What was once the unthinkable, is now reality. The Jaguars have three black quarterbacks.
We have come a very long way.
James Harris is the man responsible for this, but he did it long before he became the Jaguars' top personnel executive. That the Jaguars have three black quarterbacks isn't as much a result of "Shack's" scouting as it is his playing. Harris is one of the game's first black quarterbacks. He shares with Joe Gilliam the distinction of being the first black quarterbacks to be starters.
Simply put, Harris paid Byron Leftwich's dues. Harris paved the way for David Garrard. He made it possible for a marginal quarterback such as Quinn Gray to have an equal opportunity.
Harris speaks of this with pride, but there is also an edge in his voice and a hint of disappointment in his eyes. Thank you for acknowledging, but I wish you hadn't noticed, he says.
"We say that but I keep reading it," he says of the game having reached a stage of true equality. "I read people saying we have three black quarterbacks, which makes it an issue. Until the day we don't say we have three black quarterbacks, until that day comes people must feel they have a reason to discuss it."
Yes, it will be discussed, and maybe that's also a good thing because 35 years ago it was ignored, buried as a sore subject too sensitive for conversation.
Then, Harris was a rookie quarterback with the Buffalo Bills. He was an eighth-round pick from Grambling; everything you could want in a quarterback – big, strong-armed, athletic – but he faced the inevitable obstacle.
What would he have been in today's game? A first-round pick? Without a doubt.
If 1969 was 2004 Harris would be some team's quarterback of the future. He'd be rich for life and his team would be as committed to him as the Jaguars are committed to Leftwich.
When he scouted Leftwich for the 2003 draft, Harris no doubt saw himself, but he no doubt noticed the differences, too.
What Harris saw in Leftwich was an undeniable presence. Harris saw things that go way beyond scouting measurables.
"He was highly productive in a passing offense since day one. In games when his team was trailing he made a number of plays to bring them back. He was tough," Harris said. "When I saw him in warm-ups, he wasn't as impressive as he was in games. His arm was different in games. His arm was live."
Thirty-five years ago, those intangibles would've been ignored. Nobody was looking for a reason to draft a black quarterback. They were looking for reasons not to do that.
These days, it's very different. Look at the rosters. The position has no regard for race, and though we can still be blamed for noticing the color of a man's skin, it's no less a fact that the ranks of black quarterbacks continue to swell.
"This is the way it should be. He should be judged like any other quarterback," Harris said of Leftwich.
It wasn't that way for Harris. As a Louisiana prep star, he was recruited by Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin. LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama were still segregated. It was go north or play at Grambling, or Southern, or one of the black colleges.
"The circumstances in 1969 were that any mistake could send you home. There's nothing like that now. I feel lucky because I did get a chance. You feel the pain of so many others before you who didn't get the chance," Harris said.
Leftwich has a chance, a premium opportunity, because Harris paid his quarterback's dues.
Garrard is one of the game's backup quarterbacks because Harris didn't get sent home.
Gray was given an equal opportunity to compete for a roster spot because so many others were denied that chance.