Willie Thrower was was the first African American player to appear in a professional game at the quarterback position in the National Football League.
Although historians failed to recognize his contributions to the NFL for many years, his accomplishments were as monumental as many of the greats who came after him.
Here are seven things you may not have known about Thrower:
1. NCAA Allstar, Yet Undrafted
He played college football at Michigan State University, where he led the Spartans football team to a national championship in 1952. Although Thrower was not drafted in 1953, he was offered a one year contract with the Chicago Bears.
2. First Black Player In Big Ten Conference
Thrower was also the first Black quarterback to play in the Big Ten, helping Michigan State to a national championship in 1952. He signed with the Bears for $8,500 as a backup quarterback after going undrafted. [ESPN]
3. Huge Hands
He was tagged with the nickname “Mitts,” thanks to the huge hands that protruded from his average 5’11” frame. [Pitts]
4. College Scholarships Withdrawn Because Of Race
He was a standout athlete on his high school football team, leading them to two championship seasons, but as ESPN.com columnist Len Pasquarelli pointed out, “The games also drew college recruiters, many of whom came armed with scholarship offers, only to withdraw them once they noticed through binoculars that Thrower was Black.” [Answers.com]
5. Impressive Passer
Thrower could toss the ball an impressive 70 yards, “but he was a lot more than a thrower,” former Chicago Bears teammate George Blanda told ESPN.com’s Pasquarelli. “He was a passer, a guy who could fit the ball through the eye of a needle when he needed to.” [Answers.com]
6. Trail Blazer
While playing for Chicago, Thrower made history on Oct. 18, 1953, when he became the first African-American quarterback to play in an NFL game. He completed 3-of-8 passes for 27 yards against San Francisco at Soldier Field on that day. [Answers.com]
“A lot of people called me a liar. Now…they say, ‘Gee whiz, here’s a guy living in our hometown. We didn’t know he was the first Black quarterback,”‘ Thrower said after ESPN aired a tribute special about him. “Just like they didn’t know, the rest of the country didn’t know.” [MSUSpartans.com]
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