The James Harris story: a long, painful road

Originally Published: February 12, 2007
By William C. Rhoden | Special to ESPN.com

Third and a mile: the struggle for black quarterbacks.

EDITOR'S NOTE: William C. Rhoden's new book, "Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback," an oral history, is now available from ESPN Books. This excerpt from Chapter 5 examines the fitful start to the 12-year NFL career of James Harris, who was drafted in the eighth round by the Buffalo Bills after an outstanding career at Grambling from 1966-68.

James Harris: They didn't draft me the first day. All these guys I'd played against in the SWAC were getting picked. What chance did I have? I decided I wasn't going to play. Coach called me and said he wanted to talk. We went out to the bleachers, just me and him, sat down, and I told him that being from the segregated South, understanding that no blacks were playing quarterback, I couldn't see any reason to go to Buffalo. He said, "I know you can play quarterback in the NFL. The decision is yours, but if you don't go, if guys like you don't go, it's going to be that much more difficult for the next guy." That touched me.

Jimmie Giles: Coach Robinson always talked about living in America. If you want something, you've gotta understand how to go out and get it. He was not a negative person, always positive. Willie Davis, former Grambling defensive end: No one was better than Coach Robinson at convincing you that somehow you could do something. I can still see and hear him saying things meant to prepare you for whatever challenge you faced.

James Harris: I made a commitment, threw balls 'til my arm got sore. They always talked about the down-and-out in the NFL, so I went to the parknobody there but meto test myself. I was going to throw at this tree blindfolded. I figured if I hit the tree, I'm ready. If I miss the tree, I've got to walk and get the ball. The first time I tried, I missed. The ball was way downfield. I debated about trying it again. I dropped back and threw, heard the ball hit, and something went through megave me all the confidence in the world.

John Rauch: When I was with Oakland, I tried to get Roman Gabriel from the Rams, and James Harris reminded me of Roman Gabriel. You have scouts on the road watching college players, meeting them, meeting their coaches and their families, and they bring back these elaborate reports. You spend hours, day and night, going through these reports. And from the reports and the films I saw after I took over as coach of the Bills, James Harris reminded me of Roman Gabriel. The very first time I saw him play, I said, "There's Roman Gabriel." Same physique. Same abilities. So we drafted James Harris.

James Harris: Coach was doing my contract. This guy comes to Grambling and offers me a $1,500 bonus. He wants to watch me throw. He goes off to make a phone call. Comes back and tells me, "I called and told them you're better than we thought." Offers me $500 more. Coach thought about it. Told me to get up to Buffalo and work out because there were other players there. Told them I wasn't supposed to talk contracts. When I got there, they picked me up and took me to this office. First thing they tell me is that I'm going to play receiver. Now, when I stepped into that office, I'd never had a conversation with white people before. The general manager, the director of personnel, they have these white shirts and ties. Coming from the South, I didn't look anybody in the eye. I looked down at the floor. They said they needed me to sign this contract. If I didn't, I was going to have to go to Canada. I wasn't going to get any more money, they said. My coach was asking for too much. They've got the papers out, the pen. What do I do now? I tell them I need to call my mama. They said go ahead. I called Coach. I don't know what he told them, but they backed down. We eventually got that thing up to about an $8,000 bonus and a $15,000 salary.

Jerry Izenberg: Eddie and I were on the phone that day. This is when Eddie decided James was going to have problems. They brought him in for an early camp, and, according to Eddie, they had three quarterbacks. The first two lived at a hotel, and James was in the YMCA.

James Harris
Darryl Norenberg/WireImage.comThe Rams' Deacon Jones (75) closes in on Harris during a preseason game in 1969.
James Harris: They took me to my room. Had me staying at the YMCA for six dollars a night. When O.J. came to town, he was staying in a suite at the Hilton. They gave me a job, working in the equipment room, putting laces in shoes. I didn't know if this was part of the game or what, but I decided not to tell Coach Robinson about it. I didn't want to put all this pressure on him. He was doing enough.

Marlin Briscoe: Shack and I shared an apartment together. We had a lot of time for conversation about our experiences. You could tell he was very uncomfortable. Everything was new to him. He was so quiet around training camp, people thought he couldn't communicate. All of the blacks on that teamO.J., Max Anderson, and Haven Mosesall of us lived in the same building. When Shack got home, he was completely different. When he got home, he was laughing and joking and telling these funny stories. He was one of the smartest people I ever met. But because of his demeanor, a lot of players in Buffalo didn't see him as a leaderthe way they thought a leader should be.

