Thrower, Willie 1930–2002

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Willie Thrower 19302002

Professional football player

At a Glance


Willie Thrower was the first African-American quarterback in professional football, but his momentous achievement as a Chicago Bear in a 1953 National Football League (NFL) eventit was another 15 years before a black quarterback carried an NFL gamewas long forgotten by sports historians by the time of his death in 2002. He played at a time when it was not fashionable for black athletes to have such a role, Clarence Underwood, Michigan State University athletic director, told the Detroit News at the time of Throwers death.

Thrower was born in 1930 and grew up in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. He was a standout athlete on his high school football team, leading them to two championship seasons, but as columnist Len Pasquarelli pointed out, The games also drew college recruiters, many of whom came armed with scholarship offers, only to withdraw them once they noticed through binoculars that Thrower was black. The New Kensington team was even invited to the 1947 Orange Bowl prep classic, but the offer was withdrawn when organizers learned the teams star quarterback was black.

Fortunately, Thrower was recruited by Michigan State University, a top school, and in 1950 he became the first African-American quarterback to play for a Big Ten athletic conference team. Two years later he helped the Spartans win a national championship. Though he was relatively slight for a quarterback at five feet, eleven inches, Throwers talents were legendary during his era. He could toss the ball an impressive 70 yards, but he was a lot more than a thrower, former Chicago Bears teammate George Blanda told ESPN.coms Pasquarelli. He was a passer, a guy who could fit the ball through the eye of a needle when he needed to.

Despite his impressive prowess, Thrower went undrafted at the end of his college career. He did accept an offer from the Chicago Bears to take a a backup quarterback position for $8, 500 for the 1953-54 season. At the time the quarterback was a team leader, responsible for calling the plays in the huddleunlike in footballs contemporary era, where coaches specified plays from the sidelines. The quarterbacks also called signals at scrimmage line. They were called field generals, and blacks were thought to lack the mental ability to master play-calling, explained Guardian

At a Glance

Born Willie Lawrence Thrower, March 22, 1930, in New Kensington, PA; died on February 20, 2002, in New Kensington; married Mary; children: Willie Jr., Jason, Melvin. Education: Attended Michigan State University, early 1950s. Religion: Baptist.

Career: Signed with Chicago Bears football team as backup quarterback, 1953; played three seasons with Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League, 1954-57; became social worker in western Pennsylvania; owned two taverns.

journalist Michael Carlson. The NFL was similarly slow to accept blacks as centerson the grounds that they might not understand on which number to snap the ballor middle linebackers, who usually called the defensive signals.

At the time the NFL was still infamously segregated, as were other pro sports. It drafted its first black players in 1947, but relegated them to running back, wide receiver, or defensive back positions. Thrower was one of only two blacks on the Bears roster that season, and was sent into his first pro game by coach George Halas on October 18, 1953. He relieved Blanda in a contest against the San Francisco 49ers, and completed three of eight passes. The Bears gained 27 yards before Halas put Blanda back in, but San Francisco won by 35-28.

Throwers achievement went largely unnoticed. That same season, George Taliaferro served as starting quarterback in two games with Baltimore Colts, and then in 1955, Charles Brackins played in seven Green Bay Packers games. No other black quarterback broke the color barrier until 1968, when Marlin Briscoe started for the Denver Broncos in the former American Football League. Briscoe recalled watching football on television as a youngster and being fascinated with the quarterbacks. All of them were white, the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying. It wasnt until later that I found out what Willie Thrower had done, that he had actually played in a game. It gave me hope.

After playing another Bears game that season, Thrower was not re-signed for a second season, and moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba to play three seasons with its Canadian Football League franchise, the Blue Bombers. After that, he played for a semi-professional team in Toronto, Ontario, but a separated shoulder ended his athletic career. He once allowed his ex-tremely large passing hand to be cast for a Ripleys Believe It or Not Museum, but Thrower faded into quiet obscurity after his playing days ended. He became a social worker in New York City, and returned to his hometown of New Kensington in 1969. There he owned two taverns, and though he sometimes mentioned his historic NFL first, a lot of people called me a liar, the New York Times quoted him as saying. It was not until a Black History Month special featuring Thrower, which aired on ABC television in 2001, that his longtime neighbors took notice. Now they say, Gee whiz, heres a guy living in our hometown. We didnt know he was the first black quarterback he recounted to the New York Times. Just like they didnt know, the rest of the country didnt know.

Diabetic for several years, Thrower died in New Kensington on February 20, 2002, after suffering a heart attack. Many newspapers from across the United States noted his passing, and even some overseas. In the NFL season that concluded before his death, a record 12 African-American quarterbacks started 112 NFL games. As columnist Pasquarelli noted, the western Pennsylvania area was the home territory of many later gridiron stars, among them Joe Namath and Joe Montana, but the famous litany never includes Thrower. Its an unfortunate oversight. In the bigger picture, the one beyond the field, his accomplishments were every bit as significant.

Throwers funeral was held at Mount Cavalry Missionary Baptist Church. There were two wooden pews with empty seats near the front of the Fourth Avenue church, noted Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports columnist Chuck Finder, the place with a 50-yard-long sanctuary and a high-peaked roof perfectly suitable for a passing quarterback. [Doug] Williams shouldve sat in one of those pews. James Harris shouldve sat with him. Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham and the Steelers Kordell Stewart and Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper and Vick shouldve been there, too. They owed him, the NFL owed him, as much.



Austin American-Statesman, August 4, 2001, p. CI, p. C7.

Detroit News, February 24, 2002.

Guardian (London, England), April 17, 2002, p. 18.

Jet, March 11, 2002, p. 18.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 21, 2002.

Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2002, p. B12.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 24, 2002.

New York Times, February 23, 2002, p. B8.

Time, March 4, 2002, p. 21.

On-line (May 1, 2002).

Carol Brennan