On September 14th, 1969, James “Shack” Harris made history as the first black quarterback to start on opening day in the AFL (this was one year prior to the NFL-AFL merger so while Harris is the first to start in either league, Joe Gilliam of the Pittsburgh Steelers was the first black quarterback to start on opening day in the NFL when he started against the Baltimore Colts in a 30-0 blowout victory).
In 1968 for the Denver Broncos, Marlin Briscoe became the first black player to start at quarterback. One year later he was in Buffalo catching passes from Harris.
Harris would go on to start just two more games in Buffalo over the next two seasons before eventually being out of football altogether in 1972.
Harris joined the Rams in 1973 and would become the starter six games into the 1974 season. He would finish 7-2 as a starter en route to becoming the first black quarterback to make the Pro Bowl, the first black quarterback to start and win a playoff game and the Rams also played in the NFC championship. The following season, the Rams went 11-2 with Harris under center before he injured his shoulder against the Packers. He would return in the NFC championship against the Cowboys. Unfortunately, his first pass was intercepted and he was benched after his second attempt fell incomplete.
1976 marked the beginning of the end of his time in Los Angeles. Head coach Chuck Knox played all 3 quarterbacks (Harris, Ron Jaworski and Pat Haden) and different points throughout the season (the decision was really the owners). Ironically, Harris finished the ’76 season with the same 3-2 record John Hadl had when he replaced him a few years prior.
That offseason, Ron Jaworski was traded to the Eagles, the Rams scooped up Joe Namath from the Jets and Harris was traded to the Chargers. In an interview with Steve Wulf for ESPN the Magazine, Harris had to say about his feelings following the trade:
“The Rams made me, but they also ruined me. I was never the same. My passion, my motivation was gone. After all I’d been through, I didn’t want to go through any more.”
Harris spent three seasons in San Diego (mainly as a backup to Dan Fouts) and won a few games, but he will be best known for his time with the LA Rams, where he did some special things with the team. He went 21-6 as a starter and played in two NFC championships.