James was not outgoing or gregarious on the field. I think he was trying to watch himself, monitor himself, make sure he did the right things and said the right things. It was completely different for him and me only because of previous cultural experiences, the way we grew up. That was one of the reasons it was so much more difficult for him to make the transition than it was for me.

James Harris: I wouldn't get any work in during practice, but they'd keep two or three of us afterward to throw. That was my time. I was ready for it. Every night, I stayed in and studied. I wasn't going to let them say black quarterbacks were dumb. Then I pulled a muscle in my stomach.

Back in those days, if you got hurt, they were going to cut you. Every day, about five or six in the morning, they'd knock on the doors. You'd hear it down the hall. They'd knock on the door -- bam, bam, bam. That meant they're cutting you. My room was in the middle. In those days, they cut every day. So you're lying in bed and you hear them skip over your door, and you know you made it another day. You got twenty-four more hours.

On the air

In honor of Black History Month, ESPN has a block of programming dedicated to the achievements of African-Americans in sports. Watch the show about "Third and a Mile" on ESPN Classic at the following times:

Thursday, Feb. 15, 9 p.m., ET
Friday, Feb. 16, noon, ET
Saturday, Feb. 17, 10 a.m.
Saturday, Feb. 24, 6 p.m., ET
Wednesday, Feb. 28, 4 p.m., ET

And read LZ Granderson's column about why Bill Rhoden's book is so important. Story
Marlin Briscoe: I remember coming to training camp when Jack Kemp was there, and Jack would have to run almost to the sideline to throw the ball, because his arm wasn't what it used to be. Shack would stand in the pocket, and the ball would just rifle down the sideline.

Jack Kemp: Shack was the only quarterback I knew who had a stronger arm than me. He was a tremendous talent, a diamond in the rough. You look at the quarterbacks of todayI was watching Michael Vick and the Falcons play the other dayand Shack Harris was as good as any of them. But at the time, he was undeveloped.

Marlin Briscoe: What hurt him initially was the fact that he was a rookie replacing an icon. When he first got to camp, he was hurt, and then he had some stomach problems that set him back. Jack was hurt. Flores was hurt. That's why they wanted me to throw.

James Harris: I was throwing the ball pretty good in practice, calling Coach Robinson every night for advice. Before a preseason game in Detroit, Coach Rauch tells me I'll be playing the second half. Well, in those days, you called your own plays, and having to go into the huddle and call plays was rough, you know? I realized if I play bad, I'm going home, and if I play good, I may still go home. That's what's going through your mind. I called Coach. He says, "Get your five passes and your five runs, okay? Make sure you know them. If they send something in from the bench and you're not sure what it is, stay with one of your five passes." The other thing he told me was to get the ball to O.J. as many times as you can. So I go to Detroit with my five passes and my five runs. I'm not concerned about getting cut anymore. I don't take that to the game with me. I'm more concerned about not making mistakes. I couldn't read coveragesI didn't know all the readsso I read receivers. If I thought there was enough space, I threw a fastball as soon as the receiver turned, just like in sandlot. I threw into coverages and everything. Maybe I wasn't throwing to the right guy, but I was hitting the targets.

Eddie Robinson
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesGrambling's Eddie Robinson was more than a coach for Harris.
Marlin Briscoe: We were down in Birmingham, Alabama, to play the Jets in James' first preseason start. Eddie Robinson came to our room, and, man, they got to telling stories and had me crying laughing. I saw another side of him when Coach Robinson came in.

James Harris: Early on, I got sacked. On the sideline, one coach came up to me and said, "The offensive line says the reason they missed their blocks was because they couldn't understand your diction." At that time, I didn't even know what diction waswe didn't use no words like that in Louisianabut I understood what he meant. What do I do now? Simple: Call every play on one.

Marlin Briscoe: He was fast off the line, but when we'd run sprints, he'd run slow because he didn't want them to say, "Wow, look at his speed!" We used to race after practicehe and I and O.J. We'd run sprints when nobody was around, betting against each other, and Shack was right there. But he didn't want them to discover that he had this quick step.

James Harris: I ended up winning the job. Rookies weren't starting a whole lot in the NFL back then. So to come into the league when there were none making it, that says a lot for the coach, John Rauch, who was willing to play me. Kemp and those guys were helpful too. I think that in some way, they knew what the situation was, and they helped me become a quarterback.

