Before James Harris became the first black quarterback to start in the National Football League with the Buffalo Bills in 1969, there were several great college quarterbacks who didn’t get the opportunity.
Who was the best among them can be left for debate, but a strong case can be made for Roy Curry.
For two years [1961-62], Jackson State assembled a squad on par with any team in the country.
The Tigers, who were 9-2 and 10-1, lost to Florida A&M 14-8 in 1961 for the championship. In a rematch the following season, they beat the Rattlers 22-6 before 50,000 at the Orange Blossom Classic in Miami , Fla.
A lethal threat running and passing, Curry was the trigger for a high-powered offense that averaged over 30 points a game. For two years, Curry averaged over 200 yards passing and 100 rushing as the Tigers threw 75 percent of the time. There was no shortage of weapons with receivers Willie Richardson [1,227 yards receiving his senior year, two-time pro bowler, 1963-71], Glouster Richardson [eight years, 67-74], Thomas Richardson (1969-70), tight end Al Greer [one season, 1963] and cornerback-running back-return specialist Speedy Duncan [four-time pro bowler, special teams ace 1964-74], offensive tackle Pappa Hayes [1965-66].
A stifling defense was anchored by: defensive ends Verlon Biggs [three-time pro bowler, 1965-74], Coy Bacon [three-time pro bowler, 1968-1983], defensive tackle Ben McGee [two-time pro bowler 1964-72], linebacker Roy Hilton [1965-75, defensive tackle Frank Molden [1965, 68, 69] and defensive back Taft Reed  all of whom played professionally.
The University of Mississippi and USC both went undefeated and were voted national champions in 1962. It’s hard to figure how Jackson State would stack up against them.
Coming in to assist head coach John Merritt in 1961, Joe Gilliam Sr. was instrumental in Curry’s development. Installing a series of plays that were a precursor to the west coast offense, opposing defenses were outmatched mentally and physically.
“I really enjoyed coaching at Jackson State ,” said Gilliam, now 87, and working on his fifth book. “The kids had a thirst for knowledge and were a joy to work with.
“We used the option, drop back, play-action and rollout. Our plays looked the same when they started, but ended up having a number of options. Our offense was all over the field. Richardson was as good an athlete as you’ll find and could go up and get it. Speedy Duncan was a great player; we moved him around as a flanker and third down guy.
“Curry was a great runner and very tough; he was never hurt. We used him with a naked bootleg, power sweeps and a series of rollouts. He was very accurate and knew where to go with the ball.”
“At that time, the NFL was not ready for a black quarterback, period. Coaches wanted a pocket quarterback. If he had gone to Canada , he would’ve had a long career.”
Gilliam was quite familiar with the NFL’s approach toward black quarterbacks. A star quarterback from Steubenville Big Red High School , Ohio , Gilliam started as freshman at free safety and punt returner while George Taliaferro [the first black to be drafted in the NFL by the Bears in 1949] powered the offense as a running back helping Indiana University to a share of the national championship with Army.
Married with a child on the way, Gilliam received a monthly stipend from a Steubenville businessman-bookie who America came to know as Jimmy The Greek. After a year in the army, Gilliam finished his career as a two-time All-American quarterback-free safety [1948-49] at West Virginia State College in Institute, West Virginia . In 1950, he received a contract from Green Bay Packers owner Curly Lambeau to play safety for $7,000. Convinced he could be a quarterback, Gilliam called Lambeau and asked if he could have a shot at the position.
“I said I’d like a chance to play quarterback,” said Gilliam. “He said, ‘There are no colored quarterbacks in the NFL.’
“I was sure I could play. We threw the ball a lot in college and I said I’d like an opportunity to play quarterback. He said the contract is for free safety and then added, ‘I’ll tell you again. There are no colored boys playing quarterback in the league.”
“I talked it over with my wife and decided if I can’t play quarterback, I didn’t want to play.”
By the early 1970s, the possibility of a black quarterbacking in the National Football League wasn’t a complete misnomer.
For years, star college quarterbacks were forced to change positions for a shot at playing professional football. Harris began his career with the Buffalo Bills in 1969 and had a few successful seasons [including a pro bowl in 1974] as a Rams starter during his 10 years in the league. Joe Gilliam Jr. [1972-75] had a brief run with the Steelers and Doug Williams had a nine-year tenure, beginning in 1978 which included a Super Bowl MVP in 1987 with the Washington Redskins. Warren Moon was not drafted out of the University of Washington and played with the Edmonton Eskimos in Canada for five years before embarking on a 17-year career, [in 1984] which included nine pro bowls and induction as the only black quarterback in the Hall of Fame.
In the last few years, a number of articles and documentaries have discussed the plight of the black quarterback, but Curry’s name never came up. Unfortunately, he was a decade too early. At this point, one can only speculate what type of career he would have had.
After nine years in the NFL which included pro bowls in 1967 and 68, with the Colts legend Johnny Unitas and the 1970 season with Bob Griese in Miami , Richardson is well aware of what it took to excel.
“ Roy had all the tools to be a professional quarterback,” he said. “He was better than a lot of quarterbacks I played with. He was better than Griese [at the time], Earl Morrall and Gary Cuozzo. Roy could throw, run and had a great feel for the game. He was an accurate passer who had touch and was dangerous running the ball.”
After the 1962 season, a scout from the Canadian Football League told Curry, “You should come to Canada . You’ll never play quarterback in the NFL.”
“I wish I would’ve listened to him; I would’ve played there a long time,” he said.
