by Seth Schwartz
January 16, 02014
Fall afternoons are still reserved for football practice. Following his second hip surgery in six months, Roy Curry, 71, assists at Robeson High School on Chicago’s South Side. A master of his craft, he’s at home detailing and dispensing nuances of the game to impressionable teens.
Known among his peers as an exceptional coach and one of the best college quarterbacks of his day, there’s a chapter in his story that’s left incomplete.
Could Curry have been the National Football League’s first black quarterback?
Today, he lives with his wife of 45 years, Carolyn, in the Calumet Heights neighborhood. An easy gait, unarming smile and amiable southern demeanor radiate warmth to friends and strangers. Well dressed and a solid 195 pounds, Curry looks like he could get behind center or model men’s clothes.
Navigating his way from the wrong side of a dirt road was a testament to a relentless will and mental makeup.
“It was very rough growing up then,” said Curry. “There were a lot of places you couldn’t go unless you were cooking or cleaning or cutting the yard at their home. There was a curfew at 11 p.m. It was difficult to see the way people were treated; you had to act a certain way and you knew your place.”
A loving home, strict work ethic and positive perspective propelled him to succeed. “I had fantastic parents,” he said. “I was always a good kid and stayed involved in sports.”
Just before Curry started kindergarten, the family left Lula, Miss. in the middle of the night, piling their belongings into a truck and moved 21 miles to Clarksdale. His dad, Lawrence, was a sharecropper and mother, River Lee, taught grades first-eighth in a one room school. From age five-fifteen, mid-May through mid-October, Curry working the fields in the area, which included the 4,000 acre Hopson Plantation, Stovall and the 17,000 acre King & Anderson spread.
Arriving on the corner of Fourth St. at 6 a.m., Curry and scores of other African Americans hopped on to one of the 10 trucks that drove out to plantations via highway 61, 49 and unpaved roads surrounding Clarksdale. Stifling humidity and heat often caused people to pass out periodically from a workday that ended at 5 p.m.
Chopping cotton paid 30 cents an hour and began in mid-May when school got out. Picking was four dollars for 100 pounds and began in August and concluded mid-October when school started.
Cotton was the economic engine of the Mississippi Delta and in Clarksdale everything revolved around crop production. “I was smaller and the cotton came up to my chest,” said Curry. “It was hot and it was hard to get any air. When I was 10-15 years old, we didn’t start school until mid-October. My dad had 10 acres he worked on his own, but the landowner was a terrible guy who always kept him in debt. When I started football, we’d work from 6 a.m.-3 p.m. and then hitch a ride to practice. Most guys on the team had the same schedule.”
Serving as the team’s water boy for a few years, Curry’s career began one game into his sophomore season when the starter was injured. Higgins High School coach Isaac Watts came into gym class on Tuesday, fitted Curry with his gear and brought him to practice. The team traveled 19 miles to West Helena, Ark., taking a ferry [a 10 minute trip] across the Mississippi River and ended up winning the game. Higgins, a school with 150 boys and 30-plus kids on the squad won three conference titles and lost two games over three years. Friday nights the entire town mobilized with roughly 2,000 people to view the action. Curry had free-reign of the offense, which put the ball in the air 20-plus times a game against Tupelo, Corinth, Avery, Oxford, Columbus, Starkville and Aberdeen, in the Little Six Conference.
“The games were competitive,” said Curry, who lettered in basketball and track. “You had teams with guys who had served in Korea and then came back and were playing at age 18 and 19. There were a lot of very talented and tough kids; every game was a battle.”
While Clarksdale was lacking in amenities, the music scene was thriving. “We’d have Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and Tina Turner, Bobby Bland and a number of great acts play at the high school,” said Curry. “There’d be 500-600 people; there were always great shows.”
The youngest of four sisters and one brother, who all moved to Chicago before him, Curry, at 15, began spending summers working as a bus boy in downtown Chicago and then in Rogers Park, on the North Side. Going from $15 to over $100 dollars a week and taking in what Chicago offered opened up a new world that he was anxious to see.
“That was fantastic,” said Curry. “We’d work from 5 p.m. until 3 a.m. and then I’d catch the El home to my sister’s place.
