Historic USC vs. UCLA rivalry to finally showcase two Black QBs

Vince Evans remembers the crosstown rivalry for its unparalleled horror.

Before the 1976 game, Evans received a letter that included the N-word with a warning: “If you go out there against UCLA, we’re going to blow your head off.”

Such was the life of a black quarterback.

“Imagine you’re a little kid playing under that kind of duress and pressure,” Evans recalled. “It was hard.”

Jimmy Jones remembers the crosstown rivalry for its unrivaled finality.

Though he led the Trojans to an unbeaten season in 1969 and set several school records during his three years as a starter there, Jones never got a chance in the NFL. He wasn’t drafted. He was not signed as a free agent. He wasn’t even offered a trial. He worked for Chrysler for a year before spending his entire professional career in Canada.

Such was the life of a black quarterback.

“We all know the weight that USC carries, I figured I’d at least get a chance in the NFL,” Jones said. “I was very angry.”

Fast forward to Saturday, when after decades of relentlessness and lifelong heartaches, a certain aspect of the crosstown rivalry will finally offer more unrivaled promise than pain.

When the USC and UCLA football teams have their 92nd meeting, it will be the first time both schools will start black quarterbacks.

Caleb Williams is the powerful force that will lead USC. Dorian Thompson-Robinson is the inspirational leader who will lead UCLA.

And perhaps the most encouraging part of this milestone is that most people won’t even notice.

Seven of the top 17 passers in the NFL are quarterbacks of color, including two MVP favorites — the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes.

“I absolutely knew what I was doing. A tremendous number of people felt we didn’t need a black quarterback, and I let them know that I believe in him.

– Former USC coach John Robinson on quarterback Vince Evans

USC coach John Robinson and quarterback Vince Evans chat on December 14, 1976 as the Trojans prepared to play Michigan

USC coach John Robinson and quarterback Vince Evans chat on December 14, 1976 as the Trojans prepared to face Michigan in the Rose Bowl game.

(Lennox McLendon/Associated Press)

Six of the top nine schools in the current College Football Playoff rankings are also led by black quarterbacks.

“We’re in the era of the black quarterback, there are superstar black quarterbacks everywhere, and this game is symbolic of that change,” said Jason Reid, author of Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means for America. ”

As football has become big business, the hunger for success has met the ignorance of discrimination, and black quarterbacks have finally been allowed to thrive in a world that once thought they lacked the qualities necessary to be a to run Huddle or to represent a franchise.

“The belief was always that black players couldn’t handle the rigors of position, couldn’t read defenses … and that white players wouldn’t follow black men because black men weren’t leaders,” Reid said. “That finally changed out of self-interest. As the money got astronomical in this league, these coaches and executives realized they had to win or be fired. They realized they needed a good quarterback that could no longer be judged by race. Green has trumped black.”

Today, the presence of a black quarterback is so common that most interviewees for this column had no idea Saturday’s quarterbacks would make history.

“I didn’t know that, I think it’s great,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly told reporters. “I actually wish there wasn’t a topic of conversation – it shouldn’t be a topic of conversation. I think both of these guys are incredible competitors and incredible quarterbacks.

Indeed, as a topic of conversation, the subject of black quarterbacks has been increasingly muted. But for the two local teams, like the rest of the national football landscape, change has been slow.

The first black quarterback at USC was Willie Wood in 1957. At that point, the Trojans had been playing football for 69 years.

When Williams moved here from Oklahoma this season, he became USC’s first impact black starting quarterback since Reggie Perry in 1991, a staggering span of 31 years.

UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley will pass

UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley falls back to pass against USC on November 17, 2012 at the Rose Bowl.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“We’re going deaf to the black quarterback, which is a good thing,” said Rodney Peete, who led the Trojans in the late 1980s. “But what happens on Saturday, that’s a big deal.”

The first black quarterback at UCLA was Kenny Washington in 1937. At that time, the Bruins had been playing football for 18 years.

When Brett Hundley starred from 2012-14, he was the first black quarterback at UCLA since Jackie Robinson in 1939, a span of almost three-quarters of a century.

“The continued rise of black quarterbacks is absolutely a big deal,” said USC’s Jones. “Because you think back to the days when it was impossible to be one.”

Jones was the Trojans’ second black quarterback when he began playing for them in 1969. He was recruited by John McKay, one of the rare non-racial trainers of the era.

Jones was ranked the nation’s top quarterback prospect at his high school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but USC was one of the few schools to actually recruit him as a quarterback.

