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The Lessons Learned From the First Black Quarterback Summit

Quarterback coach Quincy Avery wanted to build a stronger network of mentorship for young, black quarterbacks. Last summer, he organized a panel of speakers and a two-day camp with the help of several NFL and college stars like Deshaun Watson and Jalen Hurts.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In September 2018, after the Tennessee Titans beat the Houston Texans, Lynn Redden, a superintendent of schools in Texas, wrote “you can’t count on a black quarterback” on the Houston Chronicle’s Facebook page. Redden blamed Houston star Deshaun Watson for what he thought was poor decision-making in the final moments of the game. Redden later resigned. Watson publicly brushed off Redden’s remarks and wished him “peace.” The story was mostly forgotten, but not by Quincy Avery, a personal quarterback coach for Watson and other top passers in football. He came to a realization: “You think about all Deshaun has done, how much he does to prepare, and how much he studies and how much success he’d had,” Avery said. “If people in education are saying stuff like that, it trickles down and the young guys feel the effects.”

The Black Quarterback Club, as Avery called it, was born. The idea was to bring together current professional and college quarterbacks—from Watson to Ohio State’s Justin Fields—to talk to each other and the younger generation. “What I wanted to do is create an event where, if younger guys who are going through something—maybe their high school coach doesn’t believe in them—they can see the people at the top and they can get their advice on how to go through it and learn they are good enough,” Avery told me. The event had two parts: In June 2019, Avery assembled a panel of current and former black NFL quarterbacks, including Watson and Hall of Famer Warren Moon, in Atlanta to talk to high school– and middle school–aged black quarterbacks. High school coaches were also invited to the panel. “I just wanted to share my story,” said current Jaguars quarterback Josh Dobbs, a former Tennessee star. “What African American quarterbacks have to battle on a daily basis, whether you’re a professional football player, college, high school, or even in elementary running around in peewee or a flag football team.”

The second part occurred the following day: a two-day camp at a local high school where current college and pro quarterbacks coached high-schoolers and middle-schoolers. Avery told me about a scene from the second day of camp: Instead of taking a lunch break, Watson wanted to work out. Oklahoma star Jalen Hurts said he was not going to rest while Watson was still on the field, so he joined the Texans star for an intense workout. People started to notice that the lunch break wasn’t actually featuring much lunch for the stars. “And then 15 little guys, really young kids, come outside with their lunches, sit down on the ground and watch one of the faces of the NFL and one of the faces of college football really train hard,” Avery said. “One of those kids could be the next Deshaun and Jalen, and they were all soaking that in, seeing those two guys who are on the biggest stages of football work at their craft like that.”

Watson will start a playoff game on Saturday against the Buffalo Bills after leading the Texans to the AFC South title this year, the team’s second straight. He’s been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of the two full seasons he’s played in his three years in the NFL. Fields and Hurts both made the College Football Playoff this year.

Nine of the NFL’s 32 starting quarterbacks in 2019 are black, including last year’s first draft pick, Kyler Murray. Three of the four division-winning teams in the AFC are led by black quarterbacks, including Watson and the presumptive MVP, Lamar Jackson. Avery thinks the success that black quarterbacks are currently having in the NFL is important progress, but his event is not about finding the next NFL star. He wants success for more black quarterbacks in the NFL, not just elite ones. “One day, if we get to the point that two or three of the worst quarterbacks in the league are African American, that will let me know we’ve gone somewhere, when people who are black get the opportunity to be average, or not as good.” Simply put, Avery doesn’t think black quarterbacks get as many chances, and he wants to widen the net of success stories.

Jackson’s experience moving to the NFL is telling: Despite his talent and sterling college résumé, he dropped to 32nd in the 2018 draft, and at least one team wondered whether he should move positions. (Many examples of such stupid requests were talked about during the event.) A year later, Jackson is one of the most dominant players in football, and he turned “not bad for a running back” into a catchy press conference joke. Avery wants to continue the trend of successful black quarterbacks playing at the top levels of the sport.

Attending the event was a long list of players who would go on to make an impact on the sport in 2019: Fields joined Watson and Hurts as coaches at the camp. Dobbs, Watson, Moon, and former NFL and Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel spoke on the panel. Washington 2019 first-round pick and former Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins attended and had dinner with Moon and others. Several other college quarterbacks worked with the high school and middle school passers, including Miami’s Jarren Williams, Boston College transfer Anthony Brown, Houston’s D’Eriq King, and Florida’s Emory Jones, who worked with Watson on how to use his eyes before the snap and how to use his feet after it. Most of the top players in attendance had been coached by Avery or attended workouts with him, and came at his invitation.

