Statue to be unveiled tonight

By Tom Yerace
VALLEY NEWS DISPATCH
Thursday, September 28, 2006

NEW KENSINGTON - There were two things Mary Rowe Thrower remembers her husband always telling the neighborhood children who would visit him.

"He would say, 'Stay in school. You can be anything you want to be. Just stay in school, Don't quit,' " she said of her husband, Willie. "He would also tell them to 'Follow the light. Don't look to the dark. Always follow the light.' "

From the way those who knew him best talk, that seems to symbolize the way Willie Thrower lived his life, shining his light on those around him.

Tonight, at Valley Memorial Stadium in New Kensington, the light will shine on Thrower, who died in 2002 at age 71. He will be honored by his hometown for being the first African-American to play quarterback in the National Football League.

Overlooked at home, too

Those young people visiting the house in the 500 block of Fourth Avenue in New Kensington probably did not realize they were listening to a living piece of history. The trouble, according to Thrower's friends and family, was that far too many people did not realize or recognize it, either.

Tonight, that should change forever when Mary Thrower and her three sons, Willie, Jason and Melvin, unveil a statue of Willie near the entrance to the stadium on the Valley High School campus.

It will occur at halftime of the Valley-Shady Side Academy game, which starts at 7 p.m.

"I think it would be fantastic for him because he felt that nobody believed him," said Will Varner, of New Kensington. " A lot of people didn't believe that he was the first black quarterback in the NFL. It bothered him from what the boys (Thrower's sons) have told me."

Varner heads the Willie Thrower All-Pro Memorial Committee Inc., which raised the money for the sculpture done by New Kensington native Steve Paulovich.

Former teammates and family members alike describe Thrower as an unassuming man who did not talk up his athletic achievements. But Mary Thrower said whenever her husband did mention that he was the NFL's first black quarterback, the disbelief and ridicule he met with haunted him throughout his life.

"People -- friends and his own family -- they didn't believe what he said," Mary Thrower recalled with some bitterness in her voice. "He would say 'Why, Mary?' and I would say 'Will, I don't know.'

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm just glad that it came forward," she said, referring to the dedication. "To me, it's that his dream came true."

Legendary teams

Valley High School's stadium is where Thrower enjoyed much success along with the rest of the Ken High teams of the late 1940s under legendary coach Don Fletcher.

"He was really a nice guy," said Dick Brown, a member of those teams. "Willie was a good person. He had a good sense of humor and was fun to be around. He was probably one of the finest passers around."

Brown played halfback in Fletcher's single-wing offense while Thrower was the tailback. George "Cubby" France, of New Kensington, was the quarterback.

"The quarterback called the signals, but the tailback was the guy who received the snap from center," Brown explained.

Except for calling the signals, Brown said the tailback pretty much did everything that quarterbacks do in formations such as the 'T.'

"He had a God-given talent for throwing the ball and he had enormous hands," France said. "Ninety-five percent of the passing was done by Willie."

France, Thrower, Dick Tamburro and Renaldo Kozikowski, all played as ninth-graders on Fletcher's 1945 team.

They played through 1948, an era in which the New Kensington High School Red Raiders won WPIAL Class AA titles in 1946 and 1947.

"Willie was very well-liked," France said. "Everyone knew Willie and liked Willie. He was very easy going. Even though he got a lot of the publicity, he never let that change him. He was that kind of a person."

Racial differences did not exist on Fletcher's teams, which included other black players, according to France.

"We never even thought about it," he said.

But racism did rear its head one time from outside the team. That was when Fletcher got an invitation to take his team to the South to play a game.

"Coach Fletcher was called and asked to play, I think it was in Florida, but they said, of course, Willie couldn't play and that was the end of it," France recalled. "We never even considered it. The decision was (Fletcher's) and we all agreed with him."

An explosive arm

The success of Fletcher's teams did not go unnoticed by college recruiters. France said there were colleges interested in Thrower, but when they discovered he was black, they decided not to offer him a scholarship.

One college that did extend offers to him and eight other members of those teams was Michigan State, coached by the famous Clarence "Biggie" Munn. Duffy Daugherty, who would succeed Munn as head coach, was an assistant and recruited in Western Pennsylvania.

At that time, college freshmen were ineligible to play. When Thrower was a Michigan State sophomore and then a junior, he had the misfortune of playing behind All-American quarterback Al Dorow. He also was a backup in 1952, his senior year, when Tom Yewcic from Conemaugh Valley High School in Cambria County, was named the starter.

