Warren Moon: The Trail Blazer

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September 27, 2011

By Scott M. Johnson

Moon300_0927Standing on a podium where such an elite group of others once stood, Warren Moon was just a man. His age did not matter. His position did not matter. And this time, his race did not matter. Moon, who had spent so much of his life being tagged as not just a quarterback but as a black quarterback, could finally be introduced with a less constricting label. The date was Aug. 5, 2006, and the longtime quarterback had shed the label to become Hall of Famer Warren Moon. After a lifetime spent in many of football’s forgotten lands, Moon had proven everything that needed to be validated during a journey that led him to Canton, Ohio.

From West Los Angeles Junior College to the Canadian Football League, Moon took some unconventional steps toward football immortality. And along the way, his ability was often overshadowed by his race. For most of his life, the world of football couldn’t imagine a black man playing quarterback at such a high level. Black players just weren’t intelligent enough to handle the intricacies of the position, critics privately believed.

And so when Warren Moon made it to Canton, to a place where only the game’s greatest all-time players are allowed to dwell, it seemed inevitable that his race would again be a topic of conversation. No matter how many times Moon reminded us that being black had nothing to do with being a quarterback, his career was summed up succinctly by nearly every reporter leading up to the 2006 induction ceremony by calling him a trailblazing “black quarterback.” It’s how Warren Moon was seen at the beginning of his career, and although he spent most of his prolonged career helping to make skin color a moot subject among quarterbacks, it’s how Moon was also remembered at the end.

Certainly, Warren Moon was one of the most important black quarterbacks to ever play the game. But really, he was simply a quarterback with few peers – no matter his skin color, his background or his odd path to the Hall of Fame.

His 2006 induction signaled that Moon needed no modifier before his position. The asterisks that had followed him for so much of his career were no longer necessary.

Warren Moon had become, pure and simple, a Hall of Fame quarterback.

Before he would blaze the trails for others, before he would go where no other quarterback of his race had ever gone, Warren Moon had only that quiet, stoic stubbornness. Living in a house with a mother and four sisters – his father died of liver failure when Warren was 7 years old – Harold Warren Moon learned to go after what he wanted without making much of a fuss. It was a trait that often distanced him from others, but one that would eventually earn their respect and also lead him down unforeseen trails.

Moon was one of those kids who not only fell in love with football at a young age, but also developed an undying fondness for his position. Moon was, and always would be, a quarterback.

“It was just the challenge of it,” said Moon, who started playing at the age of 10, on a Pop Warner team that included future NFL star James Lofton. “Everybody’s relying on you to make the big decision or make the big play, whatever it might be. You were either the hero or the goat. I kind of liked that.”

One problem: When Moon began playing football in the late 1960s, there weren’t many black quarterbacks playing in the NFL. His dream of being a professional quarterback was a far-fetched one. Even if Moon had the right skill set, he didn’t have the right skin color.

Moon220_02_0927Inexplicably, professional football went almost a half century before allowing a black man to start at quarterback. A man named Willie Thrower was the first African-American to play the position in the NFL back in 1953, but he saw action in just two games with the Chicago Bears and never started. Not until 1968 did Denver’s Marlin Briscoe break the color barrier by starting a game in the American Football League. Briscoe threw 14 touchdown passes while finishing second in rookie-of-the-year voting that season, but he was not re-signed. The Buffalo Bills picked up Briscoe the following season but moved him to wide receiver, where he went on to become a Pro Bowler. The Pittsburgh Steelers started an African-American quarterback named Joe Gilliam a few years later, but he was eventually replaced by Terry Bradshaw due in part to Gilliam’s struggles with drug abuse. Not until 1974, when former Grambling star James Harris took over as the Los Angeles Rams starter, did a black quarterback start an NFL game.

The position was dominated by white starters for most of Moon’s childhood. So it’s safe to say that dreaming of playing quarterback was a near-unattainable aspiration for a black child like Moon in the 1960s. But Moon was determined to play the position, no matter what it took. His steely resolve kept Moon focused despite the long odds.

Moon grew up in a rough part of Los Angeles but used a friend’s address to enroll at L.A.’s Hamilton High School, a school that not only mixed social classes but also races. Football coach Jack Epstein looked not at Moon’s skin but at his arm when the coach walked up to the quiet 16-year-old during his sophomore year and pronounced that Moon would one day be Hamilton High’s starting quarterback. The following season, Moon was.

