Harris would lead Grambling to three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles (1966-68), but Robinson did not run a pro-style offense. So, the coach would pick the brains of NFL coaches and tutor Harris one day a week and in the offseason, using Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel as a model. (Gabriel was the first Asian American to start at QB in the NFL, but his size and skills were the real reason Robinson chose him as a role model.) The two of them also conspired to hide Shack's light under a bushel: His speed was never timed in workouts lest scouts try to turn him into a receiver or defensive back.
But Harris' insistence on playing quarterback cost him: The Buffalo Bills didn't take him until the second day of the 1969 draft in the eighth round. Robinson had a heart-to-heart with the disappointed Harris in the Grambling bleachers. "The decision is yours," he said. "But if you choose to go, don't expect it to be fair. You've got to be better. You've got to be the first one to practice and the last one to leave."
Before deciding to go to Buffalo, Harris challenged himself. He went to a park in Grambling with a football and a bandanna. "The standard NFL pass was the down-and-out," he says. "So I set up to throw a down-and-out at a nearby tree while blindfolded. First time, I missed and I had to go chase the ball. Walking back, I debated whether I should give it one more try. I did, and wham! The ball hit the tree. That gave me the confidence I needed."
The Bills lowballed Harris on a contract and put him up in the Buffalo YMCA for $6 a night. First-round pick O.J. Simpson stayed in a suite at the Hilton. The franchise further humiliated Harris by making him work in the locker room, lacing and cleaning shoes. Harris talked to Robinson nearly every night, steeling himself for whatever challenges lay ahead. "Until I got to Bills camp," he says, "I had never really been around white people. And now I had to go into a huddle full of them and call plays."
Fortunately, the Bills had two aging quarterbacks -- future presidential aspirant Jack Kemp and future Raiders coach Tom Flores -- and coach John Rauch kept an open mind. Just as Seahawks starter Russell Wilson would do 43 years later, Harris won the job as a rookie in training camp.
Thus he became the first black quarterback to start the first game of an AFL or NFL season. Coincidentally, the only black quarterback to start any previous AFL or NFL game -- Marlin Briscoe for the Broncos in 1968 -- had just been signed by the Bills to catch passes, not throw them. So, Harris had Briscoe as a target and as a reminder of the league's conventional wisdom.
That first game against Joe Namath and the defending Super Bowl champion Jets did not go well, however. Harris pulled a groin muscle in the first half of what turned out to be a 33-19 loss and wouldn't start again for the rest of the season.
The opportunity turned into an ordeal. He developed an ulcer. His teammates complained about his "diction." White players would pass him in the shopping mall without acknowledging him. The hate mail began to arrive. Before one game in Oakland, he got this message: "Now that you pickaninnies no longer dance for us on street corners it is only right that you do so in stadiums... We will be at the Raiders game to watch you do your act for us, 'boy.' [Signed] White America."