‘We all thought that he would be the one’

In 1968, Eldridge Dickey became the first Black quarterback picked in the first round of the draft. What happened next derailed his life.

(Courtesy of Las Vegas Raiders)
18 min

The Oakland Raiders team bus was almost to its destination, Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., when it stopped. Eldridge Dickey, the team’s third-string quarterback, could see the commotion up front, where police officers were huddling with team officials. Eventually, word trickled through the aisles: There were fears of a potential gunman on the premises.

This was 1969, a year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, two years before the University of Alabama decided to integrate its football program. From his seat in the back of the bus, Dickey could surmise that not all 21,000 in attendance supported the idea of a Black quarterback making his professional debut in this state, in this exhibition game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Outside the window, a “No N----- QB in Alabama” sign made that clear.

You don’t have to play, then-Raiders coach John Madden told Dickey that day, and Dickey wondered whether someone really might want to shoot him for throwing a football. But, he said later, “I knew I had come too far to turn back.”

The year before, when the Oakland Raiders made him the first Black quarterback taken in the first round of the AFL/NFL draft, Dickey was viewed as holding the key to opportunity — the man who would open the door for future generations of Black football players to be what they wanted: a quarterback. His game was so divine they called him “The Lord’s Prayer.”

“The greatest quarterback I’ve ever seen or played with or against,” says Hall of Fame defensive lineman Claude Humphrey, his college teammate for four years at historically Black Tennessee A&I (now known as Tennessee State University). “And I played against all of them.”

But the nearly century-long pathway from Fritz Pollard, the first Black quarterback to play in the NFL, to Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray and others serving as the face of the league is littered with players whose dreams of leading an offense were destroyed. Willie Thrower. Charlie Brackins. Sandy Stephens. Willie Wood. Marlin Briscoe. Joe Gilliam Jr. There’s a graveyard of rocket arms who never reached their potential as passers.

Perhaps none fell harder than Dickey, who left the game without taking a regular season snap at quarterback and who never forgave football before he died of a stroke, in 2000, at 54.

“A lot of people around him say it was a broken heart,” says Michael Hurd, a historian of Black football in Texas, where Dickey was raised. Dickey’s disappointment, Hurd says, “stayed with him for the rest of his life.”

But that night in Birmingham, Dickey was 23 and filled with hope. Earlier in the day, Al Davis, then the Raiders’ part-owner and general manager, urged patience, telling him that what he would do in five years mattered more than what happened that night. Dickey was the impatient kind, though, bold enough to believe his wait, and the wait of other Black quarterbacks, was soon coming to an end.

“Dickey’s purpose in life,” his college coach, John A. Merritt, once said, “is to prove that a Negro can be a successful quarterback.”

He had to take the field. He had to take the ball. And he had to do something with it.

Play after play, there Dickey went, flying past his defender only to see the ball flutter to the ground behind him.

He was just a scrawny seventh-grader at Lockett Junior High in Houston. But Dickey, frustrated by the wasted sprints and underthrown passes, flung a perfect spiral back to the line of scrimmage. His coach demanded to know who threw the ball. His teammates cowered and pointed. Dickey, thinking he was in trouble, fessed up.

“From now on,” his coach told him, “you’re the quarterback.”

The son of a pastor and nurse, Dickey grew up in Independence Heights, the first Black town in Texas before it later became part of Houston’s Fourth Ward. Dickey could throw accurately with both hands, the stories went, had track-star speed and an IQ in the 130s.

But it was his arm strength that inspired the most awe. Joe Gilliam Sr., a former assistant coach at Tennessee State and the father of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Joe Gilliam Jr., said Dickey could accurately fire the ball 70 yards. Dickey once told his cousin, Malik Rasheed, that the farthest he could hurl it was “97 yards.”

Why not just round up to 100?

“He would tell me all the time,” Rasheed says, “ ‘My ball would always fall three yards short.’ ”

At Booker T. Washington High, Dickey became a legend of Houston’s Prairie View Interscholastic League, which has produced six Pro Football Hall of Famers. Karl Douglas, who would later turn pro, was in ninth grade at a nearby school when his coach took him to see Dickey play. Dickey was the last player to run out on the field — and the only one not wearing a helmet, Douglas recalls, wanting everyone to remember his face. Then he watched Dickey calmly walk up behind his center and address the opposing defense: “Good evening, line.”