He was immediately accepted by teammates, but opposing fans weren’t always as open to the idea of seeing a black teenager play quarterback in the early 1970s.

“I never had any direct confrontations, but my friends did all the time,” Moon recalled. “They would hear it in the stands. My girlfriend (Felicia), who became my wife, heard all sorts of things.”

Moon handled the whispers in typical fashion, his stoic face brushing off any hint of concern. He emerged as the leader Coach Epstein had expected, and put up impressive numbers for Hamilton’s football team.

Despite his standout high school career, Moon received only college offers that came with asterisks. Most schools wanted him to change positions. Others preferred that he run an option attack, which would allow Moon to play quarterback while requiring him to run the ball more than pass it. Even the few schools that saw him as a passing quarterback made no promises. As much as he would have loved to stay home and play at USC, the Trojans already had a young starter in future NFL backup Vince Evans (a fellow African-American, it should be noted). Even Arizona State, which offered Moon a letter-of-intent that he eventually signed, tried to make Moon change positions after signing two white quarterbacks in his same recruiting class.
Playing for the University of Washington

And so Moon would do something that would become a trademark of his football career. He would play football in, essentially, the middle of nowhere. West Los Angeles Junior College offered him a chance to start right away, at his favorite position, no less, and so Moon took his first step on the road less traveled. Moon needed only one year at the junior college to prove himself all over again, earning Western State Conference player-of-the-year honors. This time, Division I colleges came calling without the need for asterisks. If Moon wanted to play quarterback, they were going to let him play quarterback.

Moon275_0927In 1975, the 19-year-old quarterback signed on with the University of Washington and began play in what was then known as the Pac-8. While there were early struggles – the Huskies went 11-11 in his first two seasons, and on occasion Moon was booed by the home fans – Moon eventually emerged as one of the best players in the entire conference. The schools that had spurned him were helpless to his heroics in 1977, when he was named Pac-8 player of the year. Moon helped lead the UW to the Rose Bowl that year, with heavily-favored Michigan serving as the opponent. Moon surprised the Wolverines with his cache of weapons, running for two touchdowns while throwing for another in the 27-20 upset.

But once again, the so-called experts preferred to look at the obvious physical difference instead of the overall body of work. NFL teams were still leery of black quarterbacks, and so the calls came out again for him to change positions.

During the introductory speech leading up to Moon’s 2006 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, agent Leigh Steinberg recalled a conversation with Moon in which he asked whether the quarterback was prepared to give up his dream of playing quarterback in favor of moving to receiver or defensive back.

“In certain football circles,” Steinberg said during the 2006 induction speech, “there was doubt as to the ability or desirability of an African-American to master the high-profile quarterback position with its emphasis on intelligence and leadership. Warren answered that question with steely resolve. ‘Never,’ he said (about the possibility of changing positions). ‘I was born to play quarterback. No one’s going to stop me from fulfilling my dream.'”

The 1978 NFL draft came and went, and all 12 rounds passed without Moon’s name being called.

“I was very disappointed,” Moon recalled in 2007. “But I kind of understood the situation of the time. I was hoping I would get the opportunity to be with a team, but I was more of a realist.”

While Moon knew that he had the skills to play in the National Football League, he exercised patience and headed north of the border. The road less traveled was in front of him again. The Canadian Football League offered him a chance to play his favorite position, no strings attached, and so he signed with the Edmonton Eskimos.

Said Moon: “It was like, ‘This is the opportunity I have, so this is the one I’m going to take. At some point I might be back, but for now I need to get an opportunity to play.'”

Given another chance to prove himself, Moon did not disappoint. He quickly emerged as one of the CFL’s best passers and, in the end, maybe the best player the league had ever seen. He threw for more than 21,000 yards during his six years in the league, including a 1983 season that saw him pass for 5,648 yards – still a record in professional football. Moon also won Grey Cup titles in each of his final five seasons with the Eskimos, and yet he still felt somehow unfulfilled.

When the NFL finally came calling in 1984, Moon was ready to make up for lost time. This time around, just about every team showed interest in the record-setting quarterback from north of the border. The two highest suitors were the Houston Oilers and the Seattle Seahawks, both of whom were willing to offer about $5.5 million over five years – at the time, the biggest contract in football. The Oilers’ offer included more guaranteed money, and so Moon passed up the chance to go back to the city where he played college football in favor of going to Houston.

