BOSTON (AP) — From his den in Huntsville, Alabama, Onree Jackson will quietly root to see Jacoby Brissett under center when he watches New England host Houston on Thursday night.
Almost 50 years have passed, but Jackson still remembers his excitement when he was drafted out of Alabama A&M in 1969 by the Boston Patriots — the franchise’s first black quarterback.
Back then, the team hailed his potential to be “the Willie Mays of pro football.” But he never played in a regular-season NFL game.
Now, Brissett could establish a footnote for a franchise born in a city with a complicated racial past, its first African-American player to start at quarterback. While the Patriots have been racially progressive in other ways, the New York Giants are the only other NFL team to have never started an African-American quarterback.
Brissett’s opportunity comes because of two unusual factors. Tom Brady, the team’s cornerstone, is suspended four games for his role in using underinflated footballs in the playoffs in 2015. And Brady’s backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, has a shoulder injury and is listed as doubtful for Thursday.
While none have started a regular-season game, the Patriots have drafted eight African-American quarterbacks. Michael Bishop played the most, appearing in eight games in 2000.
The potential distinction shows how much things have changed in 50 years.
“When I got there, there was a baseball player with the Red Sox and he said in the paper, ‘You know they’re not going to have an N-word quarterback here in Boston,'” Jackson, 69, recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.
“It was funny to him, I think, because they had a picture of him laughing in the papers,” Jackson said. “I had a shot, and I didn’t make it under their rules.”
Boston’s professional teams — like the city’s neighborhoods — had different reactions to the civil rights movement and the integration of professional sports.
While the Celtics and Bruins broke barriers in pro basketball and hockey, the Red Sox were the last Major League Baseball team to field a black player. Pumpsie Green took the field at Fenway Park in 1959 — more than a decade after Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers and even after Willie O’Ree took the ice for Boston in the all-white NHL. The Red Sox gave both Robinson and Mays tryouts in the 1940s before opting not to sign them.
Meanwhile, the Patriots neither led nor trailed the pack on such issues.
Jackson was drafted by Rommie Loudd, the AFL’s first black assistant coach before he joined the Patriots in 1966. He moved to the team’s front office and became its personnel director in 1969, one of the first black personnel directors in the NFL.
Jackson said he thought everything was fine until he drew consistent ire from then-coach Clive Rush, who told Jackson: “Joe wouldn’t do that.”
“He was talking about Namath,” Jackson said. “Me being who I am, and where I was from and all, I just accepted that and went on.”
Jackson was waived after a few months. Rush told the Frederick Daily Leader at the time that Jackson “was behind three other quarterbacks.”
“As I’ve grown older, I can see little signs that said, ‘You aren’t going to make it because you’re a black quarterback.’ That’s the way I interpreted it, anyway,” Jackson said.
Rush was fired after a losing season in 1969 and 1-6 start in 1970.
New England has never had a black head coach. Romeo Crennel, now defensive coordinator in Houston, held that job in New England before he was head coach in Cleveland and Kansas City. Bobby Grier, who is black, was an assistant coach with the Patriots who rose to be vice president of player personnel from 1997-2000.
Richard Johnson, curator of the Boston Sports Museum, said while the quarterback milestone would be unintentional, there has never been talk of race influencing the Pats’ personnel decisions.
“Under Bill Belichick, the best player has always played,” Johnson said.
Richard Lapchick, who has pushed for diversity across college and professional sports from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, said the Patriots under owner Robert Kraft have consistently pushed for inclusion in several ways.
“They were working in the community on gender violence prevention in the early 1990s, 20 years before Ray Rice or even before O.J.,” Lapchick said.
The Patriots were also one of the first teams to help NFL players finish their degrees.
Josh Johnson, who is black and one of three Giants quarterbacks, was surprised when told his team could be the last to cross this particular racial benchmark.
“It shows progress,” he said. “That’s all you want to see, progress. Good luck to (Brissett), I hope he goes out and takes advantage of it. Opportunities come far and few.”
Though it didn’t work out for Jackson, he said he’s proud to have played a part toward seeing a day when no one notices who is or isn’t under center.
“It’s a pride thing now,” he said. “I’m proud of what happened. Though I didn’t make it, it was kind of a foot in the door type-thing.”
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