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Rare Air: McNair Cream of HBCU QB Crop

This is the first in a series of post determining the best of the best that HBCU Football has produced at each position the since mass integration of black athletes by major majority institutions. Only players who played their college careers after 1970 will be considered.

It’s likely that if Steve McNair came along today, he would have never set foot on Alcorn State’s campus. In fact, with the nuanced recruiting websites and technology that permeates high-school recruiting today, it’s very likely there will never be another HBCU quarterback as talented as McNair. Part of the reason is that athletic, black quarterbacks are now acceptable in all of college football. This was not the case in the early 90s, when McNair was offered a full-ride to play for Steve Spurrier at Florida–as a defensive back. Knowing in his heart that he wanted to be a quarterback, McNair rejected the glitz and glamor of big-time, SEC football and chose to play at tiny Alcorn State. The rest, as they say, is history.

Blessed with a powerful arm and nimble athleticism, Steve “Air” McNair is easily the most successful professional quarterback ever produced by an HBCU.The numbers speak for themselves. After completing a spectacular college career in which he re-wrote the NCAA Divsion I-AA (Now Championship Subdivision) record books, McNair finished third in Heisman voting in 1994. He was selected third overall by the Houston Oilers, which at the time was the highest an African-American QB had ever been drafted.

After performing mostly mop up duty the franchise’s last two years in Houston, McNair’s career really took off when the team became the Titans in 1999. That year, he and running back Eddie George led the franchise to its first ever Super Bowl, coming up just a few yards short in the end. McNair continued to improve, peaking in 2003 as he threw for over 3,200 yards, 24 touchdowns and completed 62.5 percent of his passes en-route to being named CO-MVP with Peyton Manning.

After playing his last few years with the Baltimore Ravens, McNair finished his pro career with 31, 304 yards passing, throwing for 174 touchdowns and running for 37 more. The three-time Pro-Bowl participant finished with a career passer rating of 82.5 and ranks in the top 20 in career completion percentage. Sadly, McNair’s life was ended prematurely as he was killed as a part of an apparent murder-suicide in July of 2009.

Runner Up: Doug Williams (Grambling State)
If the recruitment of black QBs was indifferent in the early 1990s, it was downright inhospitable in the early 1970s. There had been few black signal callers in major college football to that point, so it’s not surprising that Doug Williams was only recruited by two schools, Grambling State and Southern University. He chose Grambling, largely because of its legendary coach, Eddie Robinson. With Williams under center, the Tigers won 35 out of 40 games his last three seasons, including three straight SWAC titles.

After placing fourth in the 1977 Heisman voting, Williams was chosen 17th overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Two years later he led the young Tampa Bay franchise to the NFC Championship game, only to lose to the Los Angeles Rams. Contract disputes and family issues kept Williams out of the NFL from 1983 to 1985. Williams began re-ignited his career in USFL. After that league disbanded, Williams signed with the Washington Redskins. Despite being a substitute for much of the 1987 season, Williams was named starting QB prior to the team’s playoff run and responded by leading the team to a Super Bowl blowout over the Denver Broncos, becoming the first African-American QB to participate in and win a Super Bowl.

Williams’ career numbers don’t really jump out at you: he threw for just over 16,000 yards, 100 touchdowns and completed less than 50 percent of his passes. Never made a Pro Bowl. But taking into account the years he lost in the middle of his career, there will always be a certain element of “what-if” with his career. One thing that can never be taken away from him is this Super Bowl performance and the impact his win had on future African-American quarterbacks.

Honorable Mention: Tavaris Jackson (Alabama State) 2006-Present 7,075 passing yards, 38 touchdowns, 77 QB rating. He is currently competing for the starting job with the Seattle Seahawks.
Quinn Gray (FAMU) 2005-2007 The former Rattler proved he was a capable backup, throwing for 1,328 yards and 13 touchdowns with a quarterback rating of 91.4.

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