Moon300_02_0927The Oilers were, at the time, one of the biggest laughing stocks in the league. But Moon’s success in helping turn around the University of Washington program allowed him to be optimistic about the future of his new team. After a 3-13 record in Moon’s first season, the Oilers gradually showed signs of progress. By 1987, with coach Jerry Glanville calling the shots, Moon threw for 2,806 yards and 21 touchdowns to lead the Oilers to a 9-6 record and the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1980. (That same season, Washington’s Doug Williams made history by becoming the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl.)

The Oilers would go on to become a postseason mainstay, while Moon established himself as a perennial Pro Bowler. But Glanville was eventually fired because Houston couldn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs. And so in 1990, University of Houston coach Jack Pardee took over, bringing with him the run-and-shoot offense. The offensive scheme, which had never been used at the NFL level, featured three-, four- and five-receiver sets in its high-octane passing attack. Moon passed for more than 9,300 yards and 56 touchdowns in his first two seasons of play in the run-and-shoot.

But Moon continued to play under a different microscope, due in large part to his skin color. A 2006 article in Sports Illustrated recounted a story in which a Houston fan used a racial slur to describe Moon in the stands during a 1991 Oilers game. Moon’s family sat nearby, and so afterward Moon had to explain to his 9-year-old son, Joshua, what the N-word meant.

That came after a rare poor performance, and so Moon continued to get lambasted on the airwaves all week. On his radio show a few days later, Moon didn’t strike back at the fans. Instead, he did something completely in character. Moon apologized. He told the fans he was sorry he hadn’t played well and promised to do better.

On and off the field, Moon continued to rise above it all. He was every bit the star the Oilers had hoped, except the playoff wins were still hard to come by. Even in 1992, when the Oilers finished their regular season with a 27-3 victory over defending AFC champion Buffalo, Houston fell short in the playoffs. A week after beating the Bills, Moon threw four first-half touchdown passes as Houston jumped out to a 28-3 halftime lead in a rematch during the wild-card round. When Oilers defensive back Bubba McDowell intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown early in the second half, Houston’s lead swelled to 32 points.

But Buffalo’s backup quarterback, Frank Reich, helped engineer the most improbable comeback in postseason history, rallying the Bills to a 41-38 victory while sending Moon and the Oilers back to Houston for another premature offseason. Moon’s playoff disappointment continued.

The Oilers would make quite a rally of their own the next season, bouncing back from a 1-4 start to win the final 11 games of their 1993 season. But once again, Houston was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, and Moon was dealt to Minnesota that offseason. In his 10 seasons as an Oiler, Moon passed for more than 36,000 yards and 196 touchdowns.

While he continued to put up big numbers on the field – Moon threw for more than 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons with the Vikings – his personal life hit a low point with a 1995 arrest that stemmed from a domestic abuse case involving his wife, Felicia. Moon was acquitted of the charges a few months later, but the incident tarnished an otherwise squeaky-clean image.

In 1996, Moon, then 40, suffered a collarbone injury that ended his season after just eight games. It marked the shortest season of his NFL career and eventually led the Vikings to give the starting job to Brad Johnson. When Moon refused to take a $3.8 million pay cut, he was released for the first time in his career.

Moon finally made it back to Seattle in 1997, when he was a few months shy of his 41st birthday. The Seahawks were looking for a reliable backup to add insurance behind oft-injured starter John Friesz. Head coach Dennis Erickson made no promises about Moon becoming the starter, but he did admit that there might be an opportunity for playing time.

“That was one of the reasons I came here, because (Friesz) was a guy that got hurt a lot,” Moon said from the Seahawks’ practice facility in 2007. “That’s what Dennis told me when he brought me here: ‘John’s our starter, but if he doesn’t play well, it’s your job. And he has a tendency to get hurt.’ But I never really expected to be starting.”

Just one game into his tenure as a Seahawk, Moon took over as the starter. Friesz broke his thumb in the season opener, and so the team turned to the 40-year-old former Pro Bowler to try and rescue the season. After losing his first start as Seattle dropped to 0-2 on the season, Moon found a rhythm. He passed for more than 250 yards in five consecutive games, leading the Seahawks to a 4-1 record in that span. After helping the Seahawks beat St. Louis 17-9 to give Seattle a 6-3 season record, Moon prepared for what was annually known as the biggest game of the year. The Oakland Raiders were off to a rough start, having won just three of their first seven games. The Seahawks were hoping to knock them out for good.

