He joins 10 others selected from a list of 35 finalists who had been determined earlier by the Black College Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. Induction ceremonies will be held February 18, 2012 at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis during the Priority Payment Systems third annual enshrinement ceremony.
Here’s a look back at James Harris, whose stellar career has already earned him induction into the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Louisiana Sports and Grambling Legends halls of fame …
James “Shack” Harris, the first African-American quarterback to start an NFL playoff game, was also the first to be named Pro Bowl MVP. In so doing, he helped pave the way for future stars like Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to start in, then win the Super Bowl — as well as countless others from Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon to Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick.
Harris wasn’t finished breaking new ground. As a front-office member, he helped craft a Super Bowl-winning roster for the Baltimore Ravens.
Harris, now a personnel executive with the resurgent Detroit Lions, always had big ideas — and he made every one of them that he could come true: “There aren’t many things you can do in this world for free,” Harris said. “But dreaming is free: So I decided to dream big.”
That ambition traces back to a key childhood moment. Harris was watching the Martin Luther King Jr. speech in August 1963 on television, looking for two local friends who had gone to Washington, D.C., to participate in the march, when he heard these immortal words: “I have a dream, that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
He decided to do what was then unthinkable for a black athlete: “I decided that day that I would play quarterback,” Harris said. “I realized what I was risking. But I decided that day.”
Most African-Americans were converted to defensive back or receiver. None, to that point, had ever been drafted or started at quarterback in the NFL. But with encouragement from family, high school coach Dorth Blade and Grambling coach Eddie G. Robinson, he realized his own dreams: Harris did both.
He started by leading Monroe, Louisiana’s Carroll High School to 39 consecutive wins. “That was the greatest team I ever played on,” Harris says, without hestitation. “If we were still playing, we’d still be undefeated.”
He didn’t come from money. “Growing up,” Harris said, “all I knew was hard-working parents in a hard-working city. We never traveled, never had a vacation. But I never thought I was poor. We had just enough.”
Harris said his excursions into the harsh realities of work for blacks in the 1960s strengthened his resolve: He had taken on temporary work in a nearby cottonfield, looking to earn some extra money. On the way out, he overheard his mother say: “I sure hope James can go to college.”
Harris says that back then, “I didn’t know what college meant.” But when he got to the fields, and took to working the cotton (“in rows that were from now on”), Harris was struck by a grim reality: “You could be doing this for the next 30 years. I went home and asked my mom to tell about this word ‘college’ again.”
Harris called the decision to play football for Robinson at Grambling “probably the greatest decision I ever made. Coach Robinson told me, in four years I would play quarterback in the NFL — and I believed him. And I believed in Martin Luther King’s words.”
Harris and the Tigers eventually won or shared the SWAC title in each of his four years in school, compiling a sterling 31-9-1 record. He set what was then a state collegiate record with 4,705 career passing yards at Grambling. Those exploits would earn Harris induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1999; the high school offensive player of the year award, given annually by his hometown newspaper, also is named for Harris.
Yet in the late 1960s, all of that meant little to pro football scouts. Robinson kept the young quarterback steadfast, even as he fell to the eighth round in the NFL draft for not agreeing to switch positions.
“I told coach it didn’t make any sense to go to the NFL and not play,” Harris said. “He told me something — and I think about it often, when I face troubled times. He said if I didn’t go to the NFL, it would be a long time before someone else could get there again.”
He accepted that challenge, learned to thrive on the expectations: “Never,” he said Robinson told him, “blame your failures on being black. We’ve got to face those challenges and prepare to be better.”
Harris finally was picked up by the Buffalo Bills in the late rounds of the 1969 NFL draft. He would go on to a groundbreaking career with the Bills, Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers, earning MVP honors at the Pro Bowl in 1975. Harris then left the playing field for a stint as an NFL scout, one that led eventually to a lengthy career in NFL front offices — with the Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars and now the Lions. He has been ranked as the 36th most influential African-American in sports by The Sporting News.
The other 2012 inductees into the Black College Football Hall of Fame …
Willie Brown (DB, Grambling State University, 1959-1963)
Harry Carson (DE, South Carolina State University, 1972-1975)
Eldridge Dickey (QB, Tennessee State University, 1964-1967)
Claude Humphrey (DE, Tennessee State University, 1964-1967)
Steve McNair (QB, Alcorn State University, 1991-1994)
Willie “Wonderful Willie” Richardson (WR, Jackson State University, 1959-1962)
Johnny Sample (DB/RB, Maryland Eastern Shore, 1954-1958)
Rayfield “Big Cat” Wright (OL, Fort Valley State, 1963-1966)
Cleve Abbott (Head Coach, Tuskegee, 1923-1954)
Jackie Graves (Former NFL Scout, former director of personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles)
The Black College Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee is comprised of journalists, historians and former football executives from around the country. The committee includes Ernie Accorsi, Charles Bailey, Gil Brandt, Charles Garcia, Donald Hunt, Mike Hurd, Ty Miller, Roscoe Nance, Charlie Neal and Lloyd Vance.