On the first play of the game, Douglas says, Dickey scrambled left, pointed over his shoulder to his right, pivoted his hips and threw a bomb for a touchdown. On the subsequent two-point conversion, Douglas says, Dickey fired a pass into the back of the end zone and ran toward the sideline, clapping before the ball was even caught.

“Some people saw some cockiness in him. To others, it was confidence,” Douglas says. “He was smooth as Tennessee whiskey, no doubt.”

In Dickey’s time, few college football programs outside of the Big Ten were willing to recruit Black players. Most found themselves at historically Black colleges and universities in the Deep South: Grambling, Tennessee State, Jackson State, Florida A&M. Those schools routinely sent talent to the NFL, but players in “thinking” positions such as quarterback, middle linebacker and center usually had to accept that they would need to change positions at the next level.

Dickey wound up at Tennessee State, where legendary coach John Merritt taught him the prayer that would become his nickname. Dickey would deliver it before every game, firing up the team through a 24-game winning streak.

“He wasn’t going to let us lose,” says Humphrey, his teammate. “If we needed him, we just call on ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ ”

One of those moments occurred in Dickey’s sophomore season, in 1965, when Tennessee State trailed Southern, 36-7, at halftime. Dickey threw four touchdowns, including one for 62 yards, as the Tigers scored 33 points in just 26 minutes to complete a comeback victory. Down in Louisiana, James “Shack” Harris was playing quarterback that day for Grambling, Southern’s rival, when, Harris recalls, the Grambling public address announcer provided the final score of the Tennessee State game: “Eldridge Dickey 40, Southern 36.”

“He could do it all,” says Harris, who in 1969 with the Buffalo Bills became the first Black quarterback to open the season as his team’s starter. “He was smart. He was a playmaker when the game was on the line. He was like Steve McNair. He had eyes in the back of his head. . . . I thought he was going to light the NFL up.”

Tennessee State won two Black college titles under Dickey, who threw for 6,523 yards and 67 touchdowns in his college career. Standing-room-only crowds violated safety codes to watch him tap-dance about the field in his white shoes. During a game against Central State in Wilberforce, Ohio, the Raiders’ Davis even came to watch, the first of multiple scouting trips.

“Everybody I talked to said Al looked at him as a pure talent,” football historian and researcher Lloyd Vance says. “He saw a guy that could move and do so many things.”

One of those things was returning punts, which Dickey did with speed that Humphrey compared with that of return great Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. Dickey ran “like a mad deer,” his cousin Rasheed says.

The Raiders saw it. Everyone did. But as a potential quarterback, Dickey’s versatility and athleticism, which today are viewed as necessities, were probably considered detriments.

“They were going to force him to [play another position]. And he was going to show them that they couldn’t,” says Humphrey, the former Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles great. “They didn’t want no Black quarterback. All they wanted was the White boy.”

As the draft approached, the Raiders were expected to take Dickey with the 25th pick. But it wasn’t hard to see that the “QB” next to Dickey’s name might not last.

Daryle Lamonica, the reigning AFL MVP, had just led the Raiders to the Super Bowl. His backup was 41-year-old future Hall of Famer George Blanda. And Davis was known for shuffling players’ positions after drafting them.

Dickey’s college coaches tried to prepare him. “They smelled some stink in that,” Rasheed says of the Raiders’ logjam at quarterback. “They told him: ‘Son, if you get there, your job is done. But we want to let you know, you may have to bear the cross, but you might not wear the crown.’ ”

If the Raiders passed on him, Dickey might fall into the second round — and perhaps get a fairer shot. Hank Stram, the innovative coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, was enamored with Dickey. But Davis, the thinking went, would be loath to let Stram land Dickey.

The Raiders drafted him as expected in the first round. But one round later, they delivered another blow to his chances, selecting Alabama quarterback Kenny Stabler. Davis didn’t ease any concerns, saying he judged football players neither by color nor position.

Dickey was diplomatic, saying he would “play anywhere,” but he believed his quarterback talent was undeniable. To him, and to his fellow Black quarterbacks, he represented promise. To Davis and the Raiders, though, Dickey was a spectacular athlete who, with a little training and acquiescence, could emerge as a superb wide receiver.

