There’s a faith-based film from 2014 called Woodlawn. It’s at least partially a story about a football team in rural Alabama still rocking with the upheaval of the civil rights era — so much so that the team’s Black players all play defense while Woodlawn High’s white guys all play offense. (Woodlawn’s special teams setup is beyond my mind’s reach, unfortunately.) For the first 20 minutes or so of the film, it doesn’t matter how skilled a player is, or whether they’re well suited to one side of the ball or the other. The divisions and tensions of the American South extend onto the football field, and they leave every Woodlawn player half a shade darker than parchment backpedaling, dive-bombing, and decking everyone they’re told they cannot be.
Black quarterbacks have been a relatively rare phenomenon across the broad sweep of NFL history. In 2017, for example, only 8 of the league’s 32 starting signal-callers were Black, and studies show that Black QBs are more likely to be benched, less likely to have their success chalked up to intellect, and more likely to be shifted to skill positions like wide receiver than their white counterparts. Today, the NFL boasts 11 Black starters for its 32 teams. Though, yes, 70 percent of all players in the league are Black, that quarterback figure, at less than 35 percent, is the sport’s highest ever.
One of those quarterbacks happens to be Jalen Hurts, arguably the most questioned quarterback in the NFL: Despite scoring 50 total touchdowns in his senior season at Oklahoma, the Eagles managed to draft him in the second round. When then-head coach Doug Pederson wanted to make Hurts the starter over the embattled Carson Wentz, the Eagles fired Pederson, a Super Bowl champion. Wentz left anyway, but even when Hurts took over, the press almost uniformly expected him to be a stopgap quarterback — holding the job only until the Eagles could find someone else in the draft.
None of those predictions have panned out, to say the least: Hurts not only led the Eagles to the Super Bowl this year, but he’s a finalist for the NFL’s MVP award behind one of the best offenses in football. His work ethic has ascended to legendary status among nearly every sportswriter or athlete he’s come across. Most importantly, Hurts refuses to arrogate status or station to himself, instead leaning on the motto, “Rent is due every day.” He’s a consummate professional, a beloved teammate, and one of the best players in the NFL, yet it seems like the league’s movers and shakers didn’t notice his ascent until, well, just now. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the doubt Hurts faced was about more than just his skills as a signal-caller — although, yes, he’s leaps and bounds better than he was three seasons ago. For a Black quarterback to even make it to the NFL level, let alone one who’s faced as many headwinds as Hurts, they usually have to overcome relentless pressure to give it up, to accept limitations that they don’t really have and to settle for roles they don’t really need.
Suffice to say that the Eagles are a far cry from Woodlawn: Their starters span all races, and all walks of life, in a city where people of all colors exist in large numbers. The offense Jalen Hurts leads is good enough to also hold Jason Kelce, the veteran center who has, despite his million-dollar paychecks, inhabited the iconic image of the tough, working-class Philadelphian; Devonta Smith and A.J. Brown, two wideouts with enough swagger and charisma to make you forget that they both caught a thousand yards’ worth of passes this season; and Miles Sanders, who backed up Saquon Barkley at Penn State before ascending to become the head of the Eagles’ three (no, four; no, five)-headed rushing monster. (Sanders, Hurts, Scott, Gainwell — that’s four. Trey Sermon, Hurts’ sidekick at Oklahoma, only played two games.)
Earlier this fall, the Philadelphia Phillies became a part of history when they made the World Series against the Houston Astros. On the one hand, the Phils ended a 12-year playoff drought and hustled their way to one of the best Cinderella stories in sports. In a first since 1950, though, neither World Series team had an African-American player on its roster. Major League Baseball had, arguably, the most dramatic integration story of all the pro leagues; the Phillies’ appearance marked the end of a long march of which they themselves had once been the most prominent part. (Philadelphia’s all-time leader in hits at the plate and one of the leaders of their World Series-winning 2008 team, Jimmy Rollins, happens to be Black.) Even as their triumph made the whole city swell with pride — myself included — I couldn’t help but feel that the major leagues might be taking a step back.
When things happen in the wider world that put sports into perspective, we often cling to the notion that these contests are “just a game.” Sometimes this is useful, a signal-fire of perspective when we’re tempted to elevate competition above, say, human life. (“Y’know,” Brandi Carlile sang, “it’s okay to lose a game.”) But sports isn’t just a game. It’s a footprint of the world that is, a non-nihilistic mirror of who we would be if existence had no stakes. We use it to tell ourselves about ourselves in a three-hour vacuum, when we sit convinced that nothing matters besides the series numbers ticking up and down on a space-age scoreboard: Not our larger lives, not our endless pursuits, not even the lying lines that separate the denizens of our flawed society.
Woodlawn’s tale turns on a most unusual transformation: An evangelist of the ‘70s-era “Jesus revolution” convinces the players to embrace Christianity. The players, in turn, embrace each other, across the color line that birthed them and their cotton-spotted land. In this way, the story of racial justice becomes a vehicle to reflect on a cultural phenomenon, and one of the best films ever made of its kind is born.
The Eagles’ transformation is a little more subtle, since they’ve had Black quarterbacks since the 1980s. I’m not sure whether to call it a transformation at all. All I know is this: The Kansas City Chiefs and their quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, will be waiting for the Eagles in Glendale, Arizona. It will be the first time two Black quarterbacks face each other in the history of the Super Bowl.