Why you should care
Because there’s an appetite for Black quarterbacks in the NFL.
When Charlie Ward watches Kyler Murray dance in the pocket and create distance between himself and a streaking defender, he’s reminded of another quarterback who was known for making something out of nothing: himself — a quarter-century earlier.
“When you look at Charlie Ward today, he was born too soon,” says Doug Williams, MVP of Super Bowl XXII.
The 5-foot-10, 207-pound Murray — who won a Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma his senior year — was the quarterback every NFL team wanted. The Arizona Cardinals won that lottery, making Murray the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
Ward also bagged a Heisman his senior year — in 1993, the year of Michael Jordan’s first retirement; but even as the best player in the country, Ward hardly caught a whiff of NFL interest. But before you scream conspiracy theory on the league for throwing Ward shade, the quiet-spoken Ward himself asks that you pump the brakes.
“Doug Williams was my hero,” says Ward of the first African American to start and win a Super Bowl. “He was the reason I wore No. 17 in college. A lot of people want to play the race card with me. I don’t think it was a race issue,” he says. “For me, it was [being] height-challenged, and the league having [questions about] arm strength. At that time, taking a smaller quarterback was risky. We all know racism is alive and well — and [race] could possibly have played a part, but that’s something I have no control over.”
In addition to slingin’ the rock for the Sooners — Murray threw for more than 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in the 2018 regular season — he was also an outfielder for the baseball team (and was drafted ninth overall by the Oakland A’s in the 2018 MLB draft, making him the only player to ever be drafted in the first rounds of two sports).
Ward would lead FSU to its first national championship in 1993. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Tallahassee, Florida, native finished that epic season with 3,032 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 339 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also played basketball that season — joining the team a mere 15 days after winning the Heisman, starting 16 games.
Ward’s college roommate Warrick Dunn, who played 12 seasons in the NFL, says, “I truly believe it’s because of the 6-foot thing. Just a few years after Charlie, you had guys like [6-foot-3, 240-pound Syracuse QB] Donovan McNabb get drafted in the first round [in 1999]. Sometimes you’re just a prisoner of that particular moment.”
Longtime New York Times columnist William Rhoden dismisses the notion that race played a part in Ward’s story. “Knowing what we know about racism and double standards in this country, there’s always that consideration — but had [Ward] been White with the same numbers and coming off a Heisman Trophy he likely would have been drafted today,” says Rhoden, author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete.
While race may not have directly affected Ward, there was lingering history that kept the Black quarterback from the coveted “thinking” position. Tall, lanky, robotic pocket passers were the standard, while shorter, more mobile QBs were specialists. Ward also knew — or at least sensed — that there would be no longevity in that.
“When they approached a fork in the road — to play pro baseball or pro football — they took the route that worked best for them,” says Rhoden. “Today … [Ward] would have been drafted; in this environment today everyone is sold on Black quarterbacks.”
Still, Rhoden doesn’t buy that Murray is the second coming of Ward. “If anything, Ward would be more like [Texans QB] Deshaun Watson — in that he has the personality, likability and he — of course — was an accurate passer.”
Ward had long sensed that the NFL would look him off, which is why he attended only one of two NFL combines his senior season, prioritizing instead basketball and school. When he took ownership of his future, the NFL got the message.
“I made the statement, and it was like death, or as close to death, for my NFL career because I was controlling my destiny as opposed to the NFL controlling my destiny, and that’s a no-no,” Ward says. “Once the NFL made a decision that they weren’t going to draft me, even though I did get a call in the fifth round from the Kansas City Chiefs, that was their prerogative. I understood that.”
In the end, Ward’s plan worked — as he was selected in the first round of the NBA draft (26th overall) by the New York Knicks, becoming the only Heisman Trophy winner to play in the NBA.
“There are a lot of things that you look at and you say, ‘Why did it happen a certain way?’ but it’s part of God’s plan,” Ward says.
Williams, on the other hand, can’t help but think of what could have been.
“There ain’t no doubt in my mind that if Charlie Ward was coming out of college the last two to three years, [that] he would’ve been top of the food chain,” says Williams of Ward, who played 11 NBA seasons — nine in New York and a season apiece in San Antonio and Houston. “[Charlie] was athletic, elusive, could throw on the run, could throw from the pocket and was smart. He could do it all.”
Now 48, Ward has stayed close to his Tallahassee roots; after coaching high school football for the past decade, he has, true to form, switched sports again, and is currently the head coach of Florida High’s boys’ basketball team.
“The times have changed,” Ward says. “Our mindsets have changed. I’m just happy that guys who are smaller are getting legitimate opportunities to play quarterback.”