“The first time I came to Chicago I was 10,” he said. “I stayed with my sister [Earline] on 26th and State St. I went to the 31st Beach, I went to the movies and had buttered popcorn. There was a place to get Polish sausage on 47th St., next to the El tracks. I spent every summer there beginning in 1954. On the weekends I’d go to the Regal Theatre and sit there all day [from 1p.m.-8 p.m.]. There’d be four-five acts and then a movie or stage show. It was a great experience, there was nothing like that in Clarksdale.”
Following his senior year, Jackson State coach John Merritt came to the school and recruited Curry and two tackles, James Carson [who later became the head coach] and Ed Holmes. From 1961-62, Jackson State assembled a team on par with any in the country. They went 9-2 and lost to Florida A&M 14-8 in 1961 for the championship. In a rematch the following season [going 10-1], they beat the Rattlers 22-6 before 47,791 at the 30th Annual Orange Blossom Classic in Miami, Fla., with Curry voted MVP. The victory had national implications on a number of levels. Florida A&M was riding a 21 game winning streak and had a backfield that featured Hewritt Dixon, Robert Paremore and Bob Hayes, who ended up in the National Football League Hall of Fame. Hayes set a world record with a 10.6 in the 100 meters and ran a leg of the 4x1 relay in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo which also earned a gold medal.
When the team returned to Jackson, they were given a police escort down Capital St and stopped at Mayor Allen Thompson’s office. “We brought national recognition to the city and everyone wanted to be apart of it,” said Curry.
How long did the festivities last? “We’re still celebrating,” said Gloster Richardson, who earned Super Bowl rings with the Chiefs (1969) and Dallas Cowboys (1971). “When we get together, guys always talk about beating Florida A&M.”
At 6-0, 195, Curry operated a lethal aerial attack calling the signals as they put up over 30 points a game. With the Tigers throwing 60 percent of the time, Curry had 2,053 of total offense with 15 touchdowns passes. Several members from the squad had careers in the NFL: receivers Willie Richardson (1963-71), Gloster Richardson (1967-74), Thomas Richardson (1969-70), tight end Al Greer (1963), cornerback-return specialist Speedy Duncan (1964-74) and offensive tackle Pappa Hayes (1965-66).
A stifling defense was anchored by ends Verlon Biggs (1965-74) and Coy Bacon (1968-83). Tackle Ben McGee (1964-72), linebacker Roy Hilton (1965-75), tackle Frank Molden (1965, 68, 69) and defensive back Taft Reed (1967). The University of Mississippi and USC both went undefeated and were voted national champions in 1962. It’s hard to figure how Jackson State would stack up against them.
“I think it would’ve been a great game,” said Willie Richardson. “We were really deep on both lines that year and had the speed to match up. Win or lose it would’ve been close.”
Duncan saw it differently. “I don’t think there was a team out there that could’ve beat us,” said Duncan, who was a four-time pro bowler as a corner back and punt-kick returner with San Diego (1964-70 and Washington Redskins (’71-74). “Those three yards and a cloud of dust teams wouldn’t have been able to stay on the field with our offense. What [offensive coordinator] Joe Gilliam Sr. taught was so far ahead of what everyone was doing; other teams couldn’t match up with us. We had the whole package. Other teams didn’t have the type of people we had at the skill positions. “Everyone has their opinion, but that’s something I’ll take to my grave. I would’ve loved to play any of the SEC schools, but it wasn’t meant to happen [at that time].”
Coming in to assist head coach Merritt in 1961, Gilliam Sr. was instrumental in Curry’s development. Installing a series of plays that were a precursor to the west coast offense, opposing defenses found themselves outmatched mentally and physically. “I really enjoyed coaching at Jackson State,” said Gilliam Sr., who passed away in January, 2013 at 89. Moving with Merritt to Tennessee State from 1963-82, Gilliam orchestrated undefeated teams in 1965, ’66, ’70, ’71, ’73 and ’82 and national champions in ’79 and ’81 [he was head coach from 1989-92]. “The kids had a thirst for knowledge and were a joy to work with."
“We used the option, drop back, play-action and rollout. Our plays looked the same when they started, but ended up having a number of options. Our offense was all over the field. Richardson was as good an athlete as you’ll find and could go up and get it. Speedy Duncan was a great player; we moved him around as a flanker in passing situations. We used him at running back as well."
