Pittsford, N.Y. — In the middle of upstate New York, north of the Finger Lakes in Geneva and west of the always-hovering snow squalls above Syracuse, stood three unlikely men slinging footballs one morning, dug into a pitch of dirt at a bite-size college you probably have never heard of.
It’s the eighth day of Buffalo Bills training camp in mid-August and the three are united by more than just their jerseys. All three are fighting for playing time at quarterback for the Bills and all three are unmistakably black.
Tyrod Taylor, EJ Manuel and Cardale Jones are the light-hearted bunch launching warmup passes to each other as practice starts, seemingly unaware of the importance of their convergence on this field.
In Buffalo, for the fourth time in NFL history, three black men occupy the entire depth chart at QB for one NFL team to start the season. To put that in perspective, in Week 1 of this season, only seven black quarterbacks in the entire league will start at the position.
A century of professional football tells us this Bills roster — like the 2014 Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson, Tarvaris Jackson, Terrelle Pryor) and 2005 Jacksonville Jaguars (Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, Quinn Gray) squads that came before them — is a rarity. It wasn’t assembled as a novelty. But those who built it insist that it’s not a revolution, either.
Taylor, Manuel and Jones aren’t here because they represent a break from the NFL’s buttoned-tight, ultra-conservative history, a past that has kept black men out of this position for generations. They’re each in different phases in their careers, with different paths to this point.
But the trio has converged in Buffalo, of all places, at a time when the NFL is drafting and starting more black men than it ever has. The opportunities for black men to find a place in the league have never been greater.
The opportunity for each of these three to play will come at the expense of the other two. Taylor, Manuel and Jones take their cues from a Donald Trump-supporting head coach in his second year of leading a run-heavy Bills team that has finished ranked 25th or lower in passing offense in three of the past four seasons. This system wasn’t made to glorify their strengths.
Couple that with Buffalo’s long history of segregation off the field and racism on it, and having three black quarterbacks play for the Bills this season is absolutely as shocking a proposition as it sounds.
"Buffalo might be the most racist city in the North," Rashad Brown, a 38-year-old Bills fan said. "Certain people can’t adapt to having someone of color in control. And when they do excel, they have to be three to four times better. The NFL is like this. They don’t have the same culture as the NBA. This isn’t a black league. The whole feel here is different."
* * *
At sunup, the trio jog together to a separate field from the rest of the team to begin practice. They start by hitting nylon nets set up in distinct areas around the turf, before flinging balls to much smaller interns on slant routes.
They move into progression reads while trying to hit targets set up at various distances across the field with a surprisingly mobile Greg Roman, the offensive coordinator, chasing them around and whacking them with what looks like an inflatable Twinkie on a long stick.
Taylor, the incumbent starter, always throws spirals. He steps up to throw first in the group and he hits receivers in stride. After the serious work of progressions are done, the trio rejoins the team to work the full squad. Taylor launches an arrow to a wideout just to sprint after him and knock it out of his hands after the catch. Taylor shrugs his shoulders at the distraction he’s caused by playing both QB and corner on the same play.
Manuel, in his fourth season as the Bills’ on-again, off-again starter, is a step slower than Taylor. He’s less accurate than his replacement throwing downfield, often forcing receivers to adjust their routes with the ball in air. But on one play Manuel buys his receivers a split second of time with a pocket shuffle step and reads the field for the better option on another, and it’s easy to see how he keeps earning his way back into the starter spot.
Watching from 30 feet away, their interactions are noticeably jocular. Jones’ booming chuckle and mannerisms are the most tangible. At one point, he drops back for a throw, sporting a Gatorade towel draped over his head and most of his face, and heaves the ball 60 yards downfield without the towel so much as rippling. Manuel and Taylor look at each other in shock, eyes wide and smirks showing. They’re impressed not only with the talent, but also smiling because he overthrew the target by 20 yards.
The rookie was drafted with the last pick in the fourth round of the NFL Draft a year after having led Ohio State to a national championship. His stock slipped after a tumultuous junior year that saw him lose his starting spot under a new offensive coordinator.
