Aging as a sports fan is very interesting. As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I remember my 10-year-old self in Mississippi watching the NFL Draft saying, “Who is Ben Roethlisberger?,” when he was selected. Today, the first childhood sports heroes I fell in love with, like Steve Nash, Hines Ward and Mike Piazza, are all retired. I recall talking about this with my father once, and like any good father, he can one up me on virtually every subject.
“So you think watching your favorite players retire is aging?” he said with a smirk beginning to show on his face knowing he is about to smack me down with Big Joker. “Wait until your favorite players are coaching teams or your favorite players have children who are now playing. I remember when Dusty Baker retired and got his first job with the Giants and I remember watching Ken Griffey in his prime, and then Jr. getting in the bigs.”
I do rely on the wisdom of my elders when it comes to life and sports like uncles and family friends who can recite stories about being at this famous game or seeing that great player. There are also older siblings who, despite the fact they may only be a couple years older, have an array of knowledge from those few years. My father has seen decades of plays, games and moments before I was even a thought. At this point, I can watch a game with anyone in my family and know what they are thinking. I know that my brother Aaron cannot watch a UConn basketball game without thinking about Kemba Walker’s buzzer beating shot in the Big East tournament. I know my brother Matthew has trouble watching the New York Giants on special teams because of DeSean Jackson’s game winning punt return. And I know my father —barring not having a horse in the race — will root for the team with the black quarterback.
Despite the fact that the majority of NFL players are African American, it was not until 1968 when Denver Broncos quarterback, Marlin Briscoe become the first African American quarterback to start in the modern NFL. He was the fifth black quarterback in the league’s history. Despite finishing the year as a league leader in passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage, Briscoe would never play QB again. Like all quarterbacks of his generation, he was forced to either switch to a skill position or play in Canada. Warren Moon, one of the greatest signal callers of his generation and a first ballot Hall of Famer, had to spend six years in Canadian football before he was given a shot, despite his obvious talents coming out of the University of Washington.
If his name sounds familiar to some Panthers fans, this is because he mentored Cam Newton early in his pro career. Moon blasted criticism about Newton’s intelligence and maturity as they were the same criticisms he faced in the late 70s. Today, Newton is leading a young team on the rise in the NFL and, despite his amazing athleticism that adds a second dimension to his game, no one is trying to make him a wide receiver.
Now let us go back into 2006 and think about the landscape of black quarterbacks in the NFL. Donovan McNabb was the best black QB, but he was getting older and soon retired. Michael Vick was a talent, but would be out of the league and into a 8×8 cell in a year. Vince Young had great rookie year, but not many after that. Now let us look at the new landscape. Russell Wilson is a Super Bowl winning quarterback: only the second African American to do so. Cam Newton is the favorite for league MVP while Jameis Winston is favorite for the Rookie of the Year award. Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings is showing improvements and has led his team to a postseason berth. Young quarterbacks who have struggled, like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III are not thrown out the league or put at another position, they are given another chance.
Aging as a sports fan is interesting. Though criticisms reminiscent of the past is thrown their way, a black NFL quarterback is not rare today. Still, my father and I share a joy watching a black quarterback succeed in the game. A game that once did not give Joe Gilliam or Willie Thrower a chance, now has to bow to Russell Wilson and Cam Newton.