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Trail blazer: Willie 'The Pro' Thrower opened door for black quarterbacks

Sunday, February 24, 2002

One-hundred and fifty folks crammed into Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in New Kensington yesterday for a funeral. They came to celebrate a brief legacy as much as a long life. They sang, they praised Willie "The Pro" Thrower, they heard mention of the NFL quarterbacks who followed the trail he blazed: Joe Gilliam, Doug Williams, Michael Vick, so many others.

Friends gather yesterday to remember Willie Thrower. In the foreground is Vince Pisano, a teammate of Thrower at Ken High School and Michigan State. In the background, Jim Rooney talks to Marjory Fletcher, wife of Von Fletcher, who was Thrower's coach at Ken High. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

There were two wooden pews with empty seats near the front of the Fourth Avenue church, the place with a 50-yard-long sanctuary and a high-peaked roof perfectly suitable for a passing quarterback. Williams should've sat in one of those pews. James Harris should've sat with him. Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham and the Steelers' Kordell Stewart and Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper and Vick should've been there, too.

They owed him, the NFL owed him, as much.

The late Willie "The Pro" Thrower was at the front of their color line.

Yesterday's funeral program told the tale. Going Home Service for Willie T. Thrower: First Black Quarterback NFL. His accomplishment of Oct. 18, 1953, has been commemorated in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His mitt-sized passing hand has been immortalized in plaster by Ripley's Believe It or Not. All because he was the first quarterback, his was the first black hand, to toss an official NFL pass. I was like the Jackie Robinson of football, he used to say.

Almost until the day he died 3/4 Wednesday, after a prolonged illness, at 71 3/4 Thrower had to convince people in his own hometown that he made history. They called him a liar. They doubted. So he hardly talked about it.

"It was like a nothing, like a void," said Vince Pisano, a longtime friend and backfield mate from their days at Ken High in New Kensington and Michigan State, where Thrower was likewise credited with being the Big Ten Conference's first black quarterback, in 1950. "It didn't come up too much."

Even this reporter was guilty of ignorance, mentioning Thrower in an August piece about Stewart and Tee Martin without ever realizing how nearby such a treasure resided.

Too many fail to realize it still. A long line of African-American quarterbacks neglected to pay some sort of respects yesterday. Michigan State sent flowers in honor of the backup quarterback from its 1952 national championship team, but not the Chicago Bears for whom he carved a piece of NFL history. The Steelers sent Jim Rooney, Dan's young son, who spoke not only on behalf of his family and the hometown club, but the NFL as a whole.

Rooney spoke eloquently, all right. He talked about the late Gilliam being the first black quarterback to start the season for an NFL team, his family's own Steelers in 1974. He talked about Williams being the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, in 1988. He talked about Vick being the first black quarterback to become the league's first-overall draft choice last spring. Shoot, even the self-proclaimed America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, began training camp last summer with African-Americans as their first-, second- and third-string quarterbacks.

"It never would have reached this status if it weren't for Willie to lead that way," Rooney said.

Because 11 African-American quarterbacks started at some point this past NFL season, because nearly half of the 2000 season's playoff teams relied on a McNabb or a Culpepper or a McNair or an Aaron Brooks or a Shaun King, we tend to forget the sordid history. That the league didn't begin integration until 1947. That Thrower was one of just two blacks on the Chicago Bears' 1953 roster, so no wonder he felt animosity, no wonder he thought he heard a snicker every time he ducked into a huddle.

That, on this forgotten October day in 1953, Thrower completed 3 of 8 passes for 27 yards and directed the Bears to the San Francisco 5-yard line, whereupon owner-coach George Halas promptly re-inserted starter George Blanda.

Later that same season, the Baltimore Colts switched halfback George Taliaferro to quarterback and started him in two games. In 1955, Green Bay sent Charles Brackins into seven games, in which he attempted just two passes. Then ... nothing.

It wasn't until 1968, nearly a decade and a half later, that another black quarterback was given a fleeting pro chance: Marlin Briscoe for the American Football League's pathetic and injury-riddled Denver franchise.

The Steelers' Gilliam begat Harris in that '74 season. Harris begat Williams, a '78 first-rounder. Williams begat Moon and Cunningham, who begat the current generation. Then again, the road remains pockmarked: Shrieks of fan protest surrounded Stewart until deep into this past season, calling into question the glacial progress of civil rights and right-thinking Pittsburgh.

This line all started with that first, giant step by 5-foot-11, 182-pound Willie "The Pro" Thrower, whose two-time WPIAL Class AA championship team skipped a 1947 Orange Bowl prep classic because organizers objected to the pigmentation of its quarterback's skin.

"He was by far the best passer you'll ever see," Pisano remembered yesterday of the quarterback who lasted one year with the Bears and three Canadian Football League seasons before a shoulder injury caused him to retire. "Ohhh, if he played today? He would have fit right in there. Doug Williams. McNabb. Definitely. Definitely."

In yesterday's eulogy, the Rev. Mildred C. Taylor stood at the flower-adorned pulpit and read from the biblical passage about David and Goliath. How fitting a parable. The ogre that cast a frightening, dark shadow over sports, if not all America, was small-minded racism. The kid who slung the first rock for black quarterbacks was the apt-named Thrower.

With only a few days left in Black History Month, it's a shame the dozens who followed him didn't come to the Fourth Avenue church yesterday and celebrate the man who made black-quarterback history. The Pro who proudly begat a long line of pros.

In addition to The Big Picture, Chuck Finder writes a general-sports column exclusive to the http://www.post-gazette.com/ every Tuesday. He can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com

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