Rocket Men: The Black Quarterbacks Who Revolutionized Pro Football

Image of Rocket Men: The Black Quarterbacks Who Revolutionized Pro Football
Release Date: 
September 5, 2023
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

“offers as thorough an examination of the question of both race and the quarterback position in professional football, as can be found anywhere.”

The National Football League has not been known for its progressive polices on race. When desegregation came following World War II, it came haltingly, position by position, with the final racial barrier set at quarterback. In Rocket Men John Eisenberg chronicles racial discrimination in the NFL; the stereotypes justifying it; and the slow breakdown of the final barrier at quarterback, remnants of which remain to this day.

In addition: “the absence of Black players at the position became a conveniently circular excuse to continue blocking talented prospects. . . . And when Black quarterbacks finally did break the walls, the progress was halting and painful. Baseball had one Jackie Robinson; pro football required many.”

Eisenberg begins with the formation of the NFL in 1920, when there were a handful of African Americans in the League. The numbers hovered between one and five. Between 1926 and 1933 there were never more than two. Total exclusion came in 1933. Among these early players was the first Black quarterback, Fritz Pollard, who played the position in 1923 for the Hammond (Ind.) Pros.

It is now generally acknowledged that the source of the unwritten segregation policy was the Washington owner, George Preston Marshall, who had the support of George Halas, league pioneer and owner of the Chicago Bears. The issue of a Black quarterback did not surface until new rules on passing made the quarterback the key offensive position. 

The first NFL coach to field African American players was Paul Brown, whose teams had Black players going back to his coaching days at Ohio State, his Great Lakes Naval Training Center team, and at Cleveland in the All-American Football Conference. When the AAFC merged into the NFL in 1950, Paul Brown’s African American players on the Cleveland team came into the NFL. The NFL itself had desegregated under political pressure in 1946 in Los Angeles.

Despite his history, Paul Brown did not have a Black quarterback and was among the first to direct one, Paul Curtis, to the Canadian Football League, when Curtis refused to accept any other position. When the American Football League began play in 1960, the quarterback barrier remained in place despite the league opening up to African American players at other positions.

Eisenberg’s account of these years is very well done. He then follows the changing landscape in the NFL effectively by using mini-biographies of those Black quarterbacks who came into the league only to meet the barrier.

There are many remarkable stories, all of which illustrate the resistance to change. If anyone doesn’t understand or believe in the reality of institutional racism in America, they only need read Rocket Men to come face to face with it. There are themes and variations throughout the stories of African American quarterbacks, and some are mind-numbing in their obtuseness. All point to the ability of NFL coaches and owners to deny reality.

Eisenberg makes his way through nearly all those who aspired to play the NFL quarterback position, only to be thwarted by the folk myths of football. It was not only football but many other sports that held to these myths. The notion that African Americans were not intelligent enough to play the “thinking positions” was ubiquitous in football and baseball. The notion that white fans would not support Black players or teams with “too many” Black players, was widely held. To say the least, there was much to overcome.

Starting with Bernie Curtis in Cleveland in 1951 and ending with the doubts still muttered about Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens, Eisenberg moves across the NFL and AFL years. He suggests that the barriers have largely fallen in the face of the reality of Patrick Mahomes, although lingering exceptions are still extant.

Among the quarterbacks examined by Eisenberg are Marlin Briscoe, James Harris, Eldrige Dickey, Chuck Ealey, and other more prominent players through the 1970s. All had success in college or in Canada. Some went undrafted, others were moved to other positions usually on defense. Among the most interesting cases are those of Doug Williams, Steve McNair, Warren Moon, and Randall Cunningham.

The 1999 NFL draft seemed to signal a change in the league. In that draft, three Black quarterbacks were taken in the first round, almost as many “as had been taken in the previous sixty-two drafts.” As it turned out, the change was not permanent and “the rate of opportunity for them would stall . . . and head down again” by the end of the decade.

The careers of Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, and Russell Wilson, although at one level indicating change, in the long run indicated the fragility of their opportunities. By 2017, all issues “had not been resolved.” Sports Agent Leigh Steinberg said that the age of total denial of opportunity had ended, but African American quarterbacks had to be “really talented and productive or there wasn’t a place on the team for them; very few were backups.” In fact, ten Black quarterbacks were starters at the opening of the 2022 season.

Eisenberg concludes with the stories of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson who are now at the top of their profession. By 2022, the conversation on racial inequality in NFL changed. Coaching received more attention than the state of Black quarterbacks. The book ends with an Epilogue detailing the research of Chicago sports historian Jack Silverstein’s study of the Chicago Bears that reiterates much of Eisenberg’s conclusions.

Rocket Men at times gets bogged down in repetition of examples, but in the end, it offers as thorough an examination of the question of both race and the quarterback position in professional football, as can be found anywhere.