The first Super Bowl to feature two black starting quarterbacks was played in 2023. That’s a fairly mind-boggling statistic for a league in which black players make up 56 percent of the total. However, it has traditionally been hard for black players to be accepted as quarterbacks because of racist stereotypes that persist to this day. John Eisenberg’s Rocket Men traces the long fight against that racism and tells the stories of the men who have tried to beat it.

In the earliest days of the league, Eisenberg notes, black men like Fritz Pollard not only played QB but served as head coaches. That was before the NFL operated an informal ban on black players, between 1934 and 1946. When reintegration began, certain roles were seen as the preserve of whites: quarterback and middle linebacker being the main ones.

Those roles required intelligence and leadership, something that racists argued black players did not have. There were further complications too, as Eisenberg points out. The QB is the face of the franchise and some owners did not want that face to be black. There were also racist players who didn’t want to take orders from a black teammate.

That meant talented quarterbacks who came through the college system were typically switched to other positions once drafted into the pros. Marlin Briscoe, became the first black quarterback to play in the AFL when he took over as Broncos QB in 1968 but he was a wide receiver by the time he won Super Bowls with the Dolphins a few years later. Even after Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, in 1987, progress was slow.

Title: Rocket Men
Author: John Eisenberg
First published: Basic Books, 2023
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Rocket Men by John Eisenberg cover

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Over time, progress has accelerated. As the 2023 season got underway the NFL published a social media graphic saying that 15 black quarterbacks would start in week one – a new record. Impressive though that statistic is, past prejudice still echoes through the NFL, as Eisenberg’s final chapter, about Lamar Jackson, demonstrates.

Now the starting QB for the Baltimore Ravens, and a former NFL MVP, Jackson faced calls to switch positions to wide receiver in the run-up to the 2018 draft. The claim was that he was a skilled athlete but not good enough as a passer. It’s a familiar criticism that is often levelled at black quarterbacks but seldom at white ones. We don’t have to look hard to see the remains of the racist thinking that for decades kept black athletes out of the quarterback position.


John Eisenberg is a former newspaper journalist and the author of books covering horse racing, baseball, and football. His football books include That First Season, about Vince Lombardi’s Packers debut, Ten-Gallon War, on the Cowboys-Texans rivalry of the 1960s, and The League, the story of the early days of the NFL and five key figures who shaped its destiny.


“’Someone asked me if I thought about taking him out. I didn’t, but I did think about taking out the offensive line and receivers and about everyone else, Noll said.”

“The NFL’s implicit bias against Black quarterbacks did not suddenly
die out. It just slowly began to wane, ever so gradually, and be come dated, at least in a few minds, for reasons as sweeping as general societal change and as minuscule as individual moves by the NFL and its teams that helped the cause of Black quarterbacks, sometimes by sheer chance.”

“Some Black quarterbacks received just one shot. After Ryan Leaf the second overall pick in 1998, was deemed a bust and released by the Chargers, three other teams gave him a shot. But when Akili Smith, the third overall pick one year later, was deemed a bust and released by the Bengals, he never threw another pass in the NFL.”

“What could be confirmed, Silverstein said, was that the organisations at the top all had a key person at a certain point with the power to give a Black quarterback a chance to play, and a willingness to go against the grain of general thought in the league. Chuck Knox, as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, made James Harris his starter for two seasons in the 1970s until, in effect, he was overruled by the team’s owner. Andy Reid relied on Black starting quarterbacks for most of his long tenure as the Eagles’ head coach. Ozzie Newsome just ignored the standard criticisms of Black quarterbacks as the Ravens’ general manager starting in 1996.”


John Eisenberg’s typically deep research is on display in Rocket Men, and the book is written with his usual clear prose. Each chapter essentially stands alone, telling the story of one particular black quarterback – or a small group of them. However, when read consecutively, certain themes build and specific events repeat throughout the chapters. Black quarterbacks are consistently told to switch positions, for example, or they seize a brief opportunity to lead a team and find they are never given another. Those injustices are easily dismissed as long-gone but Eisenberg shows that they are still infuriatingly present. Progress is slow. Nevertheless, men like Doug Williams and Warren Moon have played a vital role in bringing about the change we see today. Eisenberg’s book is a much-deserved record of their achievements.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books

“A vigorously told story of the battle for equity on the gridiron, a battle that is still playing out.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Eisenberg’s indictment of the pro leagues is scathing, and he makes clear the personal toll racism took on Black quarterbacks, as when he describes James Harris’s despair after getting passed up for obviously inferior white players in the 1969 NFL draft.”
Publisher’s Weekly


Amazon US | Amazon UK

Photo: All-Pro Reels

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