The Bills have a strict plan to have him sit and absorb the playbook this year, but the 6’5, 250-pound Jones is eager to show off the rifle attached to his right arm that made him a college star.
Jones is still slow in his footwork and herky-jerky in his release, but his talent is undeniable. When the QBs start throwing to live targets, Jones’ pass on an angle route nearly somersaults LeSean McCoy, who has to hurdle the landing pads lining the track near the practice field to stay upright. Then, sometimes Jones’ errant throws bounce and knock phones from the hands of nearby reporters. Bills general manager Doug Whaley described Jones as a blank canvas right after drafting him.
Manuel has said that he is helping Jones understand small nuances in the game that he might’ve missed, but stops short of calling their relationship an actual mentorship.
"I don’t necessarily look at it that way," Manuel said. "Obviously, we are all trying to get better every day, but if he has a question or I see something I feel like I can help him with or avoid a mistake I made as a young guy or rookie, I’m not going to hold back that information."
Taylor said each thrower understands his role as a black quarterback in this league and that they gel on and off the field. The two elder quarterbacks are still new to their roles with Jones, because black quarterbacks rarely have the chance to share that info within the same team.
Whaley and the coaching staff may go to great lengths to play down the significance of their quarterback corps, but their tight-knit chemistry — the professed "old soul" Taylor and the cerebral Manuel shepherding the flame-throwing Jones — is going, according to Whaley, "the way I saw it going and what we drew up in the plans" when making this year’s team.
Whaley, one of five black general managers in the NFL, says it wasn’t a cognitive decision to assemble an all-black group of QBs.
"We are looking at straight ability," Whaley said one afternoon. "I know that’s what we did constructing our quarterback depth and position. We are trying to get the best players as possible and it doesn’t matter what color they are."
Which may be true. Colorblind or not, Whaley’s shown a lot of faith in the group, and their performance could determine the stakes for his continued employment. Whaley invested a reported six-year, $90 million contract in Taylor this summer — with this season fully guaranteed — and pulled the trigger when Jones fell into his lap. As an assistant GM, Whaley was a driving force behind the decision to draft Manuel in 2013.
So while the rest of the Bills staff can say it looks past race, Whaley has a particular vantage that may not allow him to do the same.
"Anomalies (like this) happen. I never even really thought about it. I don’t give a rip," Roman says. "And I don’t think anybody else does either. But in my insulated world, maybe that’s not the case."
* * *
The next day it’s 93 degrees and underneath the shade of a golf cart, perched upon sizzling turf, Whaley can’t stop spitting. He’s in his normal spot for this month: chauffeuring owner Terry Pegula around in the rattling cruiser only to park for a spell, fix his sunglasses and keep on spitting.
Whaley barely says a word watching practice, and it takes plenty to break the 43-year-old’s stoicism. At one point, he’s inches away from a linebacker smashing into a line judge near the sideline and doesn’t flinch behind his sunglasses. The former retail stockbroker spent 15 years in pro scouting before joining the Bills, where he’s now the only black front office member or executive.
"We look at it this way, from the guys that mentored me and other black general managers I talk to, the only black we see are the black check marks in the win and loss column." But when pressed on the subject, Whaley did say that he has talked to Taylor, Manuel and Jones differently than his white quarterbacks.
"I always tell them, ‘Hey listen and remember, that not only with the position you play, but you are also a person of color,’" Whaley said. "I was always taught and tell them, that shows you are there for a reason. Because someone said you have the talent. But you have to work, and be better than most people think. That’s the mindset you have to have. Not just as an African-American, but also as a football player."
Whaley’s public versus private conversations show what W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as "double consciousness." In 1903’s The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois describes the black identity as divided into parts: a self-awareness that forces black people to take into account their own perspective, but to also view themselves as the dominant (read: white) culture does, "the sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others."
It’s taboo in today’s NFL for players to make comments identifying themselves as separate — racially, politically, financially or talent-wise — from the team. Anger the wrong person, teammate or executive, and players run the risk of shortening their already ephemeral time in the league, which, on average, is 2.6 years for players of any color.
