April 29, 2010

Warren Moon: breaking down barriers

Kevin Mitchell
The StarPhoenix

Warren Moon touched off a seismic eruption in 1978 when his skin colour sent him running across the Canada/U.S. border.

That eruption was slow to develop, but impossible to stop — something the retired quarterback takes great pride in. A widespread NFL bias against black quarterbacks — they didn’t have the qualities to lead a football team, you see — weakened as Moon tore apart the Canadian Football League as a member of the Edmonton Eskimos. After six years and five Grey Cups, he moved on to the NFL, where he broke records and smashed old perceptions.

“I never felt any pressure colour-wise when I played in Canada,” says the 53-year-old Moon, who is in Saskatoon to speak at this morning’s Dogs’ Breakfast, which raises funds for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies’ football program.

“That was one of the more refreshing things about being up there, was I never felt that racial tension about the colour of my skin. In the NFL, you felt it all the way around. You heard the things that were yelled at you; my family had to deal with a lot of things sitting in the stands. There’s no question it was very visible in the United States, moreso than in Canada. Especially playing in the south, in Houston. There’s a lot of prejudice and a lot of bigotry down there. Not everybody is that way, but there’s a certain percentage of society that doesn’t like black people. That’s just how it is.”

Moon was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006 — the first and only black quarterback to get there — and is widely credited with paving a path for players who came later.

Moon says he and Doug Williams, who in 1988 became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, were fully aware of those trailblazing roles as their careers moved along.

“You understood it,” Moon said. “It was kind of a burden you had to play with sometimes — that you couldn’t just go out there and play the game for your team and for yourself. You knew you had a bigger responsibility. Sometimes that was heavy on your shoulders, because you had your whole race that was counting on you. I’d get letters, I’d get phone calls from people when they’d see me in town. People in the black community were telling me how important it was to do well on the field for them. It was a burden at times, because you knew when you went out on the field that you were playing for a bigger cause than just your team.”

Moon’s CFL career kick-started itself when NFL teams showed no interest in employing him as a quarterback after his college days — that despite the Rose Bowl MVP honours he earned in 1978 after leading the University of Washington to a victory over Michigan.

The Edmonton Eskimos signed him to a three-year deal, which eventually stretched out to six seasons. He apprenticed under veteran Eskimos’ quarterback Tom Wilkinson, who showed the newcomer how to prepare for games and exploit matchups on the larger Canadian field. The two men remain friends to this day.

Moon loved his time in Canada, which made it easy to commit to the Eskimos for more than half a decade. But as the team slowly broke up, Moon knew he’d accomplished everything he could possibly do in the CFL and that the time to jump back across the border was at hand.

He signed with the Houston Oilers for what was then an immense five-year, $5.5 million contract. Moon was a 28-year-old NFL rookie on the cusp of a 17-year career in that league — one that included nine Pro Bowl appearances.

Moon’s resume features one big hole: He never won a Super Bowl. But he says he wouldn’t trade his five Grey Cup titles for a Super Bowl; that those championships he earned as a fledgling pro in Canada mean a lot.

“You never know how my career might have turned out if I’d gone straight to the NFL,” Moon says. “I could have gone to the wrong organization and sat on the bench the whole time. I really like the way it turned out, because I was productive in two leagues, had a lot of success in two leagues and made it to the hall of fame in two leagues.”

Moon maintains an active presence in that game he played for so many years. He’s a television and radio broadcaster for the Seattle Seahawks, works on the NFL’s national Monday Night radio broadcasts, is a correspondent for Sporting News Radio, and runs his own sports marketing company.

He does regular speaking engagements, and sometimes heads back to Edmonton for Eskimos’ alumni activities.

Moon also provides inspiration and advice for young black quarterbacks whose path has been eased by the men who came before.

“If I didn’t have to deal with the race issue and have that pressure on me all the time, maybe I would have been a much better player,” Moon said. “I would have been able to focus more on my job and not some of the other things I had to worry about and deal with. The subject still comes up, but it was the time I lived in. Because of my success, if it helps another generation become successful and get opportunities . . . I’m really proud of the fact I was able to endure the stuff I endured and help some other guys out.

“(Leaving a legacy) is all you can really do when you leave this earth. You can’t take your touchdown passes with you, you can’t take money with you. But you can make a difference in society, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with my life.”


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