Monday, September 04, 2006

Grambling greats: James Harris

A promise
Grambling's James Harris made good on a personal vow
July 20, 2003

This was a homecoming in the best sense of the word - by turns sentimental and inspirational.

But in the end, James "Shack" Harris - one of the highest-ranking black executives in the NFL - had twin messages for local young people: Get an education and allow yourself to imagine a brighter future.

"There's not many things you can do in this world for free," said Harris, the Monroe native who serves as vice president of player personnel with the Jacksonville Jaguars. "But dreaming is free: So I decided to dream big."

Harris - a former Carroll High and Grambling State standout who went on to a 12-year NFL career - spoke at a fund-raiser for the Northeast Louisiana Delta African American Heritage Museum, held Saturday night at the West Monroe Convention Center.

The non-profit museum, established on Monroe's Plum Street in 1993, showcases cultural classes and events - as well as a permanent collection detailing important historical moments in local African-American history. Of special note is the presentation "Troubling the Water," which recounts the Civil Rights movement in northeastern Louisiana.

Harris said a key moment in that struggle also changed his life.

He was watching the Martin Luther King Jr. speech in August 1963 on television, looking for two local friends who had gone to Washington, D.C., to participate in the march, when he heard these immortal words: "I have a dream, that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

He decided to do what was then unthinkable for a black athlete: "I decided that day that I would play quarterback," Harris said. "I realized what I was risking. But I decided that day."

Most African-Americans were converted to defensive back or receiver. None had ever been drafted or started at quarterback in the NFL.

But with encouragement from family, Carroll coach Dorth Blade and Grambling coach Eddie Robinson, he realized his own dreams: Harris did both.

He fell to the eighth round in the draft for not agreeing to switch positions, but was finally picked up by the Buffalo Bills in the 1969 NFL draft. Harris would go on to play for Los Angeles and San Diego, earning MVP honors at the Pro Bowl in 1975.

Harris then left the playing field for a second career in scouting, one that led eventually to the Baltimore Ravens - where, as director of pro personnel, he helped construct the 2001 Super Bowl champions.

Last January, he broke more ground: Harris was named vice president of player personnel for the Jaguars - where he is in charge of all personnel decisions.

Doug Williams, a fellow Grambling and NFL alum, says it's impossible to overestimate how important that position is.

"Whatever Jacksonville does," he says, "is going to hinge on James Harris."

Not that Harris - ranked as the 36th most influential African-American in sports last spring by The Sporting News - isn't up to the task. He said he began preparing here in northeastern Louisiana.

Harris led Carroll to 39 consecutive wins in high school.

"That was the greatest team I ever played on," Harris said Saturday. "If we were still playing, we'd still be undefeated."

Carroll teammate Delles Howell, later a member of the New Orleans Saints, gave the benediction - part of a large contingency of friends, family, classmates and fellow players.

Blade introduced Harris, and received warm thanks from his former signal-caller.

"When I left Carroll High School, I left with a blueprint for life, one that gave me an opportunity to succeed," Harris said. "I just didn't realize how good of a coach he was - and what he meant to me. He made me a man."

Harris then called the decision to play for the legendary Eddie Robinson in college "probably the greatest decision I ever made. Coach Robinson told me, in four years I would play quarterback in the NFL - and I believed him. And I believed in Martin Luther King's words."

In the meantime, Harris and the Tigers won or shared the SWAC title in each of his four years in school. He set what was then a state collegiate record with 4,705 career passing yards at Grambling.

That earned him induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1999, as well as the SWAC and the Grambling Athletic halls.

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'First Shack' remembers hard road he traveled
July 21, 2003

By Nick Deriso
There were, to be sure, some serious moments.

Former NFL quarterback James Harris - in town at a fund-raiser for the Northeast Louisiana Delta African American Heritage Museum - talked about the dark and lonely times when he questioned his own refusal to switch positions back in the 1960s.

A stellar career in high school and college at quarterback was no guarantee of success at the next level. Not then. It was widely believed that blacks didn't have the "intangibles" (code for brains) to play under center.

But the former Carroll High standout had signed with Eddie Robinson at Grambling State, then a virtual factory for black NFL talent.