But the NFL, like the rest of the world, is still rife with implicit racial bias that teams can’t or won’t recognize, which affects how players are evaluated in the NFL Draft. There is evidence that various levels of football still practice "stacking," placing athletes in certain positions based on racial stereotypes. Most commonly: white men are pushed into alleged "authoritarian" or "thinking" roles (quarterback, offensive line, middle linebacker), where black men are pigeonholed to "athletic" roles (receivers, cornerbacks, running backs).
As recently as 2009, black men made up 90 percent or more of the running back, cornerback and receiver positions and white men made up 81 percent of starting quarterbacks. White men also outnumber black men on the offensive line and at tight end.
Jay Coakley, the Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, who has extensively researched the intersection of sociology and sports, told SB Nation that this stereotyping of black athletes, even now, persists.
"It took a while for a black person to break into the quarterback role, and when they did, they received everything from resistance from teammates to death threats from anonymous spectators," Coakley said. "Anybody who contradicted the stereotypes widely held in U.S. culture was going to face resistance."
Coakley theorizes that some of the racism black quarterbacks face hasn’t really dissipated, but rather it’s transformed. Black men are no longer less capable than white men to perform at quarterback; now, they just do so differently.
"They don’t read defenses as accurately as white quarterbacks, they win based off of their athleticism and not their intelligence and more," Coakley said, listing the new stereotypes. "The remnants of the old stereotypes aren’t keeping them from playing quarterback but is affecting how they are assessed. ... That’s tied to the tradition of race-related thought in the United States. I hope that’s on it’s way out, but it does still exist."
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Night had fallen over Bills practice and the air was filled with a cacophony of fans’ cheers, from bright-eyed children to seasoned die-hards in old, tattered paraphernalia. Taylor, the starting man in Buffalo, dragged himself past the last bits of the crowd to a green injury cart, plopped in its yellow passenger seat and started untying his dirty, gray cleats.
He’d just finished signing autographs for hordes of Bills fans during one of their highly attended night practices. After a light practice, glad-handing as the franchise’s face and media responsibilities, Taylor recalls with ease the first time he faced a self-described "black quarterback tag."
This wasn’t a forced media responsibility players sometimes kick and whine about committing to. Taylor recalled these memories as readily as someone else would happier childhood times, as if he were shooting ball with neighbors or going on a family vacation.
In 2007, when he was a developing star on the Peninsula at Hampton High School in Virginia, Taylor surged to be the No. 3 quarterback in the class, one spot above Cam Newton, and they also were leading the rankings as the best "dual-threat" quarterbacks in the country.
"Me and my dad were just talking about this the other day," Taylor says, his feet propped up on the cart, detailing a memory from the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. "As a top 100 player out of high school, when I got to the game, Cam had enrolled early that year. And they tried to play me at defensive back, and I told them I wasn’t going to play.
"Could I have done it? Athletically, yeah. But that’s not what I was invited for. That’s not the position I played," Taylor continued. "It’s funny, being out there and being around other guys in the same boat as I am, athletically or a race thing, they tried to switch my position. That was probably the first time I experienced that black quarterback tag."
When he enrolled at Virginia Tech, he says things went smoother. He came in as a freshman six years after Michael Vick had stymied ACC defenses and leapfrogged his way to being the first black quarterback selected No. 1 overall in an NFL draft.
Taylor and his father, Rodney, have always been close. Occasionally, they’ll discuss racism at the quarterback position, a conversation that always worries Rodney. The elder Taylor stays particularly attuned to everything about his son. He consumes what national and local media say about him. He wonders why they talk about "certain" people compared to others.
Taylor’s father sees a pattern in how black quarterbacks are treated and dissected by the media "all the time." But the younger Taylor tries to calm him. What’s happening to him is just the unfair balancing act of playing quarterback while having black skin.
Taylor and Manuel have both had conversations about such with Newton, Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater and Russell Wilson -- Taylor most recently at last year’s Pro Bowl.
Manuel describes their bond as a hidden fraternity.
