History will be made at Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Ariz., on Sunday, when for the first time, both Super Bowl teams will feature a Black starting quarterback, as Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs battle Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles at State Farm Stadium.
This is a watershed moment for the NFL, where African-American quarterbacks faced decades of discrimination. As recently as the year 2000, a dozen NFL franchises were yet to have even one Black quarterback so much as start a single regular season contest. Progress has come slowly, and finally in 2023, Hurts and Mahomes have allowed nothing to block their roads to America’s Game.
North of the Border, the barrier was broken more than four decades ago, inside Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on Nov. 22, 1981, when Warren Moon led Edmonton to a dramatic 26-23 comeback victory J.C. Watts and the Ottawa Rough Riders in what was the first Grey Cup with two Black starting quarterbacks.
The Green & Gold were the 69th Grey Cup Champions in 1981! #GoElks pic.twitter.com/5lziZKwKVI
— Edmonton Elks (@GoElks) April 10, 2022
With the Green and Gold erasing a 20-point deficit to win their fourth of a record-setting five consecutive championships, Grey Cup 1981 has long been considered a game for the ages. But only now, in light the unprecedented nature of Super Bowl LVII, is the 69th edition of the Canadian football championship being truly appreciated for its social significance.
“I didn’t realize this until this week that the CFL was 42 years ahead of the National Football League,” said Watts, who grew up in Eufaula, Oklahoma. “In 1981 it was historic that Warren and I were two Black quarterbacks starting in a professional football game, period, in any country, in any league.”
While the historic meeting of Hurts and Mahomes has dominated coverage leading up to Super Bowl LVII, there was no awareness in 1981 about the Grey Cup being the first to feature two starting quarterbacks of colour. At that time, around three-quarters of CFL teams had a Black quarterback.
“It wasn’t a big subject up in Canada,” said Moon, a Los Angeles native. “Because there were so many African-American quarterbacks, it wasn’t something people focused on a lot. It really come to (attention) until we started talking about it this year.”
In 1981, Moon was playing his fourth season in the CFL, and already had three championship rings, one from each of his first three years with the Green and Gold. Watts, meanwhile, was a rookie who had taken over the job of Ottawa’s starting pivot during the latter part of the regular season and led the Rough Riders on a Cinderella run to reach the 1981 Grey Cup.
While separated by a few years, Moon and Watts came to Canada for the same reason: the opportunity to play QB. Both had proven themselves at the position during their college careers in the United States, with Moon being named MVP after leading Washington to victory in the 1977 Rose Bowl, and Watts helping Oklahoma win back-to-back Orange Bowl games in 1980 and 1981, receiving MVP honours both times. But when NFL teams looked at men like Moon and Watts, they didn’t see a quarterback.
“There were two things going against me going against me playing quarterback in the National Football League: One, I was a mobile/option quarterback, and two, I was Black. And you didn’t see either of those characteristics in National Football League quarterbacks,” said Watts, who the NFL’s New York Jets drafted with the intention of having him play running back.
“The National Football League had that stereotypical kind of quarterback, that you had to be a drop-back passer, and you need to be white, which was kind of unspoken,” Watts added.
“They weren’t going to tell directly that they don’t want you because of the colour of your skin, but they’re going to tell you they don’t think you’re tall enough or they think your arm is not strong enough or you didn’t come out of a pro-style offence. They just made up all types of different excuses that way,” echoed Moon.
Grey Cup 1981 was a showcase of the QBs. Watts, who completed 16 passes for 204 yards and rushed five times for 29 yards, was named MVP, but it was Moon who left Montreal with the most important trophy in Canadian football. After coach Hugh Campbell briefly replaced Moon with Tom Wilkinson when Edmonton fell behind 20-0 in the first half, Moon responded in the second half with a pair of rushing TDs, passing for a two-point convert to tie the game, then quarterbacking a championship drive that culminated in Dave Cutler’s game-winning field goal with just three seconds remaining.
“We knew we were much better than how we had played and that’s basically what the talk was at halftime: let’s just play our game, get some stops on defensive, create some offence and we’re going to end up winning this game,” said Moon. “Coach Campbell’s just one of those really optimistic guys. He just told us, ‘We’re going to come back and we’re going to win’. And we did.”
Moon spent two more years in the CFL, winning a fifth Grey Cup in 1982, and the league’s Most Outstanding Player Award in 1983. In 1984 he joined the Houston Oilers went on to play 17 seasons in the NFL, also playing for the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, and Kansas City Chiefs, receiving nine Pro Bowl selections along the way.
In 2001, the same year that his name went up on the Commonwealth Stadium Wall of Honour, Moon was inducted to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Five years later, he became the first African-American quarterback enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Watts played a total of six seasons in the CFL before retiring from football as a member of the Toronto Argonauts. In 1990, he became the first African-American elected to statewide office in Oklahoma when he won a seat on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. Watts went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003, representing Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District.
“Even if I would have known, I don’t think I would have been walking around patting myself on the back or high-fiving Warren, saying, ‘Man, we were the first two Black quarterbacks to start in the Grey Cup,” Watts said. “I never set out to have the designation of the first of anything. I didn’t set out to be one of the first of two Black quarterbacks (starting in the same) Grey Cup, I didn’t seek to be first Black person to run for statewide office and be elected. I didn’t set out to be the first, I set out to win. And if you win, all those other accolades will take care of themselves.
“When I think about the 1981 Grey Cup, as I saw Warren’s career develop in the National Football League and saw him do in the NFL what he did in the CFL, I’m more proud of the fact I competed against him than I was saying that we were the first,” Watts continued. “So I think that 1981 helps us to look at history and say, ‘What can we do from February 2023 going forward to continue to make progress.”
Since 1981, four more Grey Cups have featured two starting Black quarterbacks: 1982 (Moon, Edmonton vs. Condredge Holloway, Toronto); 1983 (Holloway, Toronto vs. Roy Dewalt, B.C.), 2001 (Marcus Crandell, Calgary vs. Khari Jones, Winnipeg), and 2013 (Darian Durant, Saskatchewan vs. Henry Burris, Hamilton).
And now, Hurts and Mahomes. They stand on the shoulders of those men who stood behind centre at Olympic Stadium, 15,057 days earlier.
“I didn’t think about it in a historic context back in those days, I was trying to play my career and be as good as I can be,” said Moon. “But now that you’ve stepped away from it and are able to look at the game from a bigger picture, you realize what the historical presence of it all is, and it means a little bit more because I was part of that history and part of helping the growth that happened in the United States for African-American quarterbacks. So it makes me proud that my journey wasn’t in vain.”