“Curry was a great runner and very tough; he was never hurt. We used him with naked bootlegs, power sweeps and a series of rollouts. He was very accurate and knew where to go with the ball. Curry had the leadership qualities you wanted in a quarterback."
“At that time, the NFL was not ready for a black quarterback, period! He should’ve been given the opportunity to fail or succeed. Coaches wanted a pocket quarterback. If he had gone to Canada he would’ve had a long career.”
Gilliam was quite familiar with pro football’s position regarding black signal callers. A star quarterback from Big Red High School in Steubenville, Ohio, Gilliam started as a freshman at free safety and punt returner while George Taliaferro [the first black to be drafted in the NFL by the Chicago Bears in 1949] powered the offense at running back for Indiana University. It was the Hoosiers only undefeated season [9-0-1] in 1945 and their highest finish at No. 4. Army, behind Heisman trophy winner Doc Blanchard, was the national champion.
Married, with a child on the way, as a college freshman, Gilliam received a monthly stipend from a Steubenville businessman-bookie, who America came to know as Jimmy The Greek.
“Jimmy looked out for me,” he said. “He bought me the first suit I ever owned [before I left for college]. It was a white cashmere suit with a top hat and shoes. He worked at the Rex Cigar Store on Market St. in the back [where they had gambling]; Dean Martin worked there too.”
After a year in the army, Gilliam finished his career as a two-time All-American quarterback-free safety [1948-49] at West Virginia State College in Institute, West Virginia. In 1950, he received a contract to the tune of $7,000 from Green Bay Packers owner Curly Lambeau. Convinced he could lead the troops, Gilliam called Lambeau.
“I said, ‘I’d like a chance to play quarterback,” said Gilliam. “He said, ‘There are no colored quarterbacks in the NFL!’
“I was sure I could play. We threw the ball a lot in college and I said I’d like an opportunity to play quarterback. He said the contract is for free safety and then added, "I’ll tell you again, there are no colored boys playing quarterback in the league."
“I talked it over with my wife and decided if I can’t play quarterback, I didn’t want to play.”
By the early 1970s, the possibility of a black signal caller in the NFL wasn’t a complete misnomer.
For years, star college quarterbacks were forced to change positions for an opportunity at professional football. The Buffalo Bills’ James Harris broke the barrier becoming the first black quarterback to start a game in 1969. Harris’ greatest success came when he led the Rams to the NFC championship and a MVP in the pro bowl  and into the playoffs in ’75. Joe Gilliam Jr. [1972-75] had a brief run with the Steelers and Doug Williams had a nine-year tenure beginning in 1978 which included a Super Bowl MVP in 1987 with the Washington Redskins. Warren Moon was not drafted out of the University of Washington and played with the Edmonton Eskimos in Canada for five years before embarking on a 17-year career [commencing in 1984] which included nine pro bowls and induction as the only black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
New York Times writer, William Rhoden and researcher, Lloyd Vance, chronicled the definitive book on the subject, Third and a Mile, (2007) which was made into a documentary and shown on ESPN in 2008. Curry, however, was not mentioned. Several notable quarterbacks preceded Harris. A strong case can be made that Curry was the best of the group.
A nine-year career in the NFL, which included pro bowls in 1967 and ’68, with Baltimore Colts’ legend Johnny Unitas [the 1970 season with Bob Griese in Miami], Willie Richardson is aware of what it took to excel.
A quarterback at Coleman High School in Greenville, Miss., he made an easy transition to receiver and became a starter in his second game. A two-time All-American, Richardson caught 171 passes and 36 touchdowns in his career at JSU and was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame. The first black player selected to the Blue-Gray College All-Star game on Christmas Day in Montgomery, Ala., Richardson quickly proved he was among the best catching two touchdown passes including the game-winner and was voted MVP of the game.
“Roy was better than a lot of quarterbacks in the league,” said Richardson, who was one of six starters who went both ways started at free safety. “He could throw, throw on the run and had a great feel for the game. He was an accurate passer up to 50 yards, who had great touch. When the pocket broke down, he was dangerous as a runner.”
