One of Eldridge Dickey’s last meetings before the 1968 NFL/AFL draft was his most nervous. No Black quarterback had played in professional football in 13 years, and for as much as his college coaches at Tennessee State had prepared him, they knew the door would budge only so far. So Tigers coach John Merritt and defensive coordinator Joe Gilliam Sr. told him to sit down.
Dickey was a man of faith; he’d earned the nickname “The Lord’s Prayer” in college and, with his rousing voice, had led his Tennessee State teams in prayer before each game. Later in life, he would become a minister. But Merritt and Gilliam wanted to meet with Dickey because they could not say what lay ahead for one of the most accomplished Black quarterbacks in college football history.
It would be difficult, they told him. “Listen, we want you to remember this,” Dickey later recalled to Malik Rasheed, his cousin and documentarian. “You’ve been chosen to do a great work. If you just get there, you would have done your job. We want to let you know, son, you’re going to have to bear the cross. But you might not be able to wear the crown.”
On Sunday, two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks will meet in Dickey’s hometown of Houston for a timely tribute. The Ravens' Lamar Jackson and Texans' Deshaun Watson are stars in a league that embraces what it shunned 52 years ago. Ten Black quarterbacks started in Week 1, the most in NFL history. The Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes is a defending Super Bowl champion and the sport’s richest-ever player. Watson is a former Heisman Trophy winner and now a $39 million-a-year man.
Jackson, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player, has long honored his forerunners, the Black quarterbacks who walked so that he could run. Before his first career start two years ago, Jackson spoke with former Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams, who told him, “Just keep going forward.” Growing up, Jackson idolized Michael Vick, the dual-threat icon whom, in many ways, he’s already surpassed.
But maybe no quarterback in Jackson’s lineage embodied the heartbreak of a lost generation more than Dickey. Over time, he became a cautionary tale for quarterbacks like Jackson: a breathtaking athlete, coveted by future Hall of Famers, only to be told he was needed more elsewhere. The first Black quarterback ever drafted in the first round, Dickey left the sport having never attempted a pass in professional football.
“He would’ve been a star,” said James “Shack” Harris, who played against Dickey in college and later became the first Black player to start a season at quarterback in pro football history. “He would’ve been a star because he had a good arm, he was accurate, he was smart, he had instincts ... and he never lost his poise. He had the ability. He had pocket awareness and the ability to scramble and run. He was fast.”
Added Harris: “There wasn’t nothing that he couldn’t do.”
Before Dickey became “The Lord’s Prayer,” he was “The Boy with the Golden Arm.” He came by the nickname honestly.
At Lockett Junior High School, in the Independence Heights neighborhood of Houston, Dickey started his football career as a wide receiver. He was fast — in college, Harris had heard that Dickey could cover 100 yards in under 10 seconds — but maybe too fast for young arms.
One practice, Dickey recalled to Rasheed, he was beating his defensive back “real bad,” and yet his quarterback kept missing him. Every deep shot came up short. His frustration boiling over, Dickey picked up the football and threw it all the way back. Dickey’s coaches marveled at the spiral. They summoned him over.
“From now on,” Dickey was told, “you’re a quarterback.”
And so the legend of Eldridge Dickey was born. He went on to play at nearby Booker T. Washington, the first high school in Houston open to Black students and a football power in the Prairie View Interscholastic League, which produced six Pro Football Hall of Fame members over nearly five decades of segregated competition.
Rasheed, who was only in elementary school when Dickey starred for the Eagles, remembered attending a game against Jack Yates, one of Washington’s chief rivals. Yates had been one of the state’s best teams, the toast of the city. Dickey’s emergence evened the scales. As he later explained in “The Eldridge Dickey Story,” Rasheed’s documentary, “We turned the lights out on them.”
“Not only did Booker T. Washington fans go crazy, but Jack Yates [fans] ... they went crazy watching Dickey,” Rasheed recalled of the Eagles' upset win. “I was so proud of him, because he was an incredible human being and he was just a likable guy. We loved it, man. People just loved it.”
