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Friday, February 22, 2002
Thrower was first black QB to play in NFL
NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. -- Willie Thrower, the NFL's first black quarterback, is dead of a heart attack. He was 71.
Thrower, who died at his home Wednesday, became the league's first black quarterback when he played in one game for the Chicago Bears in 1953.
"I look at it like this: I was like the Jackie Robinson of football. A black quarterback was unheard of before I hit the pros," Thrower told The Valley News Dispatch of Tarentum, Pa., after he was featured in a Black History Month special that aired on ABC television a year ago.
Thrower also was 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.
His first and last NFL game was Oct. 18, 1953, against the San Francisco 49ers at Soldier Field.
Thrower relieved George Blanda, completing 3-of-8 passes for 27 yards with an interception in the 35-28 loss.
It would be 15 years until another black quarterback took a snap in a pro game -- in 1968, when Marlin Briscoe started at quarterback for the Denver Broncos in what was then the American Football League.
"That's what everyone is going to remember him by, football," said his wife, Mary. "He always went by 'Willie the Pro."'
Thrower's accomplishment went largely overlooked.
Twenty-five years after he broke the quarterback color barrier, he was recognized in an exhibit about black players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And until the ABC television special, Thrower said even some of his neighbors didn't believe his claim.
"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 the special aired. "Just like they didn't know, the rest of the country didn't know."
Thrower was cut by the Bears in 1954, then played three years with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League and a semipro team in Toronto.
He retired after separating his shoulder at age 27 and became a social worker in New Kensington and New York City before returning to his hometown for good in 1969. He eventually owned two taverns.
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