Oakland Raiders Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown was a linebacker at Grambling and clearly remembers their difficulty matching up against Jackson State to whom they lost twice.
“Curry had everything you’d want in a quarterback,” said Brown, who had a 16-year career in the NFL and spent 17 seasons in player development for the Raiders. “He had exceptional athletic skills: a great arm, size, speed and the intelligence to run a team. Coach [Eddie] Robinson told us the key to the game is to contain number 19. They used a number of different options with their offense that kept you off balance.
“We double-teamed Richardson and we still couldn’t stop them; their timing and feel for each other was at another level. I think we had more talent than they did, but they beat us and those two were the main reason. Of all the guys [black quarterbacks in the latter 1950s and early ‘60s] I saw before Harris, Curry was the best.
“Do I think Curry could’ve started in the NFL and performed well? Absolutely!”
Among those who attended the Jackson State home games was former United States Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, Dr. Rod Paige, who played football at JSU [1951-55], was the head coach there from 1964-68 and at Texas Southern [1971-75].
“Roy Curry was the total package,” said Paige. “I’d say he was similar to Steve McNair, but much more mobile and accurate as a passer. I think Gilliam brought an academic approach to the game that not many had seen. There’s no question in my mind that Curry could have been a superstar player in the NFL. Because of his arm strength, speed and intelligence I think he could have revolutionized the position. There really wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.
“Unfortunately, it’s a matter of timing. Like the great players from the Negro Leagues who were before Jackie Robinson. Curry was ahead of his time, there was a stereotypical view that blacks didn’t have the cerebral dexterity to handle the position.”
James Harris was in high school in Monroe, La., when he saw the aerial show Jackson State put on against Grambling in Ruston. “You could see they were running NFL routes and that Richardson was a pro prosect,” said Harris, a senior personal executive with the Detroit Lions. “The kind of throws Curry made, you knew he was a special talent and student of the game. From what I saw he had everything you needed to play in the league. “You felt bad that you couldn’t find out how good he could be, but Curry was one of many. There was a guy from my hometown, [Grambling quarterback] Mike Howell, who had to play defensive back for the Cleveland Browns [1965-72]. I think there were several guys where were denied an opportunity by the time and the system. I think there was a progression before me and a progression after me. Things really had to be perfect. There was an expression that you needed to have an ooh-wee arm to make it."
“You had Matthew Reed [of Grambling drafted by the Bills in 1973, played a year in the WFL and three years in Canada], Jim Kearney [Prairie View, who played 12 seasons at safety], David Mays [Texas Southern, made the Cleveland Browns as a free agent and played 1976, 77 and a season with the Bills], Jimmy Jones [1973 USC graduate who played seven years in Canada] that might not have been stars, but could’ve backed up.”
Detroit Lions’ Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney has clear memories of Curry’s tools. Coming out of Gulport, Miss., Barney was recruited by Gilliam and saw the Tigers play twice. “Their offense was way ahead of its time and Curry was a phenomenal player,” said Barney. “Watching him work with Richardson was a thing of beauty. It’s a shame; Curry definitely should’ve been the first black quarterback to play in the NFL.”
Originally recruited as a quarterback, Barney found the Tigers were set with Bennie Crenshaw. The new offensive coordinator, Bob Hill, who came from Hattiesburg, brought in Bobby Thompson, who started as Barney moved to defensive back and return specialist.
Before heading to training camp with the Lions in 1966, he stopped in Chicago and worked out with Gloster Richardson and Curry for four days.
“Curry had a great football mind and love for the game,” said Barney. “He told me what I was doing right and gave me some pointers on my footwork and other technical tips which were helpful. I covered Gloster and Curry quarterbacked. Whatever throw needed to be made he could do it: the deep post, the out, touch when it was required.”
According to Duncan, Gilliam’s teaching coupled with Curry’s ability to absorb and implement the offense made it run with precision and efficiency. “Roy was really a born leader,” said Duncan. “He was a diligent student of the sport and knew how to approach each game as a student and a teacher. He was able to read any defense, was very organized and knew how to treat people. Roy had a superb arm and was able to deliver it on the money wherever you were on the field. He was the total package. Gilliam and Curry were innovative and way ahead of their time. After the 1962 season, a scout from the Canadian Football Leauge told Curry, ‘You should come to Canada, you can play your natural position. You’ll never play quarterback in the NFL.’ I wish I would’ve listened to him; I would’ve been there a long time,” he said.
