'All hell broke loose'

Knox: He was the NFL's first black regular quarterback, which didn't mean a thing to me. However, he was the first quarterback that I developed, which did. I really liked James Harris. It was obvious he had the ability and had never gotten the chance.

Phil Olsen, then a D-lineman like his brother, Merlin, and now a motivational speaker: The color of his skin might have been a big deal in Buffalo, but, with the Rams, we truly did not care. Man, he could play. Cam Newton is the closest comparison I can think of. Plus, Shack had a way about him, this quiet charisma that worked really well on a team with a lot of stars.

Lawrence McCutcheon, then the Rams' five-time Pro Bowl running back, now a national scout for the Rams: It's true, the relations between black and white players on the Rams were good. As black men, we took a certain pride in the fact that our starting quarterback was an African-American, but we were a fairly cohesive team. With Chuck Knox, it was about who was going to help you win games.

On Oct. 20, 1974, in his first game as a starter for the Rams, Harris threw for three touchdowns and ran for another in a 37-14 rout of the 49ers. He would go on to lead the NFC in passer rating (85.1) and make his only Pro Bowl as the Rams won seven of their last nine games. They also beat the Redskins in the first round, setting up the Dec. 29 NFC Championship Game at Minnesota.

Tom Mack, then the Rams' future Hall of Fame left guard, now retired from the construction business in Henderson, Nev.: Late in the game [down 14-10], Shack is scrambling all over the place, which he usually didn't do, and he threw the ball to Harold Jackson at the 5. Tommy Bell, the official, looks to [right guard] Joe Scibelli and me and says, "I think that's the best play I've ever seen a quarterback make."

Knox: It's second and goal from the six-inch line. I call a quarterback sneak. Harris is big enough to get in by just falling over the goal line. [Minnesota defensive tackle] Alan Page anticipates and jumps offside, but the umpire says that Tom Mack has drawn Page offsides. Now we're back at the 5-yard, six-inch line. We run John Cappelletti a couple of yards, and then try a surprise pass. The ball is tipped, then intercepted, and the ball game is blown.

Mack: We come off the field, and Chuck is yelling at me for jumping offsides, and I scream back, 'I didn't do anything!' I bet him the game check I didn't do anything, and you know what? The game film backed me up. But I never did get the money.

Harris: I still go to sleep thinking about that game. I'm trying to figure out a way to win it.

Knox: Instead of blaming the ref, or even Mack, the fans and some media had the audacity to blame [Harris] for that call. Blamed it on what they thought was his sometimes-offbeat signal cadence. Can you imagine that? Maybe by then fans had realized that James Harris really was our starting quarterback, and was going to be our starting quarterback until he lost his job. Since they didn't like him, they had to find something against him. And that's how it started.

Actually, the hate mail had already started. And it kept piling up even as Harris went 11-2 as a starter in the 1975 season. Although the color of his skin intrigued some people -- "Will James Harris Be The First _____ To Play Quarterback In The Super Bowl?" asked the October 1975 Sport magazine cover -- it also infuriated bigots.

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