "White Lightning" . . . at least so far.
But that's only the beginning of a cultural study of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Pro football has always operated in a tiny little comfort zone, racially. Only in the last dozen years have black quarterbacks stopped being an oddity . . . at about the time fast white receivers virtually disappeared. And even as black quarterbacks became accepted, they were embraced only as starters, hardly ever allowed the luxury of making it as a backup.
But the Jaguars come to town this weekend with three black quarterbacks. David Garrard from East Carolina backs up Leftwich. And Quinn Gray, from historically black Florida A&M, backs up Garrard. While it almost certainly is not the first time an NFL team has had three black quarterbacks on the roster at once, it's the first time where it's lasted for more than a week or two. And their new target is this kid Jones, whom nobody will mistake for a possession receiver since he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds and has a vertical jump of nearly 40 inches. Apparently, this white man indeed can jump.
The players are far too young to appreciate the irony. Garrard is 28. Gray is 27. Leftwich is 26 and Jones is 23. But James Harris isn't too young. An eighth-round draft pick out of Grambling by the Buffalo Bills in 1969, Harris played 10 seasons in the NFL and was the first black player in league history to open the regular season as a starting quarterback. As the Jaguars' vice president in charge of player personnel, Harris made the call last year to draft Jones, a quarterback at Arkansas, as a wide receiver. Harris has no problem appreciating how far football life as evolved, to the point where three black quarterbacks, a converted white receiver and a black club executive can succeed in a small Southern town in the sport traditionally most resistant to cultural change.
Asked if he could have envisioned three black quarterbacks playing on one team when he entered the NFL, Harris said: "Absolutely not. I had a hard enough time seeing three black quarterbacks in the entire league back then. We've come a long way, haven't we? I have thought about what we have and said to myself, 'Looks like we have a little bit of role reversal going on down here.' "
When Harris was recruited by Michigan State, he was told he should probably play tight end . . . or perhaps defensive back . . . or perhaps wide receiver. Anything but quarterback. He said no thanks and played quarterback for the legendary Eddie Robinson. Playing for the Bills (1969-71), Rams (1973-76) and Chargers (1977-79), he often was the only black quarterback in the league. Marlin Briscoe, the first black quarterback to play in the modern NFL, and Eldridge Dickey were changed to other positions.
"When the season was over," Harris said, "I had to get away from the tension of having to prove I could play the game. I tried to play it perfectly, and you can't play that way. I held onto the ball a little too long, not wanting to throw an interception. . . . And when I left the game, I knew I had never played up to my potential like I did [at Grambling], where I just played. In the NFL, each interception meant my time might not be long. I don't ever want players to feel pressured to play that way because of some stereotype. "
In Harris's early years as a scout (he began with Tampa Bay in 1987) and assistant general manager (1993-96 with the Jets), Harris vowed he would not be swayed by color or the size of school a player attended. "I think about all the guys who didn't get a chance because of those factors," he said.
So how did he feel telling Matt Jones he would have to switch from quarterback to wide receiver? "I didn't have to," Harris said, "because he had already said he was willing to switch before the Senior Bowl. I saw Matt play quarterback . . . saw him running away from these lightning-fast defensive players in the SEC, and it was happening over and over again. We went to the combine, saw him run a 4.3 40. . . . We didn't know he was that fast.
"The transition he made was traditionally a black quarterback transition. And some guys made it work because you throw the route so much you know it. You know the coverages. We did a lot of work on Matt. We had tapes of him playing basketball. We interviewed him and he was open to it. He wanted to play receiver. He wasn't hung up on playing quarterback. . . . It is a reversal from all those decades. . . . Here we are in the opposite situation."
Jones didn't catch any passes in Jacksonville's loss Sunday to the Colts. But he did catch five against the Cowboys in the season opener and six against Pittsburgh in the Jaguars' victory. He and Leftwich have become particularly close.
"He's the coolest dude in the world," Leftwich said. "You know, I can't imagine anyone changing my position. I'd be watching on TV if they tried to have me play another position. It shows you the type of athlete he is. He's a smart dude and he's an athlete. I couldn't do it. It's hard enough for a guy who's played receiver for all four years of college to get to the NFL and play the position well. But Matt doesn't even think like a quarterback now."
Leftwich never wanted to be anything but a quarterback. Some years ago, I visited H.D. Woodson High and at the end of a talk a big kid with a wonderful smile approached me very politely and said, "You're going to be writing about me someday, so you'd better get to know me."
I asked his name and he said, "Byron Leftwich . . . I play quarterback and you're going to have to write about me one day."
It wasn't some pipe dream. He played at Woodson, played at Marshall, where he was brilliant and tough as a college quarterback.
He was drafted by the Jaguars in 2003 and has started 41 games in the NFL already, including one last year in the playoffs. Every coach says he's a dream to work with and he's now the face of an NFL franchise. He comes home this weekend having made everybody here proud.
But had he been born 30 years earlier, in 1950 instead of 1980, chances are Leftwich wouldn't have gotten to play quarterback in the NFL. Thankfully, Leftwich, Garrard, Gray and even Jones didn't have to live in the world that James Harris had to negotiate, full of opportunities denied and hate mail, all based on warped and bigoted expectations. Leftwich was right, that I'd write about him someday, and it's a lot healthier story now than it once might have been.