“Several people said you had to switch positions because they don’t have black quarterbacks,” Jones recalled. “The perception that black people can’t play quarterback dates back to slavery. Why would you expect someone you have enslaved to lead you into anything?”

USC quarterback Jimmy Jones runs against Washington State on November 8, 1969 at the Coliseum.

USC quarterback Jimmy Jones runs against Washington State on November 8, 1969 at the Coliseum.

(James Flores/Getty Images)

McKay and Jones soon realized the size of their hurdles.

“I’ll never forget that one Christmas Eve some guys in dark suits showed up on our front porch,” recalled McKay’s son, JK. “They were from the FBI. Threats were made against us because my dad played quarterback against Jimmy Jones.”

Jones said he was comforted by McKay’s strength and respected during a USC tenure that included a 22-8-3 record, a Rose Bowl win and taking part in the infamous 1970 win over an all-white Alabama team .

“For USC to even recruit a black quarterback at that time was big, very big, and I applaud John McKay for the courage he had,” Jones said. “I am very grateful for my time there.”

He’s not so thankful for what happened next, a snub that propelled him to a championship career in the Canadian Football League.

“I never had a chance in the NFL, and whether it was 50% racist or 100% racist, I knew what time it was,” Jones said. “I’ll always be a little disappointed.”

“It’s … definitely a blessing as an African American to play that position, but definitely to have two in a big game both playing quality football is definitely special.”

– UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson

The suffering was shared by Evans, whose entire USC career has been played out in an atmosphere that could best be described in a popular bumper sticker.

“Save USC Football. Shoot Vince Evans.”

Evans said he regularly received hate mail and was often peppered with boos. It got so bad when he left a game with an injury in his senior season in 1976 that new coach John Robinson purposely hit him on the field and put his arm around him as they left. It was a scene reminiscent of Pee Wee Reese’s iconic Jackie Robinson hug. It should send the same message.

“I could just feel the fans booing, he was embarrassed and I absolutely knew what I was doing,” Robinson recalled. “A tremendous number of people felt we didn’t need a black quarterback and I let them know that I believe in him.”

Evans retaliated for that belief by leading the team to an 11-1 record and a Rose Bowl victory in his final season. And this crosstown rivalry game with his life threatened? As additional security surrounded the LA Coliseum field, Evans completed a USC victory with a 36-yard touchdown run that he still remembers today.

“Walked down the left touchline,” Evans said. “Felt really good.”

A decade later, you’d think Peete had it a lot easier. think again Like his predecessors, he played for USC primarily because it was the only school that allowed him to play quarterback, despite being a star quarterback at Overland Park, Kansas. Places that only wanted him as a wide receiver included Penn State and Notre-Dame.

USC quarterback Rodney Peete runs for a touchdown against Washington on October 15, 1988 at the Coliseum.

USC quarterback Rodney Peete runs for a touchdown against Washington on October 15, 1988 at the Coliseum.

(Doug Pizac/Associated Press)

“That made me angry,” Peete said. “Either those schools didn’t watch my high school tapes or they didn’t want a black quarterback in their school. It was racist. I took it personally.”

Stanford actually promised Peete to play quarterback, but during his recruiting visit to Palo Alto, potential future teammates told a different story.

“I’ve had 15 different black players tell me, ‘They won’t let you play quarterback,'” Peete recalled. “It was sad.”

After a successful collegiate career, including two wins against Troy Aikman’s Bruins and a runner-up spot in the 1988 Heisman Trophy, Peete’s dreams were once again a reality.

In the NFL draft, he lasted through the sixth round when he was preceded by nine white quarterbacks. That he played 15 NFL seasons proved the folly of selection.

“I learned the lesson that as a black quarterback you have to be twice as good because if you’re even, they’re not going to pick you,” Peete said. “I think to a certain extent that’s still true.”

So, yes, Saturday’s quarterbacks matchup matters, and the young stars know it.

“It’s … definitely a blessing as an African American male to play that position, but definitely to have two in a big game both playing at a high level is definitely special,” Thompson-Robinson told reporters. “I’m definitely proud of him, just like he’s probably proud of me.”

In his weekly interview session, Williams was equally impressed.

“It’s great, to be honest,” he said. “That was one of the first things I was told, there hasn’t been a black quarterback here in a long time. It’s really cool, really great.”

Really cool. Truly unbelievable. And long overdue.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-11-18/black-qbs-starting-for-usc-vs-ucla Historic USC vs. UCLA rivalry to finally showcase two Black QBs

Emma Bowman

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