Drafted in the 12th round by the Steelers, Curry’s 4.4-40 speed was contributing factor in making the squad. Coach Buddy Parker told Curry they wanted to use him similar to Paul Hornung as a runner-thrower, but his difficulty picking up the blocking schemes translated into a move as receiver.
Pro Bowl linebacker Andy Russell, who played on the Steelers 1974, 75 Super Bowls, was a rookie in 1963.
“ Roy was a gifted athlete who was very fast and could catch anything,” said Russell. “I had no idea he was a quarterback in college. It wasn’t easy [then]. There were very few blacks [Brady Keyes, John Baker, Bob Ferguson, Joe Womack and John Henry Johnson] and coach Parker hated rookies.”
By mid-season, Curry was finding a comfort zone on special teams and at receiver.
Playing in six games, he made an impression when the Steelers hosted the Chicago Bears at Forbes Field three days after President Kennedy was assassinated. Beating cornerback Rosey Taylor on a corner route, Curry caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ed Brown as the Steelers tied the Bears 17-17. Just over a month later, the Bears beat the Giants 14-10 for the championship at Wrigley Field.
Against Philadelphia the following week with a chilly below 32 degree temperature, Curry was summoned from the bench. Accelerating for an overthrown pass, he pulled a hamstring. In practice the next week he aggravated the injury further.
The following season, his hamstring was on the mend, but not 100 percent and he was released at the end of training camp.
In 1965, Curry tried out with the Bears. Keeping pace in practice, Curry survived a couple bone-rattling hits by rookie middle linebacker Dick Butkus. A strained hamstring at the end of training camp moved coach George Halas to put him on the taxi squad. Curry opted to retire, a decision he still regrets.
“Biggest mistake of my life,” Curry stated. “Halas was doing me a favor; I just wasn’t thinking.”
A few weeks later, receiver Jimmy Jones broke his collarbone during warmups and Jim Hill was activated. Curry came back in 1966, but his hamstring wouldn’t hold up and he moved into coaching.
James Harris was in high school at nearby Monroe , La. , when he saw the aerial show Jackson State put on against Grambling in Ruston .
“You could see they were running NFL routes and the Richardson was a pro prospect,” said Harris, a senior personal executive with the Detroit Lions. “The kind of throws Curry made, you knew he was a special talent and a student of the game. From what I saw he had everything you needed to play in the league.
“You felt bad that you couldn’t find out how good he could be, but Curry was one of many. There was a guy from my hometown, [Grambling quarterback] Mike Howell, who had to play defensive back for the Cleveland Browns [1965-72]. I think there were several guys who were denied an opportunity by the time and the system. I think there was a progression before me and a progression after me. Things really had to be perfect. There was an expression that you needed to have an ooh-wee arm [to make it].”
“You had Matthew Reed [Grambling, drafted by the Bills in 1973, played a year in the WFL and three years in Canada], Jim Kearney [Prairie View, who played 12 seasons at safety], David Mays [Texas Southern, made the Cleveland Browns as a free agent and played 1976, 77 and then one season for the Bills], Jimmy Jones [1973 USC graduate who played seven years in Canada] that might not have been stars, but could’ve back up.”
Now 71, Curry enjoys retirement with his wife Carolyn of xx years. He lives in the Jeffery Manor neighborhood on the south side. His easy gait and amiable southern demeanor radiates a sense of warmth to friends and strangers. Always meticulously dressed, at 6-0 and still solid 195, Curry looks like he could still get behind center or model for men’s clothes.
It’s a feel-good story for Curry, who made his way out of a dead end. Growing up in Clarksdale , his dad, Lawrence , was a sharecropper and mother, River Lee, taught in a one room school. From age five–fifteen, Curry spent the summer and early part of the fall chopping and picking cotton on plantations in the area which included Hopson, Stovall and the 17,000 acre King & Anderson. The intensive labor helped chisel a physique that held up through many gridiron battles.
The youngest of four sisters and one brother who moved to Chicago before him, at 15, Curry began spending the summer working as a bus boy in Rogers Park on Chicago ’s north side. It was a significant pay increase and a respite from the stifling Mississippi heat.
A four-year starter at quarterback for Higgins High School, served Curry well as he excelled against very competitive schools at Tupelo, Corinth, Avery, Oxford, Columbus, Starkville and Aberdeen.
“The games were very competitive,” said Curry, who lettered in basketball and track. “You had teams with guys who had served in Korea and then came back and were playing at age 18 and 19. There were a lot of tough kids.”
An assistant for two years at Dunbar Vocational and head coach for Robeson High School from 1969-2000, one of the highlights was his 1982 squad that went to the state championship with only 26 players. Winning 240 games of the 313 games he coached at Robeson [he retired in 2000], Curry was inducted into the Illinois Coaches Association Hall of Fame. A passionate teacher whose affection for the game was palpable, he left an indelible mark on his players and many coaches that he mentored in the Chicago Public League.
“Coach was a stickler for us knowing what to do,” said Mickey Pruitt, who was a running back and free safety on the 1980 group that lost to Mt. Carmel in the Prep Bowl and the 1982 team that had 14 of the 25 players going both ways. Pruitt played three seasons with the Bears and two with Dallas Cowboys which included the 1992 Super Bowl. “In practice we went over play after play so the game was more like a dress rehearsal. We always felt prepared; we knew everything he put together would work well.
“Coach loved to teach and he was always willing to help a lot of the other coaches. Going from what he taught made it easier for me in college [at Colorado ] and at the pro level to pick things up.”
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