In the early 1970s, there weren't many black quarterbacks in college football, except for the Ivy League. For some it was easier than others, but together they blazed a trail.
Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Steve McNair. These NFL stars of today are gaining recognition for being great quarterbacks. They are not great black quarterbacks but just great quarterbacks. Period.
But in the late 1960s and early 1970s the very term "black quarterback" was fairly new. The reason? It might have been that many were denied the opportunity to play quarterback growing up. It could have been the lingering effects of prejudices that the Civil Rights Movement had hoped to abolish. Regardless, not too many collegiate quarterbacks were men of color, yet several Ivy League student-athletes were on a course to change that.
The Ivies boasted four starting African-American quarterbacks between the years of 1969 and 1974 -- Rod Plummer of Princeton, Rob Foster of Harvard, Marty Vaughn of Penn, and Dennis Coleman of Brown. Additionally, two others, Bob Dubose of Columbia, and Barrett Rosser from Cornell, saw time behind center for their respective squads. Although this occurred at a time when each season saw the number of black quarterbacks in the Division I ranks hover around single digits, all the players agree that the changing climate in the Unites States at this time created an unprecedented situation for each of them.
"There's no question we benefited from people like Malcolm, X and Martin Luther King, Jr.; even Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael," Coleman says. "What happened was that doors were opened. It was the great experiment."
"Don't forget, this was the time of the Vietnam War along with the South Africa situation and Martin Luther King's assassination a few years before," Plummer adds. "It just wasn't an easy time."
With some colleges opening their gates to significant numbers of African-Americans for the first time, new avenues were opened for young blacks to move forward academically and athletically, a situation that readily suited Coleman and Vaughn upon their arrival on campus.
"Brown had just opened the doors to taking large numbers of African-Americans and a large number from the inner cities," Coleman says. "I was surprised when I went on my recruiting visit in January of 1973 to see the number of African-American students. It was a great thing to see."
Marty Vaughn agrees. "When I got to Penn, I had a such a great experience with the diversity and the different types of people. I met people from different countries that were all regular people. It was absolutely awesome; a great experience."
It would be unrealistic, however, to think that all was perfect for everyone at this time. With a climate of unrest and tension accompanying the integration of schools, unfortunate occurrences were bound to occur.
Plummer, who lettered in 1970 and 1971, and Foster, who lettered in 1970-71-72, look back now and say their experiences were trying.
"The reality is that it was pretty tough," Plummer says. "To complicate matters, (the Princeton football team) used a single-wing system when I came in and then they changed to a pro-style offense. Some traditionalists were upset not only with the change in formation but also with the issue of black leadership."
Foster, who paid his own way to visit Harvard after a recruiting trip to Princeton, says, "I went to Harvard without really being recruited there. By me not being highly recruited by their people, I kind of stepped on toes by coming in there and taking over.
"(Plummer and I) were going through similar experiences, with the prejudices of trying to stay on the football field. He did a great job as carrying the banner at Princeton, and I think I did an equally good job where I was."
Vaughn says he didn't start right away but feels this wasn't due to racism as much as a need to mature on his part. But he adds, "Sometimes that stuff comes into the back of your mind, but you just have to basically go out and be twice as good. That, plus a lot of prayer and a little luck."
The fans of this era had seen very few black quarterbacks in person and may not have even known that Plummer or Coleman were African-American until they took the field. But the Ivy quarterbacks feel they were well received by the general public.
"The football field was a place where you could leave the social issues on the sideline," Vaughn says. "We all wore maroon jerseys on Saturdays even though some people had white arms and some people had brown arms underneath.
"Often times one of the beautiful things about sports is you do come together and try to provide a platform for other people to say 'If these guys can go out and work together, why can't we do that on the job or in the classroom.'"
Foster adds, "The crowd was fine, and I never had any racial problems with any teammates. And with the politics going on right then, I think by me playing, it kind of pacified people on Saturday afternoons."
One of the more memorable Saturday afternoons was Oct. 6, 1973, as Vaughn and Coleman were part of something that had never happened in the more than 100 years of major-college football. When Brown lined up against Penn at Franklin Field on that fall day, it was the first matchup ever between two starting black quarterbacks. Vaughn led the Quakers to a 28-20 victory in the historic game before 10,991 fans. He threw for 200 yards while Coleman ran for more than 10 yards a carry as the two went down together in history.
In an earlier interview, Vaughn recalled, "I know that Dennis and I talked about it, because there were only four or five black quarterbacks in the country, but I didn't remember it as the first time two black quarterbacks met. We talked about it being the first time in the Ivy League and thought that was significant. I remember that we wanted to put on a good show."
The Ivies' black quarterbacks were all capable of putting up impressive numbers. Vaughn ranks sixth in career passing yards at Penn with 3,429 and his 1973 total of 1,926 yards ranks 10th all-time in single-season yards. Plummer also sits in 15th place in career yardage for Princeton with 1,572.
Foster, who switched to halfback for his senior season campaign, holds the Harvard record for best career kickoff return average at 22.9 yards per attempt, while also having the seventh longest touchdown return in Crimson history, an 84-yarder versus Brown in 1972.
But more important than any stats or records these gentlemen may hold, is the fact that just by being on the playing field they were setting an example. Playing at schools with the highest academic standards in the nation, playing the most high-pressure position on the field, and despite the country's tumultuous times, these trailblazers helped breakdown barriers whose deconstruction was long overdue.
"I beam with pride when I look at television and see a black quarterback playing at Auburn or playing at Alabama," Vaughn says. "I think to myself, 'Donovan (McNabb), way back then I took a shot at doing this and I'm glad to see you take it to a another level.'"
"When you make it through, you think it is a great thing to have experienced it," Plummer adds. "Being a black quarterback at Princeton wasn't always pleasant, but it might have been necessary. Today there are more opportunities for black athletes to excel. That's all you can ask for."
— Eddy Lentz