In honor of Black History Month, ChicagoBears.com is introducing you to African-American pioneers in Bears history.
Willie Thrower had the perfect name to play quarterback, but that's not why it's inscribed in NFL history books.
As a member of the Bears, Thrower became the first African-American quarterback in NFL history on Oct. 18, 1953 when he replaced an ineffective George Blanda in a loss to the 49ers at Wrigley Field.
As a member of the Bears in 1953, Willie Thrower became the first African-American quarterback in NFL history.
Thrower completed 3 of 8 passes for 27 yards before Blanda was reinserted and played in only one more game for the Bears in 1953 before being released. But even though Thrower's stint was short, it certainly was impactful.
Thrower was a pioneer, helping to pave a path that many others followed. Warren Moon mentioned Thrower in his Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech, thanking him for providing inspiration.
Thrower was born on March 22, 1930 in New Kensington, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh. A running back at Valley High School, he switched to quarterback at Michigan State and was part of the Spartans' national championship team as a senior in 1952.
Although he was just 5-11 and 170 pounds, Thrower had huge hands and a monster arm. In college he was called upon during kickoff drills in practice to heave the ball downfield because he could throw the ball so far with accuracy.
Thrower died of a heart attack on Feb. 20, 2002—15 years ago Monday—at the age of 71. In 2006, a statue of Thrower was unveiled at his high school to celebrate his accomplishments.
While the statue helps convey his story, even many of the NFL's most ardent fans are unfamiliar with the barrier that Thrower broke. In the Chicago Tribune's story about the Bears-49ers game in 1953, writer George Strickland mentions that Thrower made his NFL debut but said nothing about him becoming the first African-American quarterback in NFL history.
A 2006 article in the "Valley News Dispatch" reveals how Thrower would get frustrated throughout his life with those who doubted his claim that he was the NFL's first black quarterback.
"Basically, this is not somebody who broke records, somebody who did not break a passing record or yards rushing in a game," his son, Melvin, told the newspaper at the time. "This is a person who broke a barrier—someone who broke down a color barrier.
"I think if he would have stayed in the NFL for a couple more years, he wouldn't have been as overlooked. Everyone knows the Jackie Robinson story; nobody knows the Willie Thrower story."