"I told coach it didn't make any sense to go to the NFL and not play," Harris remembered Saturday. "He told me something - and I think about it often, when I face troubled times," Harris said. "He said if I didn't go to the NFL, it would be a long time before someone else could get there again."

The Monroe native accepted that challenge, learned to thrive on the expectations.

"Never," he said Coach Rob told him, "blame your failures on being black. We've got to face those challenges and prepare to be better."

But the evening's hilarious peaks came more often, the way they will in the reverie of reunion. The fund-raiser, far from focusing on his professional football career, ended up being a happy walk down the dusty back alleys of his time growing up in Monroe and Grambling.

Before the histories could be rewritten in the outside world - first black quarterback drafted, also the first to start, then one of the most influential African-Americans in the NFL power structure - Harris would have to face down adolescence. Folks who'd been there, and folks who admired him as he succeeded, were with Harris again this week - giving the proceedings a kitchen-table casualness.

Every person who got up to the podium cracked wise.

For instance, Richwood Mayor Ed Harris - one of several state and municipal officials on hand - took special care to remind the youngsters listening to Harris' advice on staying in school: "This is the first Shack. The real Shack!"

More laughter.

Several current NFL players attended - including lineman Terrance Sykes, who's been on the rosters of Cleveland and Indianapolis; wide receiver Scott Cloman of Washington; and linebacker Quincy Stewart, a former member of the San Francisco squad who will play for Denver next year.

Stewart presented the African American Heritage Museum's executive director with a football signed by all of his former Niners teammates - prompting Lorraine Slacks to jokingly ask for extra security to escort her out of the building.

Even more laughter.

Shack was disarmingly personal throughout, offering shimmering glimpses into the building blocks of an impressive American success story.

He didn't come from money. "Growing up," Harris reminisced, "all I knew was hard-working parents in a hard-working city. We never traveled, never had a vacation. But I never thought I was poor. We had just enough."

It wasn't laughter then, so much as nods of melancholy remembrance. Shack said his excursions into the harsh realities of work for blacks in the 1960s strengthened his resolve. And how.

Harris had taken on temporary work in a nearby cottonfield, looking to earn some extra money. On the way out, he overheard his mother say: "I sure hope James can go to college." Harris says, back then, "I didn't know what college meant." But when he got to the fields, and took to working the cotton - "in rows," he said Saturday, "that were from now on" - "something hit me: You could be doing this for the next 30 years.

"I went home and asked my mom to tell about this word `college' again."

Laughter, again.

The sweet laughter of friends and family.

"I know my life has been touched by so many of you tonight," Harris said, at one point. It was clear the feeling was mutual.

Nick Deriso is sports editor at The News-Star, 411 N. Fourth St., Monroe, La., 71201. You can contact him at (318) 362-0234 or at nderiso@the

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Respect lives on for 'Shack'
Prep football award renamed for Carroll, Grambling standout
June 18, 2006

By Nick Deriso
James "Shack" Harris quarterbacked five championship teams in northeastern Louisiana, two at Carroll High and three at Grambling State.

Then he blazed a trail for blacks at the quarterback position in the pros and, later, in NFL front offices. Our readers recognized those staggering accomplishments by voting to name The News-Star/Glenwood SportsCare's high school offensive player of the year award in his honor.

"I think naming it for him is exceptional," said Dorth Blade, head coach at Carroll throughout the 1960s. "We've had many outstanding individuals, but I don't know of anybody else in this vicinity who has had quite the influence that James Harris has had. He would be good representative."

Harris topped a poll stuffed with local legends, including West Monroe natives Billy Joe Dupree and Jerry Stovall, Ruston products W.A. "Dub" and Bert Jones, and Monroe's Sammy White, among others.

"I chose 'Shack' because he epitomizes the spirit of someone who is a leader, a winner, a productive player - and one who has earned the respect of all of his peers," said Monroe's Rod Washington, sentiments shared by voters like Sunny Journey and Tammy Ledet.

" 'Shack' did that on the high school, college and pro levels," Washington said. "I think he is a great role model for the top high school football players in our area."

