Willie Thrower: Breaking Barriers
Thrower was the first African-American quarterback to play in the NFL.
Feb. 24, 2010
February is Black History Month, and nowhere in major-college athletics is that history richer than at Michigan State University. From Gideon Smith, the first African-American football player at Michigan Agricultural College in 1913, to Steve Smith, an All-America basketball star whose contributions have an impact each day, it would take many months to tell the full story. In this profile, former Spartan quarterback Willie Thrower is featured.
Pioneer. Barrier breaker. Trailblazer. Those words undoubtedly describe former Michigan State quarterback Willie Thrower. But there's one that will always top the list: first.
Thrower became the first African-American quarterback to play in the Big Ten, and later he accomplished the same feat in the National Football League when he played with the Chicago Bears in 1953.
A native of New Kensington, Pa., Thrower was a highly touted athlete upon his arrival in East Lansing in 1949. An All-American who was recruited by then-assistant coach Duffy Daugherty, Thrower was one of several players from his successful high school team to play football at Michigan State, joining William Horrell, Joseph Klein, Renaldo Kozikowski, Vincent Pisano, and the Tamburo brothers, Harry and Richard.
As his name uniquely entails, Thrower excelled as a "forward passer," as it was called at the time. Although only standing 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighing in at 170 pounds, Thrower had large hands and unprecedented arm strength, with the ability to throw a football accurately as far as 60 yards.
"He had big hands," Tom Yewcic, the starting All-American quarterback on the 1952 national title team, told The State News in a 2003 interview. "That's why they called him `The Thrower.' Probably threw the ball as good as anyone in football."
This was not lost on head coach Biggie Munn. A halfback in high school, Thrower made the switch to quarterback following his sophomore year. But it wasn't just in games that Munn looked to Thrower for his power arm. During practice on Fridays, Munn would call on Thrower during the team's kickoff drills for one simple reason - Thrower could toss the ball farther and more accurately than a kicker. It made the drills much more effective.
Thrower played three seasons at Michigan State, and most memorably helped the Spartans win a consensus National Championship in 1952. Although he was widely regarded as the team's top passer, Thrower competed for playing time throughout most of his career, and often came off the bench as the team's second-string quarterback behind the likes of All-America quarterbacks Al Dorow and Yewcic.
During the first two years of his collegiate career, Thrower had only attempted 14 passes. But it was his third and final season with the Spartans that caught the attention of football fans and NFL scouts alike.
Thrower passed for two touchdowns in the final 72 seconds against Texas A&M in 1952 and was awarded the game ball by his teammates.
In 1952, Thrower and Yewcic teamed up at quarterback to lead the Spartans to an undefeated 9-0 season and the National Championship. Thrower was an integral part of the title run, completing 59 percent of his passes (29-of-43) for 400 yards and five touchdowns.
During that championship season, Thrower took advantage of his increased role in the Spartan offense. His breakout game came Oct. 11 against Texas A&M in Spartan Stadium.
In the 48-6 thrashing of the visiting Aggies, which was televised nationally by NBC, Thrower made the most of his opportunity in the final minutes of the blowout. With the Spartans up 34-6 in the fourth quarter, Thrower entered the game. After three straight runs, Thrower attempted his first pass - which he completed to Bert Zagers for an apparent 53-yard touchdown; however, the play was called back due to illegal motion in the Spartan backfield. But that didn't slow Willie down.
He responded by completing four of his six passes on the drive, capped off by a 19-yard touchdown strike to Zagers. On the ensuing kickoff, Texas A&M fumbled the ball, giving Thrower one more chance to score. He rattled off three more completions, including an 11-yard touchdown pass to Benard Raterink on the last play of the game.
Thrower ended up leading MSU to two touchdowns in the final 72 seconds and was 7-for-9 passing in the game for 107 yards. He was awarded the game ball by his teammates.
"(When I came into the Texas A&M game), I said we're just going to play pass and catch, that's all I'm going to do is throw the ball," Thrower recalled in a 2001 interview. "After the game, the Texas A&M coach (Raymond George) comes into the Michigan State locker room and says, `Where's this guy Willie Thrower at?' One of the players said, `Over there, No. 27.' So he comes over and says, `If they don't give you the game ball, you can come over into our locker room, I'll have one for you.'"
