Eldridge Dickey was the greatest HBCU quarterback of his time
By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer
Editor's Note: As part of FOX Sports' series of Black History Month Stories, writer RJ Young is examining the players, teams and moments that changed college and professional football.
Read the rest of the series:
- Chuck Ealey deserves to be in the College Football Hall of Fame
- When the Kansas City Chiefs were pro football's champions of change
- How Florida A&M coach Jake Gaither helped save Bob Hayes' NFL career
- The all-Black Texas high school football league that sent six Hall of Famers to Canton
- How a judge helped Earl Campbell become Texas' first Heisman winner
- Everything Paul Robeson overcame to become an All-American at Rutgers
"While we are accepted in most phases of pro football, there are still positions closed to us."
In 1965, coach Billy Nicks led Prairie View A&M to a second consecutive Black college national championship, the title bestowed upon the best team among historically Black colleges and universities.
The Pittsburgh Courier — the authority on HBCU football at the time — named Nicks the newspaper's Coach of the Year.
With national media and coaches such as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Buddy Parker in attendance for his acceptance speech, Nicks used the mic to send a message he needed all to hear.
Standing on the podium, Nicks gestured to his former quarterback, Jim Kearney, who had signed with the Detroit Lions and showed up in support of his coach. Jim Kearney was a stud. The man had both wheels and a cannon.
The Lions knew it, too. After all, they signed him. And they planned to play him.
At running back.
"Here is a youngster who has never taken a handoff in his life," Nicks said. "The kid can run, and he can throw. He’s always been a quarterback. Now they talk about making him a running back.
"It doesn’t make sense."
Looking around the room, Nicks implored his audience. "When will the time arrive for them to give kids like Kearney an opportunity to show what they can do?"
For quarterback Jim Kearney, that time didn’t come. And he wasn't alone.
Three years after Nicks’ speech, Tennessee State’s Eldridge "The Lord’s Prayer" Dickey became the first Black quarterback to be selected in the first round of the NFL/AFL Draft.
In an era when teams were often scared to throw the ball, Dickey passed for 6,628 yards and 74 touchdowns in three seasons at TSU. While Dickey was quarterbacking the Tigers, they put together a record of 34-5-1 in four years.
At 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and the 100 in 9.7 seconds. Dickey was ambidextrous. He could throw a football 50 yards on a rope with either hand.
Over four years at TSU, he led the Tigers to a record of 34-5-1 and rang up 6,628 passing yards with 74 touchdowns. He was "The Lord’s Prayer" because he led his teammates in the benediction before every kickoff — and because his game was divine.
In 1968, the Oakland Raiders drafted Dickey 25th overall and signed him to a deal worth $150,000 in four years.
Yeah, he was worth it. But to hear one scout back then tell it, Dickey was even better than his historic draft position suggested.
"If Eldridge Dickey was a white boy, 26 pro teams would be chasing," an NFL scout said, according to author Michael Hurd's history of Black high school football in Texas. "But there aren’t many clubs willing to risk signing a Negro quarterback — especially if he’s better than anything they’ve got."
Unfortunately, that cynical scout knew the times he was living in all too well.
When Dickey arrived at Raiders camp, reporters didn’t ask whether he planned to pass to receivers such as Warren Wells and Fred Biletnikoff with his right or left arm.
They asked the three-time HBCU All-American QB how he’d fare at wideout.
"I prefer to play quarterback," he said, "and my objective is to be a pro quarterback."
That objective would not be realized.
Eldridge Dickey threw 74 touchdown passes at Tennessee State in an era when few college teams relied heavily on the pass.
Maybe the Raiders thought the position already belonged to reigning AFL most valuable player Daryle Lamonica, who had lead Oakland to Super Bowl II. Maybe the franchise decided — like so many others had — that pro football was "not ready" for a Black quarterback.
Either way, the team planned to convert Dickey into a wide receiver. The move so demoralized him that Dickey, who’d spent his entire career under center, was all but ineffectual standing on the numbers.
He caught one pass in 1968. He didn’t catch another until 1971, and he never took a single snap as a pro quarterback.
How come Dickey never got the chance? Why did Ken Stabler, the Alabama star chosen in the round after Dickey in that same 1968 draft, end up being the QB who led the Raiders of the 1970s?
If any owner in football were going to break the sport’s racist norms, wouldn’t it have been Raiders owner Al Davis? The same bold, eccentric and sometimes progressive decision-maker who went on to hire Art Shell as the NFL’s first Black head coach?
Why would Davis make Eldridge the first Black QB drafted in the first round, only to relegate him to wide receiver?
"We were good at every position," he said. "Eldridge never found a niche in the four years we carried him."
Long after he’d retired, Dickey credited Davis for making the decision to draft him, regardless of how his career turned out. "Looking back now, gosh, that was a huge step for Al Davis," he said. "There was so much against him for that.
"You’re talking about a position where it has been oriented that this quote: ‘Black man cannot lead.’ I could see what he was seeing. I could see him seeing beyond complexion."
Even so, Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram, who’d coveted Dickey’s talent and planned to draft him in 1968, cried foul over Oakland’s unholy handling of "The Lord’s Prayer."
"What happened to Eldridge Dickey has to go down in history as one of the greatest sports crimes ever committed," he said. "The entire sports world was robbed by the Oakland Raiders in 1968.
"During the preseason, he outperformed nearly every quarterback in the AFC and NFC. Dickey was special and just too talented. He was fast, had a powerful arm and could throw a football with both hands. He was truly one of the most accurate passers I’ve ever seen."
Dickey eventually ended up with Stram and the Chiefs, but he was never quite the same after his time with the Raiders.
"I wanted him badly," Stram said, "but Oakland selected him first. By the time I did get him four years later, Dickey wanted out of the NFL. Deep down, he never forgave the Oakland Raiders."
And how could he? Dickey was perhaps the best Black college quarterback of his era, and he never got an opportunity to play the position as a pro.
Fifty years later, the 2016 Heisman winner and the last pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft became the second unanimous MVP in league history. And some of y’all still think Lamar Jackson should be playing running back.