It took the unraveling of a quarterback suspended by the high power of the league over air pressure and deceit, the crippling of a promising backup, and a pinch of pure serendipity for the New England Patriots to do what the franchise has never accomplished: start a black man at the quarterback position.
Jacoby Brissett, a third-round draft pick from North Carolina State by way of Florida born to West Palm Beach and his momma Lisa Brown, will handle that honor Thursday. But that distinction comes looming with a nightmarish history. There is a plight black people face in Boston and black athletes have learned there as friend or foe.
It’s taken 57 years, and the Patriots have only ever dressed six other black quarterbacks: Onree Jackson (who never played in a game), Condredge Holloway (who never played a game), Eddie McAshan (who never played a game), Michael Bishop (whose only game was in relief in 2000), Rohan Davey (the 2004 MVP of NFL Europe), and Jay Walker (who also never played).
So when Brissett — who in two quarters of play holds every record for black quarterbacks in New England at the pro level — struts out of the tunnel Thursday, it will be important. He will be playing for Boston, a place with a long history of brutal disregard for both black athletes and its black residents
"Oh man. Oh yeah. I was called the N-word there many times. I almost jumped over a fence and went after a guy for it," Hall of Fame black quarterback Warren Moon said about experiencing racism while playing in the region.
"Their old stadium had this kind of a hill you would walk up to get to the locker room. The stadium was down in a bowl. They had a chain-link fence going along toward the locker room," Moon continued. "Right along there were fans, and one guy was berating me to death. I couldn’t take it, and I went toward the fence and tried to hop over it, and a couple of teammates held me back. But over and over again, he kept yelling at me: ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’"
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When you think of Boston and its history, so many images come to mind. It’s the Charles River. It’s Harvard and Cambridge. It’s the Kennedys and Paul Revere, and some could argue its contemporary imaging can be acquainted to many star athletes of color in the 21st century who have made Boston home. So, yes, Boston is also Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Randy Moss and Willie McGinest, Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz.
However, Boston has long been stained with the blood of black men and women looking for freedom along its cobblestone streets. It’s where Crispus Attucks was shot to death to start the Revolutionary War. It’s the home of a busing crisis of the 1970s, when, under court order, the city was forced to desegregate its public schools. This led to white parents pelting black children with rocks through windows of yellow cruisers.
The city is also equipped with a long history of police shootings geared at mostly unarmed black adolescents. Jackie Johnson, 16, was killed in Boston’s South End in 1972. Nathaniel Smith, 15, was killed the next year for being suspected of being in a stolen vehicle, and Christopher Rodgers, 16, was killed in 1991 when an officer tried to intimidate him by firing rounds into the ground. One ricocheted and struck Rodgers as he hid under a police vehicle.
Boston was also the home of Charles Stuart, a murderer who lied and told anyone who would listen in 1989 that a "6-foot black man about 30 years old" shot his pregnant wife in the head and him in the stomach. This led to every viable resource the Boston police could muster to search black communities for the alleged culprit.
It’s this history that black Bostonians still cling to. They have to remember it. For even in the national history of the country and modern history, being black in Boston or America comes with an understood, cognitive struggle.
"In the era of Black Lives Matter, we have seen blackness scrutinized, police brutality rationalized, and black people massacred," said Gina Physic, a 27-year-old black Bostonian who frequently blogs about being black in Boston.
"Although this isn’t particularly different from any other moment in American history," she continued, "there is something to be said of the current cultural climate, the conversations that are being had, and the determination of black people and those in support of the Black Lives Matter movement to incite real social and political change on a national scale. And in Boston, those changes are also necessary."
Yet, in the midst of this history, there are athletes who don’t see why the city is considered racist. There are many who believe that when Brissett takes the field, the ramifications will be diminished because the country has already seen black quarterbacks fail and be exulted.
One former Patriots player said that the franchise always has a "next man up" mentality. That it’s never about race in Bill Belichick’s system. Rather, it’s performance-based. The player said, unless Brissett plays well, he’s just another guy on the roster and that his field ability supersedes his race in this situation.
The player recognized also that while the Patriots haven’t had a starter, they have had other black quarterbacks play in the past. He agreed, though, the others saw a lot of injustice in the region, but not racism related to the football team.
Michael Holley, a black former Boston Globe columnist and the author of Patriot Reign: Bill Belichick, the Coaches, and the Players Who Built a Champion, corroborated that claim.
