Doug Williams was the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, but before Doug Williams there was Sandy Stephens. Stephens, a second-round pick in the 1962 draft had the opportunity to play in the NFL – just not as a quarterback. “Sandy Stephens was a pioneer,” Tony Dungy said. “Sandy quarterbacked at a time when it was unusual. He was the first African-American quarterback to lead a team to a National Championship. And he did that at Minnesota.” (“Sandy Stephens Paved Path For Quarterbacks of Today,” Heather Lloyd, 2/22/2018, Colts.com/ColtsRoundup)
In 1960, despite a racist society, University of Minnesota football Coach Murray Warmath, a mild-mannered White Mississippian, gave a talented young Black man from Uniontown, Pennsylvania a chance. That’s all Sandy Stephens ever wanted. A chance to stretch out and give football fans what they liked most – a good game and a winning team. As unlikely as Coach Warmath’s background would suggest, he would teach America a lesson in racial tolerance.
“A quarterback is normally an extension of the coach, that’s the ideal situation. A coach wants a quarterback to be an extension of his personality. I think that is one of the things that has kept Blacks from being quarterbacks,” said Martin Wyatt in a 1979 Tony Brown’s Journal TV interview. (Martin Wyatt, Tony Brown’s Journal #211 – “Gold Is Also Black”)
In football, the team leader is the quarterback. One coach said there are two essentials in football – a defender and a quarterback. A quarterback must excel under fire, if a team is to win. Stephens was the first Black to play quarterback at the University of Minnesota and remains the only quarterback to take the Gophers to the Rose Bowl (1961 and 1962). “There goes the four-star general,” they used to say at the University of Minnesota when the all-American, most valuable player in The Big 10 and academic scholar, Sandy Stephens went by. Fifty-three other colleges had wanted him, eight in The Big 10. Major league baseball also chased Stephens.
In a 1979 Tony Brown’s Journal interview (TBJ #211 – “Gold Is Also Black”) Martin Wyatt, shared his remembrances of Stephens: “Sandy Stephens was the first quarterback to stand up and say to the National Football League, ‘Only draft me as a quarterback. I won’t let you change me. If you are going to draft me, then draft me as a quarterback.’ No NFL team gave him an opportunity, so he went to Canada to play for The Canadian Football League Montreal Alouettes.”
“At that time, to African Americans who aspired to play quarterback, that point of view didn’t make sense. The public was not going to allow that to happen on that level of the NFL,” said former Indianapolis Colts coach Gene Huey. (“Sandy Stephens Paved Path For Quarterbacks of Today,” Heather Lloyd, 2/22/2018, Colts.com/ColtsRoundup)
Stephens did go on to play quarterback in the Canadian Football League and his story inspired many others along the way, including Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy.
The first Black golden boy of American football may not have made it to the Football Hall of Fame, but he made mine and a lot of others when on the field he showed us how to run to daylight when opportunity presents itself.
“Don’t wait for a fumble, jar the ball loose and when you’re asked to be your own worst enemy, read the defense and call a play that’s unexpected.”