Davis told Dickey that while he wouldn’t be needed at quarterback his first year, he could compete for the backup job in future seasons. In the meantime, he could play flanker. Dickey reluctantly accepted, signing a four-year, $150,000 contract — good money for a non-quarterback back then — and got a jersey number reserved for quarterbacks, No. 10.

Dickey went home to Houston and bought his mother the house he had promised her in middle school. Then he splurged on himself, purchasing a sleek, black Cadillac Eldorado that he proudly rolled around Nashville and then Oakland — a fancy ride that reflected the success he knew would come.

At quarterback.

“He felt really secure,” says LaCanas Casselle, his college sweetheart and ex-wife. “There was no pressure because he was given that talent. He was gifted.”

Dickey struggled in his first season, catching just one pass and returning six kickoffs in 11 games. Meanwhile, in Denver, Marlin Briscoe beat Dickey to becoming the first Black quarterback of the Super Bowl era to start an NFL or AFL game. The Broncos had picked Briscoe as a defensive back in the 14th round of the same draft, but injuries left Denver without a signal caller. Briscoe made the most of his chance, throwing for 14 touchdowns in just seven games and finishing as runner-up for AFL offensive rookie of the year honors.

That season, when the Raiders came to town to play the Broncos, Dickey visited Briscoe at his apartment in Denver. He congratulated him, Briscoe recalls, but Dickey had little else to say that night.

“I think it hit him hard. It hit all of us hard,” Briscoe says. “We all thought that he would be the one.”

Madden took over as coach in 1969, Dickey’s second season, and went looking to groom a backup for Lamonica. Davis kept his word: The Raiders let both Dickey and Stabler play in a rookie scrimmage against the Dallas Cowboys. Dickey held his own, outperforming Cowboys star Roger Staubach in a 33-0 win.

“This is for me,” Dickey said afterward. “I’ll leave the pass catching to those 9.5 sprinters.”

Then another door opened for Dickey. On the eve of the Raiders’ preseason game against the Chiefs in Birmingham, Stabler quit. He was “tired of football,” according to reports, but the timing made some wonder if Dickey was on the cusp of breaking through.

“Even [Stabler] was thinking, ‘This guy is going to beat me out,’ ” Hurd says. (Stabler died in 2015.)

In Birmingham, the Raiders planned to let Dickey start the second half. But in the second quarter, Lamonica hurt his throwing hand. With Stabler watching from the stands, Dickey went in, and before long he was scrambling for a 20-yard touchdown run.

From there, Dickey took the Raiders on an amusement-park ride of spectacular runs and errant passes. Despite throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble, Dickey kept the Chiefs guessing with his spontaneity. He hit wide receiver Rod Sherman in the end zone for a potential game-winning score, but Sherman stepped out of bounds and the Raiders lost, 23-17.

Afterward, Dickey, his white shoes covered in red dirt from dodging defenders, was carried off the field by fellow Black college alumni Buck Buchanan and Ernie Ladd — who both played for the Chiefs. Stram, the Chiefs’ coach, called Dickey “the best scrambling quarterback I have ever seen.”

“I knew then that a door had been opened,” Dickey later said.

But Dickey’s own team was dismissive. “We prefer our quarterbacks to drop back and throw the ball,” Madden said. Added Blanda: “To me, it’s just helter-skelter high school football.”

Dickey played well as a backup the next week against Baltimore, throwing for 74 yards and rushing for another 26, which led the Colts’ Don Shula to praise Dickey’s arm and mobility: “He can run with anybody.”

But the experiment would soon end. Dickey missed a workout. Madden was perturbed. The next game, Dickey went 1 for 6 with an interception in a loss to San Diego.

The Raiders waived him. A sliver of opportunity appeared when Stram and the Chiefs, who would win the Super Bowl that season, claimed Dickey. But Davis blocked his rivals, rescinding the waiver request.

A knee injury derailed that season. The next two were filled with more drama than production. And when Stabler returned in 1970, Davis asked Dickey, for the good of the team, to go back to wide receiver for good.