Holley said he doesn’t see it as being groundbreaking for Boston that Brissett would break the color barrier for the Patriots’ starting gunslinger spot, no matter how many complications black athletes have had in Boston.
"If you ask most Patriots fans what they think of having Jacoby Brissett as the starting quarterback, they’d probably resonate more with the Red Sox having Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley starring right now," Holley said before continuing. "I wouldn’t say that Boston is too dissimilar than anywhere else I’ve been. I don’t know if there’s anything unique about Boston when it comes to race relations I could tell you."
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Though Holley’s tone about the city is subjective, some of his points illustrate two larger issues. One is that Boston’s dissimilarity to the rest of the country points to its racism, which is, yes, not a Boston-only issue, but a systemic one. Another is that black athletes have been cracked by Boston’s racist tendencies as much, if not more than any other major American city.
The Red Sox were the last team in the majors to integrate, after it became publicly assumed that the club’s owner, Tom Yawkey, was racist, where he went as far as to kick Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethroe out of a tryout at Fenway Park saying "all right, get those niggers out of the ball park." When the Sox were bought by new owners in 2002, they acknowledged the racist history linked to the team.
Yet these racist tendencies by Boston’s fans continued for decades.
Tommy Harper was fired from the Sox staff in 1985 for relaying an incident where he and 12 black players couldn’t eat with white teammates during spring training. Maurice "Mo" Vaughn often spoke of Boston’s racism to high school students throughout the ‘90s. Gary Matthews Jr. once noted that "Fenway is one of the few places you’ll hear racial comments." Barry Bonds said similar in 2004.
In Shut Out: A story of race and baseball in Boston, Howard Bryant described how black baseball players (including Ken Griffey Jr., Tim Raines, and David Justice) had contractual language stating they couldn’t be traded to Boston or were reluctant to go there. John Thornton, the Director of the African American studies program at Boston University, remembered how white Fenway’s crowds were and the apprehension black Bostonians had going to the games.
So for Brissett, the understanding should be that, no matter how well you play, there are going to be sections of the fan base that won’t care.
"There will be a group of people – I’ll call them professional haters – and they’ll be critiquing it and finding a way why it’s not a good idea and always have something to say about the advancement of black people in these positions of power," Thornton, a white man, said. "This is almost the rule for black people moving in positions that weren’t, historically, made for them. They get fewer breaks for this kind of stuff."
Bill Russell experienced that treatment while winning 11 NBA championships in Boston, a time when fans barely filled the Garden, compared to when Larry Bird and other white Celtics donned jerseys in the ‘80s and there were rarely ever tickets available for games.
The Saturday Evening Post ran a special on Russell in 1964, noting that he was "a contemporary negro: impatient, skeptical and at times weary of the white man’s world." The Celtics were one of the first NBA teams to feature black men on their roster, but Russell was privy to how the city treated people who looked like him.
This led him to describe Boston as a "flea market of racism," which sparked burglars to siege his home, write racist graffiti on his walls, and shit on his bed. White reporters told players they wouldn’t vote for Russell for the Most Valuable Player award specifically because he was black — which made him say that "I didn’t play for Boston" but that "I played for the Celtics."
K.C. Jones had a similar experience. The black Celtics great had white neighbors in Framingham tell him he couldn’t move into the neighborhood and a country club explain how it wouldn’t honor his membership because it wasn’t fond of "entertainers."
As recent as 1990, Dee Brown — another Celtic — was pulled from his car, shoved to the pavement, and had guns pointed at his skull because Wellesley police thought he matched the description of a bank robber. He even remarked in 2008 that people used to call Boston "Up South" due to how its makeup, racial or otherwise, mirrored a Southern way of life.
And that’s the Boston that John Wooten, an NFL legend and the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance who built a great rapport with those Celtics, knows of well.
Yet, thinking of Brissett and the current state of black quarterbacks in the NFL, Wooten couldn’t help but relish the level of progress Brissett will enjoy on the field. When he stands under center, he won’t have to worry about being black between the hashes. He’ll just have to hit his targets with regularity.
"I don’t know what the people are saying, but I’m shocked over the last few years, they won’t have to call him a black quarterback, they’ll just call him a quarterback," Wooten said. "Finally. They’re calling a player what he is. We don’t need that adjective to describe. We can see what he is."
