I am writing this letter to you as a sports fan and as a fellow Black man. As I begin to form my thoughts to you, I can already hear some in the distance exclaim, “Why do you say fellow Black man? Isn’t Jordan Love biracial?” I say fellow Black man, Jordan, as I know you know, because we live in a nation where biracial men like Booker T. Washington, Bob Marley, and Barack Obama are Black. They are us. You are us. Or as the former president and chief executive officer of the NAACP Ben Jealous told Michelle Martin of NPR, historically, “White was an exclusive definition; Black was an inclusive definition…”
I am also writing you in the epistolary tradition of James Baldwin. In 1962, Mr. Baldwin wrote “A Letter to My Nephew” in The Progressive Magazine. In the letter, Baldwin discusses America, racism, Black men, and many other themes with his nephew James. This same letter was included in Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time with a slightly different title, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” The letter was written to, among other things, encourage his brother’s son, as I hope to encourage you. If you are curious, the title was derived from the Negro hymn lyric, “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” This lyric likely points to the biblical scriptures in which Paul and Silas were unjustly imprisoned. While in the dungeon, they prayed, an earthquake occurred, the prison doors opened, and everyone’s chains fell from their hands.
To those of us Black men a couple decades older than you, Jordan, it feels like an earthquake of sorts is happening in professional football. The earthquake has freed Black quarterbacks to reach out and seize opportunities previously unavailable to them. The tremors started years ago, but your forward movement into historic freedoms will officially begin this 2023 NFL Season.
You, Jordan Love, are the projected starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. But, Jordan, a half century ago, in say 1973, you would not have been the Packers starting quarterback. You would have flashed your brilliance at Utah State University. You would have been scouted and worked out by NFL teams. Then after watching your dynamic play, you would have been asked (forced) to move to a different position if you wanted your football career to continue into the pros. Teams would have recommended that you play wide receiver or maybe move to the defensive side of the ball as a safety. In other words, five decades ago, the quarterback position was (and still is) considered a thinking man’s position. And black men were not considered to be thinkers. We were runners, tacklers, and talents who lacked the intelligence to consume the playbook and the discipline to command the team. But as a Scottish philosopher wrote, “No lie can live forever.”
In Wisconsin, the lie claiming that Black men lacked the brainpower to lead football teams began to die a little in 1922 when Frederick Douglass Pollard (better known as Fritz Pollard) “helped organize, played for, and coached the new Milwaukee Badgers squad” according to Rise of the Black Quarterback and What it Means for America. The Milwaukee Badgers were an NFL team from 1922-26 who played their games at Athletic Field (later known as Borchert Field). Paul Robeson followed Fritz to play for the Milwaukee Badgers in order to pay for law school on his way to becoming THE Paul Robeson- actor, singer, political activist. After his football career, Robeson became so internationally acclaimed that a tomato is named after him (Google it, or for fun Ask Jeeves). The lie experience more complications in Wisconsin in 1955 when Charlie “Choo Choo” Brackins was drafted by the Packers as the first HBCU alum to play quarterback in the NFL. Then in 1956, the myth displayed additional symptoms of failing health in the Badger State when Sidney Williams Jr. took over the starting quarterback job at UW Madison making Wisconsin the first Big Ten program to field a Black starting quarterback full-time. Williams was such a phenomenon that Ebony magazine ran a feature on the UW quarterback. The subheading of the article read, “Sidney Williams is the first Negro to win starting position as ‘brains’ of Big Ten team.” Sid’s brains were also recognized in 1958 when he received the Ivan Williamson Scholastic award, given to the football player “exemplifying high standards of academic achievement and sportsmanship.” Williams appeared in another chapter of Wisconsin history as signal caller for the UW team who boycotted a game at LSU after the Louisiana legislature passed a law in 1956 prohibiting integrated athletic events.
Williams’ success in Madison paved the way for other Black quarterbacks in the Big Ten like Tony Dungy. Dungy played for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers from 1974-76 and was awarded the Big Ten Medal of Honor for best academic and athletic skill over a four-year period. But, Jordan, this was not enough for Dungy to get a shot at quarterbacking an NFL team. Dungy’s race, well, more accurately, the NFL’s racism required him to move to defensive back in order to play football professionally. In Dungy’s February 2021 open letter to NFL owners addressing the lack of Black head coaches in the NFL, he said, “it hurt me in 1977 to graduate from college and not be given a chance to try to play QB in the NFL.” And in his September 2021 interview with NBC Sports Bay Area, Dungy wondered aloud if he was playing 40 years later, “could I do what Russell Wilson and Patrick (Mahomes) and some of these guys are doing now?”
Dungy’s disappointment did not deter him from expressing his leadership and genius in the NFL, Jordan. He won a Super Bowl as a defensive back for the 1978 Steelers and earned another Super Bowl ring as the head coach for the 2006 Indianapolis Colts. Dungy went on to propel the coaching careers of Lovie Smith, Jim Caldwell, Mike Tomlin and others. Tony Dungy turned his dream deferred into a system, a pipeline, of dream development for his assistant coaches. This is the sacred well you can drink from in tough times, Jordan. We have always had the ability to turn obstacles into opportunities for ourselves and others. This well of resilience runs as deep in us as the hand dug well of Woodingdean.
Some Black quarterbacks did break through of course and make history under center in the NFL even though “a nation of millions tried to hold us back.” Doug Williams won MVP of Super Bowl XXII. And maybe more importantly “for the culture,” Williams was immortalized in the 1988 Public Enemy lyric by Flava Flav:
“Yo, we gettin’ ready to watch the Super Bowl
We got a Black quarterback so step back.”
Warren Moon stepped forward next to become the first Black quarterback to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even though Moon was 1978 Rose Bowl MVP, he had to take his talents to the Canadian Football League and win, to quote Lebron, “not two, not three, not four” but five championships before securing his chance as an NFL quarterback with the Houston Oilers. Years later, Steve McNair who played college ball at the HBCU Alcorn State University followed Moon with the Tennessee Titans (formerly Houston Oilers) and was the first Black quarterback to win AP NFL Most Valuable Player when he shared the award with Peyton Manning in 2003.
Jordan, I have written this letter to you because I hope you rise “Up from a past that’s rooted in pain” as Maya Angelou announced. I have written this letter to you because as James Baldwin articulated, “If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.” And because you come from men who “dammed rivers and built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.” I have written this letter to you because as Lorraine Hansberry declared, “Though it is a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic — to be young, gifted and Black.”
We’re rooting for you, kid. Go, Pack, Go. Roll, Jordan, Roll.
Community Organizer in Southeast Wisconsin