What happened next is more important than what happened in Atlanta: A network developed. Moon said he keeps in touch with quarterbacks from the event. He told me he texted Haskins early in the season when Haskins wasn’t playing; Moon told him to watch as much practice tape as he possibly could while serving as a backup. Moon said his favorite parts of the camp were the quiet moments, when he could dispense advice or answer other quarterbacks’ questions about his journey. “They ask how it was. It’s totally different now. They don’t have anything to compare it to,” Moon said. “Getting the opportunities and being able to be the face of the franchise, being drafted high and a top endorser. Those things are right there for them.” The question Moon gets asked most often from current NFL quarterbacks, he said, is why he had to play in Canada at the beginning of his pro career. “I have to explain the options I had at the time: Do you want to change your position? Or do you want to stay at your position and go where they’d let you play?” Moon said. “Those are the [stories] you try to bring to them, without acting like you are complaining or moaning. They ask you specific questions and you just tell them what you went through. That gives you a better appreciation for where they are now and the opportunities they have now.”

Moon told me he thought events like Avery’s were important. He held a similar event of his own in the early 2000s at Walt Disney World, with Doug Williams, James Harris, and Marlin Briscoe. He said he met a young quarterback there whose father wanted him to learn from the older generation of black quarterbacks. The kid was Cam Newton. Moon said he’s maintained a relationship with Newton since that Disney camp and has known Watson since his college days at Clemson when they met at the College Football Awards. (Avery said he discussed the 2019 event with Newton, but he could not attend because of scheduling issues. Jameis Winston also had to miss due to scheduling issues.)

Avery got his start in the profession near the start of the last decade. A former UCLA quality control assistant, Avery drove from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where he’d played at Morehouse College, and said he lived out of his car for a while after the move. He would sit at a Starbucks in Buckhead, scouring high school rosters in the area and reaching out to the families of quarterbacks for private teaching. Dobbs became the first quarterback he ever taught privately after sending a Facebook message to Dobbs’s mother. “I come from Alpharetta, Georgia. If you know anything about Alpharetta, there aren’t many African American kids in the area playing quarterback,” Dobbs told me. “There was adversity in looking different, playing the predominant position on the field and excelling at it. There’s adversity when coaches aren’t used to a kid of that nature in that position, with other kids, other parents, just the stigma that comes with the position and fighting through that. We [the panel] wanted to talk about labels and preconceived notions. The label ‘dual threat’—when some kids don’t even run the ball and are still labeled that.”

Dobbs told me the pros at the summit were trying to change the narrative around black quarterbacks. “That narrative is trending in the right direction,” he said, “but I think we have a long way to go in the predraft grading, what people are looking at in the whole process—it needs advancements. But when kids see their role models, and we tell them we were just like them, that helps the narrative: ‘Hey, your best athlete can play quarterback, he can throw the ball, he can run the ball. As long as he moves the chains, nothing else matters.’”

As Dobbs started to grow as a prospect, Avery followed him to some camps—including one where he met a high school quarterback from Gainesville, Georgia, named Deshaun Watson. I asked him whether he knew Watson was a superstar immediately. He said he did not. “If you go to a workout with Deshaun, he won’t blow you away. He’s not that kind of player,” Avery said. “But it’s his charisma and his energy, especially seeing that from someone who is 15, 16. You see what he does in games, and you know it’s special. In a workout, you don’t get the same experience with him. But you see how people gravitate toward him. He’s so present. He’s locked in.”

The gravitational pull exists today. Avery described a common occurrence during the summer event: “You’d see a lot of kids go up to Deshaun as a fan at first and they just want to be around him, and he says, ‘Nah, let’s get past that,’ and he gets really engaged, nuanced, and locked in on them with football stuff.”

Matt Dry coaches special teams at Cedar Grove High in Georgia, a team, he said, that is “about 95 percent African American.” He said he attended the panel because he thought it would provide “great perspective for me to translate to our kids. ... It was, for me, about shaping how I interact with my kids, understanding there are so many factors outside the football field, which it sounds like every coach would think about, but it’s so easy to get caught up in the X’s and O’s.” Dry said it was cool to see an elite group of high school quarterbacks from the region listening intently. Avery allowed 150 invites to the panel, and 90 quarterbacks showed for the two-day camp. Avery is going to hold the event next year: “It’s something that I want to be a major thing. If you’re a young black quarterback, you should want to go to this event so you can understand the history and what they went through,” Avery said.

There were, of course, a lot of stories shared: Watson talked about having enough confidence in himself that the outside noise doesn’t bother him. Moon talked about the responsibility he feels older black quarterbacks have to the younger generation. He said he thinks as more black quarterbacks become successful, the pressure on individual players has decreased, but he feels the responsibility for the next generation is still a crucial part of being a black quarterback. “Doug [Williams] and I felt this when we were playing. Randall [Cunningham] felt the same way,” Moon told me. “We felt a responsibility to play well for our team, but we knew there was a bigger responsibility—we knew the better we played, the more doors we would open for the younger kids.

“But more importantly, I think quarterback is a position of leadership. So not only can you make an impact on young African American quarterbacks coming up through the ranks—not everyone can be a [pro] quarterback—but everyone can be a leader in some form or fashion. That’s the impact I want to put on these kids more than the quarterback part. That young kids can look at Deshaun and say, ‘I can be a leader like Deshaun’ in the community. You can be a leader in business, or politics, or medicine, or law. You can be an African American leader in all of those fields. It’s not just the quarterback part. Everyone can be a leader.”