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But it is that notion, people seeing his skin, that should worry Brissett. Outside of basketball and baseball, the football scene in Boston hasn’t been linked with the best characteristics.
In 1991, a Sports Illustrated profile of Boston and black athletes showed a detail of Garin Veris, a defensive end for the Patriots from 1985-91. He moved to Boston to enjoy the frolic accompanied with living in a modern American city. Yet he was met with racial disharmony.
"I wanted the opportunities of the city," defensive end Garin Veris, the only Patriot player who lives in the city, says. "That's why I moved there. I'd gotten a bleak picture—living in Mansfield and Norwood in the suburbs—but I wanted to see for myself. What I have to say is that the picture turned out to be correct. From my experience...I'd grown up in Ohio, gone to school in California and been in just about every state in the country, and I'd never been called 'nigger' or 'colored boy' or any of that. Until I went to Boston. I suppose you can say those comments could happen anywhere, but what I have to say is they happened here. In Boston."
The modernized Patriots are often seen and popularized as the last link from the days of glorified white players in Boston: the Birds, the McHales, the Bobby Orrs, the Roger Clemenses. They’ve been seen as "White America’s Team," and depicted are accords of Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and more from the Kentucky Derby to an All-America party on a cruise ship hosted by Gronk himself.
Couple that with the franchise’s lack of black faces at the executive level over its history. No black man has ever been a head coach there, and Ivan Fears (running backs) and Brian Flores (linebackers) are the only men of color currently on the coaching staff.
This team has dominated football for what seems like the entirety of this century, yet those that are glamorized in pop culture have always been consistent. The NFL is nearly 70 percent black, as are most of the league’s stars. But 25 miles outside of Boston in the lush suburbs of the city, the stars often match the majority lining those burbs.
Brandon Marshall, the receiver for the Jets, outlined the impact of those differences in September 2015 when Brady was still dealing with DeflateGate and Marshall lamented that white players are treated differently when it comes to discipline in the NFL.
That same line of thought is not helped by the Patriots’ 2014 faux-pas of tweeting thanks to a racist Twitter account just to be the first NFL team to reach 1 million followers, nor assisted by Patriots fans on local news fearing in January 2015 of Baltimore’s "thug factor" prior to a game. The occasional drunk fan at an Irish bar spewing racial epithets doesn’t help, either.
"No question that Boston’s history when it comes to race and sport has been an ugly one," Jeremi Duru, a law professor at American University who earned a degree from Harvard and is employed as counsel to the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said. "The history of Boston is rough in that regard. And, I’m not crunching the numbers, but the Patriots might have the most white players on any roster in the NFL."
Consider how Boston racially characterized Joel Ward, a black man who scored a goal to eliminate the Bruins from the 2012 NHL Playoffs in 2012. Then take into account how Bostonians generally disrespected black defenseman P.K. Subban as recently as 2014. This all happened despite Bruin Willie O’Ree breaking hockey’s color barrier in 1957.
Though, the way people in Boston react to black folk, athletes or otherwise, is a hurdle for Brissett. So much so, that when he plays, whatever he does could be perceived as subpar and feelings of football disgust could morph into racial animosity.
"If he goes out there and doesn’t play very well it could turn into a very ugly situation," Moon said. "That’s all it ever comes down to with (black quarterbacks): we gotta play well. We’re not given that patience the way some others are. It has to happen right away or it’s not going to happen at all."
Wooten, however, sees promise in Brissett. He sees a vessel for the new breed of black quarterbacks, for equality, for hope. He sees a 23-year-old who doesn’t have "the arm of Warren Moon or Doug Williams" but has the accuracy to stick in the NFL.
And just like a reaction that could fill the streets of Boston from black households to Gillette Stadium, the grizzled legend prays the rookie could teach a thing or two to inhabitants of a city that may hold his skin in discontent, devalue his talent, and pigeonhole him to a trifling ideology of being just another black man throwing a football.
"It wasn’t that long ago if you were a black quarterback, you weren’t going to get the chance to be a black quarterback in the league," Wooten recalls. "(Deshaun) Watson at Clemson and (Lamar) Jackson at Louisville, we see this thing changing. We don’t want to fall to the biases and racism. We want to continue to push forward and do what we think is right. What is right is to push for Jacoby (Brissett) to have an outstanding evening. I believe that he’s well prepared. And best believe, I am pulling for him."