Following the Texas A&M game, Thrower continued to post impressive numbers, as he was 5-for-7 passing for 47 yards against Syracuse, 5-for-9 for 82 yards and a TD against No. 17 Penn State, and 3-for-3 with a TD at Indiana.
Perhaps Thrower's finest game as a Spartan came in a comeback effort against No. 6 Notre Dame in the second-to-last game of the season, as he helped engineer two touchdown drives in the 21-3 victory over the Irish in East Lansing. Although his stats were not spectacular, Thrower played more minutes in a tight game than ever before due to his calm demeanor on the field. Pro scouts described Thrower's effort as "clutch".
In his final game in a Spartan uniform, Thrower completed seven of his 11 attempts for 71 yards and a touchdown in a dominating 62-13 win over Marquette that sealed the nation's No. 1 ranking for Michigan State.
Thrower also scored his first career rushing touchdown in that game - thanks to his teammates. With Thrower in command of the huddle and the Spartans near the goal line, the offense refused his initial play call, and instead persuaded Thrower to take the lead on a running play. According to The Detroit News, "no cheer was louder all day than the one Willie Thrower received when he quarterback-sneaked six inches for the fourth touchdown."
Upon completion of his career in East Lansing, Detroit-area sportswriters declared Thrower as one of the most graceful passers ever to play in the Midwest. His performances during the 1952 season also garnered the attention of the Chicago Bears, who signed him to a one-year contract for the 1953 NFL season.
While playing for Chicago, Thrower made history once again 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.
"I got into the San Francisco game after (Bears coach) George Halas got dissatisfied with (starting quarterback) George Blanda," Thrower said. "He (Halas) jumped up and said `Willie, Willie, warm up, get in there.' So I warmed up, went in, and took them from our own 40-yard line all the way down to about the 15. All of a sudden, he sends George back in, and the fans, boy they really jumped on him, (saying) `leave Willie in, leave Willie in.'"
Thrower would only appear in one more game the rest of the season. Unfortunately, he was second-string behind Blanda, an eventual Hall of Famer. Not that Blanda didn't recognize Thrower's talents.
"The first game I ever went to as a pro we went to play the Baltimore Colts," recalled Thrower. "We caught the train in Chicago and on the way George Blanda told me, `You know what, Will? If I could throw a football as good as you, I'd be playing for the next 25 years.'"
Following his only year in the NFL, Thrower played professional football in Canada for a few seasons before walking away from the game at an early age. Due to a shoulder injury, Thrower retired from football at the age of 27, unfortunately well before the significance of his cultural achievements were widely recognized. In fact, it would not be until 1968 - 15 years later - that another African-American quarterback would take a single snap in a professional football game.
"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 in 2001.
"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."
While his name may not be highly recognizable to many today, the path he laid in the 1950s for the future of football and for the future of African-Americans goes without question. In fact, Thrower was often times quoted as saying even his neighbors called him a liar when he told them he was the first African-American to play quarterback in the NFL.
"Just like they didn't know, the rest of the world didn't know either," he said.
Thanks to Willie Thrower; however, 60 years later there have been several African-American quarterbacks that may have had an easier time rising to the top due to the racial barriers Thrower conquered beforehand.
Quarterbacks like Marlin Briscoe, Doug Williams, Randall Cunningham, and Warren Moon to name a few. Moon even paid homage to Thrower during his Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech for giving him inspiration during a time when few African-Americans were seen at the quarterback position. The Pro Football Hall of Fame has honored Thrower by featuring him in an exhibit on early African-American players.
After his football career ended, Thrower worked as a social worker in New York where he lived with his wife Mary and their three sons. He eventually moved back to his hometown of New Kensington, Pa., where he lived the remainder of his life.
In February of 2002, Thrower died of a heart attack at the age of 71. His memory and inspiration will forever live on in both football and American history thanks to a memorial statue erected in his honor outside of his high school in New Kensington.
Willie Thrower accomplished more in one season in the NFL than most players achieve in years. His contribution was not so much his performance on the field, but the racial barriers he broke along the way. After becoming a memorable fan favorite at Michigan State and a part of history in the NFL, Willie Thrower's accomplishments go well beyond numbers and statistics and are cemented in history forever.
By Katie Koerner and Ben Phlegar, MSU Athletic Communications
Quotes from a 2001 audio interview with Willie Thrower from www.williethepro.com were used in this article.
For more information on African-Americans in the NFL and Willie Thrower, visit: http://www.profootballhof.com/history/general/african-americans.aspx.