"I’ve known about the pride that comes with (being a black quarterback) from a young age," he said. "Obviously meeting other guys like Cam Newton or Russell Wilson as I’ve gone in my career, whether it’s high school or college, and them sharing their thoughts on the similarities in what we face, it brings that bond together."
Throughout NFL history, fewer than 200 black quarterbacks have ever played the game. This season 115 quarterbacks, mostly white, are active. A January 2015 study found that black men are benched at twice the rate of white men playing quarterback.
The chances for black men are limited, and on the rare occasion they surface, their time in the NFL is shorter and more heavily scrutinized than their white counterparts.
"The leash isn’t as long (as white quarterbacks). You have to take advantage of those opportunities when you get them. People are always a little critical toward (black quarterbacks) but it comes with the territory," Manuel said.
"We are put under a microscope," Taylor said. "But the quarterback position as a whole is put under a microscope. Whether they look at the African-Americans more, I don’t know. I get the feeling that they do."
In one way or another, all three of these quarterbacks have been backups in their career at one point and black men playing backup quarterback usually fail at a higher rate than anyone else. Black men at this position don’t get the privilege to be average. They are either spectacular or they flame out quickly.
It’s understandable, then, that the rookie Jones declined to comment for this story because he was "tired of talking" about anything besides football. Warren Moon, a Hall of Fame black quarterback who had to play in Canada for six seasons and threw nearly 6,000 yards one year just to squeeze into the NFL, understood Jones’ apprehension.
Some players still feel like it’s controversial to speak on blackness at the position, he said. But Moon felt connected to Jones because, he said, if Jones played in his time, he’d be starting off in Canada, too.
"It’s amazing ain’t it? It shows the progress and shows the league is finally colorblind to the position as far as whether we can play or not," Moon said. "The thing I’m more encouraged about is not so much the top guys getting drafted, but it is the Cardale Joneses and guys that aren’t ready to play right now that need to be developed and need to be groomed. Those guys were never, ever given a chance to do that before."
"That was something always for the white guys," Moon continued. "The white guy has promise and ability and potential so they would draft him in the third, fourth or fifth round and let him come along and develop him. African-Americans with that same ability had to go somewhere else."
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In an isolated corner of a deserted parking lot one morning during training camp, Bills head coach Rex Ryan explained that having a black quarterback on a team might’ve been more important when his father, Buddy Ryan, coached Randall Cunningham on the Philadelphia Eagles from 1986-90, but not now and not on the Bills.
To the play caller from the sidelines, he doesn’t understand why the race of his quarterbacks matters to anyone at all.
"Any coach that’s worth a darn is colorblind," he said. "More is expected of the quarterback. And even for us, the hardest workers on our team is the quarterback. It’s 24/7/365. That’s how you have to approach your job. Whether you are black, white or whatever. That’s the nature of that position. Obviously, our society, I would think, I would hope, our past prejudice, people wouldn’t care the color of their skin. Like, really, who gives a shit."
Truthfully, Ryan said he didn’t even realize he had three black men playing for him at that position. He said he hasn’t thought about it before this conversation because "hell, they’re just quarterbacks to me."
"I’m thinking about it right now, Kellen Clemens is the only white quarterback that’s started a game for me. I guess I’m anti-white quarterbacks," Ryan said with an awkward laugh. "It makes no difference. I think society, now, you’d think it’s a non-issue. It’s a non-story, really."
That may be the case for a coach whose family ties helped him get into the league (and give his brother assistant coach duties.) But it wasn’t a non-story when Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told the Akron Beacon Journal that Jones was smart but not "very good at school." Jones later in the draft process had to explain that he "surprised" teams with his acumen and that he was "going to show them who I am," because "I’m pretty sure there’s some negative stereotypes on me."
Jones’ brilliance is often called into question, even though he scored a 25 on the NFL’s Wonderlic Cognitive Ability test for aptitude, showing more than above-average brainpower. Yet no one describes Ben Roethlisberger (who scored 25), David Carr (24) or even AJ McCarron (22) as unintelligent.