Born July 20, 1947 in Monroe, Harris would lead Carroll to the 1961 and '62 Class 3A state titles before falling in the 1963 semifinals. That loss to St. Augustine was one of only two in Harris' three campaigns as a starter at Carroll, Blade said.

In all, he won 39 consecutive prep games in Monroe.

"That was the best team I've ever been on," Harris said. "There were people who didn't cross the 50 (yard line) on us. I wore white pants, and they didn't get washed all year. I never was touched."

Harris then compiled a 31-9-1 record under former coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling, capturing the 1966-68 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles, before becoming the first black player ever drafted as a quarterback.

"Coach Robinson is the greatest influence in sports that I had in terms of preparing you for sports, and preparing you for life - for the competitiveness that would follow," Harris said. "The biggest thing that Coach taught us was to be prepared, and then good things would happen."

They did. An eighth-round selection for Buffalo, Harris had his greatest success later with Los Angeles - where he led the Rams to divisional titles and the NFC championship game in 1974 and '75.

He was named the Pro Bowl's most valuable player in 1975, then led the NFC with an 89.8 passer rating a season later before finishing his career with San Diego.

Harris has since spent nearly two decades as a pioneer in pro personnel. After a stint in scouting and four years as assistant general manager of the New York Jets, Harris was named director of pro personnel for the Baltimore Ravens in 1997 - where he helped build the 2000 Super Bowl championship squad. Harris has been vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars since January 2003.

" 'Shack' was born to be what he is, a leader at every level," said former college teammate Henry Dyer, who twice led all GSU rushers in the 1960s. "All of us have been pulling for him from the beginning, because he's been a groundbreaker through the years."

Harris has consistently given area players a shot in the pros, signing receivers Randy Hymes and Troy Edwards, kicker Josh Scobee and cornerback Kenny Wright, among others.

"You'll never find someone who is more proud to be from somewhere than James Harris is," said well-known college sports broadcaster Tim Brando, who as a youngster did play-by-play for Neville games. "Everywhere 'Shack' goes, all he talks about is the talent from this area."

Sports Illustrated named Harris one of sports' Top 50 most influential minorities in both 2003 and '04. He is also a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Louisiana Sports halls of fame.

"James was a well-raised guy," said former Carroll assistant coach Curtis Armand, who lived right across the street when Harris was a kid. "A good, good fellow. No attitude, and smart. He deserves this honor."

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Harris was overwhelming choice
Former Carroll High and Grambling standout James Harris finished atop a weeklong poll to name The News-Star/Glenwood SportsCare offensive player of the year award, with 56 percent of the votes.

Several other local products received widespread support. Former Dallas Cowboys standout Billy Joe Dupree, who graduated from the now-closed Richardson High in West Monroe, finished second with 19 percent.

"Billy Joe Dupree was a great inspiration to me when I was growing up," said voter James Caldwell. "He encouraged me to stay in school, saw that I had athletic ability and helped me get involved in sports."

The third-place finisher was Ruston High product Bert Jones, who later starred at LSU and with the Baltimore Colts, with 9 percent.

Write-ins for former Louisiana Tech athletics director Jerry Stovall, a West Monroe graduate who later was an All-America player and then coach at LSU, pushed him to fourth place with 5 percent of the vote.

"Every place he has been, he has been known for his strong Christian beliefs, high morals and ethics," said Barry White, president of the West Monroe High School alumni association.

All other candidates - including Walter "Bubby" Brister, W.A. "Dub" Jones, Sammy White and Paul "Tank" Younger - represented the final 11 percent of the polling.

"Mr. W.A. Jones and his son Bert have continued to exhibit the leadership qualities that made them great on the field in their post football days," said voter Brandon Ewing.

The first James Harris offensive player of the year award will be presented in a postseason banquet sponsored annually by Glenwood SportsCare.

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Our lasting legend
Monroe's James Harris has been a groundbreaker all along
June 26, 2006

His college and high school coaches always believed James "Shack" Harris could play.

His folks, well, that was another matter.

Harris, a future standout at both Carroll High and Grambling, had a brother who'd been injured on the gridiron. It took a long talk from former Carroll assistant Curtis Armand, himself a former Grambling player under Eddie Robinson, to convince Harris' parents.