Major-college options for Black quarterbacks were limited in the 1960s. In 1950, Michigan State’s Willie Thrower became the first Black quarterback to play in the Big Ten Conference. A decade later, Minnesota’s Sandy Stephens was the first to earn All-America honors. But for many recruits from the South, according to Lloyd Vance, an NFL writer, researcher and historian, Historically Black Colleges and Universities were often “the only direction” available.
Merritt and Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State) won an intense recruiting battle for Dickey, who soon inherited a spread passing attack well suited to his talents. “He was the answer to their prayers," Rasheed said. Hence the reverent nickname.
At a well-built 6 feet 2, 190-plus pounds, Dickey ran “like a mad deer,” Rasheed said. He could punt the ball farther than anyone on the roster. His IQ was said to be in the high 130s. But it was his throwing ability that astounded.
With his dominant right hand, Dickey could heave a football nearly the length of the field. “Never could get beyond 97 [yards],” he joked to Rasheed. With his left hand, Dickey was accurate “up to 25 yards,” Merritt told Sports Illustrated, and he could pump it 60-plus. After Tigers coaches learned of his ambidexterity, they designed plays that called for him to roll out to his left ... and throw left-handed.
In practice, Dickey’s passes arrived at a velocity that made gloves mandatory. “He actually broke a few guys' fingers, man,” Rasheed said. “And they’d tell him, ‘Dickey, what’s wrong? Did I make you mad? Take something off the ball!’”
“His coaches at Tennessee State told me that Dickey, like Michael Vick, could throw the ball with ease,” Vance said. “He didn’t have to put a lot of effort into it and he could just flick it all the way out there, but it could go 70 yards or so easily.”
With Dickey leading the offense and Claude Humphrey, a future Hall of Fame defensive end, headlining the defense, the Tigers didn’t lose often. Over Dickey’s first three seasons, from 1964 to 1966, Tennessee State won back-to-back Black College National Championships and posted a 24-game unbeaten streak. At Nashville’s Hale Stadium, the fire marshal often had to turn away fans on game day.
As a junior, Dickey threw for 25 touchdowns and 1,812 yards, including a career-high 343 against Harris' Grambling State team. He finished his career as a three-time HBCU All-American. The more Harris watched Dickey play, and the more he read about him during his library visits every fall Monday, the more he was convinced Dickey was a future pro quarterback.
“This was a great, great player that had the ability to be accurate,” he said. “He had Houdini in him. He could see behind him. He’d wait until the last minute when you’re rushing from the blind side and get out of it. … He had an NFL arm. He had real good instincts for the position. He was a playmaker, and when the game was on the line, he was at his best.”
During Dickey’s senior year, Al Davis, then the general manager and part owner of the Oakland Raiders, came to scout his game against Central State, according to Vance. If the Raiders needed anything during that 1967 season, it wasn’t a quarterback: After leading Oakland to a 13-1 season and an appearance in Super Bowl II, Daryle Lamonica earned American Football League MVP honors.
But Davis became enamored of Dickey, Rasheed said. He’d fly to meetings at Tennessee State via helicopter, landing on the school’s fields before explaining to the Tigers' staff how serious his interest was. Dickey wanted to play quarterback, and he had to know he would get that opportunity at the next level. When Merritt asked Davis whether he would get a fair shot, Davis looked him in the eyes and said yes, Dickey would.
There was talk of interest from Kansas City, too, Vance said — loud enough to maybe drive up Dickey’s draft stock in Oakland. The Chiefs and Raiders, division rivals who would make a combined five AFL Championship game appearances from 1966 to 1969, both had progressive front offices unafraid of HBCU prospects. Chiefs coach Hank Stram — like Davis, a future Pro Football Hall of Fame selection — later told Rasheed that he “loved” Dickey.
In January 1968, the Raiders took Dickey No. 25 overall in the joint NFL-AFL draft, a historic first-round selection. Dickey was close to becoming the first Black quarterback in pro football since the leagues' merger in 1966. “I don’t care if he’s polka-dot,” Davis told reporters after selecting him.