Seahawks vs. Raiders
Oct. 26, 1997
As told by Warren Moon

When I signed with the Seahawks that season, there were plenty of questions about my age because I was about to turn 41. Honestly, I had questions myself. I knew how my body felt, and it felt great. But I just didn’t know if one day I would wake up and find out I’d just lost it, or if it would be gradual. I didn’t have anything to go by. I didn’t have any guys to talk to who had been in that situation. George Blanda, to me, had been the only guy who had really been through that situation, playing into his 40s, and he was more of a kicker at the end. I didn’t really have a quarterback I could talk to about how I was supposed to feel or what I was supposed to do.

Most of the things I did for my body I got from pitchers, from reading Orel Hershiser’s book and also from Nolan Ryan’s book. Those guys knew how to take care of themselves. That’s why Nolan was able to throw a no-hitter when he was 42 years old. So I was able to do some of the same things as far as taking care of my arm: how to stretch it, icing it after practices, which workouts to do. And I stayed away from major injuries; I never had anything wrong with my shoulders or anything like that.

My only offers before the season were as a backup, so I decided to come back to Seattle and try to finish my career as a Seahawk. I felt this was going to be my last hurrah. And it was great that I was able to come full circle. This is where I wanted to play after my career in Canada, but it just didn’t work out because of contractual issues. So to be able to get a chance to play here, in front of all my fans from the college days, was just great. I always wanted to play for this organization. It made the season that much more special for me.

John Friesz was the starter that year, but he got hurt in the season opener, and so I took over as starter. I had some success, but not until the Raiders game in Week 9 did I really show people that I still had it.

From the start of the game, I was on target. I completed six of my seven passes on the opening drive. When you hit those first two or three, it’s almost like a basketball player being in that zone. I got on a roll there. But then I overthrew somebody on our second drive, and they intercepted the pass. We eventually fell behind 14-3 and had to battle back.

But they didn’t have a lot of answers for our passing game, so we continued to pound it. We went on a 90-yard drive in the second quarter, and I hit Brian Blades for a 7-yard touchdown, my first of the game. On the second play of the next drive, I hit James McKnight for a 42-yard touchdown. I was rolling out of the pocket to the right, and I threw it across to the middle for a short completion. And he caught it and turned it up the sideline for a touchdown. That was one of those where I said to myself, ‘Not bad for a an-almost-41-year-old man,’ and kind of smiled.

The game kind of went back and forth like that, with both teams putting up a lot of offense. But in the second half, I threw three touchdown passes to Joey Galloway to put it away. Joey was our leading receiver that year, with 72 catches and 12 touchdowns. It was his third year in the league, and he was really starting to come into his own. He was known as one of the fastest players in the game. I played with a couple guys in Houston who had that kind of speed. But what made Joey so different is that he was so much more physical. Pound for pound, he was the strongest guy on our team — and maybe in the league. He could put up 400 pounds on the bench press. He worked out really hard in the offseason. But he liked to go back to Ohio State and work out there. That was one of the things that frustrated me, that he didn’t want to be here in the offseason. But he was a great player. And he still is. That’s because he took care of his body.

He caught a 28-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to put us within 34-32, then Todd Peterson made a couple field goals to give us the lead. I hit Galloway again on a 2-yard reception late in the game for a 45-34 win. I finished with 409 passing yards and five touchdowns, leading us to our third win in a row, and our fifth in the seven games since I’d taken over as starter.

People ask whether there was any validation because of my age, and this game definitely did that. That year, we had a really good passing year. I was pretty consistent, but this was one of those take-it-to-the-next-level type of games. I was throwing for 200 yards a game, and we were winning and had a pretty good rhythm going, but then all of a sudden when you break out for 400 yards at almost 41 years old, it makes people take notice. And I ended up making the Pro Bowl that year.

Moon300_03_0927Not only did Moon go to the Pro Bowl, but he also set franchise records for completions (313) and passing yards (3,678) that year. The Seahawks just missed the playoffs, and their 8-8 record was four wins better than that of the Raiders. Having proven that he could still play, Moon stuck around for a second season with the Seahawks. But not without a delay.