"He said I could get a scholarship," remembered Harris, now vice president of player personnel for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. "They understood what a free education meant."

What came next was a magical career around football. James Larnell Harris, born in Monroe on July 20, 1947, would win five championships playing football in Louisiana, then crash through the NFL's color barrier as a black quarterback and front-office executive.

Those achievements sparked widespread support in a recent poll, as readers voted to name The News-Star/Glenwood SportsCare high school offensive player of the year award in Harris' honor.

Call it fitting tribute to Harris, who played during a period of 1960s dominance at Carroll High - winning a jaw-dropping 39 consecutive regular-season games.

"The greatest high school teams ever assembled," Harris said, simply. Harris led Carroll to consecutive undefeated marks in 1963-64, winning the Class 3A title as a junior before falling in the semifinals to St. Augustine a year later.

"We put a value on losing," Harris said. "Losing was not a choice." In a way, Harris had been around the Eddie Robinson aesthetic since he was a teenager. Both Armand and head coach Dorth Blade had played at Grambling. Blade, in fact, was a member of the legendary undefeated 1955 team, Robinson's first black national championship squad.

So, the transition was seamless.

Harris immediately saw playing time in spot duty behind Eddie Robinson Jr. in 1965, helping Grambling to a league title. He then started for the next trio of years - winning three more championships.

Easy to know, but exacting and driven, Harris connected in a visceral way with other players.

"'Shack' has always been a remarkable guy, a motivator and leader," said former teammate Frank Lewis, a wingback on that 1968 Southwestern Athletic Conference champion. "Usually on a team, there are groups of friends. But he's the type of guy who was close with everybody. He could talk to anybody."

GSU lost just five games with Harris as the No. 1 quarterback. In fact, over the four seasons Harris was on the team, Grambling went 31-9-1 - including a 9-1 campaign in 1967 that earned Harris a black college national championship.

"We did a lot of damage," Harris said. "We had the best players in the state of Louisiana. We were so deep and so talented. There were guys that would leave Grambling because they couldn't get a chance to play - then go other places and start."

Twice voted the team's MVP (after the 1967-68 seasons), Harris finished with 4,705 yards and 53 touchdowns - school records that stood until the Doug Williams era nearly a decade later.
All along, Robinson told him he could become the first black player drafted as a quarterback. Harris remained skeptical.

"I was a guy who worked. I spent a lot of time preparing for it," he said. "I thought I was capable, but I didn't think the opportunity would ever be there. Nobody was playing then. It was unrealistic to think about it."

Several teams tried to convince Harris to switch positions, something that had already happened to black quarterback Marlin Briscoe, but Harris held firm.

Undeniable collegiate numbers eventually convinced the Buffalo Bills to take that chance. Harris, then on a Bills roster that included Jack Kemp and Tom Flores, would also became the first black quarterback to start a pro football season.

But the eighth rounder would only play in four games that first campaign, enduring both unfortunate injuries and scarring racially motivated criticism.

"I've got so much respect for 'Shack' as a person, because I know what he had to go through," said Williams, who followed Harris into an NFL starting job and eventually won Super Bowl MVP honors.

"'Shack' never talked about those things, though," Williams added. "The only thing he ever did with me was say: 'If you can throw at Grambling, you can throw in the league.'"

Harris' stoicism about the crushing adversity that lay ahead was born from long talks with his college coach.
"The biggest thing that Coach Robinson taught us," Harris said, "was not to make excuses."

Robinson, in fact, had stayed in constant contact, even years after Harris had left Grambling.

"I had handpicked and prayed for James Harris to hurdle the color barrier as an NFL quarterback," Robinson once said. "I wouldn't let James ever give up the idea."

He would eventually be waived by Buffalo in 1972, and spent a year out of football working for the U.S. Commerce Department's Office of Minority Business Enterprise.

"Sometimes it's where you go that dictates the circumstances," Harris said. "Sometimes it's the breaks you get that determine your career."

A break for Harris came in the form of the Los Angeles Rams, who signed Harris the following year. Harris remained a back up, however. John Hadl, Ron Jaworski and Pat Haden were also in Coach Chuck Knox's quarterback platoon.

