By Desmond Jolly
By a stroke of irony, February — the shortest month — has come to have an outsized significance. February embraces Lincoln’s Birthday on the 12th, Presidents Day and Washington’s Birthday on the 17th, Black History Month and the Super Bowl, which has become the defining moment in our national cultural calendar, watched by more than 100 million people and capturing our imagination for several weeks each year.
Many will say that our recent Super Bowl was a bust because it did not have the drama that was both expected and confidently predicted. It was supposed to be a hotly contested but close game in which Peyton Manning, the genius quarterback for the Denver Broncos, ultimately would triumph because of his experience and his “football intelligence.”
It didn’t quite turn out that way and the spectacle as well as the outcome had a lot to say, at least to this writer, about our cultural history and the ideology that informed that history.
An unstated subtext of the drama of this year’s Super Bowl was the matchup between an experienced and revered white quarterback, Manning, and a young, inexperienced, African-American quarterback, Russell Wilson. The politically correct will say that the color of the quarterback does not matter, that all that matters is his competence and performance. But for the vast majority of the existence of the National Football League, the color of the quarterback did matter. It was the defining characteristic and still has resonance.
The template for judging the character of African-Americans was established by one of our most illustrious presidents, a person widely regarded as one of the towering intellects in the history of our republic — Thomas Jefferson. In Query XIV of his “Notes on Virginia,” he says of African-Americans, “Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason and imagination, it appears that in memory they are the equal of whites: in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid …”
In this scientific treatise on racial differences, Jefferson found almost every characteristic of African-Americans to be inferior, if not repulsive. In fact, he did not envision that African-Americans should ever be citizens of this nation, as he said in Query XIV. Not to provide an easy excuse for the NFL, but they had it on good authority that African-Americans could not be good quarterbacks because the position calls for rapid triangulation and a grasp of both geometry and calculus.
Jefferson would have been much discountenanced by the induction of Warren Moon into the National Football League’s Hall of Fame on Feb. 4, 2006. And he would have not approved when Wilson led his Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory this month. Perhaps even Wilson is unaware of the road that African-American quarterbacks have traveled to ultimately deposit him in this place. That road can be summarized in Moon’s career track.
Born in 1956 in Los Angeles, Moon was a high school standout at Alexander Hamilton High School. He focused on football as his sport of choice and quarterback as his position; he thought he was not big or fast enough to play any other position. Many of the colleges that expressed interest in Moon wanted to convert him to play another position. The notion was that African-Americans should not play in a leadership, commanding position; wide receiver or defensive back was considered more appropriate and acceptable.
Moon attended West Los Angeles College from 1974 to 1975, after which he was recruited as a quarterback by the University of Washington. He had two adequate seasons but his senior season was a breakout as he led the Huskies to a 27-20 win over the favored Michigan Wolverines in the 1978 Rose Bowl. Moon was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. In 1977, he had a completion rate of 56 percent, passing for 1,772 yards with 12 touchdowns.
No NFL team drafted Moon, so he signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League where he had an incendiary career as he lit up the Canadian sky with his passes. In 1982, he became the first quarterback to pass for 5,000 yards. The Eskimos, under his leadership, won five consecutive Grey Cup competitions in 1978-82.
In his final season in Canada, Moon threw for 5,648 yards and was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player. His CFL career accounted for 1,369 completions, 2,382 attempts (57.4 percent) and 144 touchdown passes. Moon was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Eskimos’ Wall of Honor.
By now, winning had become more important to NFL teams and Moon was a proven winner, so many teams bid for his services. He played with the Houston Oilers from 1984 to 1993. He also played for Minnesota, the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs.
In his NFL career, Moon established many records. He had 3,988 pass completions for 49,325 yards and 291 touchdowns, plus another 22 touchdowns rushing. When he retired, he was among the top five quarterbacks for passing yards, passing touchdowns, pass attempts and pass completions.
African-American quarterbacks are no longer the novelty they used to be. But their challenges are still great. Usually, they are expected to win, not just with their arms and their heads, but with their legs. As compared with Tom Brady, they are more prone to leaving the pocket and running, which makes them more prone to injury as demonstrated by Michael Vick. Many will not have careers comparable to Moon’s, but Wilson just might!
— Desmond Jolly is a longtime Davis resident, an agricultural economist emeritus at UC Davis and an instructor for the UC Extension’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.