"He never had a bad word to say about anybody, and nobody ever had a bad word about him," said Yewcic, who now lives in Arlington, Mass. "He was a good friend. Even though we were at the same position, he pulled for me and I pulled for him."

"He came into some games and did real well."

In particular, he remembered a game at Texas A&M which Thrower entered in the fourth quarter. Yewcic said Thrower hit on seven out of nine passes for more than 100 yards and two touchdowns.

The Spartans won the game enroute to the 1952 national championship.

"It was very impressive," Yewcic said. "He could be explosive as far as moving the team. He could throw the ball with any of them. He had a professional arm -- an NFL arm."

Unnoticed milestone

In the Oct. 19, 1952, Chicago Tribune, sportswriter George Strickland recounted the Chicago Bears' loss to the San Francisco 49ers the day before, including these paragraphs:

"In the 10th minute of the period, (Joe) Perry fumbled and (Dick) Hensley recovered on the 49ers' 16. Willie Thrower, former Michigan State Negro quarterback star making his major league debut, passed 12 to (Jim) Dooley, putting the ball on the 4.

(George) Blanda and (Fred) Morrison came into the game with a resounding razzberry. They wanted Willie to put it over. But Morrison did it on a blast off tackle. The boos changed to cheers."

Thus was recorded the appearance of the first African-American at the quarterback position in the NFL.

Despite those who thought that blacks were not intelligent enough or lacked the leadership abilities to play the position, Thrower did.

Yet, there were no headlines to that effect. In fact, the paragraphs mentioning Thrower were on an inside page.

Melvin Thrower, Willie's youngest son, acknowledges the situation was not quite the same as when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. Robinson was the first of his race to play in the major leagues but others had preceded Thrower in the NFL years before.

Also, pro football was in its infancy while major league baseball commanded the national stage.

Then there is the matter of Thrower's longevity. He played in two NFL games while with the Bears in 1953 then was cut by Bears owner-coach George Halas in 1954. He went onto play in Canada for three years until a separated shoulder led him to retire at age 27.

Barrier-breaker

"Basically, this is not somebody who broke records, somebody who did not break a passing record or yards rushing in a game," Melvin Thrower said. "This is a person who broke a barrier -- someone who broke down a color barrier.

"I think if he would have stayed in the NFL for a couple more years, he wouldn't have been as overlooked, Everyone knows the Jackie Robinson story; nobody knows the Willie Thrower story."

The statue at Valley's stadium will at least call attention to that story and perhaps lead young people to learn more about the man it immortalizes.

"To me, that's an honor, but how other people perceive it, I don't know," Brown said of Thrower's achievement. "But, if I were a kid at Valley or another kid around here, it tells me that I can go to the pros, too, if I work hard. The only thing that I wish is that it would have happened when he was alive."

"I think it's most deserving," said Cubby France, Thrower's high school backfield mate. "If there is anybody in this world who is deserving, it's Willie. It kind of makes me proud to realize that I was able to play with him."

About Willie Thrower

Highlights of Willie Thrower's life and legacy.

March 20, 1930: Willie Lawrence Thrower born in New Kensington.

1946: Starts first varsity game as a single-wing halfback. New Kensington High School starts 24-game win streak.

Nov. 27, 1947: Leads Ken High over Har-Brack for second consecutive WPIAL title. 1948: Michigan State only college to recruit Thrower as quarterback.

1952: Becomes first black quarterback in Big 10, playing for Spartans' national title team.

Oct. 18, 1953: Becomes first black quarterback in National Football League game for the Chicago Bears. In that game against the San Francisco 49ers, Thrower goes 3 for 8 passing for 27 yards.

1954: Cut by Bears, joins Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. 1957: Retires as player due to a shoulder injury.

1968: Second black quarterback, Marlon Briscoe of the Denver Broncos, appears in NFL game.

1981: Thrower inducted into A-K Valley Sports Hall of Fame.

1989: Washington Redskins' Doug Williams becomes first black quarterback to start in Super Bowl.

2000: ABC-TV documentary on black QBs gives Thrower first national exposure.

Feb. 20, 2002: Willie Thrower, 71, dies in New Kensington of a heart attack.

Aug. 6, 2006: Warren Moon becomes first black quarterback in National Football League Hall of Fame, thanks Thrower in induction speech.

Sept. 28, 2006: Thrower statue unveiled at Valley Memorial Stadium.

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Tom Yerace can be reached at tyerace@tribweb.com or 724-837-5374.