"I wrote (Harris) a letter telling him what he needed to do," Robinson said. "He needed to be the first one at practice and the last one to leave. ... I told James to be careful with what he said, and he always should say good things about the team. I impressed on him he should not make his not playing into a racial issue, even if he thought it was."

As Harris continued to split playing time, Robinson even made a call to Carrol Rosenbloom, the owner of the Rams, on Harris' behalf. He didn't ask for special consideration, only that Rosenbloom take notice of how well prepared Harris had become.

"What Coach gave me was more than just knowing what it took to become an NFL quarterback," Harris said. "He touched our lives in such a way that I was better prepared for life. There has probably never been a better man than Eddie Robinson."

Finally given the opportunity to start again in 1974, Harris quickly found his footing.

Harris led the Rams to 20 wins in 24 games, becoming the first black quarterback to start a playoff game. He would complete 483 passes for 3,692 yards and 25 scores over that period - an astonishing burst of productivity that earned Harris an invite to the Pro Bowl, where he was named Most Valuable Player.

In one 1975 game against Baltimore, Harris threw for 294 yards. A season later, he had a 436-yard explosion against Miami on the way to becoming the NFC's leading passer - even though Harris had only played in seven games.

He held the highest career completion average of any quarterback in Rams history, and had played on teams that won four straight divisional titles while advancing to three consecutive NFC Championship Games in the mid-1970s.

Despite that, Harris was traded to San Diego to make room for the aging Joe Namath. There, Harris reunited with a former Grambling teammate, receiver Charlie Joiner, for a final five-year stint.

Harris, while acknowledging his special place in history, laments that he didn't do more as an NFL player.

"I never really got a chance to play up to my capabilities," he said. "I was always trying to play perfectly, because if you made a mistake - you were out."

Perfection took too long, often leaving him with no open options. The highlight reels from back then, it seems, always show Harris running for his life.

"I would hold that ball a little longer trying to make sure I didn't get it picked off," Harris said. "In college and high school, I had played loose. You knew if you made a mistake, the coach would just call it again - not send you home."

Perhaps Harris' most important achievement is an on-going position of influence within the traditionally lily-white power structure of the NFL.

Robinson often made special note of the fact that Harris "broke restraints on the field as a player, and then in proving blacks could be leaders in the team's front office."

Harris began working up the ladder as an NFL scout, including a six-year stay with Tampa Bay. Next he was promoted to assistant general manager of the New York Jets, a position he held from 1993-96.

Harris would then help build the 2000 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens as director of pro personnel. "We came up with a core group of defensive guys who were outstanding," said Harris, in Baltimore from 1997 until taking over with the Jaguars in 2003.

As vice president of player personnel for Jacksonville, Harris works as one of the highest ranking blacks in NFL management - making decisions on player acquisitions, including the annual college draft, free agency, trades, undrafted prospects and those from other leagues.

Those who came later still find inspiration by following in his footsteps. Williams, who succeeded Robinson as coach at Grambling, is now working in an NFL front office, as well. Two years ago, he took a job as a personnel executive with Tampa Bay, the club that drafted him out of Grambling in 1978.

"To see 'Shack' doing what he's doing now, it's an inspiration," said Williams, whose elder sibling Robert played baseball at Grambling. "He always has been. I think of 'Shack' as another older brother. He's somebody I want to be like. Guys like him made it possible for all of us. There's no amount of recognition he doesn't deserve."

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Black quarterbacks turn the page
New ESPN book chronicles struggles that led to future success
February 5, 2007

By Nick Deriso
The timing couldn't have been better.

ESPN Books issues “Third and a Mile,” focusing on black NFL quarterbacks like Grambling products James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams. And it happens just as two African-Americans advance to the Super Bowl as head coaches for the first time ever.

That’s given these two local heroes a chance to reflect, even as they continue to marvel at how far they’ve come.Williams and Harris shared storylines (from Grambling to pro starter to NFL front office) and a college mentor in Eddie Robinson. It’s kindled a shared admiration.