The jovial spirit — the guy who would belt out a Jerry Butler tune or execute the intricate choreography of the Temptations on call — began to fade. Dickey struggled to maintain the facade that he was fine, even at home.

“He always felt like, ‘If I can’t play quarterback, there goes my dream,’ ” says Casselle, who separated from Dickey before his time in Oakland ended. “It hurt so much. It changed his whole personality.”

There are football men, most of them White, who see no conspiracy in Dickey’s fall. Ken Herock, the former player personnel director for Tampa Bay, is the executive who, a decade after Dickey was drafted, made Doug Williams the first Black quarterback to go in the first round and play the position in the NFL. Before that, though, Herock was a scout for the Raiders.

“He just wasn’t good enough,” Herock says of Dickey. “He got his chances. Nobody broke his spirit. Nobody broke him down. It had nothing to do with race.”

Davis “didn’t care” about race, Herock insists: “If you could play, you could play.” But he acknowledges that others weren’t ready. “I don’t think at that point in time people were accepting a Black quarterback.”

Dickey responded to the position change with defiance. He skipped practices. He was late to meetings, if he went at all. He disappeared for two weeks in 1970, the second season in which he never saw the field. The next season, in 1971, he caught four passes.

He had a huge drop in a 20-20 tie against the Chiefs, on Oct. 31, 1971, and would never see the field again. Madden kicked him off the team in December.

“Mentally, it messed him up,” Rasheed says of Dickey’s move back to receiver. “He didn’t take it well at all. And he never got over it.”

By the time the Raiders were done with him, Dickey was done with football.

The Raiders traded him in 1972 to Baltimore. It turned out that Douglas, who had marveled at Dickey’s talents as a high-schooler, had just been drafted out of Texas A&I to play quarterback for the Colts. He threw a few passes to Dickey in practice, and though Dickey’s pass routes and hands were fine, the swagger was gone. Douglas sat for a meal with Dickey to share that story of watching his high school heroics, hoping it would help them connect.

“I can’t remember if I could even get a smile out of him,” says Douglas, who later found success in the Canadian Football League. “Not a shell of a man, but on his way.”

The Colts quickly shipped Dickey to Kansas City, where even Stram couldn’t rescue him. He never played, fading into becoming the answer to a trivia question. A player who won sportsman of the year four times in college was out of pro football at 26 and labeled a problem child.

It was, back then, the typical experience for Black quarterbacks. Even Briscoe, who seized his chance in Denver, never got another one at quarterback. After that dynamite rookie season, the Broncos held offseason quarterback meetings without him, he says. Briscoe asked to be released and signed with Buffalo — to play wide receiver. “It was a pretty dark era for Black quarterbacks,” Briscoe says.

Stram, who twice tried to get Dickey, said later, “What happened to Eldridge Dickey has to go down as one of the greatest sports crimes ever committed.”

“The entire sports world,” he added, “was robbed by the Oakland Raiders.”

Dickey’s one season with Stram gave him the five years of service needed for his pension. He lived meagerly off that money after football, Rasheed says, falling into substance abuse before regaining his footing in life as a minister.

“Everybody wants to call a man a criminal, but no one asks him why he became one,” Dickey told the Kansas City Star after joining the Chiefs. “When you want something for so long, when you put out and think you have earned it — and then have it taken away from you, your desire dies. Mine did.”

Recognition didn’t come late in life for Dickey, but some has arrived since his death. Although Harris (Grambling) was the first Black quarterback to reach the Pro Bowl and to lead his team to the conference title game, and Williams (Grambling) was the first to lead his team to the Super Bowl, and McNair (Alcorn State) was the first to be the MVP, it was Dickey who, in 2005, was named the starting quarterback of the all-time HBCU team. He also was posthumously inducted in the Black College Football Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.

And two decades after Dickey’s death, his legacy lives on every Sunday, when Mahomes, Murray and Lamar Jackson bring backyard-football fun to the mainstream. But those who saw Dickey play still wonder if this moment would’ve come sooner, if only the player they called “The Lord’s Prayer” had his own prayers answered.

“It just could’ve been so much more,” says Vance, the researcher. “You had a lot of unsung African American quarterbacks that came on at a time before society was really ready for them. . . . These guys went through hell for [current players] to succeed.”

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