My eye-opening introduction to Grambling State and the scourge of racism

James Harris
Taken as the 192nd overall pick in the eighth round of the 1969 NFL Draft, James "Shack" Harris helped the Rams win multiple NFC West titles and earned Pro Bowl honors in 1974.

Curious about the changing selection of photos appearing behind former NFL executive Scott Pioli during his appearances on NFL Network? Each image is from a framed cover of a sports magazine, chosen to highlight some of the lesser-known stories from football history that deserve to be widely told. For example, Pioli has focused this season on featuring some of the greats associated with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) who have not been given their due.

Below, Pioli discusses his introduction to Grambling State's outstanding football history, his third-grade teacher's influence on him and learning the truth about racism and inequity.

Grambling State has the most players drafted into the National Football League of any HBCU. No man played more of a hand in building and maintaining the success of the program than legendary coach Eddie Robinson, who was at the helm for 56 years. Robinson's influence on his players and the sport runs deep and his roots still reach across the league -- specifically through Doug Williams, a former Grambling State player under Robinson, a former Grambling State coach (1998-2003, 2011-13) and now the senior vice president of player development for the Washington Football Team.

The way I was introduced to Grambling State, the first HBCU I had ever become familiar with, still holds strong influence in my life. And for that, I can thank my third-grade teacher, Miss Elisa Cooper (now Mrs. Jackson). She opened my 8-year-old mind when it came to race and supported sports-related learning back in 1973.

The first Black teacher in New York's Washingtonville Central School District, Miss Cooper shaped my life in a major way by altering how I thought and listened, changing how I viewed the world for the rest of my life. She was the primary source that strongly encouraged me to pursue learning through sports. She knew not all children learn the same way and that I was obsessed with sports. She took a lot of heat that year when introducing our school to Black History Month -- I and other students became aware of this -- and she later encouraged me to read and learn about Roberto Clemente, Joe Louis and Willie Mays for my book reports. Nearly every teacher after Miss Cooper told me that I couldn't do "this sports thing" forever. Well, they were wrong. Miss Cooper was right. However, the greatest truth she taught me was about racism and inequity.

I collected baseball and football cards as a kid -- I still have my entire collection -- and there are certain cards a kid never forgets for one reason or another. In fact, I can remember several cards without having to see them.

As a 12-year-old in 1977, I was ready to spend the little bit of money I had earned that summer on the 1977 Topps Football Cards when they hit the shelves. The No. 1 card in the new series -- something that always caught my attention because I knew it was sacred -- in the fall of 1977 featured the 1976 NFL passing yards leaders, the Los Angeles Rams' James "Shack" Harris and Oakland Raiders' Ken Stabler. Harris, a 1969 eighth-round draft pick after his illustrious career at Grambling State, was thrust into the starting position in the 1974 season and became the first Black quarterback to start and win an NFL playoff game. Though Harris was one of the elite players at the time, promoting him to QB1 was a bold move that stunned the football community and made a lot of people uncomfortable back then. I remember hearing a lot of misguided commentary that sounded awfully familiar to what I had heard being said about my beloved teacher, Miss Cooper.

Though I was a kid, I knew that much of what I was hearing was inaccurate and racist, so I continued to turn to my football history research, working hard to find out information about Grambling State, its rich football history and its many players sprinkled throughout the league. The foundation that Miss Cooper established helped my research and support of minorities in sports, and for that, I am forever grateful.

Harris' accomplishments often go overlooked, but they shouldn't. After that groundbreaking 1974 season, he became the first African-American to open a season as his team's starting quarterback in 1975. He defied odds and opened the door for so many minority football players. When his playing days ended, Harris went on to work on the personnel side for the Buccaneers, Jets, Ravens, Jaguars and Lions.

My career path as a scout and executive allowed me to meet and occasionally work alongside Williams and Harris while out on the road. After their playing careers and prior to becoming executives, they were both scouts. Any time I could hear them tell stories was a good day.

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