“I’ve got so much respect for ‘Shack’ as a person, because I know what he had to go through,” Williams said. “‘Shack’ never talked about those things, though. The only thing he ever did with me was say: ‘If you can throw at Grambling, you can throw in the league.’”

“Third and a Mile,” an oral history collected by New York Times writer William C. Rhoden, has Harris and Williams — the first black passer to start an NFL game and the first to win a Super Bowl — as an understandable focus.

They form the center of book that expands to feature fellow pioneers like Marlin Briscoe (first to throw a pass in the modern era) and Warren Moon (first to earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame) as well as current players like Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper.

Before those later successes, however, there were mighty struggles.

At first, Harris, a Monroe native, didn’t even let himself dream about starting.

“I thought I was capable, but I didn’t think the opportunity would ever be there,” he said. “Nobody was playing then. It was unrealistic to think about it.”

The world was turning, but slowly.

Harris, fresh off his selection in the 1968 NFL Draft, arrived to find this headline in The Buffalo Evening News: “A 6-4 Negro QB, Harris, Drafted 8th by the Bills.”

Black quarterbacks were still a novelty for a league that had seen just two attempt a pass between 1953 and 1968. Even then, Briscoe did so only because of injuries to the two quarterbacks ahead of him.

He set several rookie records as a passer in Denver — then found himself released at season’s end, anyway. Briscoe would play nine NFL seasons and eventually win two Super Bowls with Miami, but as a receiver.

That didn’t exactly bode well for Harris, despite the fact that he had led five championship teams in northeastern Louisiana — one at Carroll High and four at Grambling.

“The interviews that he had, they didn’t want him as a quarterback,” said former Carroll coach Dorth Blade. “He had the kind of talent that he could have played defensive back; he had the skills to play any position. (In fact, in the closing moments of Carroll’s 1962 state championship, Harris was actually spelling at safety.) But he wanted to play quarterback.”

Harris was never given a fair shake. He bounced from Buffalo to Los Angeles — where, during a rare period where he saw consistent starting time, the Rams won divisional titles and advanced to the NFC championship game in 1974 and ’75.

Despite becoming the first black passer to lead a team into the playoffs, Harris was shipped off to San Diego.“I never really got a chance to play up to my capabilities,” said Harris. “I was always trying to play perfectly, because if you made a mistake — you were out.”

Still, the yeoman’s work done by Briscoe and Harris opened the passway for Williams, who would become the most valuable player of the 1988 Super Bowl for the Washington Redskins.

The now ailing Robinson would often recall telling Williams that the significance of that moment would only deepen with time.

“Coach was right, as usual,” Williams told reporters this week. “In a way, seeing (Chicago Bears coach) Lovie Smith and (Indianapolis Colts coach) Tony Dungy coach in this Super Bowl will have more impact on me than my playing in the game did. I’ve lived a little history now, and I know exactly where we started with black coaches.”

Harris looks back with more than a little regret on his pro playing days. Still, his steady resilience made it easier for those who came later.

Moon was so determined to follow Harris into quarterbacking that he decided not to run at full speed when he was clocked in the 40-yard dash as a college athlete at Washington — all to avoid being moved to wideout or cornerback.

He and Randall Cunningham would bridge the gap between the widely accepted black superstar passers of today and Grambling’s groundbreakers of the ’70s.

“The only thing I knew,” Harris said, “is I wasn’t switching positions. I was going home before I was going to do that.”

Harris’ more remarkable contribution was to follow that 12-year career on the field with nearly two decades as a pioneer in pro personnel. He’s helped build rosters for the Jets, the Ravens (including the 2000 Super Bowl champions) and the Jaguars, where he was worked since 2003.

Robinson often made special note of the fact that Harris “broke restraints on the field as a player, and then in proving blacks could be leaders in the team’s front office.”

Williams, who later succeeded Robinson as Grambling’s coach, is also a personnel executive — working for Tampa Bay, the NFL club that selected him 17th overall in the 1978 draft.

Though they once endured a withering spotlight focused on their skin color, Harris and Williams have been witness to an amazing transformation: In some ways, the game itself has become bigger than race.

McNair and McNabb have led teams into the Super Bowl over the last decade — and with far less scrutiny.