With Lamonica still in Oakland and proven depth behind him, Dickey was soon moved to receiver during the offseason, where the team lacked speed. Coaches said the position change would not be permanent, that Dickey could also learn the quarterback position as a flanker. Dickey told reporters that he was eager to help the team and willing to be patient.
But the Raiders had also selected Alabama quarterback Ken Stabler in the second round of the 1968 draft. Just as worrisome, over 11 games his rookie year, Dickey had more catches (one) than he did appearances at quarterback (none).
“It just wasn’t the time for the Black quarterback,” Vance said. Only one, Washington’s Williams, was drafted in the first round in the 1970s. None were taken there in the ’80s. “I call it almost like ‘profiling’ at the position. They had a set definition of what they were looking for at quarterback.”
Dickey, at least publicly, was more optimistic. He told the Oakland Tribune in July 1969 that he saw it as a “great advantage to me to play flanker” before returning to quarterback. His second preseason had a more promising start. In an exhibition against the Dallas Cowboys that month, he held his own with Stabler and outdueled Dallas Cowboys rookie Roger Staubach.
But as the season approached, Dickey’s hold on the backup spot slipped, even after Stabler abruptly quit. (Stabler later returned to resume an eventual Hall of Fame career.) Dickey played less and less each week, and after going 1-for-6 with an interception in a loss to the San Diego Chargers, he did not appear in the Raiders' next two preseason games. Two weeks before the season opener, he was waived.
First-year Raiders coach John Madden told reporters that Dickey had missed curfews and practice and that his attitude had deteriorated, but that he was still in the team’s plans. When Dickey returned to Oakland, he also returned to wide receiver.
‘Let the best guy play’
After a knee operation in 1969, Dickey’s career spiraled. In December 1971, after a series of missed workouts and suspensions, he was released. Dickey never played again. Not even Stram, Rasheed said, could convince him to try out in Kansas City. The pain of his quarterback dream was too much. For a time, he turned to drugs and alcohol.
“[Stram] said that that whole situation just messed up his equilibrium,” Rasheed said. “He said Dickey was not the same.”
In 2012, more than a decade after Dickey had died from a stroke at age 54, he was being considered for induction into the Black College Football Hall of Fame. Vance, a selection committee member, was struck by how few people knew of his legacy.
The first Black starting quarterback in pro football was Marlin Briscoe, in 1968. The first to start a season opener was Harris, one year later. But it was Dickey who had been honored as the quarterback of an all-time HBCU team. Stram later told Rasheed that Oakland’s handling of his career was a “travesty of justice,” that he could’ve broken so many records at quarterback.
“When you realize you may not get the one opportunity [at quarterback], there’s a challenge because you felt you almost had to try to play perfect, as if, if you made mistakes, your career would be over,” said Harris, who later joined the Ravens' front office as their pro personnel director. “So it was different conditions to play under.”
1968 marked a turning point in American life, and Harris does not have to look far for signs of progress. When he watched Watson’s Texans and Mahomes' Chiefs play in the NFL’s season opener earlier this month, he swelled with pride in hearing how the highest-paid players in the sport’s history were Black quarterbacks.
“The game has come a long way,” he said, and yet still the interrogation of their abilities frustrates him. Five decades after Dickey was first moved to wide receiver, Jackson, a Heisman Trophy winner at Louisville, was asked during his predraft process whether he’d consider playing another position.
When Harris made it to the NFL in 1969, he felt he was representing something bigger than himself; he was playing to create opportunities for others. It wasn’t until Dickey was drafted that Harris even began to ponder a pro future. He’s still burdened by an impossible question: How many quarterbacks might have been disqualified simply because they were Black?
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“I think all of us, we just hope that one day comes where we can compete for the job against other players and we’re all just considered ‘quarterback,’ ” Harris said. “And I think that all of us has ever asked for was just an opportunity to compete for the job. Let the best guy play. That’s all I’ve ever asked.”