Marlin Briscoe: As soon as I made the team, James asked me if I wanted to room with him. It was a perfect fit, you know? I told him a lot of the things that were going to happen to him. I don't think he really believed it. Once he got on the field, I don't think he thought there were going to be any setbacks. But I knew what was going to happen. Hey, I was a starter, too. I tried to tell him there were going to be bumpsnot from a negative standpoint, but from a preparatory standpoint. James always thought I was bitter.

James Harris: Marlin was as bitter a person as I'd ever met. He was right. He deserved another chance to play. But he didn't get it. When we used to talk, Marlin would tell me, "Don't trust them. You can play good, and they're going to cut you anyway. They don't want a black quarterback." Marlin was hurt, and I hurt for Marlin.

Marlin Briscoe: If I was bitter, I'd have folded my chin and gone home. But I continued to work at making the transition. You can't be bitter and focus on doing what you have to do to stay in the game. As time went on, Shack realized what I was telling him was true. We won four games that first year. With O.J. coming in as a rookie, expectations were high, and we didn't fulfill those expectations. We had a lot of talent, but we weren't very organized. We had a lot of players in the last years of their careers. The mix wasn't good. The blame always goes to the quarterback. When the media talked to him, it wasn't like they got all of these great quotes. If they had interviewed him in my apartment, they would have gotten some great lines. But when they interviewed him on the field, James had to watch every word he said.

James Harris
Darryl Norenberg/WireImage.comHarris talks with fellow rookie O.J. Simpson during the Bills 50-20 preseason loss to the Rams in 1969.
The Bills selected another quarterback, San Diego State's Dennis Shaw, in the 1970 draft. In Harris' second preseason, he tore ligaments in his knee and was cut by the Bills, but later re-signed.

James Harris: They cut me in training camp. I read about it in the paper. In those days, they could cut you and bring you back, but I didn't know that. I left, went home to my apartment in Buffalo. I'm home, watching the news, and I hear I'm missing. Next thing I know, Marlin's knocking on the door. Marlin was hot. He could feel my pain. When he heard the news, he drove all the way from Niagara Falls to see me.

Marlin Briscoe: When he got cut, I walked out of camp as a show of solidarity. I shouldn't have. I mean, I could have gotten in real trouble, but I was stubborn in my allegiance to James. I kind of just snuck out of camp because I knew he was down. He was really down. We got something to eat. And talked. The things that had happened to him were the things I told him would happen. I kind of prepared him for them, I think.

James Harris: You dream about playing in the NFL. But if you dream of playing quarterback, it becomes a nightmare.

Marlin Briscoe: James got death threats and negative publicity. The press was always fair to me. When I didn't have a good game, they weren't overly harsh. They were critical, but when I had good games, they gave me kudos. I just felt comfortable playing in Denver. Buffalo was more of a melting pot. You had ethnic groups bumping up against one another. So it was tougher for James.

Doug Williams: With all the things he went through as a quarterback in Buffalo, not one time did Shack mention how tough it was. He didn't want me thinking I couldn't do it because I was black. He used to say, "Hey, cat, if you can throw at Grambling, you can throw anywhere."

By 1971, under new coach Harvey Johnson, the team lost its first ten games behind a poor offensive line. Neither Bills quarterback excelled, but Shaw got a much longer look than Harris. In 1972, with yet another new coachBriscoe's nemesis, Lou Sabanat the helm, Harris was out of Buffalo's plans.

James Harris: I was struggling, probably holding the ball too long because I didn't want to make a mistake. I knew if I had a bad game that was the end of it. The team wasn't strong at that point. Dennis Shaw threw four interceptions in one game. I was reading all the time that the Bills might go get another quarterback. Lou Saban called me into his office and told me he just couldn't have two young quarterbacks. He released me.

I'd spent the previous off-season working for the Department of Commerce in Washington so I called them and they said they'd give me a job. I drove from Buffalo to DC and went to work and waited to see if another NFL team was going to call. The phone never rang. I was working out every day, watching games on Sunday, but nothing happened. The phone never rang. I had to move on. But Tank Younger, one of the all-time greats at Grambling, was working for the Rams, and he went to the people there and told them to give me a chance. I was rusty, but I did okay. Tank made such a strong pitch that they put me on the practice squad. I had some good days, got back in the groove. And then Chuck Knox came in.