Drafted in the 12th round by the Steelers, Curry’s 4.4-40 speed was a contributing factor in making the squad. Coach Buddy Parker told Curry they wanted to use him as a runner and thrower, but he had difficulty picking up the blocking schemes. Next, he was moved to defensive back.
A comment by Pittsburgh Courier editor Bill Nunn [and Steelers scout from 1969-87] that Curry was being played out of position seemed to help. Toward the end of training camp, they put Curry, a long-strider, at wide receiver where he began to develop. Pro Bowl linebacker Andy Russell, who played on the Steelers 1974 and ’75 Super Bowls, was a rookie in 1963.
“Roy was a gifted athlete who was very fast and could catch anything,” said Russell. “I had no idea he was a quarterback in college. It wasn’t easy [then]. There were very few blacks [Brady Keyes, John Baker, Bob Ferguson, Joe Womack and John Henry Johnson] and Parker hated rookies.” Starting at quarterback was Ed Brown with USC rookie Bill Nelsen his backup.
“Brown had a big arm, he could throw the ball through a wall,” said Curry. “I thought I had a better arm than Nelsen.”
Initially they put Curry at halfback with the idea of utilizing his arm as an option threat. By mid-season, Curry found a comfort zone on special teams and receiver. Playing in six games, he made an impression when the Steelers hosted the Chicago Bears at Forbes Field, three days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Coming into the game, Curry was matched up against All-Pro safety Rosey Taylor, who led the NFL with nine interceptions that year. Beating Taylor on a corner route, Curry caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ed Brown tying the game at 14 with 31 seconds left in the half. The highlight many became familiar with and made famous by NFL films was Bears’ Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka who caught a pass from Bill Wade, ran through the Steelers defense breaking five tackles before being caught from behind and then rolling over and lying on his back in exhaustion. The game ended tied at 17.
Against Philadelphia the next week with a sub-32 degree temperature, Curry was summoned from the bench midway through the first quarter. Accelerating for an overthrown pass, he pulled a hamstring. Less than a month later, a 33-17 defeat to the Giants at a freezing Yankee Stadium put New York into the championship. The Bears beat the Giants 14-10 in Wrigley Field for the title.
The following season, with the hamstring still on the mend, he was released at the end of training camp.
In 1965, he tried out with the Bears. Keeping pace in practice, Curry survived a couple of bone-rattling hits by rookie middle linebacker Dick Butkus. A strained hamstring at the end of training camp moved coach George Halas to put him on the taxi squad. Instead, Curry opted to retire, a decision he still regrets.
“Biggest mistake of my life,” he said. “Halas was doing me a favor; I just wasn’t thinking.” A few weeks later, receiver Jim Jones broke his collarbone during warmups and Jim Hill was activated. Curry came back in 1966, but his hamstring wouldn’t hold up and he moved into coaching.
“We had Johnny Morris, Dick Gordon and myself at receiver,” said Jones, who joined Curry as a defensive coordinator in the late 1970s and early 80s at Robeson High School. Jones and his wife Willa own the popular nightclub, 50 Yard Line, on the South Side in the Chatham neighborhood. “You could see Roy had the talent [at receiver] to play in the league. But coming in as a free agent you had to be extraordinary and be in the perfect situation because there were a limited number of spots. I don’t think it was any knock against Curry, there were just some great players ahead of him.”
Through the late 1960s and early 70s, Curry worked out in the summers at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field with the Bears’ Jones, Gordon, Andy Livingston, Gloster Richardson [who was with the Chiefs] and a few other pro players. He was the quarterback as the group kept their timing sharp for the ensuing NFL training camps.
An assistant for two years at Dunbar Vocational High School, Curry was head coach at Robeson High School from 1969-2000. A highlight was the 1982 squad that went to the state championship with only 25 players.
“Roy is a beautiful person; that’s why I went over to Robeson to work with him,” said Jones. “He had a great feel for the kids and the community. He was a no-nonsense guy who brought a lot of new ideas onto the field and that’s why we were so successful.”