Taylor was seen as the classic "dual-threat" quarterback where his speed and athleticism were more important than reading a field. A 2011 NFL.com draft profile of Taylor called him an "excellent athlete with a thick, muscular build" and did more dissecting of his ability to throw than praise of it.
"The black quarterback tag has always been, in my mind, labeled as a runner first. They don’t really view us as passers," Taylor said. "I’ve heard it before. If I don’t run one game, I don’t run enough. If I run too much, I need to run less. You can never please anyone."
And it wasn’t a non-story when Manuel was derided because it was assumed the Bills were desperately reaching for a quarterback in the first round in 2013. Some even believed he got drafted for the size of his hands. Once in Buffalo, Manuel was blasted with hateful, racist tweets after several losing performances. There are still remnants of them everywhere online.
Manuel said that he often tunes out the media for that reason. It’s a detriment to what he wants to accomplish on the field. It’s not necessarily blocking it out, it’s narrowing his focus away from the unnecessary critiques.
"People are always going to have doubts and bring up the negative. That’s a part of it," Manuel said. "I think you can’t overlook the stigma. You have to take it as what it is. At the end of the day, we are all quarterbacks. We’re all people too. Even though you have that chip on your shoulder (as a black quarterback) you shouldn’t use it as a crutch."
Pressure mounts in different forms: the occasionally bigoted fans, the talk show radio hosts allowing any and everyone to air their grievances and media at large, Moon said. That’s not going to change in pro football. The onus, per usual, is put on black athletes to shrug off the racism.
"Everything's not gonna be pristine that’s said about these guys. There’s still bigotry in the world. There’s still bigotry in this country," Moon said. "We are always going to be second-guessed. But as long as there are enough individuals in the game that are looking at us the right way and giving us a chance to play, that’s all I can really ask for."
White fans in Buffalo, whether at training camp or scattered across Western New York, responded to their new quarterback corps in different ways. For starters, Travis Rice, a father from Syracuse who attended one day practice, sided with Ryan in front of his children.
"It’s racist if you think about it," Rice said when asked about his team’s quarterbacks. "Doesn’t matter if you are white, black or Hispanic, your one job is to win games."
Tom Cote, a fan from the Finger Lakes with a great, white beard, went to Temple University when Cunningham played for the Eagles. Cote acknowledged that the climate in the Buffalo region would potentially be more unsettling for a black quarterback but still sees performance as the great equalizer.
"Some of the best quarterbacks were black that I can think of," Cote said. "All of them made it on their own merit. I don't see color, just be a great quarterback. But I can understand — somewhat, though, because I'm not black — young black people looking up to them and that's great and how exciting that is."
As practice began one day, an employee for the Bills, who briefly spoke to SB Nation, explained his angst around the topic after several white fans showed disgust when asked about the men quarterbacking their team. His explanation resembled a Trumpian silent majority.
"The crazy thing is: there's still people who think that way, deep down. They won't say it. They'll act all righteous. But deep down they still don't see the good in those men."
* * *
Buffalo’s racial history has a long, complicated backstory, crisscrossing the football field and dotting the city itself.
This metropolis was a home to black people from the beginning. Joe Hodges, a trader, escaped slavery and encamped on Cattaraugus Creek in the 1790s. Macedonia Baptist Church on Michigan Avenue served as an ending point for the Underground Railroad and meeting spot for abolitionists in 1845. By the turn of the 21st century, the city spent chunks of money on economic development to jumpstart the region, except those funds weren’t spent in majority-minority areas.
Today, the city is still the third-poorest in the country, and its East Side neighborhood has steadily decreasing property values compared to, really, every other part of Buffalo where black and brown folk don’t live. The Buffalo metro area is one of the most segregated regions in the country.
An October 2008 United Nations report showed the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area has "one of the worst rates of economic inequality in the world and that it was racially based." Plus, 2015 and 2016 studies showed Western New York was one of the most prejudiced places in the country.
It’s a blueprint of systemic poverty and oppression.
