As the Chief Sports Editor here at The Evening Look, and to help those of you still sobering up from last yesterday’s shut out loss to Indiana, I felt it apropos to take a look at a trailblazing Spartan from the 1952 Championship team: Willie Thrower.
Thrower began his football career playing halfback in 1946 for New Kensington High School in Pennsylvania. They ran an offense out of the singleback formation (probably most similar to the wildcat formations used today), so Thrower frequently had the chance to receive the snap, run, pass, or hand the ball off to the fullback. Nonetheless, he was quickly transitioned to quarterback and proceeded to win 24 games in a row over his last three seasons with the team.
The team’s great achievements in 1947 earned them a trip to the Peanut Bowl in Miami, where top high school teams held exhibition matches. Unfortunately for Thrower and his teammates, the bowl rescinded their invitation when they found out their star player was Black. Of course, it was the 1940’s when being openly racist was hip— Thrower also had many scholarship offers revoked when they discovered he wasn’t white.
In 1949 he was brought onto the Michigan State College Spartans team under coach Biggie Munn, where he competed for playing time with legendary Spartan QBs like Tom Yewcic. He never became the starter, but in 1950 Thrower became the first Black quarterback to ever play in the Big Ten. He was the most accurate passer on the team and had an absolute cannon for an arm which Munn used in practice to simulate kick-offs during practice.
Thrower had his best season as a senior in 1952, completing 29 of 43 passes for 400 yards and five touchdowns. That doesn’t sound like much today, but he had a higher completion percentage and a higher passing efficiency rating than both his teammate Tom and the 1947 Heisman winning quarterback, Johnny Lujack. In a game against Texas A&M, he put up 107 yards and two touchdowns in the final seconds of a 48-6 MSU domination. Even Texas A&M head coach Raymond George recognized Thrower’s talent. He tracked Willie down in the MSU locker room after the game and told him that if he wasn’t given a game ball, that he could head over to the Aggies’ locker room for one of theirs. After that breakout game, he continued to impress for the rest of the season, leading his team to a national championship and earning exceptional praise for his passing prowess by area sportswriters.
Right out of college, Thrower was signed to the Chicago Bears on a one-year contract. He served as the backup to George Blanda, a man who would go on to be one of the best QBs of his era. Nonetheless, during their matchup with the San Francisco 49ers, head coach George Halas took him out and put in Thrower. Thrower was only in the game long enough to take Chicago about 50 yards upfield before Blanda was put back in, but he made history as the first Black quarterback to play in the NFL.
Thrower ended up being cut the next season, but it’s not like Thrower lost any of his magic when he went pro. Thrower recalls talking to Blanda on the train to their game against Indianapolis, where Blanda said “You know what, Will? If I could throw a football as good as you, I’d be playing for the next 25 years.” Ironically, Blanda did play for 23 more years, retiring at the old age of 48 as the oldest player to ever see game action in the NFL. Thrower played a few more years in the Canadian Football League before retiring at age 27 due to a shoulder injury.
After Willie Thrower’s tenure at Michigan State in 1952, there wouldn’t be another Black QB at MSU until Jimmy Raye in 1966. He and head coach Duffy Daugherty not only won the national championship that year but also began recruiting Black players from the South in greater numbers, setting the precedent for other schools in the region to do the same.
The college game has had more and more Black players ever since, but that doesn’t mean that racism in football is going anywhere. Especially since our understanding of brain damage in football players has expanded, many white, affluent families aren’t sending their kids to play football anymore. Meanwhile, Black families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford college for their kids, see potential football scholarships as a workaround. Even though Black players make up about half of the college game, among the most stereotypically cerebral positions, disparities still exist. Quarterbacks are still more likely to be white, and only 11% of head coaches are Black. At MSU, we have one of the few Black head coaches in the country in Mel Tucker. And I, for one, am looking forward to him being the first head coach to beat Michigan 36 times in a row to bring the rivalry record to MSU 72-71.