There is a special bond among the group who played in the black colleges from the 1960s. Held in high regard as a player and person, Curry often socialized with friends in Chicago and Jackson, Miss., [where his wife is from and they have a second home].
One of Curry’s trips was in 1971 when he and his wife, Carolyn, hopped into his new Cadillac Eldorado and drove to Las Vegas. On the way, they stopped in Kansas City for four days and stayed with Gloster Richardson and Otis Taylor, who were enjoying their Super Bowl IV victory over Minnesota. Staying at The Sands Hotel, they went to see Ike and Tuner at the International Hotel. Curry’s sister, Earline, had dated Ike Turner in high school. He told the waiter who he was and asked if they could see Turner. They were quickly escorted backstage and paid a visit.
“My wife has a great personality and she got along with the girls,” he said. “We had a real nice time reminiscing with Ike; he introduced us to everyone. Colonel Parker walked in and when he heard we were from Clarksdale he invited us to see Elvis Presley, who was playing next door. We ended up staying for the second Ike and Tina show. My wife still kids me she missed out on seeing Elvis.”
A record of 240 wins against 73 loses put Curry into the Illinois Coaches Association Hall of Fame. A passionate teacher whose affection for the game was palpable, he left an indelible mark on his players and many coaches he mentored. Over a dozen of his former players are coaching in the Chicago Public League.
Mickey Pruitt was a running back-free safety on the 1980 group that lost to Mt. Carmel in the Chicago Prep Bowl and the miraculous 1982 team that had 14 of the 25 players who went both ways and finished second in state. Pruitt played three seasons with the Bears and two with the Dallas Cowboys including the 1992 Super Bowl.
“In practice we went over play after play so the game was more like a dress rehearsal,” said Pruitt. “We always felt prepared; we knew everything he put together would work well. Coach loved to teach and he was always willing to help a lot of other coaches. Going from what he taught made it easier for me in college [at Colorado] and at the pro level to pick things up.”
Handing over the head coaching reins to Fabray Collins in 2000, Curry remains an invaluable resource. Putting out just over 20 players, who enter high school with minimal football experience, the four-person staff places a premium on players ability to absorb a wealth of information. Carrying a firm voice and guiding hand, Curry relays instruction wherever it’s needed.
“You need to look left to hold the linebackers before you come back [right] and throw the ball,” he said to first-year senior quarterback Lamont Barnes. “The slot receiver needs to be closer to the line. You need to run the skinny post to take the cornerback with you so this spot is open for the running back.”
Preferring to watch from the stands during the game, Curry outlines a number of points offers a brief input at the half and after the game. Every year, a number of students will receive scholarships from smaller colleges. Quarterback Johnny Johnson and wide receiver Brandon Green [2008 graduates] teamed with Charles Brown  for three years and a record of 28-7 [they started for four years on the varsity]. Johnson and Green received scholarships to Minnesota and are in the process of earning masters degrees in education. Brown lettered four years at Northwestern and is working for Chicago Scholars as a launch program manager. Now a financial analyst for Allina Hospitals in Minneapolis, Minn., Johnson lettered four years at defensive back; Green did the same as wide receiver special teamer.
“I was 5-8 and 160 pounds, but ran a 4.48-40,” said Johnson, who started at quarterback for two years. “Coach Curry explained I would have to go back a little further in my drops and roll out to find the hole between the line and I’d have to be faster mentally. Everything was about attention to detail. We were so versatile. We’d run the spread half the time, the pro-style and sometimes in the fourth quarter we’d run the wishbone or the Wing T; other teams just couldn’t defend our passing attack. We adjusted throughout the game. He’d show the receivers how to find the hole in the defense and how to run the right route. We’d drill everything in practice until we had it perfect, so in the game it was second nature. Coach Curry always stressed being accountable and responsible in everything you do. When I got to college I felt ahead of the game because of the background I came in with. The whole staff stayed in touch with me while I was at Minnesota. When we played at Purdue or Illinois, there would be 40 people from Robeson who would come to the games. It’s a genuine family atmosphere that we had and it is a big help for me to get where I am at today.”
Seth Schwartz is a freelance writer in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org