The James "Shack" Harris NFL experience covers six decades, from NFL quarterback in 1969 to retiring NFL team personnel executive in 2015. Harris is 70.
His toils through bigotry and blackballing began in the late 1940s in Monroe, La. Living through more of it as a black NFL quarterback makes Harris a quintessential voice on the quandary of Colin Kaepernick.
"I think he’s one of the better quarterbacks, and he should have an opportunity right now to be playing," Harris said. "Obviously, there are reasons he is not with a team that have nothing to do with his ability to play. There are differences in our situations as black quarterbacks, but the similarity is all about opportunity. And that’s a shame."
Kaepernick remains unsigned despite having led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance and despite throwing 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions last season on a woeful 2-14 team. Much of the NFL insists this is a football decision more than it’s blackballing Kaepernick for his police brutality and civil rights protests that included his kneels during pregame national anthem renditions.
That "football decision" stance is one that Harris and many others find nonsensical.
Harris played at Grambling and in 1969 was an eighth-round pick, No. 192, by the old AFL’s Buffalo Bills. That year he became the first black quarterback to start an NFL season. He was only the second black quarterback in the NFL, coming into the league one year after Denver’s Marlon Briscoe. Harris played for the Bills (’69-’72), Rams (’73-’76) and Chargers (’77-’81).
In Harris’ 1974 Rams season, he became the first black quarterback to start and win a playoff game. But prior to the 1977 Rams season, Harris was traded to the Chargers. Rams head coach Chuck Knox pleaded to retain him, but Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom insisted on the trade.
Harris has lived the impact of ownership in quarterback decisions in general and in black quarterback decisions in particular.
Harris was a personnel executive from 1997 through 2015 for three NFL teams: the Ravens, Jaguars, and Lions.
"I think any major decision like this usually starts with the owner’s approval," Harris said. "Each organization has a decision process that is different. Usually you discuss character alerts, injury concerns, financial costs. But the Kaepernick discussions are taking on another realm. Sometimes the discussion about a quarterback can stop on the personnel level. Sometimes with the coach. It can end at a lot of different places. But owner approval is always going to be a part of the scenario."
Harris has heard the "system" talk about Kaepernick and finds that troublesome.
"There are quarterbacks in some NFL ‘systems’ right now that he can run better than some of the backups they have," Harris said. "It is not that difficult to adjust your offense enough when you bring in a quarterback able to do what he has already shown he can do in the league. There is no question in my mind that he is a better choice than what some teams are currently playing with."
Harris believes there is hope for Kaepernick this season, and he believes he will eventually find an NFL team.
"I think, in the end, teams want to win," Harris said. "Injuries are going to happen. That is probably how he will get a chance. The injury factor is going to solve this. He is a young player who has a lot of football ahead of him. He has done a lot of good things contributing to others. I would like to see him get the opportunity to play. I think he will."