“The thing about a Super Bowl is, they may call you a black quarterback,” Williams said, “but the truth is that they can’t color that experience.”

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A separate history: Harris, Williams return with new book on black QBs
Grambling products featured in 'Third and a Mile,' a stirring new oral history
March 10, 2007

By Nick Deriso
William C. Rhoden wanted you to walk a while in their shoes.

So the New York Times writer took a gutsy approach in the new book “Third and a Mile,” which explores what he calls “the trials and triumphs” of the black pro quarterback.

He presents an oral history, rather than weaving in the expected prose. These raw and riveting accounts give the book its power, and its poignancy.

About 80 different voices are heard, loud and clear -- including two Grambling products, James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams. Their words become an ever-more resounding rebuke, even if the book’s stark style means Rhoden disappears a bit in the telling.

“We left it up to him,” Harris said, “and that was the way he thought it was best to present it -- since there were so many different angles and personalities to the story. We like it because it’s easy to read.”

Harris, a Monroe native, and Williams will sign copies of “Third and a Mile” today at Windows, a Bookshop, on Park Avenue across from Forsythe Park in Monroe. The free event lasts from noon to 2 p.m. Call 361-9004.

“Third and a Mile” also includes accounts from Warren Moon, Vince Evans and Marlin Briscoe, among others. Each played his own role in the struggle of black passers to earn equal opportunity in the National Football League.

Their thoughts are laid bare, without interruption or tacked-on transitions. Eventually, the quarterbacks are joined by others, black and white, to provide insight and context.

“The writer did a good job, because he didn’t deviate from what we said,” Williams said. “It’s not just told from the individual quarterback’s point of view, but also from other people’s. You get it from a different view, and see what everybody else thought about what was going on.”

For Harris and Williams, these were not new thoughts. It was new, though, to voice a few of them.

“Some of the things you go through, you have not shared with anybody else or hadn’t wanted to talk about,” Harris said. “Some of those things were said for the first time, once we sat down and started thinking about it. But those are things you never forget.”

Harris -- who once won 39 consecutive games as a prep quarterback at Monroe’s Carroll High -- would become the first black in league history to open a regular season as a starting quarterback, and the first to lead an NFL team to the playoffs.

Williams was the first to be selected in the first round of the draft, the first to lead a team to the Super Bowl, the first to win it, and the first to be named most valuable player.

Leading the way meant absorbing withering criticism -- in print and in person -- from those who questioned whether a black quarterback could lead a football team.

“There are things that have been on your mind for a long time, and maybe you only shared them with a few people,” Williams said. “Now, you can share it with whoever wants to read it -- and they are things that people probably didn’t even think about. All you know was what you saw on TV on Sundays. You may not know the roads that were traveled to get there.”

Rhoden’s intriguing examination is an important reminder for those who once thought too little of the struggle to even football’s playing field for blacks. But as players like Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb have helped us move beyond the question, it’s no less meaningful for a new generation who might not be as mindful of what came before.

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Happy homecoming
March 09, 2007

In the new book "Third and a Miles," James "Shack" Harris talks about the effects of blistering racism while growing up in Monroe during the 1950s and '60s.

But this Carroll High and Grambling product never wavered in his passion for the area.

"So many people from Monroe have supported me and are a big part of where I am today," said Harris, who attended practice at GSU tonight along with fellow Grambling product Doug Williams. "I always enjoy coming home, and seeing the way things have changed."

There was much to talk about: The book, the charity golf tournament he and Williams are sponsoring later this summer, the Jaguars - where he makes all the personnel decisions.

Then Harris got down to business: Just how good is Bastrop? Who's the best player coming out of the area right now? Ahmad Paige?

Harris left northeastern Louisiana, but it never left him.That's a tribute to his former Grambling coach, the beloved Eddie Robinson, who always challenged Harris to work hard, no matter the hardships, and to never rely on excuses.

Harris' love for Monroe would withstand whatever wrongheaded prejudice it once threw at him.

And now, finally, the town has learned to return his embrace -- and with a northside booksigning in Harris' honor, no less.

As Rob would say: I love this country.

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