Moon was hoping to cash in on his Pro Bowl season, and the impasse eventually led to a contract holdout at training camp. Rather than take the $500,000 deal that was already in place – at the time, that marked the minimum for veteran players – Moon and Steinberg were looking for a three-year contract that would pay him between $3 million and $5 million per season. He eventually signed a two-year deal worth a reported $5 million and returned to his spot in the starting lineup.

But Moon’s final season with the Seahawks, in 1995, was plagued by injuries. While he made history by becoming the first 41-year-old quarterback to start a game, Moon couldn’t stay healthy. He hurt his shoulder in a memorable, rain-soaked game at Kansas City, then suffered two cracked ribs in a loss to Denver the following week. Moon later recalled that the rib injury never really went away, even though he was back on the practice field two weeks later.

“That started the downhill slide,” Moon said in 2007. “I kept trying to play with broken ribs. My mobility was shot; I couldn’t throw the ball the way I wanted. I used to shoot up every day just to be able to go out and practice.

“Looking back, I wish I would’ve just taken two or three weeks off and not played, let it heal. Because the coaches and everybody wanted me to play, I kept playing. And it ended up being my downfall.”

By Week 11, the Seahawks turned to young Central Washington University product Jon Kitna as their starting quarterback. Kitna finished strong enough that new head coach/general manager Mike Holmgren opted to stick with him and let Moon go in a salary cap-related move in January 1999.

Moon spent his final two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, serving as Elvis Grbac’s backup before retiring after the 2000 season. He was 44 years old.

Harold Warren Moon’s improbable career in professional football spanned 22 seasons, including 16 in the NFL. He retired with the third-most passing yards in NFL history, compiling 49,325 over his illustrious career despite spending his first six years playing in Canada. Only Dan Marino and John Elway threw for more. Add in Moon’s 21,228 passing yards from the CFL, and he stood far above anyone in professional football history. His 70,000 passing yards equated to 40 miles, while he added 435 touchdowns in his dual-league career. Not until the pass-happy Arena League came along did anyone come close to those numbers over a pro career.

In 2006, Moon was honored by both of his leagues. Canadian television station TSN named him the fifth-best player in CFL history, and a few months later the Pro Football Hall of Fame gave him his greatest honor. He was the first black quarterback ever inducted into the Hall, an honor that got plenty of attention but made Moon, in his own word, “uncomfortable.”

“I played this game not for just myself, not just for my teammates, but I always had that extra burden when I went on that field that I had a responsibility to play the game for my people,” Moon said during his enshrinement speech. “That extra burden I probably didn’t need to go out on the field with, because I probably would have been a much better player if I didn’t have that burden. But you know what? I carried that burden proudly.”

A year after Moon’s August 2006 induction, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who, like Moon, is an African-American, would stir up controversy by telling a cable television station that black quarterbacks are more heavily scrutinized than white quarterbacks. The words set off a firestorm in the media. Meanwhile, the quiet, stoic man who had helped blaze trails for so many other black quarterbacks just sat back with a knowing nod.

“I understood exactly what he was talking about because I dealt with it too,” Moon said in October 2007, two months after McNabb had made the comments. “It’s still a part of our society. I don’t think, in the NFL, (race is) a big deal anymore as far as how you judge the players. It’s more on the media side and the fan side. They criticize more because of your race.

“Look at Rush Limbaugh’s comments (about McNabb in 2003, claiming that the quarterback’s race somehow brought on less public scrutiny). Look at his own race: the NAACP in Philadelphia said he doesn’t play the position black enough. That’s being judged. Nobody ever told Peyton Manning or Tom Brady that they don’t play white enough. So it’s different; it just is.”

Moon220_0927Moon never wanted to be any different. He only wanted to be judged against his fellow quarterbacks. And in the end, his name stood up with the best of the best. If not for his lack of a Super Bowl ring, Moon would probably be included in every greatest-quarterback-ever discussion, right there with players like Dan Marino, John Elway, Joe Montana and Brett Favre. Those guys, like Moon, are simply quarterbacks. No need for race or asterisks.

And Harold Warren Moon needs no more asterisks, either. After spending much of his career coming out of nowhere, he finished it in the place where all others aspire to be.

Warren Moon is not just a quarterback. Warren Moon is a Hall of Fame quarterback.