RENTON — Growing up in Seattle’s Central District in the 1990s with a dream of playing NFL quarterback one day, Isaiah Stanback could count the players he could look up to as role models on five fingers.
“There was Michael Vick, Steve McNair, Doug Williams, Rodney Peete, Warren Moon,’’ Stanback recalled in a recent phone interview, mentioning Black quarterbacks who played in that era. “But you could list those guys pretty easily because it wasn’t a long list.’’
Last weekend, Stanback needed both hands just to count the Black quarterbacks who started games for their respective teams.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson was among 10 Black quarterbacks who started last weekend, a record for the opening week of an NFL season.
Others included Cam Newton, who will start against Wilson on Sunday night when the Seahawks host the New England Patriots.
Another nine Black quarterbacks are backups, including Seattle’s Geno Smith.
“That’s progress,’’ says Stanback, who follows the NFL closely while working on the pregame and postgame radio shows for the Dallas Cowboys, one of the five teams he played for in the NFL.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said that progress should’ve happened sooner.
“Well, doesn’t it kind of piss you off it’s taken so long to see it like this?’’ Carroll said when he spoke to media this week via Zoom.
Wilson (a rookie in 2012) and Newton (2011) were at the forefront of a new wave of Black quarterbacks entering the league earlier in this decade that has grown to include the last two MVPs — Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson.
Behind that massive success, Stanback said the current group has erased the question of whether Black athletes can play quarterback.
“It’s not even a conversation piece anymore,’’ he said. “Back when I played, it was a conversation piece because of how rare it was.’’
The debate two years ago over whether some teams viewed Jackson as a wide receiver coming out of Louisville shows at least some of that thinking persists. Stanback, though, looks around and says the landscape has definitely changed.
“I think a lot of the struggles that I had to experience behind the scenes trying to prove myself worthy of the position, I don’t believe I would have to experience those same battles today,’’ he said.
He recalls his recruitment coming out of Garfield in 2002, when some schools looked at his overall athletic ability — and that he didn’t fit the traditional mold of a quarterback — and asked about his willingness to play other positions.
He was adamant about playing quarterback and almost chose Arizona State, where he said he believed then-coach Dirk Koetter was sincere that he’d get a chance.
He ultimately decided to stay home and play for Rick Neuheisel, who also told him he’d be a quarterback.
He ended up playing some receiver as a freshman in 2003, Cody Pickett’s final season, and did it well enough that the conversation quickly erupted that maybe he should stay at receiver. He once recalled hearing whispers he was selfish for not staying at receiver.
But Stanback never relented on his dream, and when he started a midseason game in 2004, he became the third Black player to start at quarterback in UW history following Moon and James Anderson (who started one game in 1973).
Stanback ended up as UW’s primary starter in 2005 and 2006 before a foot injury ended his career midway through his senior season. UW was 4-2 at the time, and Stanback was being touted as a front-runner for conference player of the year honors. UW won only one more game in his absence, and by then, Stanback’s point that he deserved to be a quarterback had been proven. UW has since had three more Black starting quarterbacks: Keith Price, Troy Williams and Cyler Miles.
Interestingly, Stanback said he felt USC, then coached by Carroll, wanted him to switch to receiver while the Trojans recruited him.
“They said they were recruiting me as a quarterback but the vibe I got on my visit was they wanted me to switch,’’ Stanback said.
But Stanback says he sympathizes with coaches of that era.
“Unfortunately, I think coaches had to take that into consideration, what the whole perception would be of starting (a Black quarterback),’’ Stanback said.
The success of Wilson, Newton and the other eight who started last week may soon prove — as Stanback thinks is beginning to happen — “that you don’t look twice’’ at race when evaluating a quarterback.
Wilson became only the second Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl in 2014 (Doug Williams was the first with Washington in 1988) but has since been joined by Mahomes.
That helped earn Wilson the biggest contract in football history at $35 million a year in the spring of 2019. That’s since been passed by Mahomes and another Black quarterback, Deshaun Watson.
Wilson takes pride in helping pave the new wave of Black quarterbacks who are well on their way to squashing any debate for good.
“It’s been really cool to see giving opportunity to more Black quarterbacks,’’ said Wilson, who was one of five Black quarterbacks in his rookie year of 2012 (the others being Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Josh Freeman and Newton).
Stanback’s foot injury complicated his draft process, as he wasn’t healthy enough to work out. Dallas took him in the fourth round, but with Tony Romo entrenched as the starter moved Stanback to receiver and returner.
Two years later, after the Cowboys waived him, he got another chance to play quarterback — from Bill Belichick, who will be on the other sideline now coaching Newton on Sunday night.
“He was going to draft me as a quarterback,’’ Stanback recalled. The Patriots had Tom Brady and Matt Cassell, and Stanback eventually was moved back to receiver and returner, though he worked a lot of the year as a scout team quarterback as well.
His career ended in 2012 after a stint with the Seahawks in 2010 as a receiver (he missed the year due to an injury) and he now lives about 15 miles from the Cowboys’ training facility, also working as a keynote speaker.
And he’s glad that a kid who grows up today with the same dream he had could paper his wall with posters of his heroes.
“I’m just beyond happy that these guys are now having these opportunities,’’ he said.