"I hate racism with a passion. I can smell it. I can see it. I see it every day," Mark Renford, 56, a black resident who works for a busing company bringing Bills fans to practice, said one morning about the region. "It’s almost like it’s a losing cause. But it’s not. In this city, you have to keep fighting and keep standing."
The Bills have done their share of knocking down black NFL players. Marlin Briscoe was the first black man to start at quarterback in the AFL, and set a Denver rookie record for passing touchdowns (14) in 1968, only to be benched in training camp the next year. Buffalo forced Briscoe to play wide receiver and Briscoe went on to be an All-Pro.
James "Shack" Harris started a game at quarterback for the Bills in 1968 but not before he was forced to stay in a $6 room at a local YMCA, apart from the team, during training camp while the coaching staff tried to convince him to move to wideout and gave him a job cleaning cleats in the equipment room. Harris went on to be a Pro Bowler for the Los Angeles Rams and later a personnel director for the Ravens, Jaguars and Lions.
Carlton "Cookie" Gilchrist had historic struggles with then-owner Ralph Wilson in the early 1960s. Gilchrist led a black boycott of the AFL All-Star Game in 1965 in New Orleans. Subsequent actions from Gilchrist led to the boycott of the 1968 Olympics where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a black power fist on the podium. These motives led to clashes with Wilson as Gilchrist constantly pleaded to be traded from Buffalo’s franchise. He only softened his stance toward Wilson and Buffalo after he was diagnosed with cancer before his death in 2011.
More recently, black quarterbacks have cycled through the team’s turnstile at the position, which has played historical second fiddle to the ground game. Vince Young signed a one-year deal here in 2012. So did Tarvaris Jackson. Brad Smith was a quarterback used sparingly in wildcat formations the same season before being released in 2013. Dennis Dixon, Josh Johnson and Thad Lewis have all had their turns as middling signal callers under the lights in Orchard Park.
Now three black men are charged with changing the team’s mediocre course, whether the city is ready to accept them or not.
"They don’t got a choice. You’ve got to get what’s good. What they had on the roster wasn’t no good," Clifton Brown, 61, a black employee at the training camp said. "If you know all your Caucasian quarterbacks can’t cut the mustard and you’ve got some that are black or brown that can, what are you gonna do? Not play them? You’ve got to make some money. Go head and make something with some folks who can get the job done."
Jimmie Highsmith Jr., who works in management for the bus company dropping off Bills fans at camp, took it a step further.
"It took Ralph Wilson to die here for something like this to happen. He would've never allowed this to go down," Highsmith Jr. said of the founder of the Bills.
The history of Buffalo left a dearth of successful black people for youth to emulate. The trio might fill some of that void. NewsELA, an elementary school program that helps students build reading comprehension, used the Bills quarterbacks in their programming. CityYear, another education organization placed in public schools, picked up NewsELA’s story on the three QBs for Philadelphia students in the extremely poor, majority-black Greys Ferry neighborhood.
CityYear administered a quiz about the Bills quarterbacks to middle schoolers who wrote essays reflecting on how they felt seeing a black quarterback and how it could change their lives.
"They have all these dreams and teachers and mentors they see put them down. They want to be football players and basketball players and they’re told it's impossible," Thierry Jones, 22, a first-year AmeriCorps member who distributed the tests said. "They get discouraged. Seeing that and writing the essays made them feel like what's happening in Buffalo is actually attainable."
"For a young African-American kid who wants to play quarterback but maybe their youth coach is pushing them in a different direction, they can look at the Bills organization and look towards me and say ‘man if he can do it, I can do it,’" Taylor said.
And with that proverb, he jumped from the injury cart, tying on those dusty gray Nike cleats, and jogged over to a nearby black preteen with two waving ponytails. He signed a football for her and looked down to her awaiting grin.
Taylor fixed his cap and disappeared into the darkness of the locker room. To him, it might’ve been just another autograph of the hundreds he’s signed all camp. But the girl’s mother was pleased. She turned and held her daughter especially snug.
"We love him," she whispered while walking away. "We all love him more than he will ever know."
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